Finding the Waterfalls of the Middle Allegheny
When the last Wisconsin glacial age reshaped North America more than 10,000 years ago, it excavated the Great Lakes and carved out the Middle Allegheny River Gorge southward from the current-day Allegheny Reservoir in Warren County down to Emlenton in southern Venango County. There, far above the river, the steep slopes send streams tumbling down toward the Allegheny—streams with wild trout and countless beautiful waterfalls that only the lucky or intrepid ever find.
Hikers here should not expect to find anything like the large, well-known, and oft-visited falls such as those at McConnells Mill in Lawrence County or at Ohiopyle State Park in Fayette County. Look instead for remote, exquisite little falls, five or 10 feet high and 15 or 20 feet across, hidden in deep-forest public lands, uncharted, and rarely visited, except by a solitary deer hunter in December or a lost trout fisher in May. The stream banks are largely untrodden, far from the footpaths of the multitudes. And since they are nameless, anyone might name them, as my friends and I often have done.
Wild brook trout live here in sparse populations, but hardly anyone fishes these lonesome waters. And those of us who do never keep our catch and eat it. The trout are too small, for one thing. Too valuable, for another. They are the canary in the coal mine, the litmus test for the vigorous outdoors we all try to preserve in the Pennsylvania Wilds. A fraction of these streams, particularly the larger ones, are supplemented every spring with hatchery-raised trout, and that’s where the trout fishers congregate, along the stocked streams, so a hiker might choose to avoid them during the opening weekend of trout season.
If you’re interested in a specific waterfall hiking adventure, I recommend a day trip or overnight visit to the heart of the Middle Allegheny, in central Warren County, near the community of Tidioute, about 2 1/2 hours from Pittsburgh. Three waterfalls appear on the slopes of the gorge here only eight miles or less from its parking area. Travel Interstate 79 North from Pittsburgh past Interstate 80, get off at Exit 121, and follow Route 62 North through Jackson Center, Sandy Lake, Polk, Franklin, Oil City, President, Tionesta, and finally turn left across the bridge into Tidioute. Turn left again at the stop sign and continue downstream along the Allegheny.
Before the road veers right up a steep hill, turn left once more into a water treatment plant parking area. Trek downstream for one mile, using a level hiking path until Grove Run appears on the right, and walk in to enjoy the breathtaking little waterfall that resides there. This trail has a history going back to the mid-19th century as a towpath that served the fledgling oil industry, with horses and mules plodding the riverside trails hauling barges laden with barrels of oil. Railroads came along after the Civil War and rendered the towpaths obsolete. Workers often laid train tracks upon the same raised and leveled grounds of the towpaths they replaced, and many of those old rail lines have become hiking trails today.
Afterward, travel back past the stop sign north, upstream, for 3 1/2 miles. Notice a small bridge over a stream with guard rails on both sides of the road, an ancient railroad bridge on the right, and two fishing camps flanking the stream on the left. This is Perry Magee Run, a hatchery-stocked stream. Park along the road and walk the sidehills around the private properties, then drop back down to the stream bed on State Game Lands 86, a tract of public lands. Forge upstream for a half mile and discover the low and wide waterfall in its magnificent setting, down in the valley bottom, with evergreens near the shorelines, boulders in the stream, and the silent peace of a solitary and compelling place in the remote outdoors.
Continue three miles upstream along a gravel road and look for a well-marked parking area, with heavy concrete barriers atop the bridge, and another old railroad bridge on the right side. This is Conklin Run, a fast-flowing little stream that empties its cold waters under the bridge into the river. You have to walk a full mile upstream, with the first half-mile bothered by blackberry brambles and multiflora rose, to find the little unnamed falls that pours in white cascades over the solid rock stream bed. The setting here begs for a photograph, with the creek curving upstream and urging the visitor to guess what might lie around the bend, the earth reclining in perfect balance beneath the running waters, the hillsides artfully framing the scene as they rise above the cool hemlock glade, and the falls forming a focal point in the center. This is a place to stop and think and wonder. And perhaps pack in a picnic lunch, rest on a streamside boulder, and enjoy.
Conklin Run completes the three-waterfall hiking adventure, but a dedicated woods walker may return to the Middle Allegheny again and search out his or her own waterfall discoveries on other streams in the local public lands.
Hiking is a year-round activity, of course, and these tiny stream walks can be enjoyed anytime. Spring and autumn are powerful natural seasons to visit, and summer can be fine if one avoids the drought periods in July and August when streams diminish to a trickle and waterfalls become feeble. Better to choose a rainy season or a rainy week, when flows run high and waterfalls display at their best. Bring waterproof hiking boots or knee-high waders for the necessity of crossing creeks in the shallows while trekking upstream.
Winter hiking on a mild day with snow on the ground can be extraordinary. Creeks flow freely, aided by snowmelt, so waterfalls appear at maximum effect. The silent stillness of a snowy winter forest is a magnificent thing, especially when gazing up at a mountainside hollow above a stream. And you never know what wildlife might appear against the pure white background: white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, Eastern coyotes, gray squirrels, Northern cardinals, pileated woodpeckers, and more.
Visitors might choose to stay an extra day to view some of the local sights, such as the Tidioute Overlook, where you can view the Allegheny Gorge from above, or Heart’s Content National Scenic Area, which displays old-growth white pines that survived the great logging eras of the past two centuries and are 150 feet tall and 300 years old. Possible overnight accommodations include Turtle Bay Lodge, 20 miles south of Tidioute in President, and Candlelight Inn Bed and Breakfast, on Main Street in town. Restaurants are not fancy in Tidioute, but I recommend the Hummingbird Café on Main Street for its unique menu and the Tippycanoe Inn across the river a quarter-mile south on Route 62. The front door at the Tippy leads to a smoking-permitted bar area, but the side entrance opens into a rustic non-smoking restaurant with hearty meals and friendly faces.
Good luck and enjoy the hiking, the outdoor scenery, and the waterfalls.
For more information:
- TURTLE BAY LODGE (Jan and Ray Beichner), just off Route 62 in President, 814-677-8785, turtlebaylodge.com.
- CANDLELIGHT INN BED AND BREAKFAST (Clay and Heather Cass), 185 Main Street, Tidioute, 814-484-2259, candlelightinnpa.com.
- HUMMINGBIRD CAFÉ (Grady Smith), 123 Main Street, Tidioute, 814-484-3444.
- TIPPYCANOE INN (Frank and Roxanne Pagley), Route 62, just south of Tidioute, 814-484-7341.