Pa.’s only national forest yields its secrets among the hemlocks

The reservoir in the Allegheny National Forest provides waterborne fun, including fishing and recreational boating.

The light in a healthy hemlock forest is much different than in any other forest — diffused and velvety soft with no harsh edges. The forest feels dark, cool, and dense. An insect infestation has killed many of Pennsylvania’s hemlock forests, reducing them to sickly shadows of what they once were. The primary exception is the Allegheny National Forest, where they are still very healthy.

The reservoir in the Allegheny National Forest provides waterborne fun, including fishing and recreational boating.
The reservoir in the Allegheny National Forest provides waterborne fun, including fishing and recreational boating.

Wandering the wondrous groves of healthy giant hemlocks is one of the best reasons to come to this colossal (and only) national forest in Pennsylvania. Among those trees are some of the most amazing rock formations of boulders, ledges, and outcrops and some brand new trails to lead you on your exploration.

Check out the boulder formations known as Marilla Rocks in the Marilla Reservoir Trail System. The Marilla Rocks Trail is a 2-mile loop that leads to the gigantic rock formations in this remote woodland setting. You can also follow the Marilla Bridges Trail with its wooden covered bridge.

The grand-daddy of all the trails is the North Country Trail, the longest trail in the United States. A local favorite two- to three-day backpacking trip is to follow Bullis Hollow Trail to Tracy Ridge, north into the Allegany State Park, connecting to the Black Snake Trail and ending back at Marilla. Trail guides and downloadable trail maps can be found at visitanf.com.

Exploring on two wheels

Walking is the slowest, most absorbing way to soak in all the beauty of the north woods, but cycling is another great way to experience the forest.

The Kinzua Valley Trail along the banks of Kinzua Creek follows the path of the old Valley Railroad through forest and marshland. It is developed by the Kinzua Valley Trail Club, originates at the Westline Trailhead, and extends westward. Parts of the trail are grass covered and feel more like single track, with a rolling, curving bed, making it much more interesting than the average rail trail.

For 7 miles, the trail winds alongside deep swimming holes and cool sheltering hemlocks whose braches dip low into the stream. There are frog ponds full of cattails and dead snags that look as if moose should be grazing in the shallows. The remaining 15 miles to the Red Bridge Recreational Area on the Allegheny Reservoir is presently being constructed and, by this fall, will extend the trail a total of 22 miles.

Follow the trail into the Kinzua Gorge and see the tornado-twisted remains of the huge railroad trestle towers.
Follow the trail into the Kinzua Gorge and see the tornado-twisted remains of the huge railroad trestle towers.

A brand new visitors center is under way at Kinzua Bridge State Park, home of the Kinzua Sky Walk. The sky walk is built on six of the original Kinzua Viaduct towers, which, when built in 1882, supported the highest and longest viaduct in the word. Re-created as a skywalk with a partial glass overlook at the end, it offers pedestrians who visit a bird’s eye view of the Kinzua Gorge and the wreckage of the 11 fallen towers toppled by a tornado in 2003. A new trail leads visitors to the bottom of the gorge. At Kinuza, you can truly “Walk the tracks across the sky.”

The local scene

Unexpectedly, the region is home to two of Pennsylvania’s top-rated accommodations. Voted No. 1 in Pennsylvania by TripAdvisor in the category of “Bed & Breakfasts/Inns,” the Mansion District Inn, located in Smethport, Pa., welcomes visitors to experience the elegance of days gone by with all the modern amenities of today. Oz’s Homestay, a renovated farm located in Shinglehouse, was voted No. 1 in the category of “Unique Places to Stay” in Pennsylvania.

While in the area, check out CJ Spirits in Kane, northwestern Pennsylvania’s first craft distillery, creating spirits using fresh local ingredients and Allegheny Mountain spring water. Taste whiskey, rum, gin, and Rocksov, a small batch vodka made from rye grain.

If you time your visit right, you can include the popular Great Outdoors Elk Expo in Elk County, being held Aug. 15–16. The weekend festival centers around Pennsylvania’s magnificent elk herd, but is also a great time to learn about all of Pennsylvania’s abundant wildlife.

For more information:

Allegheny National Forest Tourism: visitanf.org

 

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