Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — August 2005

Youghiogheny River and Trail

by Dave Coleman

Dad called me last Friday night. He asked if I would like to join him for a paddle on the Middle Youghiogheny as we do together maybe once a year. Normally, this is the only whitewater river with enough water to run in these “dog days” of summer. After consulting the weather forecast, I decided that Sunday would be a great day for an outing.

From its headwaters in Maryland, the Youghiogheny (The “Yough” for short and pronounced “Yock”) River flows into Southwestern Pennsylvania through Somerset and Fayette Counties. The Youghiogheny Reservoir actually forms the boundary between these counties. The outlet for the dam, near the town Confluence, marks the beginning of the “Middle” and is the eastern boundary of Ohiopyle State Park — Pennsylvania’s largest state park. The park surrounds the small but vibrant borough of Ohiopyle.

The Middle Yough flows approximately 10 miles from the Dam through the park to Ohiopyle, where the river flows over “the falls,” a 20-foot drop that is the scenic focal point of the park. Below the falls, the “Lower Yough” is known for whitewater rafting, kayaking and canoeing. For many whitewater enthusiasts, this is the only Yough there is, even though the “Upper” Yough in Maryland is actually the steepest, rockiest and one of the most pursued rivers for expert paddlers in the East.

For my Dad, my son David, my friend Steve, and I, it was the “Middle” for us that day. This is a section that is more relaxed, with much milder rapids and much more “flat” water than the lower and upper sections.

We met Dad in Ohiopyle at the takeout of the Middle. We chained our bikes to a tree and drove to Ramcat Hollow, the put-in. This state park river put-in features an unloading area, parking lot and restrooms.

Dad soloed his 17-foot adaptation of an Old Town Canoe, Steve his kayak, and David and I tandem in my Mad River Explorer.

The Middle Youghiogheny starts with a few riffles and a couple of decent but easy rapids. We ran the rapids, surfed some waves and eddied behind rocks. Above one rapid, Dad spotted a snake on a rock. Steve was certain it was a water snake (later confirmed) only since it swam through the water when David scared it. After the first mile, the river slows, and eventually becomes relatively flat. With “hard” boats, we were able to pass the many “inflatables” (rafts and inflatable kayaks — “duckies”) that crowded the river.

No matter how warm the air is, a quick swim in the Yough is all you need to cool off as the water is very cool coming from the bottom of the reservoir. This particular day was in the upper 70s and partly cloudy so not much swimming was necessary.

We ate lunch about half way down on a sandy beach that is assessable to the bike trail on the left-hand side of the river. Children took turns splashing in the cold water. Adults scorned the kids and soaked up the sun. Almost everyone had at least a quick snack.

The last two miles of this eight-and-a-half-mile run includes the best rapids of the section. David ran the first, Victoria Falls, with Steve’s kayak. This was his first kayak experience. After switching back to the originally assigned places in the boats, we made our way down through three more rapids to Elephant Rock rapids, the only ledge-like drop of the run where we surfed the waves below the drop and climbed the elephant. This last rapid is just 1,000 feet above the takeout on the left.

Taking out at Ohiopyle, after about 4 hours on the river, we unlocked our bikes and locked the canoes to the same tree. Actually, earlier we had left Dad’s car at the takeout and shuttled all the canoes up to the put-in in mine, so that we could use his car for storing bike helmets and tire pump, cold water while we were on the river and paddles, life jackets, while we were biking. In essence, we did not have to run a bike shuttle; but, it was the nicer way to get to my car. In addition, I could have bike shuttled myself while others waited in Ohiopyle, but this was the second act of the day’s outing. Actually, the promise of a bike shuttle was the catalyst that interested David in the outing in the first place.

The trail from Ohiopyle to Ramcat is eight-and-a-half miles long — the same as the river run and runs alongside the left-hand side (river left) of the Yough. A former railroad grade, it is comprised chiefly of crushed limestone and is under almost a full canopy of trees making it shady practically the entire day. It is a very easy pedal, and at a fairly leisurely pace of 10 miles an hour, we were back to my car at Ramcat in under an hour. Late in the afternoon, the trail is less crowded and pedaling in wet paddling clothes makes a cool ride.

After the shuttle back to Ohiopyle, we enjoyed barbeque ribs and corn on the cob at the Trailside Café — which, like its name implies, is adjacent to the parking lot for the bike trail.

With an almost 3-hour drive back to State College, this made for a long day, but all agreed a very good day. There are not too many places in Pennsylvania that offer this combination of recreation activities in the Dog Days of Summer. Even if paddling and/or pedaling does not interest you, there are many other attractions at Ohiopyle State Park — such as hiking (80 miles of trails), camping (226 campsites), fishing (in the Yough or Meadow Run), swimming, waterslides (in Meadow Run), sightseeing (the Yough Falls as well as four other creek falls) and, in the winter, cross country skiing.

If you are interested in canoe sport during these dog days without journeying too far from home, consider participating in, or just observing, the Dog Days Slalom at the Sunnyside race course in Bellefonte next weekend — August 13 and 14th. Call Tussey Mountain Outfitters at 814-355-5690.

If You Go: To get to Ohiopyle from State College, there are about as many routes as there are canoeists who trek there every summer. My favorite route is to take I-99 (SR 220) to Altoona, Route 22 to Ebensburg, Route 219 to Somerset, Route 281 to New Lexington, Route 653 to just past Laurel Ridge State Park, make a left onto Maple Summit Road and take it down to Route 381, make a left and go down the hill to Ohiopyle. The bike trail and Middle Yough takeout are the first left after crossing the bridge.

Alternatively, you can take Route 281 all the way to Confluence. Continue three miles up hill and at the church, turn right onto Sugarloaf Road and go 9 miles to Ohiopyle. Sugarloaf Road is the shuttle road between Ohiopyle and Ramcat Hollow road.

Paddling anything other than a raft on the Middle Youghiogheny should not be attempted by a group of beginners, even at lower river levels. Canoe trip leaders should have experience on this particular river and other canoeing participants should have experience paddling — preferably experience on moving water. Sturdy footwear suitable for soaking should be worn and synthetic clothing be brought along as the water is much colder than other rivers.

The river level should be at least 2 feet at Confluence for a minimum summer fun level (see the USGS Water Data website for current levels). Levels over 3 feet at Confluence should not be attempted by beginners in canoes. More experience would be necessary at higher levels.

For more particular information about river levels and for canoe, kayak, raft, rubber “duckie” or bicycle rentals, call Wilderness Voyageurs Outfitters at 1-800-272-4141.

Dave Coleman lives in Patton Township and volunteers for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club as well as the local Moshannon Group. Dave can be reached at dyatesc@aol.com