The fleeting glimmer of fireflies. The bugle of wild elk. The graceful flight of a blue heron as it skims the surface of a scenic river. Each of these is a testament to the resurrection of a vast wilderness once blighted by industrialization. The Pennsylvania Wilds, or “the Wilds” for short, is an unspoiled region in northwestern Pennsylvania. Its 2.1 million acres of public lands encompass 50 state game lands, 29 state parks, eight state forests, and two “wild and scenic” rivers. A century ago, the logging industry cleared the forests of their trees and strip mines gouged the earth in search of coal, but today these lush mountain valleys and pristine woodlands offer safe haven for wildlife and endless opportunities for outdoor adventure. So grab your binoculars and your hiking boots and check out these activities at five top places to visit in the Pennsylvania Wilds.
1. See synchronous fireflies
Fireflies herald summer, captivating children and adults alike with a single flash. In a few small pockets of the Allegheny National Forest, a rare species of firefly known as Photinus carolinus puts on a magical display. From late June to early July, thousands of males synchronize their flashes in a dazzling mating ritual. One of the best places to observe the spectacle is along the banks of Tionesta Creek near the Kellettville Bridge. Warmer weather increases the odds of spotting these bioluminescent critters; when temperatures dip below 60 degrees, fireflies’ flight and flashing activity drops. Take care to stay on the trail—female P. carolinus spend most of their time on the ground, making them especially vulnerable to hikers’ footfalls.
More than 200 miles of hiking trails in Allegheny National Forest wind through a variety of ecosystems, from grassy, wildflower-filled meadows to lush, evergreen forests. For an excellent overview of the forest’s beauty, spend a morning trekking the scenic Minister Creek Trail. As this popular 6.6-mile loop winds past massive, moss-cloaked glacial boulders, it crisscrosses numerous streams and weaves in and out of dense swaths of white pine and hemlock.
2. Paddle a “wild and scenic” river
The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects two rivers that flow within the Pennsylvania Wilds. Kayakers and canoeists know the mellow Allegheny and Clarion rivers provide some of the country’s best flat-water paddling. The rivers were once key players in northwestern Pennsylvania’s timber heritage, and, today, their beauty illustrates the region’s conservation success story. Ospreys, great blue herons, bald eagles, foxes, otters, and beavers have returned to the forests and valleys that surround the rivers while walleye, rainbow trout, and smallmouth bass populate their waters.
In Warren, the team at Allegheny Outfitters knows the Allegheny River inside and out and can set you up for any degree of adventure. A memorable option for paddlers of any skill level is the jaunt from the Kinzua Dam back to town, which winds along the river for 9 scenic miles before ending with a short run through the easy riffles of some Class I rapids. After such a trip, Bent Run Brewing, an award-winning brewery, offers crisp brews and delicious tacos.
Or gear up at Lazy River Canoe Rental in Ridgway to float down the Clarion. A favorite trip travels 9 miles from Ridgway to Portland Mills along a scenic stretch of river with lots of wildlife, good trout fishing, and a couple of fun, introductory rapids.
3. Stand atop a gorge
Built in 1882 to facilitate access to McKean County’s coal and timber lands, the 301-foot-tall Kinzua Bridge was once the world’s highest railroad viaduct. A steel crossing replaced the original wrought-iron bridge in 1900 to support heavier trains. In 1970, the monumental structure, which stretched 2,053 feet across the Kinzua Gorge, became the centerpiece of the new Kinzua Bridge State Park. Though a powerful tornado partially collapsed the historic bridge in 2003, the remaining towers were later stabilized to create the Kinzua Sky Walk. Its glass-floored overlook juts 624 feet into the chasm and provides dizzying views of the gorge below.
At the LEED-certified visitors center, a series of interactive exhibits spotlights how engineering, industry, and the environment relate to the viaduct and the surrounding landscape. Adventure seekers can hike the challenging Kinzua Creek Trail, a steep, 1.2-mile path that descends into the valley bottom and offers an up-close look at the mangled remains of the trestle’s fallen towers.
4. Explore an old-growth forest
Credit a family of lumber barons for protecting one of the most magnificent stands of virgin timberland east of the Mississippi. Anthony Wayne Cook deeded 7,200 acres of forestland to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1927. That land became the foundation of Cook Forest State Park, which includes a pristine, 315-acre swath of towering white pine and hemlock now known as the Forest Cathedral.
Wandering among these ancient giants is an exhilarating experience. Dappled sunlight streams through the dense canopy, casting a gentle glow through the forest—a relic of the forests that once blanketed northern Pennsylvania. From the Log Cabin Environmental Learning Center, the Longfellow Trail passes some of the biggest and oldest specimens, some which soar 170 feet into the air and date back to the 1600s.
5. Go on an elk safari
Thousands of elk roamed northwestern Pennsylvania when the first Europeans settled there in the early 1800s. But by the mid-1860s, overhunting and habitat loss left just a few scattered creatures. An effort to reintroduce the animals began in 1913—around the same time the Cook family set out to preserve their forest—with 50 elk arriving by rail from Yellowstone National Park. Today the unspoiled wilderness known as Elk Country, made up of portions of Elk and Cameron counties, is home to the largest free-roaming elk herd in the northeastern United States. While the animals’ autumn rutting period is the most popular time to visit, mothers debut their newborn calves during late spring and early summer.
The Elk Country Visitors Center in Benezette utilizes interpretive displays, hands-on learning experiences, a 22-minute educational film that engages the senses, and three observation trails to provide an overview of these animals and their natural habitat. Less than 2 miles from the visitors center, Winslow Hill offers panoramic vistas over rolling meadows from its mountaintop vantage point. Several other viewing areas are nearby. The 127-mile Elk Scenic Drive runs through the heart of Elk Country. For a shorter loop option packed with viewing spots, travel east on the scenic drive toward Sinnemahoning before looping back to the visitors center through the Quehanna Wild Area along the beautiful Quehanna Highway.
Gina DeCaprio Vercesi is a New York–based writer with a passion for history and conservation, and 1973 Buick Skylark convertibles.
AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.