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  Pine Creek Gorge: The other Grand Canyon
Travels in Geology October 2007 posted October 25, 2007

Pine Creek Gorge: The other Grand Canyon
Kimbra Cutlip

Pine Creek Gorge, otherwise known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, plummets 427 meters from the rim to the deepest part. Hiking, biking and camping are popular activities in the state parks on each side of the gorge.

From the expansive view across the gorge of roaring river silenced by distance, the grandeur of this canyon is undeniable. Though a continent away from the dramatic terraces, mesas and buttes that form our national landmark in Arizona, Pine Creek Gorge is worthy of the title Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. And fall is a great time to see it.

Located in north-central Pennsylvania, the 75-kilometer-long gorge was scoured into the landscape by the flow of Pine Creek over the past 350 million years. Now surrounded by nearly a million acres of Pennsylvania state forest and parkland, the Pine Creek Gorge plummets 427 meters from the rim to its deepest point, exposing rock from the Paleozoic. The sandstone, siltstone, mudstone and shale that form the valley can be seen along its many trails to the bottom of the gorge, alternating in gently inclined layers of gray, red, brown and green. Unlike Arizona’s Grand Canyon, however, the Pine Creek Gorge is quite wet, with waterfalls cascading down the sheer faces of bedrock into small pools and then into the flowing river below. Along the canyon walls, hard sandstone supports precipitous cliffs that reach out over the gorge and invite the adventurous to an exciting view.

Fishing, swimming and other water activities are popular in Pine Creek, which carved its namesake gorge over 350 million years.

Though modest as rivers go, Pine Creek carries with it a long history. More than 20,000 years ago, it ran in a northeasterly direction from its headwaters near modern-day Ansonia, Pa. As the continental Laurentide glacier advanced from the Hudson Bay area, the ice, and the debris it brought with it, blocked the creek and formed a natural dam. Eventually, the dam overflowed as glacial meltwater cut through the drainage divide to the south, reversing the course of the creek. Over the millennia, the glacial meltwater and the flow of the creek cut the deep ravine that exists today.

The best and easiest way to see and experience the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania is through the two state parks at the northern end of the gorge. Colton Point State Park is located on the western rim and Leonard Harrison State Park is on the eastern rim. For experiencing the canyon’s grandeur, the overlooks from Leonard Harrison State Park are unmatched, even though the canyon is actually deepest at the southern end. Short, fairly easy rim trails provide overlooks from both state parks. However, if you’re up for an adventure, steep rocky trails with switchbacks, vertical sandstone ledges and overhanging cliffs — also in both parks — offer the rewards of magnificent vistas and tranquil waterfalls as you hike down into the canyon. Unfortunately the various trails and streams on either side of the canyon carry the same or very similar names, making for confusing trip planning, so do pay close attention to where you are hiking.  

Unlike Arizona's Grand Canyon, Pine Creek Gorge is quite wet, filled with cascading waterfalls that collect in quiet pools as the water eventually makes its way to Pine Creek. Hiking through the gorge can be steep and treacherous, but well worth it.

At the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Pine Creek Trail extends for 68 kilometers, crossing through Colton Point and Leonard Harrison parks. Part of the trail is the legacy of a bustling railway system that once transported coal north to New York and vast amounts of hemlock bark to several local tanneries for use in the leather industry. By 1896, the railroad was carrying 7 million tons of freight and three passenger trains on daily runs between Wellsboro Junction and Williamsport. Today, the mostly flat trail is used by hikers, bicyclists, and in the winter, cross country skiers. Horseback riding is allowed on a 14-kilometer stretch of dirt access road at the northern end of the trail.

Outside of the parks, the West Rim Trail covers some 50 kilometers of backcountry and descends down into the canyon. It also offers campers stunning morning views into the misty gorge below. There are many opportunities for camping throughout both parks, though visitors must sign in and pay a small fee. Rustic, single-family tent sites are available on a walk-in basis, while larger group sites require reservations which may be made from 11 months to two days prior to arrival.

Historic Wellsboro, Pa., offers a quaint place to stay if you don't want to camp when visiting Pine Creek Gorge. Main Street, as shown here, is still lit with gaslights.

For the pressed-for-time visitor, the 1.6-kilometer Barbour Rock Trail hits some of the highlights including an overlook of the Owassee Rapids and views right from the edge of the rim. The sign at the trail head is a reminder of the former importance of Pine Creek as a major thoroughfare for the lumber industry. The sign indicates that the trail was named for Samuel Barbour who died in a log jam at the Owassee Rapids as timber was floated down creek to saw mills at Williamsport.

The remoteness of Pine Creek Gorge, more than an hour from the closest city (Ithaca, N.Y.), means that just getting there provides an opportunity for visitors to experience the gritty small towns and scenic rural byways of the mid-Atlantic United States. For outdoor enthusiasts, the trip can easily fill a week, but it’s worth the trip even if you just have a weekend. The most common hiking trails are easy to find and well-marked and, if you have the time and inclination, guided single and multi-day hikes can be customized to visitors’ interests. Local outfitters also offer bicycle tours, covered wagon trips through the canyon, motorcycle tours along the rim, and river rafting through spring rapids.

Both of the state parks at the canyon’s rim offer primitive camping. Along the southern rim, you can find numerous bed and breakfasts, if camping isn’t for you. Outside of the numerous campgrounds, historic Wellsboro, with its Victorian architecture and gas-lit street lamps, provides a quaint and comfortable staging point just over half-an-hour away from the state parks. The town is roughly a 90-minute drive from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport, and three-and-a-half to four hours from airports in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Spring and summer offer plenty for the outdoor enthusiast, but autumn is the most breathtaking time of year to go. That’s when the brilliant reds, yellows and purples of the turning leaves blaze across the mountains illuminating the grandeur of Pennsylvania’s grandest canyon. For those of you on the East Coast, plan a weekend trip and head there this month. For everyone else, keep in mind that any season offers remarkable views and fun activities at the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.


Cutlip is a science writer for the Smithsonian Institution who enjoys every opportunity to hike, camp and spend time playing outside.

Links:
Tioga County Visitors Bureau
Pennsylvania Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey
 
Leonard Harrison State Park 
Colton Point State Park 
Nature Quest, Inc. (for naturalist tour guides) 
High Mountain Adventures (for mountain biking) 
Landmark Touring (for horse and covered wagon) 
Mountain Trail Horse (for trail riding) 
Stephen Lippay's photos 
Kerrie Mitchener's photos 

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