Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — January 2009

Experience the Oldest of Pennsylvania at Cook Forest

by Ben Cramer

In northeastern Clarion County, a gently rolling plateau landscape plunges into a unique gorge that ironically holds both historical relics from the Pennsylvania logging era and one of the Commonwealth’s last remaining stands of old growth forest. Both can be found at the junction of Clarion, Forest, and Jefferson Counties at Cook Forest State Park.

The wide and placid Clarion River, not too far from its confluence with the Allegheny River, flows through a deep gorge that shelters the historic and scenic wonders of Cook Forest. Long before anyone could conceive of natural or historic protection in Central and Western Pennsylvania, let alone a state park, the region was clear cut with the assistance of waterways, down which logs were floated to saw mills. Equipment and workers were also transported upstream, so forested areas along rivers were the first to be logged, and heavily.

The Cook Forest area was at an immediate disadvantage because of the Clarion River’s ease of navigation. The area was first logged for its native white pine and hemlock as early as the 1820s, quite early for the Pennsylvania logging industry. After a hundred years the general area had been denuded of its old growth forest except for a few parcels that had not yet been logged due to mere quirks in scheduling. Concerned citizens, with help from the Commonwealth, purchased the remaining old growth tracts for protection, leading to the creation of Cook Forest State Park.

The presence of old growth trees within the modern boundaries of the state park is a remarkable quirk of history. This “forest cathedral” (in local parlance) is nearly a miracle for Pennsylvania. Some of the ancient trees stand up to 200 feet in height, and the power of nature is clearly visible in this most natural of locations. As the Chinese proverb goes, “the tallest tree attracts the strongest winds,” and this old forest shows the dramatic evidence of several windstorms in recent decades. Mother Nature can still knock down some of the giants that the loggers didn’t get to.

Cook Forest State Park is a haven for hikers, with a wide variety of trails that lead to numerous historical relics illustrating the logging era, and a great many natural wonders. North of the park office, the Rhododendron Trail and Indian Trail lead to a spaghetti-like network of signed footpaths taking you through the “forest cathedral,” making possible several different exploratory and neck-craning rambles.

To the northwest of the main park area, hikers can use old logging roads, now pleasantly reforested, along Browns Run and Toms Rum to visit areas that bear the stamp of the old loggers and the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

To the west, on the other side of PA 36 the River Trail leads to two different rarities for Pennsylvania hikers — an old fire tower that can still be ascended by visitors, and a pleasant ramble alongside a wide river, the Clarion. And finally, Cook Forest State Park serves as the northern terminus of the Baker Trail, which leads south 141 miles to the Pittsburgh metro area, and hosts a segment of the North Country National Scenic Trail, which will eventually stretch from upstate New York to North Dakota.

Except for rugged hillside portions of the River Trail, most of the trails at Cook Forest State Park are easy or moderate, and appropriate for nature lovers of all ages and levels of ability. It’s surely a park for the appreciative foot traveler. And the mind-boggling trees on display in the “forest cathedral” will instill a sense of honor for the majesty of nature and a respect for what was lost when most of the rest of Pennsylvania’s forests fell to the axe.

If You Go: Cook Forest State Park can be reached in about two hours from State College. Take I-80 west to Exit 78 at Brookville, then take PA 36 north about 15 miles to the state park at the Clarion County line.

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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. Cramer is the editor of Pennsylvania Hiking Trails, 13th Ed. (Stackpole Books, 2008), and is also the author of a forthcoming hiker’s guide to the Allegheny Front Trail in Centre County.