Wilderness Areas: Grand Canyon East

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1993

Wilderness Areas: Grand Canyon East
By Toby Thompson

Surveying the enormous expanse of Pine Creek Gorge from an overlook on the east rim, you could easily mistake it for the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Hiking down to the swift-running creek past waterfalls, cliff faces, and the occasional bear or coyote, you could well be tramping through the A bsarokas, especially since the surrounding area is home to celebrated trout streams and a herd of elk. But this is no Rocky Mountain ravine. Pine Creek Gorge is Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon, the 47-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep centerpiece of the so-called Black Forest--the largest wilderness between New York and Chicago.

Like the insouciant residents of rural Pennsylvania, Pine Creek is unflappable. When gravel, sand, and clay deposits from advancing glaciers of the last ice age formed a dam and blocked its northeasterly fl ow, the creek simply reversed its direction and flowed south out of the valley. As the ice sheets dissipated, a massive torrent of water and detritus carved the canyon's red and green sandstone and shale cliffs.

The best way to introduce yourself to the region is to drive on Pennsylvania 44 north from U.S. 220 past the hardscrabble villages of the gorge's west bank. Route 44 leads to 414, which disintegrates to gravel a bove the settlement of Cedar Run. From there it's a dusty five or so miles east to Blackwell, a tiny hamlet boasting a church, a hotel, a boat landing, and a bar; it' s a likely place for hikers or paddlers to leave a shuttle vehicle before pushing northward up 414 and 287 to Wellsboro, the official gateway to the gorge.

The views from both rims are great, but to really appreciate Pine Creek you have to get down into the canyon. From the east side, hikers descend from Leonard Harrison State Park, ten miles sou thwest of Wellsboro on Pennsylvania 660. Inside the park, the Turkey Path trail follows Little Fourmile Run, a Pine Creek tributary, one mile and 850 vertical feet via steep, switchbacking wooden stairs. On the way down you' ll pass 30- to 50-foot waterfalls and an abandoned railroad bed, which the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is converting into a nine-mile biking and hiking path through the canyon.

Access from the west is trickier and less crowded. From Colton State Park, four miles south of the town of Ansonia via Colton and Painter-Leetonia roads, the Fourmile Run Trail leads 1.25 miles down a rugged, slippery path along the Left Branch of Fourmile Run. The trail disappears at the confluence with the Right Branch; from there you' ll have to follow the stream itself, scrambling around waterfalls to the confluence with Pine Creek.

Back up on the rim, you can head out on foot or mountain bike on 400 miles of Iroquois trails and abandoned railroad beds that crisscross Tioga State Forest. The 30-mile West Rim Trail, from Ansonia to two miles below Blackwell, features hemlock and bee ch trees, glacier-scoured cliffs, and more waterfalls. Hiking the whole trail takes about three days, but you can bike it in two. Camp at primitive sites at Tiadaghton, a logging-era ghost town at mile nine; Straight Creek, at mile 16; or Dillon Run, at mile 24. Rent mountain bikes for $15 per day from Pine Creek Outfitters in Ansonia, or go on an outfitted one- or two-day ride ($40-$140, including bike rental and a night at a lodge; 717-724-3003).

Once you've explored the gorge on land, paddle the creek itself. The popular Class III Owassee rapids, below Ansonia, are runnable by raft, kayak, or canoe. Pine Creek Outfitters guides one-day raft fl oats ($32 per person) and two- or three-day canoe trips ($210- $290, including lodging at an area inn). You can also take a raft trip ($29 per person per day) or rent a canoe ($25 per day) at Canyon Crews, 15 miles west of Wellsboro on U.S. 6; call 717-549-2156. On your own, put in behind the Pine Creek Outfi tters store in Ansonia and take out 18 miles downstream at Blackwell.

By the time they reach Blackwell, most visitors are primed for diversion, be it bluegrass, burgers, or beer. The Blackwell Hotel is the place to dance on Saturday nights: Canyon photos decorate the walls, a stuffed bear cub patrols the back bar, and the jukebox warbles sentimentally.

Pine River Gorge is five hours northwest of Philadelphia. From I-80, take U.S. 15 north, Pennsylvania 414 west, and Pennsylvania 287 north to Wellsboro. To get to Blackwell, turn north off I-80 onto Pennsylvania 44/414 four miles farther west, at Jersey Shore.

With a few exceptions, primitive camping is permitted on state land flanking Pine Creek; check on restrictions and pick up a free permit at the Tioga State Forest District Offi ce in Wellsboro (717-724-2868). RVers, car campers, and canyon day-trippers can head to Canyon Country Campground, nine miles west of Wellsboro on Pennsylvania 660 ($11 per night for a tent site, $16 for a full hookup; 717-724-3818). Rooms at the Blackwell Hotel (717-353-7435) cost $20-$25 per person per night. For logging-era afi cionados, Wellsboro's Penn Wells Hotel, built in 1869, comes highly recommended, as does the Saturday-night smorgasbord in its grand old dining room (all you can eat for $14.95). Doubles cost $40 per night; call 717-724-2111 for reservations.

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