Ohiopyle State Park in southwestern PA is one of my favorite parks in the state. Unfortunately, many of the park’s biggest attractions, namely Ohiopyle Falls, Cucumber Falls, and the Natural Waterslides, can often get quite busy. One amazing spot that sees fewer visitors, however, is the Ferncliff Peninsula.
Ferncliff Peninsula has been designated as a National Natural Landmark and is located on the inside of a 180-degree turn in the Youghiogheny River. This bend in the river creates a 100-acre peninsula that is both unique ecologically and a fun place to explore.
If you are standing in the town of Ohiopyle and looking across the river, it is the peninsula that you see. Furthermore, if you are white water rafting in Ohiopyle, many of the park’s most well-known rapids are along the river next to this area.
History of Ferncliff Peninsula
Ferncliff Peninsula has been known as one of the most beautiful spots in Ohiopyle for many decades.
In the 1880s, the four-story Ferncliff Hotel was built on the peninsula. The hotel catered to the many visitors that came to the area via the train, and a boardwalk connected the hotel to the train station.
Over the 60 years the hotel operated, it grew to include gardens, sports fields, and walking paths, all on Ferncliff Peninsula. However, due to the decline of the railroad, the hotel closed for good in the 1940s, and the land was amazingly reclaimed by nature.
In the early 1950s, Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr., owner of the nearby Fallingwater, became enamored with the peninsula.
Wanting to save it from logging and other uses, he purchased the land and donated it to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. It was later incorporated into Ohiopyle State Park when it opened in the 1960s.
Today, little evidence exists of the peninsula’s hotel. In fact, it’s quite an amazing spot to visit to fully appreciate how well nature can reclaim human activity.
Geology of Ferncliff Peninsula
Ferncliff Peninsula isn’t just interesting because of its unique shape at a sharp bend in the river. It’s also a quite unique geological site. That’s why it’s officially known as the Ferncliff Peninsula Natural Area.
Because the Youghiogheny is a rare north-flowing river, seeds and plants from southern regions are swept upstream and wash ashore here. That, combined with the slightly warmer temperatures in the valley, means that you’ll find a unique combination of plants that you wouldn’t expect to find in such a northerly location.
Even more interestingly, geologists have found evidence that, 300 million years ago, this area was actually a tropical swamp with towering ferns.
If you look carefully at the rocks along the river, you might even be able to find fossilized ferns embedded in them.
Hiking on Ferncliff Peninsula
Ferncliff Peninsula can be accessed either from a large dirt parking lot on the peninsula and near the town’s train tracks (at these coordinates: 39.8722, -79.49438) or by parking in town and crossing the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) bridge from the community of Ohiopyle.
A series of interconnected trails criss-cross Ferncliff Peninsula, offering roughly three miles of total hiking here. For those that are really looking to explore this great area, I definitely recommend the 1.8-mile Ferncliff Trail (which ends up being roughly two miles in length once you add in the short section of additional hiking on the GAP to get back to the starting point of this u-shaped trail).
While you can pick up the Ferncliff Trail at either end, I recommend starting at the trailhead closest to the town of Ohiopyle (on the southern end of the peninsula) and hiking the peninsula in a clockwise direction.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, you will be to see Ohiopyle Falls the fastest by heading along the river first. While the most popular spots to view the waterfall from are near the visitor center, you can also get great views of the waterfall from the Ferncliff Peninsula.
The second reason to head down this side first is that, if water levels are high, this part of the trail can sometimes be underwater and be difficult or impossible to safely pass through. It’s better to know this before completing 3/4 of the hike, only to have to turn around and retrace your steps if the trail is underwater.
When hiking in a clockwise direction, the first portion of the hike is directly along the river. Except at times of high water, this is a fun area to explore as you hike directly over the rocks that make up the riverbank. While hiking, take time to look for potholes, fossils, and other unique features of these rocks.
After about a quarter-mile of flat, but uneven hiking, you’ll reach the crest of Ohiopyle Falls directly across the river from the primary viewing areas. While the development of the town takes away a bit from this view, the chance to view the waterfall in a more natural state is quite nice.
Just make sure to use caution on this side, especially with children and pets, as there are no railings or other safety features and a fall here could be quite serious.
Once you’ve had a chance to enjoy Ohiopyle Falls, return to the main trail and continue following the trail around Ferncliff Peninsula. This forested area is incredibly beautiful and you’ll be able to catch occasional glimpses of the river off to your side.
The Ferncliff Trail follows fairly closely to the outer edge of the peninsula, though there aren’t many great views of the river from the trail. That being said, there are several spots where user-created side trails do head down to the Youghiogheny. These aren’t official trails, and if you opt to head down them, use extreme caution as this river can be very dangerous and you wouldn’t want to fall in.
As you hike the Ferncliff Trail, there are three points where trails branch off to your right. While the main trail does do a U-shaped loop back to the Great Allegheny Passage, these other trails do all give you a chance to take a shorter loop hike. None of these trails offer anything overly different or unique, but they do give you different length loop options when hiking on Ferncliff Peninsula.
Just note that the shortest loop you could do would be approximately one mile in length. Not a huge difference in time or hike length, but if you are trying to see as much of the park as possible, it’s worth noting these shorter options.
Once you’ve finished the loop, I highly recommend turning left on the Great Allegheny Passage and walking the short distance to the northern end of the peninsula. At this point, you’ll find an old railroad bridge that has been converted for use by hikers and bicyclists.
This is one of the most beautiful spots in Ohiopyle State Park and offers an incredible view of the river and the forested hillsides that surround it. This is also a great spot from which to view white water rafters on the river.
Amazingly, this bridge is at roughly the same elevation as the first bridge over the river near the town. However, it stands more than 100 feet higher above the water because the river drops so much in the short distance around Ferncliff Peninsula.
Once you’ve enjoyed this bridge, simply follow the Great Allegheny Passage back to either your car in the Ferncliff parking lot or back to downtown Ohiopyle.
Without a doubt, the Ferncliff Peninsula is one of the most beautiful and overlooked parts of Ohiopyle State Park.
While the trail to the crest of Ohiopyle Falls can sometimes be a bit crowded, once you get beyond that point, it’s blissfully quiet and a great way to explore the natural beauty of the Laurel Highlands.
This is definitely a spot you don’t want to miss when visiting southwestern Pennsylvania.
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