Every once in a while, I visit somewhere in Pennsylvania with no expectations and am blown away by what I find. My visit to Cook Forest State Park was one of those times.
Located in the Pennsylvania Wilds along the borders of Clarion, Forest, and Jefferson Counties, Cook Forest State Park is off the beaten path for many travelers. However, those that make it up to this lightly visited corner of the state are greeted by one of the most beautiful state parks in Pennsylvania.
Driving into the park along the Clarion River from nearby Beartown Rocks and Clear Creek State Park, I was astonished by the area’s beauty. Even though much of the park had yet to fully bloom, the beauty of Cook Forest State Park was unmistakable.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that I fell in love with the park before I even got out of sight of the welcome sign.
Here are a few of my top picks for things to do in Cook Forest State Park during your next visit to the area.
The Forest Cathedral
At one point in time, the majestic forests of Pennsylvania were chopped down to near extinction. However, in a few select places around the state, the old trees were saved from the logger’s saw and remain a testament to the majestic woods that once covered the state.
Today, Cook Forest State Park is home to an area known as the Forest Cathedral Natural Area.
This National Natural Landmark is home to some of the oldest trees east of the Rockies. The size of the trees in the Forest Cathedral rival many of the great forests of the western US and are quite an impressive sight to see.
The Forest Cathedral is crisscrossed by 6.5 miles of trails, but the most popular is the Longfellow Trail.
This 1.2-mile trail passes by some of the largest trees in the park, as well as an area damaged in a 1956 tornado. Seeing the majesty of such large trees, as well as how quickly they can be brought down, is really a testament to the power of nature.
Henry Run Sawmill Dam Falls
While it won’t be found on the park’s map, Henry Run Sawmill Dam Falls is definitely among the can’t-miss spots in Cook Forest State Park.
Henry Run Sawmill Dam Falls is located along the Baker Trail just a few feet upstream from the Clarion River. This is a little-visited part of the park and can be reached either from the area near the Cook Forest Fire Tower or from Gravel Lick Road on the opposite side of the park.
While this waterfall is only about 10-15 feet tall, it flows over an incredible dam that was once a center of activity in the region. Today, however, you’re more than likely to have the spot to yourself.
Cook Forest Fire Tower
Built in 1929, the Cook Forest Fire Tower rises 87.5 feet above the hilltop to provide a commanding view of the valley below. While the tower was built to provide a lookout for firefighters, it has been used solely as a viewing point since the mid-1960s.
Climbing the 108 steps to the top of the tower gives you a great feel for the area around the tower, though I was disappointed to discover at the top that the observation area is only open on occasion.
The fire tower is still the original structure, meaning that it can be a bit rickety, swaying with even the slightest breeze. Because of this, and the open nature of the metal construction, it takes a bit of nerve to climb to the top. However, those that do are rewarded with a great view.
The Paved Trail
While a trail called “The Paved Trail” might not sound exciting, this is easily among the most beautiful trails in all of the Pennsylvania Wilds. That’s because this trail is often covered in green moss which has garnered it the nickname “The Emerald Trail.”
The Paved Trail is located along the edge of the Forest Cathedral and was built to provide those who can’t hike more challenging trails with a chance to see this beautiful part of the forest. This quarter-mile loop is flat and is accessible to just about everyone (the park even says it’s handicapped accessible).
Given how beautiful and easy this trail is, it’s a quick stop that’s worthwhile for anyone looking for things to do in Cook Forest State Park.
Just a few hundred yards from the Cook Forest Fire Tower is Seneca Point. This rocky outcropping overlooks the Clarion River Valley below and provides quite an expansive view that is in many ways just as good, if not better, than the view from the top of the fire tower.
Even better, Seneca Point also has the advantage of not having to climb over 100 rickety steps to see the view.
While standing on Seneca Point, make sure to look at the rocky ground below you. On this land, native tribes once ground grains and seeds. If you look closely, you can still see indentions made by their stone tools.
The Clarion River
The Clarion River runs through Cook Forest State Park and has to be one of the most scenic spots in the entire state. The river is popular with fishermen, as well as for people looking to canoe, kayak, or raft down the river.
Unfortunately, during my short visits, I haven’t had time for a canoe trip, but I have seen several people out enjoying the river, and it looked like a great place for a peaceful ride down the river.
The Swinging Bridge
Located just north of the park’s office, the Swinging Bridge in Cook Forest State Park is a great spot to check out.
This bridge crosses Toms Run in the Forest Cathedral and can be reached from any of the trails that run through the area. The closest hike, however, is roughly half a mile roundtrip from the park’s office.
While there are many beautiful bridges in Cook Forest State Park, this is definitely the most fun to cross.
North County National Scenic Trail
While it might not be the most well known of America’s long-distance trails, the North Country National Scenic Trail, or simply the North Country Trail, is an incredible spot for hiking.
The North Country Trail is 4,600 miles long and travels from Vermont to North Dakota. It crosses through the northwestern corner of PA, and the section in Cook Forest State Park is one of the best places to try out this path.
In the park, the North Country Trail runs with the Baker Trail, a 140-mile trail that goes from Freeport, PA through the Allegheny National Forest. A total of 12 miles of these trails runs through Cook Forest State Park.
The Memorial Fountain
The Memorial Fountain is located behind the Log Cabin Environmental Learning Center at the start of the Longfellow Trail.
While it looks even older, this fountain was built in 1950 to honor the original members of the Cook Forest Association, who played a large role in helping to create the park.
From this fountain flows natural spring water from the hillside. Note that I’m not sure of the safety of the water, so I can’t recommend drinking from the fountain.
Surrounding the spigot, the large stone walls of the fountain are quite beautiful and make this a great spot to check out even if you aren’t planning to hike further up the trail.
Have you ever visited Cook Forest State Park? What’s your favorite thing to see or do there? Let us know in the comment section below.