Pennsylvania literally translates to “Penn’s Woods”, named after the towering forests that once covered the state. However, after decades of logging, very few of these virgin forests remained. One spot, however, where you can still see old-growth trees is at the Forest Cathedral in Cook Forest State Park.
The Forest Cathedral is one of the largest strands of old-growth forest not just in Pennsylvania, but in the entire eastern United States. This despite heavy logging that started with the first settler in the area, John Cook, who built several sawmills in the area.
In fact, the land was deemed so special by visitors to the area that, in 1928, after several decades of conservation efforts, Cook Forest State Park became the first Pennsylvania State Park created specifically to preserve a natural area.
Later, this area was further protected when it was designated a National Natural Landmark.
While there is a lot to explore in the entire 8,000-acre park, if you only have time to visit one area, make it the 448 acres that comprise the Forest Cathedral.
Over my years uncovering PA, I’ve visited Cook Forest several times, and have hiked many of the trails through this majestic area of the state. In fact, I’d say the Forest Cathedral is easily among my favorite places to go hiking in the Pennsylvania Wilds.
There are 6.5 miles of trails that meander through the Forest Cathedral, with several more miles of trails connecting this area to the park’s office, campground, and several parking areas.
Personally, my favorite hike through the Forest Cathedral utilizes the Longfellow Trail, as well as portions of the Tom’s Run Trail and the Birch Trail to create a figured-eight-shaped hike that is about 2.5 miles in length.
The Longfellow Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park and for good reason. It is said that this trail passes through the finest old-growth strand of white pine in the northeast.
Having hiked this trail on several occasions, I can attest that some of the trees that you’ll see along this trail are absolutely massive.
The Longfellow Trail is a 1.2-mile out-and-back trail. However, other trails connect well with it to let you do some really nice loops here, keeping you from having to double back if you don’t want to.
The Longfellow Trail starts from a large parking area adjacent to the Log Cabin Environmental Learning Classroom along Route 36 at the following coordinates: 41.346322, -79.218280. While events may be held in this classroom on occasion, this space is normally close to the public but makes a good marker for starting the hike.
While hiking you may notice signs for the 134-mile Baker Trail and the 4,800-mile North Country National Scenic Trail. Both of these trails run along the same path as the Longfellow Trail for its entire length. These trails are why this hike is blazed with both blue and yellow markers.
Just as you enter the woods, the trail passes by the park’s Memorial Fountain. Made of stone, this fountain was built in 1950 to commemorate the first members of the Cook Forest Association who played a key role in preserving this land.
I’ve always enjoyed taking a moment to appreciate the fine stonework that went into creating this piece. If there is water flowing, I wouldn’t recommend drinking it.
Shortly after leaving the fountain, the trail enters the Forest Cathedral and gains a little under 200 feet of elevation. Along the way, I loved taking time to stop and enjoy the massive trees along the trail (and catching my breath). Should this be too much elevation for you, the Ancient Forest Trail connects on both ends to the Longfellow Trail but requires less elevation gain during the hike.
Continuing on the Longfellow Trail, however, you’ll soon come to a spot where the trail crosses an area where a windstorm passed through in 1956. It’s interesting to compare this area to the land around it to see how this event changed the landscape of the forest.
Beyond this point is when the trees start to get massive. In fact, the size of the trees and the overall feel of the forest here reminded me more of the hikes I’ve done in the Pacific Northwest than it did of many of the other places I’ve visited in Pennsylvania.
The Forest Cathedral is truly a special place, and somewhere that’s worth visiting even if you’ve hiked through other areas of old-growth forest in PA, such as the Hemlock Trail Natural Area in Laurel Hill State Park and the Alan Seeger Natural Area in Rothrock State Forest.
After a little over a mile of hiking, the Longfellow Trail ends at Tom’s Run. The two long-distance trails do allow you to continue on the same trail for as many miles as you’d like, which would include going past spots like the Fire Tower, Seneca Point, and the Henry Run Sawmill Dam. You could also turn right and simply head back toward your vehicle.
However, If you add less than a mile of hiking, you can visit another one of my favorite spots in Cook Forest State Park, the swinging bridge.
To reach this spot, cross the bridge over Tom’s Run and head left to head downstream. You will now be hiking on the Birch Trail.
While this trail is rated as easy, there is one section where the trail gets quite narrow between the road and the creek, just before you reach the swinging bridge. A bit of care is needed here, but it should be fine for hikers of all ages.
After only a few minutes of hiking, you’ll reach the swinging bridge over Tom’s Run. For those that hike with coordinates, this can be found here: 41.335336, -79.211131.
This swinging bridge isn’t overly long, but you can really get it moving if you want to, which can be a lot of fun or very scary depending on your feelings about these types of bridges.
It is worth noting, however, that the sides here are mostly unattached to the bottom of the bridge, so you may want to use a bit of caution with younger kids and dogs while crossing the bridge.
Once on the opposite side of the bridge, turn left to head upstream. You will now be on the Tom’s Run Trail. You’ll want to follow this trail for about eight-tenths of a mile as it follows the beautiful creek back to the parking area where you started.
Overall, I’ve done a lot of hiking in the Pennsylvania Wilds, and few if any spots can compare to the incredible majesty of the trails that run through the Forest Cathedral. If you love seeing PA’s most beautiful spots, definitely add this hike in Cook Forest State Park to your list.
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