A weekend excursion in the PA Wilds
By Amy Knarr
Over Memorial Day weekend, we finally made a long awaited springtime trip deeper into the PA Wilds! We had been tracking the weather in Mt. Jewett for weeks. A little cooler there than at home in Woolrich, but we pack for every season when we travel. As it turned out, we wished we had packed more shorts!
Our plans were to leave at 10 a.m. Saturday morning, but of course it was 11 when we pulled out. It didn’t really matter because this was an adventure and we were relaxed and ready. After a stop at a local convenience store for cold drinks and a new map of PA, off we went. I was pleased to note that I hardly had to unfold the map at all because the upper left hand corner was all I needed! Our GPS is very reliable, but I love to follow along on a map.
First stop: Cook Forest and the Ancients
The first leg of our journey was a steady two hour drive on the I-80 Frontier west. Exiting in Brookville, things looked familiar to me when I realized we were passing Quiet Creek Herb Farm in Jefferson County, which I had visited with my daughter-in-law a few years ago. They do various educational programs there, highlighting sustainable living and also, of course, herbs! They have a beautiful place with herb beds for pollinators, a small gift shop, and plants for sale. Check their website for hours. They are worth a special trip.
We were heading north on Route 36 toward the beautiful Allegheny National Forest!
First we detoured to the Cook Forest & the Ancients. Our first stop was the Cook Forest State Park. They were having a Living History Weekend, with reenactments of Native Americans, logging, frontier schools, wars, ghosts and more! Unfortunately while we were there they were in between shows, but all of them sounded great. We did, however, get to see the beautiful Clarion River, where there was kayaking, swimming, wading and general cooling off on this hot spring day. I can see why the Clarion River was selected as Pennsylvania’s “River of the Year.” Traveling further into the park we discovered a beautiful camping area.
At the visitor center we purchased our PA State Parks Passport and got our first stamp. The passport is a thick green spiral bound digest of every state park and forest in Pennsylvania, and it is a beautiful keepsake.
After leaving Cook Forest, we decided to double back to Clear Creek State Park, as it was only a few miles out of the way. We had some trouble finding it, but my trusty PA map finally led us to the Clear Creek Visitors Center, deep in the forest. I couldn’t resist a short trek into the pine needle carpeted woods behind the center while my husband waited. Very dark and spectacular!
We got our second stamp there and continued up Route 66. We were absolutely astounded at the camping and outdoor opportunities in this area. We live in Woolrich, which is in the southeastern portion of the PA Wilds and offers plenty of outdoor recreation, but we learned that all parts of the PA Wilds are fully geared to offer family or solitary outdoor experiences, in any season.
Next up: Allegheny National Forest and Surrounds
It was a beautiful forested ride north to Bradford, where we spent the weekend nights. John Denver had a song, “Cool and Green and Shady,” in which he sang about his mountain home in Colorado, but it ran through my mind on this ride, where we were surrounded by absolutely gorgeous, deep dark woods. I could only imagine the secret life of secluded animals and plants in there.
Our plans were to travel back down to Kane for dinner, but being quite worn out we decided to dine in Bradford and were delighted to find a beautiful restaurant located in a restored library building and a delicious dinner there.
There was a very heavy thunderstorm Saturday night, just one of many that we dodged all weekend.
Sunday morning we got up early and did more driving around looking at the natural beauty. Eventually, it started to thunder again and, looking to spend the rainstorm indoors, we headed to the Zippo/Case Museum in Bradford. If you are a sporting or cooking knife enthusiast, this is a must visit because you can buy beautiful Case knives in the museum store.
The main focus however is on Zippo lighters, long manufactured in Bradford. Outside is a cute Zippo lighter car, and inside is a giant mural designed with hundreds of Zippo lighters. You can learn a lot at this museum, such as the fact that Zippo was originally sold for $2.50 a lighter, or $3.50 if you wanted it monogrammed! Zippo ceased public sales of its lighters in World War II, as they were dedicated only to our servicemen. Do you like rock stars? There is a Zippo lighter for that. Hundreds of logos of companies, bands, commemorative events and personal inscriptions are on display. And you can buy a lighter too! There is a short video clip of Zippos in the Movies, and the sound of a Zippo lighter reminded me of my dad. Most guys smoked when I was a kid, and I can still remember that sound, and the smell the lighter fluid, long afterward. A sensory comfort.
We were out in the raindrops again to snap a picture of the cute car, then on to the highlight of our trip, Kinzua Bridge State Park! By this time I was chomping at the bit, and the gathering storm clouds were making me worried that my trip to the bridge would be a bust, but we got there (after many GPS runarounds and some trips down some very rural dusty dirt roads). We saw a rental RV from California and knew they were lost too, but when we finally got there, the Californians were there and the sun was out!
First, we had lunch at the Little Sister’s Big Rig food truck (quesadillas) and a trip inside to the Visitors Center (another stamp for our passport). We then headed out on the Kinzua Skywalk!
May I just say here that I LOVED it! My husband, who sometimes suffers from vertigo, was not as enthused but once he got out there, he was pretty awestruck as well and braved looking over the edge. And he took plenty of pictures!
A little background: Kinzua Bridge was once an overland trestle for trains that got broadsided by a tornado in 2003. The bridge was built in 1882 (in 94 days!) and stood the test of time until that day in July 2003. They were in the process of shoring up some of the beams when the tornado tore through and destroyed about half of the bridge, which still lies on the valley floor below.
When out on the Kinzua Skywalk, you can look down and see many paths and trails and people exploring the ruins from a closer angle than from above. Of course, they look like ants! It is very fascinating and a true glimpse into the power of nature over the power of man, as well as humankind’s inherent perseverance.
Yet again, it started to thunder, so we bought our tee-shirts in the PA Wilds Conservation Shop inside the Visitors Center, and headed to the car before the dozens of people on the bridge headed into the building. (By the way, this is a beautiful visitor’s center with a full and friendly staff, nice restrooms, a gift shop and a great interactive museum. A must see for any age.)
Sunday night, a lot more tired, we found many restaurants in Bradford closed. But we persevered, and found excellent food and friendly waiters again in a delicious Italian restaurant.
Final destination: Elk Country
Monday morning, Memorial Day, we woke much later than Sunday. Our plan was to breakfast at the hotel, and take the Elk Scenic Drive home to Clinton County. This was to be a much more relaxed day, with just one planned stop, the Elk County Visitors Center in Benezette. There is plenty more to do along that route, but we had a long drive home and wanted to spend as much time as we could at the visitor’s center.
From Bradford, we traveled down Route 219 to Johnsonburg. Just before Wilcox, my husband commented that an awful lot of people like to stand in their yards and watch traffic. Then we realized there was a parade forming! Of course! It was Memorial Day! We just missed being in it, and watching it.
On our way through Johnsonburg, I suddenly realized I was on the street that my best friend from third grade moved to many years ago. When I got home and messaged her, we figured out we also drove by her current home! Small world.
Route 255 from Johnsonburg to St. Marys is another beautiful, forested road. There is so much green beauty in this part of the world. In St. Marys we found ourselves watching (three cars back) another parade! We got a good view of a happy and proud celebration. Many veterans, flags, and bands marched by. Very inspiring!
On our way again, we realized we were getting hungry, and we were not quite sure what we were going to find on a Federal Holiday in a very rural area. But lo and behold, just before we reached the entry road, there was a little old church converted into a diner. Perfect! Very down home and friendly with a nice menu. We got an Elk burger, chicken sandwich, and some quite innovative French fries.
Just a quick jump up the road and we were at the Elk Country Visitors Center. Just a quick note here… don’t bring your pets. They aren’t allowed! You have to be quiet here because they take the elks’ comfort and lifestyle very seriously.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and we walked to several lookout spots not far from the Visitors Center building. Also, inside the building was a short video about the history of the formation of the herd and the maintenance involved with keeping them there and healthy. A lot of work goes into it. They didn’t just put them there and hope for the best; there are programs in place to make sure they are fed, sheltered and healthy, but at the same time kept wild.
There is so much to learn. The video, presentations, and displays are all arranged for educating visitors about not only elk, but other forest inhabitants.
We saw no elk, but in the gift shop, a ranger informed us that another ranger had caught a rattlesnake near one of the paths and was going to hold it for a bit if we wanted to see it. We hurried to where she was and were relieved to see the snake was “tubed;” however, before letting it go, we were given a chance to quickly touch it.
Another stamp for our passport, two more tee-shirts and some homemade lip gloss from the gift store, and by this time, it was late afternoon and we were ready to head home.
Though we saw no elk, I have been told the best time of year to see them is in the fall, and of course that is a beautiful time to travel in forested areas, so I think our plan will be to travel to Elk Country again in the autumn months and take in other places that we missed this time. And get more stamps for our Passport!
Continuing on Route 555 to Route 120, we went through many little towns that I have read about in my PA history books and was delighted to finally see what they look like. They are not so far away from where we live, but literally, they are not on the road to where we usually go. That will change now, because there is so much more to see in the PA Wilds that we missed. We will absolutely be going back.
In Driftwood, we turned south, and finally saw some wildlife. A bear crossed the road just north of Lock Haven! I remarked to my husband that this was a good vacation, because my favorite color is green, and we saw a lot of it!
It was a great trip…. so very relaxing…and we saw many places that we will not forget. Not to mention, excellent food in unique restaurants is always a pleasure.
Thank you to the PA Wilds staff and website for giving us the information and incentive to take this very informative and beautiful trip. You never know what is so close to home until you go and find it!
About the Author: Amy Knarr is a Central Pennsylvania native who has a deep love for nature and exploring the great outdoors. A former Penn State Master Gardener, Knarr has a special affinity for native flora. She can often be found gardening, cross-stitching, reading ghost stories, spending time with her grandchildren, or relaxing with her husband and their many cats.
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