McConnells Mill State Park
In southwestern PA, it is a challenge to find remote and scenic hikes. But one is only about an hour’s drive north of Pittsburgh, just off of Rt. 422 in eastern Lawrence County, in McConnells Mill State Park.
The focus of this park is Slippery Rock Creek and its 400-foot-deep gorge. While you can stop at the historic grist mill and covered bridge, those wanting a strenuous day hike can walk the 6.2-mile Slippery Rock Gorge Trail, with its forest-cloaked slopes and the sights and sounds of water.
This is not a loop trail, so either plan a shuttle or go all or part of the way out and back. Use the park map to find the Hell’s Hollow parking area. From here, hike down the Hell Run valley, a tributary of Slippery Rock Creek with exceptional water quality. Once the trail arrives at the mouth of Slippery Rock Creek, it turns upstream and ends at Eckert Bridge. This hike traverses the part of the park honored with Natural Area and National Natural Landmark status, a rare occurrence in Pennsylvania.
Geologists tell us that an ice dam broke on giant glacial lakes more than 100,000 years ago and the gorge was quickly gouged into an otherwise gentle landscape, leaving a deep, moist and cool valley. There are some high acidic places with rock oak, but mostly the soils are extra rich in minerals due to a double dose of limestone, from the bedrock and the glacial deposits.
Sightseers enjoy not only a diverse population of trees and wildflowers, but steep tributaries that run along the trail. The area offers views of noisy whitewater along the banks and hundreds of feet below, where boaters sometimes negotiate rapids, and a stop at Walnut Flats, a beautiful mature floodplain forest.
This park was the first wild lands project for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in the 1940s and is the first of several parks WPC helped to protect. As our region continues to develop, this hike becomes an even more treasured experience.