Cook Forest across the river
Cook Forest State Park. Photo by Dale Luthringer, environmental education specialist at Cook Forest State Park.

By Julia Mericle

Over the past few years, Tracy Becker watched more and more cars congregate at trailheads and river access points in and around Clarion. She noticed that the cars coming through town were increasingly outfitted with rooftop kayaks and bike racks. When the cars stopped and their doors swung open, she nearly always spotted grins on the passengers’ faces.

“Ever since we got out of the pandemic and people are out and about, we’re seeing more people that want to do things outdoors. Really in the last two-and-a-half years, we’ve seen more influx of people coming in to do the trails,” says Becker, executive director of the Clarion Area Chamber of Business & Industry. “I think for a long time … we all took things for granted and didn’t realize what was really here. We have taken a second look and realized we’re fortunate.” 

Fortunate because, Becker adds, that within a matter of minutes she can get from her office on Main Street in downtown Clarion to one of several trails or to the Clarion River. All of this is also accessible via a 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh.

Outdoor options

The Clarion River offers opportunities for boating, fishing, swimming, inner tubing and more. Becker says kayaking, in particular, has become very popular in the Clarion area. 

Tom Switzer, owner of Go Paddle, agrees. He says that while the Clarion River has long been popular among pontoon, fishing and other motorized boaters, there previously were not nearly as many self-powered boats on the water. 

Three kayaks on a foggy Clarion River
Kayakers on a foggy day along the Clarion River. Photo by Dale Luthringer.

Go Paddle, a kayak and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) rental business, operates using a self-service model. Switzer, who compares it to a rideshare, says customers can visit Go Paddle’s website, select the kayak or SUP they want to rent, sign waivers and pay online. The website then provides a code. When customers arrive at the rental facility located at N. Fifth Avenue and Miola Road in Clarion, they enter the code to unlock a kayak or SUP and return it when their rental time ends.

“We wanted to open up the river to people that maybe live in an apartment and don’t have space to store a boat,” Switzer says. “Maybe you drive a car that just can’t load one. It seemed like the river was restricted to only certain people, and we wanted to open it up to everybody … Between June and August, we’re pretty packed out every weekend. We only have eight boats that people can use, but on a weekend we’re probably seeing 30 to 40 people use them.” 

Switzer says the deep, dam-controlled waters of the Piney Reservoir attract kayakers with a wide range of ability levels to this stretch of the Clarion River, which he notes was voted River of the Year in 2019 in a public poll run by the Pennsylvania Organization for Watershed and Rivers. 

“It’s about 13 miles of essentially still water, so you can paddle up or downstream very easily. Even to a novice paddler or inexperienced person, it’s very simple to get up or down river,” Switzer says. “It made perfect sense for a self-service model because no one needs to be shuttled from one location to the next.” 

For visitors who have time for the shuttle model and are looking for some faster-moving water, several other options exist on the Clarion River. Dale Luthringer, an environmental education specialist at Cook Forest State Park, says several private boat liveries and four access points line the 18- to 20-mile stretch of the Clarion River that runs between Cook Forest and Clear Creek State Park. It is a designated National Wild and Scenic River. Visitors can hook a smallmouth bass or two while they navigate the river.

Go Paddle plans to launch a similar self-service model for renting bicycles within the next month or two, Switzer says. He expects to start with rentals at the Rail 66 Country Trailhead, just a couple miles up the road from the main drag in Clarion. The paved rail trail, which extends 20 miles through northern Clarion County, draws cyclists and families with strollers. 

Also within a five-minute drive from Main Street in Clarion, hikers and trail runners looking for something a bit more rugged can hop on a stretch of the longest national scenic trail in the U.S. The North Country Trail, which spans 4,800 miles from Vermont to North Dakota, offers long-distance runners and backpackers opportunities to extend their journey from Clarion many miles in either direction. 

Cook Forest from a fire tower. Photo by Dale Luthringer.

Old growth forest

While kayaks and bikes draw many visitors to the area, visitors willing to drive about 20 minutes north of Clarion to Cook Forest will find what makes the area truly unique — 2,300 acres of cataloged old-growth forest.

“The old-growth forest that we have here is the finest place to go anywhere in Pennsylvania to see tall white pines. It’s one of the top places anywhere northeast of the Smokies to see tall white pines,” Luthringer says. 

Old-growth hemlock trees are another skyscraping attraction. Luthringer says Cook Forest was home to the tallest known tree north of the Great Smoky Mountains. It stood at 185 feet tall before a windstorm tragically took it down a few years ago. Luthringer said it’s tough to find white pines that measure higher than 150 feet tall, with only eight to 11 locations in Pennsylvania that have them. The tallest one in the Northeast now stands at 175 feet tall, and Cook Forest remains home to several greater than 170 feet. 

A Susquehannock Hemlock in Cook Forest
A Susquehannock Hemlock in Cook Forest. Photo by Dale Luthringer.

The oldest tree in Cook Forest is a hemlock that has rings showing that it is at least 471 years old, but Luthringer notes that it is likely more than 500 years old. 

“For Cook Forest, we have the most 160-foot class pines in Pennsylvania,” Luthringer says. “By far, Cook Forest is the best place to go in PA to see hemlocks and white pines. There is just no other site that comes close. We’re looking at around 100 trees that are in that class.” 

While the pines and hemlocks take the spotlight, Luthringer says the forest houses about 18 different species of trees. For a while, Cook Forest claimed the oldest known documented cucumber tree — at 439 years old — before one in the southern U.S. beat it by two or three decades. Many oak trees in the area are older than 300 years. 

Want to see these trees firsthand? Cook Forest boasts more than 50 miles of trails taking hikers up close and personal to these majestic trees. Luthringer recommends that visitors walk the 1.2-mile Longfellow Trail, which takes hikers to the heart of the “Forest Cathedral,” a section of this old-growth forest registered as a National Natural Landmark and where the majority of the area’s white pines are located. 

“The trees are massively tall, and it’s just stunning,” says Becker, who has visited the cathedral area. “It truly is stunning.” 

Luthringer also recommends visiting the Seneca Point Rock overlook and the nearby fire tower for panoramic views. 

“From the top of the tower to the bottom of the valley, you’re in the neighborhood of 550 vertical feet, so you get a really good view,” Luthringer notes. 

Street art in Clarion
Street art in Clarion. Photo by Julia Mericle.

If you go

Between outdoor adventures, visitors can fuel up along Clarion’s charming Main Street. Michelle’s Cafe offers coffee, tea or a light lunch and Blended Nutrition sells juices and smoothies. County Seat caters to patrons looking for a heartier diner-style meal. 

Clarion also has several local breweries, including Mechanistic Brewing Company, Lost in the Wilds Brewing and Clarion River Brewing Company. 

“We have a big patio area outside with a lot of tables outside and a big pavilion,” says Chelsea Alexander, co-owner of Mechanistic Brewing Company. “A lot of people that love being outside are our customers.” 

Indoor-outdoor imbibing at Mechanistic Brewing Company in Clarion. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Alexander.

Alexander says she has seen more people coming from places like Pittsburgh to escape city life for a little while and enjoy the outdoors. She says her father opened four Airbnb locations a few years ago which have proved to be popular.

“It’s amazing. You can walk downtown and you can forget you even had a car for two days,” Alexander says. “It’s a great escape from the city.” 

Luthringer says downtown Clarion is a great place for outdoor adventurers to resupply on food, gas and basic camping gear. Clarion can also provide lodging that ranges from the luxurious cabin accommodations at the Gateway Lodge to simple campsites at the state park facilities. 

For those who do venture out into Cook Forest looking for a more rugged experience, Luthringer offers his advice. 

“There is lots to see and do,” Luthringer says. “And expect that your cell phone won’t work while you are here. Take it as a break to unplug and enjoy the outdoors.” 

Julia Mericle is a Pittsburgh-based teacher and freelance reporter. She most enjoys spending time outside running trail ultramarathons, mountain biking and camping. 

The Outdoor Guide Series is underwritten by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council as part of its effort to promote the outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania and neighboring areas.

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