Contemplating Nature’s Beauty and Destructive Power at Kinzua Bridge State Park
The Kinzua Bridge has been attracting tourists since the day it was completed in late August of 1882. As the largest and tallest bridge in the world at the time of completion, it’s not hard to understand why. Even after it lost this title in 1885, the bridge was still popular with excursion trains from as far away as Buffalo, New York and Pittsburgh. However, the Kinzua Bridge wasn’t built to be a tourist attraction.
A few years earlier, Thomas Kane, President of the New York, Lake Erie, and Western Railroad, had a problem. While trying to connect the rich coal mines of Elk County with the Pennsylvania Railroad track in Bradford, he had to make a difficult and expensive choice: should he build the largest railroad bridge ever attempted, or should he route his line eight miles across difficult terrain to an easier crossing? Ultimately, Kane chose to keep going straight across the Kinzua Valley.
The bridge itself only took 94 days to complete, an engineering feat in itself, and was over 300 feet high and 2,500 feet long. Despite the quality of the bridge, the use of iron in its construction did not allow it to accommodate the large locomotives that soon came along, and the bridge was completely dismantled and rebuilt from steel in 1900.
Over the next 59 years, the Kinzua Bridge was an important freight rail link in the region. However, in 1959, the bridge was sold to a company who planned to tear down the bridge. Fortunately, upon seeing the beauty of the bridge, the company’s president decided that it was too wondrous to tear down, and the bridge was soon sold to the state of Pennsylvania, who turned the area surrounding the bridge into a state park.
Soon, excursion trains were once again crossing the bridge and millions of visitors came to the bridge each year to walk across its still impressive expanse. However, in 2002, it was discovered that the bridge had serious structural flaws that necessitated repairs, and the bridge was closed to traffic. While those repairs were started, they were never completed.
On July 21, 2003, an F1 tornado touched down in the Kinzua Valley and destroyed 11 of the bridge’s 20 towers. Looking at the costs of rebuilding the bridge, the state instead decided to create a skywalk with the remaining 600 feet of the Kinzua Bridge after the tornado.
It was more than 8 years after the tornado before the new Kinzua Bridge would open to the public in September 2011. However, when it did, it instantly became a must-visit tourist destination in Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to visit the Kinzua Bridge before it was destroyed. However, visiting the new skywalk, I was awestruck at its beauty, spanning 600 feet out into the valley and roughly 225 feet above the Kinzua Creek below. Walking to the now abrupt end of the bridge is a breathtaking site, both for the natural beauty of the valley, but also for the evidence of the storm’s strength below.
When redesigning the bridge, it was decided that the toppled remains of the bridge should remain where they fell in 2003. Scattering the valley floor below the end of the bridge are the twisted metal remains. The Kinzua Bridge collapse is a great testament to the destructive power of nature.
Another highlight of the new Kinzua Bridge is the glass floor that covers a portion of the bridge near the edge. While it may not be as high above the ground as the glass floor at the Grand Canyon Skywalk or the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada, it’s still high enough to give you a moment of panic has you step onto it and stare down at the ground 200 feet below you.
If you want to get a view of the bridge itself, there is a trail to the right of the bridge that goes down to the bottom of the valley. Along the way, there are three vantage points, the first of which is handicap accessible. The third viewpoint is located directly under the bridge and offers a great look through the remaining trusses.
From this viewpoint, the trail gets VERY steep as it heads down to the bottom of the valley. Fortunately, giant stone steps have been installed recently, but the trail is still one of the more challenging official trails I’ve done in PA. If you opt to do this, use extreme caution as the trail is difficult to navigate and very tiring to ascend. I wouldn’t attempt this trail without proper footwear.
Once at the bottom, the view of the bridge above you and the wreckage all around is quite impressive. Small side trails take visitors up to the wreckage (though the area between the wreckage is now closed), and a small, rickety bridge crosses the small Kinzua Creek.
If you opt to get close to the wreckage of the bridge, make sure to exercise extreme caution. There is a lot of sharp, rusty metal, and it would be very easy to get seriously injured.
While it’s easy to spend all your time exploring the bridge, make sure to save time to visit the visitor center at Kinzua Bridge State Park. Opened to the public in 2016, this visitor center features a fantastic museum that tells the story of the area, the bridge, and its destruction. From what I’ve seen, it’s the best state park museum in Pennsylvania.
Without a doubt, Kinzua Bridge State Park in McKean County is one of the best state parks in Pennsylvania. It offers amazing history and beautiful natural scenery that can’t be found elsewhere in the state. While the area is beautiful at any time of the year, it is even more beautiful during fall foliage season. However, no matter when you have the chance to visit, consider this one of Pennsylvania’s must-visit state parks.