Spending two days immersed in nature in Cook Forest
There’s something special about the Cook Forest and the Ancients landscape of The Pennsylvania Wilds. It’s one of the few places left in the state where you can really tune into your surroundings and nature. That makes it one of the perfect places to disconnect.
The concept of “disconnecting” is one that’s really important to me. As a social media agency owner, I spend a lot of time online. Being able to turn off my cell phone and connect with nature in a meaningful way is my idea of the perfect vacation — and luckily, the PA Wilds is filled with places to do that.
Early in the summer, we were able to get some of this disconnected time during a two-day trip to Cook Forest. Here’s what our trip looked like:
Arriving at the Gateway Lodge
We arrived at our destination early in the evening — the Gateway Lodge, an eco-friendly, bed & breakfast-like resort nestled in the woods. That evening, we had a dinner reservation in the lodge’s restaurant.
Possibly what makes the Gateway Lodge so special is its restaurant, featuring what they call a “farm-to-forest feast for the senses.” All of the food served is made from scratch and is organic. Gluten-free and vegetarian choices are offered, as well. We indulged in the menu’s Venison Backstrap with Juniper Rub & Gin Glaze, and “Hunters Chicken” with forest mushrooms. We weren’t leaving without having dessert, and enjoyed the Chocolate Pot’s de Creme.
It ended up being a rainy evening in the Wilds, so we played pool in the lodge’s common area and enjoyed the fireside Jacuzzi tub that each room at the resort features.
If the lodge experience isn’t your thing, throughout the state park you’ll find cabins for rent, tent camping sites and more opportunities for a stay.
Hiking Old Growth Forests
On Day 2, we were up early to soak in every minute of nature that we could.
We started the day with a hike. There are 29 miles of trails, most cutting through old-growth forests, making a trek through the woods even more magical.
The park’s Forest Cathedral of towering white pines and hemlocks is designated as a National Natural Landmark. One of the trail entrances is located at the Log Cabin Environmental Learning Center on the Longfellow Trail along Forest Road, after turning off Route 36. The Longfellow Trail then leads to the Ancient Forest Trail, featuring a high concentration of old growth pines. Before your trek back, you’ll be welcomed by clear waterways underneath a beautiful forest canopy.
There are two can’t miss spots in Cook Forest: Seneca Point and the nearby fire tower. We hiked up the Seneca Point trail from the bridge in Cooksburg to the top of the mountain, but visitors can also drive up Fire Tower Road to take a quick walk to each spot. If you’re brave enough to climb up to the top of the fire tower, a spectacular view of the treeline awaits.
We had enough hiking by this point, but a portion of the North Country Trail runs through Cook Forest State Park, and continues throughout much of the western portion of the Pennsylvania Wilds.
After many hours of hiking, we hit up The Farmers Inn — just north of Sigel — a quick drive from Cook Forest State Park. It’s the perfect place to fuel up after a day on the hiking trails, with a buffet Friday, Saturday and Sunday as well as a full menu daily. After eating, visit the gift shops or furniture store — featuring handcrafted Amish furniture — or hit up the 9-hole miniature golf, petting zoo or wildlife park.
Another restaurant recommended to us was the Iron Mountain Grille, the perfect spot for a casual meal.
Meeting Double Diamond’s Deer
Double Diamond Deer Ranch within Cook Forest was our next stop during our two-day trip.
At the ranch, owners Rusty and Shorty house a herd of 20 deer — beautiful whitetails with blue eyes, piebald deer and brown whitetail deer. At the ranch, we got up close and personal with the deer by petting them and feeding them their evening treats right from our hands.
Admission to the ranch includes a tour of the facility’s museum, The Buck Barn, which is home to some incredible taxidermy and features animals from all over the country. Overall, there are more than 100 taxidermy displays, including world-famous whitetails like RDM Goliath, which has perhaps the world’s highest-scoring antlers.
By the end of this full day of hiking and exploring, we were exhausted. We ended our evening back at the Gateway Lodge reading under the stars on our room’s private balcony. It was our first trip to Cook Forest & The Ancients, but it certainly wasn’t our last. During our next trip, we hope to kayak the Clarion River and hike the Emerald Paved Trail.
We were able to go on this trip thanks to the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, who planned our stay.
*Images for this article provided by Ellen Matis.
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