Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — July 2007

Nature’s Test at Pine Creek Gorge

by Ben Cramer

The readers of this column are probably not afraid to explore remote locations or challenge themselves physically, to discover the best of our area’s outdoor beauty and recreational resources. Personally, I have no qualms about hiking, biking, or kayaking great distances in the Pennsylvania wilds. The physical challenge is more than outweighed by the pleasure of the outdoors.

But even with my years of happily accepting such challenges, I have found myself tested by nature at one of our region’s premier outdoor attractions. The spectacular Pine Creek Gorge, also known by the cheeky tourist label “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” is about two hours north of State College in Lycoming and Tioga Counties.

During a recent four-day period of adventure, I climbed thousands of feet of rugged hillsides, got capsized by river rapids, sat under a bald eagle for several minutes, and camped through a chilly and starry night. And it was all worth it.

Pine Creek Gorge is Pennsylvania nature at its most testing, and passing this test will be one of the thrills of your life. The physically demanding, yet scenically tremendous, Black Forest Trail charges through and above Pine Creek Gorge for 42 miles. This well-maintained backpacking trail climbs into and out of the chasm multiple times and with great difficulty, but with an incredible solitude and beauty that really reinforces your love for the Pennsylvania outdoors.

The Gorge also features the 62-mile-long Pine Creek Rail Trail, an easy and lengthy biking and walking resource. Many areas of the Gorge are so rugged and unreachable that only the now-defunct railroad track got through. Now the residents of Pennsylvania are treated with a trail that provides access to some of the most remote (by car) areas in all of Pennsylvania. The length of the trip is a challenge, but the aesthetic rewards more than make up for it.

Pine Creek itself, as it churns through the Gorge, offers some of the best paddling (canoeing, kayaking, or rafting) available in the eastern United States. A long and leisurely paddle through the bottom of the scenic gorge is interspersed with occasional rapids that will enhance the appreciation of the outdoor lover. At a tricky spot called Owassee, Pine Creek surely put me to the test, and as my kayak whacked me in the head and my shins became acquainted with the rocks at the river’s bottom, I never felt so happy to be tested by Pennsylvania.

For those with less dramatic impulses, rest assured that Pine Creek Gorge also offers plenty of outdoor opportunities for you as well. My personal favorite is a hike above the town of Blackwell, which allows you to climb and descend the Gorge without too much difficulty while witnessing outstanding waterfalls and one of the best views in all of Pennsylvania.

From the recreation parking lot in the center of Blackwell on Route 414, cross the road bridge over Pine Creek. At the far side of the bridge, turn right, jump over the guard rail, and follow a very well-built trail marked by orange blazes. This is the northern end of the Mid-State Trail, Pennsylvania’s longest backpacking trail, which currently rambles more than 200 miles from the Maryland border and ends in Pine Creek Gorge. A new extension of this trail, toward the New York border, is currently being built. The new section of trail has already ascended the hills above Blackwell on the other side of the Gorge, and when that route is fully complete, the trail you have just turned onto will become and official spur trail of the Mid-State.

Follow this trail up the side of the Gorge via a challenging but not incredibly strenuous diagonal climb. You soon find yourself high above Pine Creek. At a little more than one mile, reach a “buttermilk” style waterfall in a small and steep side gorge. A buttermilk waterfall is situated at an angle that forces the water to spread evenly across a wide rock face. Be careful on the cliffs above the falls. About half a mile later is an even more impressive waterfall at Bohen Run, often considered one of the premier falls in Pennsylvania, and which can only be reached on foot.

Some hikers may wish to turn back here and return to Blackwell. For more natural wonders, continue ahead toward the top of the Gorge, until the Mid-State Trail ends at the West Rim Trail (also orange-blazed), itself a 31-mile-long backpacking trail that goes exactly where its name implies. Turn sharply left on the West Rim Trail. At three miles from Blackwell, reach a breathtaking view down into the Gorge and over the town. On a clear day, you can see into the Appalachian Mountains region, south of Williamsport more than thirty miles from here.

The West Rim Trail next crosses a remote forestry road and passes a defunct dynamite shed. The trail then slowly makes its way down into the Gorge again, easily following the especially bucolic and babbling Lloyd Run back down to Route 414 at the Rattlesnake Rock parking area. Walk through the lot and then turn left on the Pine Creek Rail Trail, and walk two more easy and scenic miles back to your car at Blackwell.

This hike at Bohen Run Falls is about eight miles long overall, and is just one of many opportunities for a moderately challenging yet extremely rewarding outdoor adventure in Pine Creek Gorge. This hike is described in more detail in the book Fifty Hikes in Central Pennsylvania by Tom Thwaites, which also features several other beginner- to moderate-level hikes in the Gorge. For more such opportunities, see also the Hiker’s Guide to the Black Forest Trail, published by the Tiadaghton Forest Fighters Association, and the Guide to the West Rim Trail, published by Pine Creek Outfitters.

If You Go: Pine Creek Gorge is accessed via PA Routes 414 and 44, which depart to the north from the Williamsburg/Lock Haven area. For the hike described here, travel to the town of Blackwell in southern Tioga County. From US 220 northeast of Lock Haven, take PA 44 ten miles to Waterville. Slightly beyond Waterville, turn “East” (actually north-northwest in this area) on PA 414. Enjoy this road as it takes you through some of the most scenic areas at the bottom of Pine Creek Gorge. Blackwell is about 26 miles from the junction at Waterville. The recreation parking lot is in the center of the town next to the road bridge over Pine Creek.

Ben Cramer is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast living in State College. He is also a committee member for the Moshannon Group of Sierra Club. The Moshannon Group hosts regular outdoor adventures throughout central Pennsylvania (see the Outings page for details). Cramer is also the author of a forthcoming hiker’s guide to the Allegheny Front Trail.