Thursday, May 2, 2013

Local wilderness vacations: Allegheny National Forest

So after an admittedly Erie County bias in my first several posts in the Local wilderness vacation series, let me tell you know about an area near and dear to my heart: the Allegheny National Forest.

For regular readers of my blog, you've read about my uncle's cabin near Pittsfield. We try to make it to that cabin 2-3 times a year, because of the beauty of that place, but also because it serves as a wonderful base camp for exploring the ANF. Since we have spent so much time exploring the ANF I can honestly say it is one of those places that have stolen my heart. As years pass I hope my boys find the same connection.

A little primer to get us started: The ANF covers over 513,000 acres or about 810 square miles of forested land. Travelling from Erie you can take US 6 to Warren to access the northern portions, or I-79 to I-80 to access the southern portions. For the sake of keeping this about local wilderness vacations, with the theme and idea that these trips are done in 1 day or less, and often with kids in tow, I'll maintain my focus on the northern portions. I'll define the northern portions as the triangle roughly created by Heart's Content Recreation Area, to the Kinzua Railroad Bridge, to the Kinzua Resevoir and New York state line. 

Heart's Content Recreation Area:
Formed as a land grant to the State of PA, by the lumber company that had owned the land, Heart's Content is the only tract of old growth timber in the entire commonwealth. What does that mean? This land has never been timbered, so the land is identical to how the earliest inhabitants of this area would have seen it.  Many of us have grown up visiting wooded areas on a regular basis. I like to hunt and hike, so I'd like to think I've seen every style of forest that exists here in NWPA. That was until I visited Heart's Content.

The trees are simply enormous. Saved from the hands of man, the trees here live out a natural life cycle, growing until some natural disaster like a windstorm or tornado topples them, or until they simply become to old to support their own weight. At which point they fall, often taking several trees with them, but simultaneously opening up a new section of the canopy. This new opening allows more sunlight to hit the forest floor, kick starting the next generation of trees.

This is entirely different than what typical forests look like. Even the oldest forests in PA have been cut at least once, but more often 2-3 times as is typical in a 50-75 year cycle of cutting. Two things happen: The trees clearly are younger; The trees are removed from the land so that the old trees are not in various stages of decay on the forest floor.

When visiting Heart's Content, make sure to walk the nature loop, which is an easy 1.0 mile hike, which has several placards describing what you can see along the path.  There is also a 6.4 mile hike, which loops through the forest and follows several old railroad grades outsite the old growth area of the forest.

Kinzua Dam and Resevoir:
The Kinzua Dam and Resevoir is located just 6 miles east of the city of Warren, and is one of the largest dams east of the Mississippi. The primary purpose of the dam was to control flooding on the upper stretches of the Allegheny River. However, the hydro-electric power serves as a tremendous green asset to the electric grid, and the 21,000 acrea resevoir that was created kick started the tourist industry in the ANF.

Several small camps had been constructed by the CCC back the 1930's, but once the dam was completed and the resevoir was full, several other private and public campgrounds were created. Plus a public beach area was established on the east side of the resevoir, just over the Rt 59 bridge.  I can not tell you how many afternoons my cousins and I swam at that beach while picnicking with our families.

Just last summer Jen and I took the kids to Willowbay Campground near the northern end of the resevoir, and what a great time we had. Within minutes of setting up in the cabin, I heard some leaves crunching, and turned to see a flock of wild turkey casually walk within 20 feet of our cabin. The boys splashed in the beach that was a stone's throw from our front door. We had such a great time we fully intend on making it back there this summer.

Kinzua Railroad Bridge:
Once billed as one of the 8 man-made wonders of the world, the Kinzua Railroad Bridge was the tallest steel railroad bridge in the world when completed. Then in 2003 a tornado travelled up the valley knocking down 11 of the bridges 20 towers. I remember the July day quite clearly. After a stormy day in Erie, I happened to be watching the news when a story came on about a tornado and possible collapse of the railroad bridge. Once the story was confirmed I thought back to all the family trips we had to the bridge. Hiking over and under the bridge was a tremendous adventure, and in one swift moment, half the bridge was gone. I can't lie, I shed a tear that night thinking about the bridge.

However, the State of PA recognized what a beloved visitors area the bridge had become, and made the investment to repair the remaining structures, and create a visitors platform at the far end. The resulting "sky-bridge" is truly a sight to behold. While I'm sad that my boys won't experience the bridge and park the way I did, the repurposed bridge and visitors area, is an excellent use of the area.

Do you have a favorite area of the ANF? Maybe a spot where you have camped or hiked? Let me know about it in the comments!

Like to hear about another great wild place the NWPA has to offer? Let me know the name of it in the comments and I'll check it out, so your favorite spot can be featured in another story!

Happy Exploring
Scott M


  1. We're staying at Willow Bay in a little over a week. I'm planning to cover all our old summer Messenger camping trip stomping ground. I can not wait to share that with Erin!

  2. You will really like Willow Bay. We hope to make it back in August. We've got a trip planned to the old haunts July 12-16. Enjoy the old stomping grounds!