Pennsylvania Waterfalls: The Truth About Hiking Glen Onoko in Jim Thorpe
There are hundreds of waterfalls throughout the woods of Pennsylvania, but few have the same reputation as the three waterfalls in Glen Onoko near the small community of Jim Thorpe. It seems at least once a year, someone tragically dies in this area and even more have to be rescued. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most popular waterfalls hikes in Pennsylvania.
To be honest, the first time I hiked Glen Onoko, I was a bit nervous. I had no idea what to expect from this trail. After all, it’s one of the few trails in Pennsylvania with a sign warning of the trail’s dangers (the trail actually has two signs, along with a third telling you to turn back if you don’t have the proper footwear).
Glen Onoko is located in State Game Lands 141 just outside of Jim Thrope, PA. The parking area for the falls is located along the Lehigh River in Lehigh Gorge State Park. However, all but the first few yards of the trail are outside of the park boundaries.
The trail being located on state game lands means that it lacks the blazes and improved trails that you often find in state parks. Since this land abuts the state park, I would love to see the state transfer the land into Lehigh Gorge State Park. This would likely allow for the trail to be improved and for maps to be made of the area. It’s also worth pointing out that since the trail is on state game lands, you should take extra precautions hiking during hunting seasons.
At the beginning of the trail, a large sign welcomes you to the trail, and also notes the dangers present. While the trail starts off easily enough, it is a very challenging trail. Expect slippery, narrow trails, many rocks, and even some places where you will need to use your hands to assist in your climb up the hill towards the falls.
That being said, if you are an experienced hiker, use common sense, and wear proper footwear, the trail shouldn’t pose any significant danger, especially if you stay away from the edges of the waterfalls, which is where most of the serious injuries occur.
The trail up Glen Onoko can be confusing in places because of diverging trails and rogue markings on the trees, but is fairly easy to follow if you know where to go. Start by hiking under the train tracks. Just after the tracks, you’ll head uphill into the woods. If you look through the forest, you should be able to see another large warning sign a bit up the hill.
Follow the trail to the left, and you’ll soon come to Glen Onoko Run (if you don’t see the creek within a few minutes of hiking, you’ve gone the wrong way). If water levels are high, this creek falls in an impressive series of drops and cascades down the hillside.
Continue to walk upstream, staying on the right side of the creek. Despite what some of the graffiti may lead you to believe, you do not need to cross the creek for the entire journey to the top.
The trail up Glen Onoko is challenging and steep, but fortunately relatively short. Just as water finds the easiest route down the hillside, so too have people, and you’ll see places where the trail diverges into two or even three different paths. Fortunately, all roads lead to the same place. Stay close to the stream, taking whatever appears to be the easiest path, and you won’t get lost.
While it seems longer due to the trail’s steepness, you’ll come to the base of Chameleon Falls in about half a mile of hiking. This waterfall consists of two streams that tend to flow into each other, creating one of the more interesting looking waterfalls in Pennsylvania.
It’s hard to find information on waterfall heights, but I’d guess that Chameleon Falls is somewhere between 30-35 feet in height. To be honest, while it’s not the main attraction of the gorge, it’s my favorite of the three named waterfalls in Glen Onoko.
The trail continues up past Chameleon Falls to Glen Onoko Falls, which is just a short distance above the first waterfall. In fact, you may have seen it while hiking up the trail.
Glen Onoko Falls (some sources simply call it Onoko Falls) is the tallest waterfall in the glen. At 55-60 feet in height, it’s an impressive site. Water falls in a single drop down to the rocks at the bottom before quickly being dropped again over Chameleon Falls.
There is a large area filled with rocks around the base of Glen Onoko Falls from which to enjoy its beauty. The gorge is also at its coldest directly below these waterfalls. Depending on the weather on the day you visit, this will either be a welcome relief or encouragement not to dawdle for too long.
After enjoying Glen Onoko Falls, continue up the hill. The trail makes a bit of a diversion away from the creek before returning to it near the top of Glen Onoko Falls.
Please, please, please do not cross the ropes that are placed above the falls. The rocks above the falls can be very slippery and serious injury or even death has come from people standing too close to the edge of the falls and tumbling over.
That being said, if you safely stay behind the ropes and on dry land, you can get a great view of the valley from near the top of the falls (but again, from BEHIND the ropes).
Many hikers think that this is the top of the trail and head back down at this point. However, you’ll notice a small trail heading upstream from near the top of the falls (you do NOT need to cross the creek).
This trail is more narrow than the lower portion and follows through a thin section of forest of rhododendron. Along the way, take a peek through the bushes to see the beautiful cascades that would be focal points elsewhere, but get relegated to unnamed cascades here.
Within a few minutes, you’ll come to the base of Cave Falls. Also called Hidden Sweet Falls in some sources, this waterfall fits both names very well. However, I tend to prefer cave falls because of the large opening behind this beautiful waterfall. The shortest of the three named waterfalls in Glen Onoko, this is a very fitting end to an amazing hike.
All told, the top of Cave Falls is about three-quarters of a mile from the parking area about 600 feet above it. As I stated before, the hike isn’t overly long, but it’s very strenuous.
To get down, you have two choices. When I’ve visited, I’ve always found myself a bit pressed for time after taking too many photos along the trail, and have opted to simply head back down the trail. However, it should be noted that while going up is more tiring, going down this steep, rocky trail is probably even more challenging.
If you’d rather, there is a way to go down a less strenuous trail by continuing upstream. This route also has the benefit of having a view of the valley. While the route is definitely longer, it is likely easier and offers new scenery. Since I haven’t hiked it myself, I won’t try to give you directions, but will instead refer you to this site which has them.
Once at the bottom of the trail, make sure to check out the very cool abandoned train tunnel nearby in Lehigh Gorge State Park. To get there, simply walk across the bridge over the Lehigh River and turn left into the first parking lot. Climb a very small hill, and you’ll be at the entrance to the tunnel.
Known as the Turn Hole Tunnel, it was used by the Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad from 1866 until 1912. It was then used as a passing lane for trains until it was officially closed in 1956. The tunnel is nearly 500 feet long, and visitors are able to walk through it to see the view of the river from the far side. Note that it gets very dark in here and there are large rocks and railroad track on the group, so use extreme caution walking through here.
Overall, the hike at Glen Onoko in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, is one of the most amazing hikes in Pennsylvania. It’s also probably the most challenging hike I’ve done in PA that was along a real trail. While I firmly believe that it can be done with anyone in decent shape that brings the right footwear and mentality to this hike, it is important to understand that people die or get seriously injured in this gorge every year.
To help you better understand what the trail is like, I’ve put together a video, which can be seen near the top of this article. If you are prepared for the hike, don’t let the warnings discourage you. Instead, let them be a reminder that you shouldn’t hang out near the edge of the beautiful waterfalls of Glen Onoko in Carbon County, Pennsylvania.
How to Get to Glen Onoko
Glen Onoko is located in State Game Lands 181, though parking and the trailhead are located in Lehigh Gorge State Park in Jim Thorpe, PA.
There are a series of parking lots located at the end of a 1.7 mile roadway that runs from town to the river. It’s worth noting that Apple Maps does not take you down this road to access the parking area, so it’s best to either use a different mapping service, like Google Maps, or keep a look out for a sign that says “Lehigh Gorge State Park: Glen Onoko Access.”
You want to park as far down the road as possible. The trailhead begins just after the bridge over the Lehigh River, and there is one small parking lot on the far side of the river. If that lot is full, park at one of the other lots back up the road. The best parking area and the trailhead can be found at the following coordinates: 40.883493, -75.760377.
To access the trail, cross the river, and take an immediate right down a staircase. At the bottom of the staircase you will see a large wooden sign for the trail. Turn right to head under the railroad tracks, and then take the trail to the right to head up the hill and start your adventure.
Looking for more great waterfalls? Click the link to check out all of the beautiful Pennsylvania waterfalls that are pictured on the site.
[Click here for information on how to use coordinates to find your destination.]