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Pine Creek Gorge, the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania

Pine Creek Gorge, the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, in autumn.

Pine Creek Gorge, the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, in autumn.

Great Place to View Fall Foliage

In north central Pennsylvania, Pine Creek Gorge cuts through 47 miles of second growth forest from U.S. Route 6, just south of Ansonia, to Waterville, PA. Over 800 feet deep at its northern end and 1,450 feet deep in the south near Waterville, it is the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

With steep canyon walls and waterfalls, scenic vistas and breathtaking views, abundant wildlife and numerous outdoor recreation opportunities, Pine Creek Gorge is one of the natural treasures of the Keystone State. Hawks, Canadian geese, ducks and the occasional bald eagle can be seen in the gorge. Bear, whitetail deer and wild turkey are also found in the forests.

The gorge is noted for the variety of outdoor activities that can be enjoyed in any season. The brilliant colors of fall foliage are particularly stunning when viewed from the numerous overlooks in Colton Point and Leonard Harrison State Parks.

Pine Creek Gorge, a National Natural Landmark and an Important Bird Area (#38), is part of the Tioga State Forest, one of eight state forests in the Pennsylvania Wilds region. Pine Creek is a Pennsylvania Scenic and Wild River.

Pine Creek Rail Trail, an old railroad right of way, follows the shores of Pine Creek for over 60 miles from Ansonia to Jersey Shore, PA.

Waterfall on Little Fourmile Run from Turkey Path, Leonard Harrison State Park.

Waterfall on Little Fourmile Run from Turkey Path, Leonard Harrison State Park.

Turkey vulture over the PA Grand Canyon, Leonard Harrison State Park.

Turkey vulture over the PA Grand Canyon, Leonard Harrison State Park.

Geology and Ecology

Over 20,000 years ago the Laurentide Continental Glacier reversed the flow of Pine Creek from a northeasterly direction to its now southern direction. The melting glacier and subsequent river flow have cut through 5 major rock formations of the Allegheny Plateau to create the canyon we see and enjoy today. Technically, the “mountains” on either side of the river are not true mountains. They were created by erosion of the plateau.

With virgin old-growth forests, Pine Creek Gorge was a plentiful source of timber in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By the early 20th century the area had been clear-cut, and forest fires further diminished the foliage. Efforts by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s lead to a regrowth of the forest and the development of the state parks. Many of the facilities built by the CCC remain in use today. Wildlife that were driven away with the clear-cutting have since been successfully reintroduced.

Pine Creek Rail Trail on the left, river on the right.

Pine Creek Rail Trail on the left, river on the right.

Looking across Pine Creek to Colton Point State Park

Looking across Pine Creek to Colton Point State Park

Northern Portion

The northern end of the gorge, over 800 feet deep and 4,000 feet wide, is flanked to the west by Colton Point and to the east by Leonard Harrison State Parks. Officially separate state parks, a 2002 article in the New York Times referred to them as “Two State Parks, Divided by a Canyon”. A highlight of both parks are their numerous overlooks with stunning views of the gorge. Trails in the parks provide access to the bottom of the gorge and Pine Creek.

The easiest access to the floor of the canyon is via the Pine Creek Rail Trail at its northern terminus 3 miles north of Wellsboro at Wellsboro Junction. Additional access points are along U.S. Route 6 near Ansonia, as well as Big Meadows, Darling Run, and Blackwell Access Areas.

This 16 mile stretch from Ansonia to Blackwell is less populated, more isolated, and is a canyon covered in forest green. With protected land in the state parks on both sides of the river, there is little development. A few scattered camps can be found along the river's shoreline.

Leonard Harrison State Park Map Sign

Leonard Harrison State Park Map Sign

"Two State Parks Divided by a Canyon"

Colton Point State Park

This 368 acre park was named for Henry Colton, a Williamsport lumberman. The park is located 5 miles south of U.S. Route 6 (Ansonia) on Colton Road.

Trails within the park include:

  • Rim Trail, a flat 1 mile trail along the perimeter of Colton Point connects the viewing areas.
  • Turkey Path, a strenuous trail (3 mile round trip) that follows Fourmile Run down to Pine Creek. A 70 foot waterfall can be seen about 1/3 of the way down the trail.
  • West Rim Trail, over 30 miles long, runs from near Ansonia in the north to to Rattlesnake Rock near Blackwell in the south.

Leonard Harrison State Park

The creation of this 585 acre state park was started in 1906 with 121 acres owned by Wellsboro lumberman, Leonard Harrison. The park is located 10 miles west of Wellsboro at the end of PA Route 660.

Trails and viewing areas within the park include:

  • Turkey Path, a difficult 1 mile (2 mile round trip) trail that descends from the rim down to the bottom of the gorge. With overlooks, scenic vistas and waterfalls on Little Fourmile Run, there are plenty of georgous views to enjoy along the way.
  • Overlook Trail is a moderate difficult 0.6 mile loop to Otter View, a lookout with a southern view. The trail passes an old CCC incinerator and a plantation of Red Pines.
  • Lookout Terrace is a developed area along the rim of the gorge. While there are several good locations to view the gorge, I believe the best is at the far southern end of the terrace. It does require walking down 53 steps to get there, but the views make the walk back up worth it.

Turkey Path trails in both state parks provide foot access to the bottom of the gorge and Pine Creek. Both trails are 'down and out'. There is no bridge across the river between them. But, when the water level is low, the river could be forded.

Both state parks have picnic tables and shelters. While Colton Point offers rustic camping (latrines, no flush toilets or showers), Leonard Harrison offers modern camping facilities that include hot showers and flush toilets.

Leonard Harrison State Park has an Environmental Interpretive Center, gift shop, and vending machines that are open from late April to late October each year.

Reforestation and construction of the structures, trails and roads in and to the parks were a result of the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s. Structures built by the CCC at Colton State Park are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Colton Point and Leonard Harrison State Parks, together, are one of “Twenty Must-See Pennsylvania State Parks”.

Southern Portion

The southern portion of Pine Creek Gorge, although deeper, is broader and looks more like a river valley than a canyon. In addition to the rail trail, roads also parallel Pine Creek in this area. Unlike the northern portion of the gorge where visitors are common at the rim, in the south, most residents and visitors near the river. The small towns of Blackwell, Cedar Run, Slate Run, and Waterville offer restaurants and retail shops. Lodging is available in Blackwell and Cedar Run as well as from several rental cabins throughout the area.

Whether hiking, biking, or even kayaking or canoeing in this area, you can easily stop mid-trip for a snack or even a meal.

Outdoor Activities

Pine Creek, the state parks, state forests, and the rail trail provide numerous outdoor activities in all seasons. While camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, biking, swimming and boating are popular summer and early fall activities, Class 1 to Class 2 whitewater boating can be enjoyed in the spring and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are options in the winter. The first 3 weeks of October are particularly good times to enjoy the changing colors and fall foliage. Hunting is also permitted in the area.

Pine Creek with Pine Creek Rail Trail to the right in the bottom of the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

Pine Creek with Pine Creek Rail Trail to the right in the bottom of the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

Pine Creek Rail Trail using an old railroad trestle, Waterville, PA

Pine Creek Rail Trail using an old railroad trestle, Waterville, PA

Pine Creek Rail Trail

This 63.4 mile crushed limestone trail on an abandoned rail bed follows Pine Creek from Wellsboro Junction in the north to Jersey Shore in the south. A gentle 2% downhill grade, north to south, makes the trail enjoyable for almost any level of hiker or biker. With several access points, hikes and rides can be tailored to any length or duration. Water and comfort stations (compost toilets) are located along the trail.

From Ansonia to Blackwell, this 17 mile stretch of trail through the state parks is remote with little access by road. South of Blackwell the trail parallels Pine Creek and PA Route 414 for 25 miles to Waterville. South of Waterville, the final 17 mile section of the trail follows PA Route 44 and the river to Jersey Shore.

The southern section of trail is almost always close to the highway and river and crosses both several times. Enjoy the thrill of riding across an old railroad trestle and stop in the middle to enjoy the view.

No need to pack a lunch for a trip on the southern portion of Pine Gorge Rail Trail. You can stop for a meal or a snack at one of the restaurants or stores along the way.

Horseback riding is permitted on the northern section of the trail between Ansonia and Tiadaghton. In the winter, the trail makes for great cross-country skiing.

Motorcycles, snowmobiles and ATVs are not allowed on any section of Pine Creek Rail Trail.

Pine Creek Gorge, the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania

While not the Grand Canyon of Arizona, Pine Creek Gorge is certainly a "Grand Canyon". With steep cliffs, numerous cascading waterfalls, scenic vistas, and second growth forests it has beauty and majesty all its own.

For More Information:

© 2012 Mark Shulkosky

Comments

Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on September 11, 2012:

GClark, thanks for stopping by and commenting. There is so much more in the area. The Hub only touched the surface. Besides all of the outdoor activities there are some great little towns like Wellsboro and Waterville.

Hockey8mn, so many grand canyons, so little time. If my son could support me, I would love to visit the canyons in NY, TX, and HI (there are several other states also with canyons). I have been to Waimea Canyon in Hawaii as well as the one in Australia, but would love to go back to both.

Suzettenaples,next time you are in PA, you'll have to stop by Pine Creek Gorge. Make it a family reunion! Thanks for stoping by and commenting.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on September 11, 2012:

Stunning and beautiful article and photos. Pennsylvania is a beautiful state and their autumns are to die for. My parents are from central PA so we have family back there. I have never seen this park or gorge, but someday will have to travel to N. PA to see this. The photos are gorgeous. Thank you for sharing this with us!

hockey8mn from Pennsylvania on September 11, 2012:

I see you have published yet another hub about a grand canyon other than the one most people know about. Please do tell, are there any others? Well written, informative, and a place I must visit soon. Voted up and interesting.

GClark from United States on September 11, 2012:

What an outstanding hub! Complete with interesting historical details and illustrated with some great photos, I can't imagine what else someone would want to know about this area. It has been years since I visited Pennsylvania, and then only touched on a small portion of the state. So much to see and so little time seems to be the story of our lives. Thanks for sharing.

Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on September 11, 2012:

Happyboomernurse, thank you for the votes and share. Maybe you'll get to see the gorge this October. Delaware isn't that far away.

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on September 11, 2012:

Came here on fpher's recommendation and am so glad I did. This hub has so much great information about the park and the photos are stunning. As you say, this would make a great road trip in October when all those leaves are ablaze with color.

Voted up across the board except for funny. Also shared.

Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on September 11, 2012:

Paula, thanks for the votes and share. Glad you enjoyed the Hub and hope you can enjoy the beauty of the gorge in person someday soon.

Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on September 11, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by and commenting leahlefler. I live about 2 hours away and want to get there more often. I'd like to get back this fall for leaf peeping and next year for a nice bike ride. Hope you get there soon.

Suzie from Carson City on September 11, 2012:

banks....Gorgeous! So interesting to discover this is a mere 4 hr. drive from us! I appreciate you bringing this to the attention of your readers. Excellent job, btw....you've covered it all. Thanks! Always looking for new and different places to see and explore!

Now, I'm off to check out "leahlefler," another WESTERN NY'er I had no idea is a fellow hubber!!!

Up+++ and shared.

Leah Lefler from Western New York on September 11, 2012:

Oh, wow - what a gorgeous state park! We live in Western NY, so we'll have to put Pine Creek Gorge on our camping/hiking list for next summer. It is really beautiful!