One of my absolute favorite hiking traditions has been getting out for a First Day Hike. Whether you go on your own or join a group, this is the perfect way to kick off the New Year and set some intentions for the rest of the year. We joined a First Day Hike in Cook Forest State Park that had a surprisingly large turnout! It was great to see so many different people joining in. This hike started at the Ridge Campground and included Seneca Viewpoint and the Firetower. We then went on a walk along the Clarion River on the North Country Trail.
THE HIKE: Fire Tower, Seneca Viewpoint & River Trail – Cook Forest SP
Length: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1100 ft
Time: 2.5-3 hours
Trail use: Hiking, Leashed Pets
Parking: Large lot at trailhead with pit toilets
This holiday and work season ended up being rather busy for us. We didn’t do much hiking in December and honestly didn’t see each other a lot. So we decided on a whim to book a cabin in Cook Forest State Park for the New Year. The cabin had a wood burning fireplace, no wifi, and very little cell signal. It was perfect!
There’s actually a lot to explore in the Cook Forest area, including the nearest large town of Clarion. One thing to be aware of though is the camping season. Since we went in January and on a holiday, a LOT of places were closed. Make sure to do a little research before you leave to see what might be open! Some things are very spread out so I’d hate for you to make the drive only to find out that a certain place is closed for the season! Thankfully, the great outdoors is never closed! However, make sure to always be prepared for the weather. Luckily, our visit coincided with a warm spell that brought temps in the low 50s and melted a lot of the snow and ice. I was surprised though how much ice there was still on the forest floor! You never know when you’ll wish you brought crampons!
So as I mentioned, this was our first day hike! If you’ve never done one before, a lot of parks will have a ranger-led hike on January 1st to get people outdoors together. I couldn’t believe how many people showed up for this loop! Special thanks to the Friends of Cook Forest for leading this hike. This was an easy loop that meandered along the Fire Tower road up to the Seneca viewpoint and then to the Firetower. We parked at the Ridge Campground where there were several spots right by the first pavilion. Walking along the dirt and gravel road was easy but if you’re looking for a different route, you can also get on the Baker/North Country Trail and follow that to the viewpoint area. It might be a little longer though since you have to start in the Forest Cathedral area. This is probably the trail we would have chosen if not joining the first day hike group.
The total loop along the Fire Tower Road was around 3 miles. We lingered at the Seneca Overlook and J was even brave even to go up the Fire tower! That was a no thank you from me. From there, we left the group and continued along the baker/North Country Trail down to the Clarion River. Despite how warm it had gotten, it was crazy to see the ice chunks floating down the river! I can only imagine how frozen everything was over Christmas. This trail was so peaceful and we only saw one other family. My absolute favorite part though was seeing a beaver on the trail!! I’ve only ever seen evidence of their chomping so it was so cool to see the actual animals on the trail. He slunk away as we got closer and disappeared into the water.
From here you can really continue along as far as you want. We followed the trail to the Henry Run Sawmill Waterfall. This is a really unique feature that doesn’t appear on the park map! Henry Run is a small tributary of the Clarion River and this section was dammed during the logging boom of the late 19th century. Although the mill no longer exists, the rock wall from the dam is still standing and creates a beautiful little waterfall. Around this time it has started to get misty, so we decided to turn around before we got too soaked. On the way back, we got on the River Trail which leads back up to the Fire Tower Road without going all the way back to the overlook area. Beware though, this is a really steep climb back up! Our hearts were definitely pumping by the time we made it back to the road.
There’s also an alternative way of visiting these sites, which I learned of thanks to Tory at My Trails are Many and Jim at UncoveringPA. You can come at these trails from a different way if you park at the trailhead on Gravel Lick Road. We wanted to go this way but Gravel Lick road was closed for the winter! From there, you just get on the Baker/North Country Trail and go along the water. From this way, the waterfall will be the first site you encounter. From there, you can continue along until you see the Fire Tower and Seneca Overlook. This would be a great place to take a break before turning around! This would end up being about a 5-mile out and back trek to see the waterfall, fire tower, and overlook. Check it would below:
Stay tuned for more of our hikes in Cook Forest!
THE BEER: Clarion River Brewing Company
Address: 600 Main St, Clarion, PA 16214
Distance from Trail Head: 30 miles, 50 mins
Food?: Full Menu
Details: Outdoor seating (seasonal)
After spending the day hiking along the Clarion River, it almost feels inevitable that you should grab some food and a beverage from Clarion River Brewing Company! This brewpub is located in downtown Clarion right on the main street. The venue is split into two sections: the bar area and a large dining room, although you can have a meal in either. With hearty sandwiches and burgers, I’m sure this is a popular place when school is in session! We were lucky to pretty much have the place to ourselves when we were in town. Clarion River brews in house but also features other local brews on their taplist. Unfortunately when we visited, they were in between brewers so they didn’t have any of their own headliners on the menu. No worries, we were able to get a flight of all their in-house stuff and sampled some other local brews too.
Their food was filling and just what we needed to warm up. Like most breweries with a full kitchen, I wouldn’t say it was stellar but it got the job done! I hope that their hunt for a new brewer moves forward without a hitch so they can get their taplist back! Overall, Clarion River Brewing was worth the stop if you’re in town, but I would definitely suggest including it as part of brewery crawl so you can sample the other area offerings
- Betta Weatha – Cream Ale – 5.1%
- Fuzzy Wuzzy Was A Beer – Peach Milkshake IPA – 6.5%
- Ol’ Chap – ESB – 6.1%
- Sometimes You Feel Like A Nut, Sometimes a Stout – Vanilla Coconut Stout – 5%
SUM UP: Cook Forest State Park is a great weekend getaway from Pittsburgh. The area is full of campsites and cabins and has lots of little restaurants during the season. The state park is a beautiful area for hiking, famous for its old growth forest. This hike takes you to the old Fire Tower, a beautiful lookout at Seneca Rocks, and a secret waterfall! The 5 mile loop is rated moderately challenging due to some steep sections and proper footwear is recommended. Check the weather before heading out! Afterwards, warm up with a brew a burger at Clarion River Brewing if staying in Clarion or the Clarion River Lodge if camping or staying in a cabin in the State Park. You can’t go wrong with a weekend in the PA Wilds!