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Cook Forest State Park: Tranquil Old Growth Forest, the Clarion River, and More

Pennsylvania has a multitude of places with stunning natural beauty, though the old growth forests at Cook Forest State Park are amongst the best. There are a total of nine areas in the whole park that are home to old growth forests. It is awe-inspiring an humbling walking through groves of trees, some of which date back to the 1600s. There are a number of hemlocks and southern white pine trees that measure in at anywhere from 100 to nearly 200 feet, with the tallest of which, the Longfellow Pine, measuring in at somewhere between 180 and 200 feet. There is no feeling quite like looking up the trunks of these giant trees. This is the closest thing that I have experienced on the east coast to the immensity of the giant sequoias in California. These are some of the tallest trees on the entire east coast and the largest ones are up there in height with the redwoods. While trunk diameter is not on the same level, they are still quite huge.
We start at the trailhead for the Longfellow Trail, one of the multiple ways into the Forest Cathedral National Natural Landmark. Wherever there is not old growth in Cook Forest, the second and third growth tree specimens are still large and impressive. Cook Forest State Park is filled with calm and relaxing areas like this. Mountain Laurel prevail closer to the forest floor, underneath the huge Hemlocks, creating a quintessentially Pennsylvania style forest, with both our state flower and state tree represented.

This is the former Log Cabin Inn, and current Visitors and Interpretive Center for the park. It was built in 1934 as part of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project that created most of park's current infrastructure that enable enjoyment for visitors to the park. The cabins were built with salvaged American Chestnut wood from trees that were hit with blight. We can thank President Franklin Roosevelt's Great Depression era New Deal programs for a great deal of the infrastructure of Pennsylvania's excellent state park system. Cook Forest is no exception, with this structure, and the park's visitor cabins being the focal point of access to the state park. The cabin here leads to the main trailhead to the Forest Cathedral. 

Here is a shingle mill that is a part of the exhibits at the Log Cabin Interpretive Center. It represents the era that led towards clear cutting most of the state's forests. While lumber cutting is still one of the state's largest industries, emphasis is now placed upon conservation and responsible cutting. This was not the case a century ago. Lumber baron Anthony W. Cook felt a sense of responsibility for the tracts that now make up Cook Forest and its Forest Cathedral. These were his finest lumber holdings and he came to realize that they needed to be preserved. By the time of his death in 1891, roughly two thirds of the state's lumber had been clear cut down. The bulk of Pennsylvania's current state forests were clear cut, with the crowns of the trees and other brush left lying on the ground, and sparks from passing steam locomotives would light up the piles of dry brush, causing uncontrollable fires. Thanks to some visionary politicians, and an evolution in public thought towards taking care of the state's lands, large swaths of what was considered to be wasteland were purchased by the state, and replanted with mostly hardwood trees. The state forests that we know and love today came to because of these efforts. Heading through many of these state forests, it is hard to believe that they were barren wastelands just over a century ago. Cook and later conservationists realized that the old growth that remained on this tract of land was too important to be cut down.

A memorial marks an entryway into the Forest Cathedral.
I rate the hike somewhere between easy and moderate. There are no obstacles, and the trail surfaces are pretty even, though there is a nice amount of elevation change. The hardest part of this trail is keeping your eyes on the trail when you are hiking, due to the spectacular views you see when you look up. 
Looking up the trail. Wherever the elevation changes get more vigorous, there are rail ties that create nice steps. The care that they have taken on the trail makes this National Natural Landmark as accessible as possible for visitors. While I like more rugged trails as a part of my hiking hobby, I really appreciate when efforts like this are made, to ensure that people can gain a connection to the grandeur of nature, just like the lumberman Cook did when he came across this special tract. 

A marked section where a windstorm once damaged a section of the Forest Cathedral

A reminder of the disease and bugs that plague our trees. I am not sure of the species of this tree, but the wooly adelgid bug is attacking our hemlock trees, and some predictions say that it may wipe out the entire hemlock population within the coming decades. This is rapidly altering the carbon cycle, with an impact upon our entire environment. There are methods to fighting the bug, including introducing species of bugs that feed upon the wooly adelgid, injection systems into the trees, and spraying the trees with non-toxic insecticides. 
A tree that was given a monument plaque, yet ended up dying.
It is amazing that this tree is able to remain standing or without splitting off, with how the top section is so bent.

It is incredible how much this tree is able to lean and still remain standing.
An endless tree...

The exposed and mossy roots of a tree that fell long ago.
Looking up into the Forest Cathedral.
Saplings mixed in with the old growth
A mammoth tree trunk.
There are times you wish you could just take a picture of, or videotape the smells of a place. The smell of the forest floor, complete with layers pine needles, fallen leaves, broken branches, and more, leads to such a soothing smell. I feel like I come alive when walking through a forest like this. It is so peaceful and tranquil, and so overwhelming to the senses. 

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. This is not one of the absolute largest trees in the forest, it is still pretty huge, and it was probably my favorite. I always love seeing trees that grow on top of and through cracks in boulders like this. The ability of nature to overcome obstacles is something that always resonates with me. 

Stone Arch Bridge
Seneca Point and the Cook Forest Fire Tower provide tremendous views of the forest. This area was not open of the season yet and this photo is from years ago.
There are other tracts of land within the general region that are home to old growth, especially the awe inspiring Hearts Content Scenic Area, but Cook Forest is home to the largest swath of old growth in the state and on the entire east coast. This is a place that needs to be seen to be believed.

The Clarion River is a gorgeous and natural thing to see. At the turn of the 20th century, this area was  considered to be one of the ugliest and most degraded waterways in the country. Since then, a vigorous restoration and conservation effort has turned this into a river designated as "Scenic and Wild." It is now a beautiful habitat and natural attraction for those into kayaking, canoeing, tubing, stand up paddle boarding, swimming, fishing, sightseeing, and more. It is mesmerizing to just sit back and watch this small river. 
Some waterfowl. River Otters, once on the brink of extinction in the state, now thrive in the restored river. Different fish, namely bass and trout, now flourish in the river's waters. 

Up the river as you head out from the state park, you will find multiple areas where you can picnic and just sit and reflect along the river.
One of the riverside picnic groves.
The northern portal to the park.
A huge tree on the riverbank!
More ducks!
Brit spotting the ducks!
Did I say that it amazes me how some trees are able to grow where they do?

Additionally, the Clarion River flows through the state park, giving plenty of recreational opportunities to kayakers, fishermen, bird watchers, and sightseers. Some places surrounding the park offer recreational opportunities, including horseback riding and more.

For more information about the park, visit their website at http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/cookforest/

If you are into camping, a full campground is located at the state park. Rustic and historic cabins are located within the park as well. We highly recommend the Inn at Deer Creek Winery, a short drive away through the Clarion County countryside, for a great experience with evening entertainment, well appointed and cozy rooms, and great wines and delicious foods. Clarion River Brewing Company offers great brews and delicious food in a relaxed setting in Clarion. Cook Forest is a well rounded and awesome place to visit that we highly recommend.

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