Over the River, and Through the Woods
In north-central Pennsylvania, there's a park that generations of residents have visited. One might call it a rite-of-passage to growing up in the area. And aren't those always the places we most want to visit? The locals' classics? Cook Forest is for that reason, a must-see park. And even the National Geographic Foundation has called it that. Let's take a closer look at why.
Though it's true that the area, as far back as we know, was originally settled by the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois, for better or worse, the park gets its name from Mr. John Cook, who first settled in the area in 1828, along with his wife and 10 children. He'd come to the place to determine the feasibility of an East-West canal along the Clarion River. Eventually settling in the area, Cook and his family built a life for themselves, running sawmills and harvesting the area's timber, floating the logs downriver to Pittsburgh. He was to be the first of many.
Then, in the 1920s, a group called the Cook Forest Association formed, as a way to help save the old growth forest that was beginning to be threatened by continued logging in the area. The name shows us that the woods were already being referred to in relation to Cook, and the formation of the group tells us that feelings about logging in the area were starting to change. This group purchased 6000 acres in 1927 from the Cook Family for the purpose of preserving it in its natural state. These acres formed the foundation of this now well-known park.
In the next decade, a young Cook Forest was visited during the Great Depression, from 1934-1937, by the Civil Conservation Corps, or CCC. They made major improvements to the park. Created as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, the CCC was a way to employ young, unmarried men who would in turn send most of their pay home to their families. The camps they lived in were run by the U.S. Army, and the work was supervised by trained experts in the trades. But the men themselves were essentially unskilled laborers. Despite that, the work they did still remains as a monument of quality. They left buildings, roads, and an extensive trail system in Cook Forest that remain a major part of the park to this day.
These trails are one of the main features of this park, from a visitor's standpoint. Cook Forest proper features 29 miles of trails, but with its location only ten miles from Clear Creek State Park and close to the Allegheny National Forest, any visitor can rest assured that there are trails enough to hike oneself to exhaustion. But not all of them are a major undertaking.
A shining example of this point is the Seneca Point Fire Tower trail, which is do-able for almost every visitor. But the beauty of the trail is that it also doesn't feel boring in its accessibility. Built in 1929, this eighty foot tall structure was indeed used quite effectively to spot fires in the surrounding forest. And its name alone tells you all you need to know about its canyonesque view of the area. Though it's no longer used for its original purpose, The Fire Tower's status as a destination for all park visitors remains.
As the name suggests, this park is all about the forest. Though it is most well-known for its White Pine and Hemlock old-growth sections, the woods nearby also contain Red Oak, White Oak, Cherry, Maple, Beech, Ash, Birch and Magnolia trees. And don't even ask about the Rhododendron bushes. This truly may be the world capital for that particular species.
But what if you're looking for more active pursuits? For boaters, Cook Forest is also something of a paradise, with a few qualifiers. For lovers of river boating, perhaps especially those who don't own a boat themselves, this is heaven.With the gentle Clarion River running through the center of the park, generations of infrastructure are in place to make nothing easier than renting canoe, kayak, or tube, and floating through miles of beautiful Pennsylvania wilderness solitude right back to your campsite. Where you can talk around the campfire about your adventure. Most companies will load and unload the boats as well as transport you to the drop-off point many miles upriver for a fee that is more than reasonable when compared to the work of paddling that far! In fact, depending on the company used, you could easily stop for lunch along the river and visit nearby Clear Creek State Park as well.
For mountain bikers it is almost the same story, though it involves a bit more legwork. True, mountain biking is not permitted on the hiking trails, but honest: they aren't particularly desirable for it, anyway! Narrow and steep, combined with heavily visited by tourists do not make a perfect recipe for biking enjoyment. However, the park itself and the surrounding forests are rich beyond imagining with dirt roads, and for that sort of low-impact, non-technical exploring, this place is perfect. The park office also has information about a biking loop they've laid out along some of these roads if you're that sort of rider. And that's not to mention the fact that a bicycle is by far the best way to get around the camping area.
Maybe you've seen by now that you really need to experience this place for yourself. When it comes to the specifics of getting there, things are actually quite simple. If you're coming from the eastern part of Pennsylvania, take Exit 78 on I-80, then follow PA-36 North to the park in Cooksburg (it'll be on your right, at the top of the hill). Or if you're coming from the West, there's an even quicker way to get there- take Exit 60 (again, off I-80) then take 66 North toward a town called Leeper. When you reach 36 South, follow it 7 more miles and look for the park on your left (again, at the top of a hill).
Once you arrive, there are 226 camping sites available from May to October at the main camping area, known as ¿Ridge Camp¿. Winter access is sometimes possible but not guaranteed. Call first. The base rate for campsites is $15. per night, but there are added charges depending on many variables. The first you'll likely encounter is a $4. per night charge if it's a weekend or holiday. Other variables depend on what state you reside in, what sort of hook-ups you need, and other things.
Two dozen rustic cabins are also available. Rustic means that these are CCC-era cabins, kept in good repair but with not much changed since that time. Most will include a a primitive but efficient wood-burning stove. Cabin prices start at $182./week but prices are affected by residency and time of year, as well as a PA hotel tax
It must be said that this is only mentioning the official PA State Park campground. There are innumerable private businesses surrounding that park. Many family campgrounds, stores selling both camping supplies and souvenirs, and restaurants exist. Sometimes all three in one! Since many of these have been around nearly as long as the park, all of this exists as part of a single fabric that makes up the area. To describe the park as if it is isolated from the area would give you a wrong idea of what a visit would and should be like. The friendly small town surrounding Cook Forest is part of its draw.
In summation, the Old Growth parts of the forest are a good metaphor for this whole park. A visit here is a way to visit the area's roots. To see the trees a bit like they once were. Remember, this whole state was named for the trees that once defined it. Penn-sylvan-ia. Penn's Woods. Thankfully, there's still one park where you can come and visit that place. Even live in it for a time. Stand by one of the old trees, then float down the river, like so many of those trees did.