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The call of the Pennsylvania Wilds

The Clarion River runs through Cook Forest State

The Clarion River runs through Cook Forest State Park, part of the vast north-central region known as the Wilds of Pennsylvania. Credit: www.visitpa.com/www.visitpa.com

With more than two million acres spread out over 12 counties — including 29 state parks and 8 state forests — the Pennsylvania Wilds are actually larger than Yellowstone National Park. So how come you’ve never heard of them?

That’s probably because the Wilds, as an organized tourism entity, only date back to the early 2000s. The land itself, of course — part of the vast Allegheny Plateau of north central Pennsylvania, about 250 miles from Long Island — has been there forever. Inhospitable to farming, all it could offer early settlers was timber, most of which disappeared into the blast furnaces of Pittsburgh’s emerging steel industry. By the 1920s, the land had been lumbered out. Eventually, the forests regenerated themselves, the wildlife returned and the sparsely populated area became a year-round mecca for outdoorsmen.

The Wilds aren’t fancy; they recall what forested areas in the Northeast were like 40 or 50 years ago, when the objective was actually to get out into nature, not just use it as a backdrop for man-made attractions. That's the great appeal of the Wilds: they're a low-key and low-cost destination for harried urban families who want to immerse themselves in nature — and not just for a day trip only to retreat back to highly commercialized “gateway” communities by dusk. 

The Wilds have their marquee attractions (all free and listed below), most of which can be seen in two days if you keep moving. But the best way to enjoy the region is to spend four or five days in one suitably natural setting, visiting these attractions on leisurely day trips and spending the rest of your time on extended hikes, rides and water excursions.

Pine Creek Gorge

Known somewhat grandiosely as “The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” Pine Creek Gorge cuts 1,450 feet down into a 47-mile-long, one-mile-wide glacial valley. Hiking access is via either Leonard Harrison (east rim) or Colton Point (west rim) State Park. Running through the gorge is the broad Pine Creek Rail Trail, great for hiking and biking. Nearest town: Charming Victorian-era Wellsboro with its 230 functioning gaslights.

Kinzua Bridge State Park

When it was completed in 1882, the iron (and later steel) Kinzua Bridge Viaduct was the highest (301 feet) railroad viaduct in the world. In 2003, 11 of its towers were toppled by an F1 tornado. The remaining portion has been restored as a dramatic pedestrian skywalk. You can also hike down and see the twisted towers. Nearest town: Mount Jewett.

Elk County Visitor Center and Elk Scenic Drive

In 1913, some 50 years after the last wild elk was shot and killed, these magnificent animals were reintroduced. Today, the herd numbers roughly 1,000. A 15-mile loop (part of the 125-mile Elk Scenic Drive) takes you from the modern visitor center to three prime viewing areas. Best chances for sightings are early morning and late afternoon. Nearest town: Benezette

Forest Cathedral, Cook Forest State Park

Saved from his own company’s axes by lumber baron Anthony Cook in the 1910s, Forest Cathedral is a hillside grove of old-growth (250-350 years) white pines and hemlocks, home to the tallest trees in the Northeast. (The absolute tallest, the Longfellow Pine, was truncated by a storm in May of 2018.) At nearly 180 feet, they are just as tall as California’s redwoods, though not nearly as thick in diameter. A series of short trails with very few signboards, the purpose being to keep you focused on the trees above, winds through this awe-inspiring concentration of giants in the midst of a 8,500-acre forest. Nearest town: Clarion.

Cherry Springs State Park

The first certified International Dark Sky Park in the eastern United States, Cherry Springs, located at 2,300 feet with an unobstructed 360-view and virtually no light pollution, is the best of many great places to see the stars — as many as 30,000 of them on a clear summer’s night — throughout the Wilds. Free ranger programs take place Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. (Time depends on darkness and preregistration is required.) Overnighters have a choice of two campgrounds, though one is reserved for those bringing their own telescopes. Best when the moon is near new. Nearest town: Galeton

Hyner View State Park

For that exhilarating top-of-it-all feeling, head up to Hyner View State Park, a diminutive drive-in overlook 1,300 feet above the broad West Branch of the Susquehanna River that is surrounded by Pennsylvania’s largest state forest. Not surprisingly, it’s also a popular launching spot for hang gliders. Nearest town: Renovo

Experiencing is enjoying

While major attractions have their appeal, much of the Wilds is geared toward actively doing (and enjoying the scenery en route). Hiking is naturally popular, but so too are trail biking and ATV riding; kayaking and canoeing, especially on its two National Wild & Scenic Rivers, the Clarion and the Allegheny; horseback riding and covered wagon tours; geocaching; and fishing (license required). Less demanding activities include an excursion on the Tioga Central Railroad; touring the PA Lumber Museum in Ulysses (near Galeton); wine, beer and moonshine tasting, including the “eternal tap” at historic (1872) Staub Brewery in St. Marys; and savoring true small-town America, including old-fashioned local festivals and county fairs. Afterward, return to your rustic home-away-from-suburbia, pull up a seat around the campfire, look up at the stars and listen to the spiritually rejuvenating calls of the Wilds.     

IF YOU GO

Where to stay: Rustic, modern and camping cabins, along with yurts, inns and campgrounds are available at several of the state parks throughout the Wilds. An even greater number of similar accommodations can be found outside park boundaries, particularly in the Cook Forest/Clarion River and Elk County areas.

Getting there: The fastest way into The Wilds is via Interstate 80, which parallels its southern reaches. Historic U.S. 6 traverses the northern Wilds, but is much slower going.

INFO: pawilds.com

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