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3.01.2020

Hiking to Dennison Point Overlook & Allegheny River Gorge at the Kennerdell Tract of Clear Creek State Forest

If you are looking for a great place within 1.5 hours of Pittsburgh that offers great day hikes with excellent elevation change and scenic views of river bends in a beautifully wooded setting, the Kennerdell Tract of Clear Creek State Forest and Dennison Point is a fantastic place to visit. It features trails that range from easy to strenuous. Fishing opportunities await visitors on six miles of Allegheny River shore line and multiple small streams through the property. It is located across the river from the main area of the unincorporated community of Kennerdell in Venango County. 
Oil tank remnant
Industrial remnants from the oil industry can be found throughout the property, and an iron furnace from the 1840s can be found on Bullion Run. Remnants of industrial history are scattered throughout this area, as it was an epicenter for industrial trade, with it being home to lumber and wool mills and transportation infrastructure. It was once a transportation center, with oil barrels being shipped down Oil Creek and the Allegheny River to the markets towards Pittsburgh. Lumber and other products were shipped the same way, and the Pennsylvania Railroad picked up most of this transportation traffic initially with a single rail line, which would quickly be twinned, along with the addition of several tunnels in the region, including one right in Kennerdell. The Pennsylvania Railroad's passenger trains between Pittsburgh and Buffalo went right through Kennerdell. The railroad has been abandoned for decades. As industry waned, the tourist trade has grown in the borough to take its place. Summer cottages, hunting camps, and campgrounds have helped this borough weather the industrial changes of the last sixty years. 

The state's purchase and preservation of the Kennerdell Tract of Clear Creek State Forest has enabled a large tract of the land adjacent to the river in Kennerdell to be reclaimed by nature from old industry and become a center for outdoor recreation for people in the region. I recall seeing references that this tract of land was slated to become a state park, Allegheny River State Park, but I cannot find any references to back up this point. I do, however, think that this tract should become a state park. It would have what is arguably the most challenging hiking in a state park in Western PA. CeCe and I logged ten miles of hiking on this adventure, with two ascents and descents averaging at about 400 feet of elevation change. The views along the river at the edge are breathtaking, as are the views you catch as you go up and down the steep valley walls. Additionally, small rock cities, historical remnants, and more await visitors to the park. 

The land follows bends in the Allegheny River in Venango County. The tract is bisected by Dennison Run and its gorge, and to reach each side of the tract, you must traverse a steep 400+ foot ascent and descent. The geology of the tract and profile of the climb is reminiscent of the Minister Creek Hike up in the Allegheny National Forest, at its steepest points, but without any reprieve and without the erosion issues they see up there. The hiking here is just phenomenal.  You do not need to be into rigorous hiking though to enjoy the property. The lower portion of the Kennerdell Tract follows the Allegheny River on its banks, traveling past a bunch of islands, crossing some small creeks, and giving great views of the steep river valley. About two miles in from the trailhead is a primitive carry in/carry out riverside campground. Danner Campground is located about two miles in from the main trailhead. It has about six or seven beautiful riverside campsites, complete with picnic tables and fire pits. We ended up resting for a little bit at this spot and just taking in the views.  
The trailhead we took was at the end of the Kennerdell Bridge near the entrance gate. Stay clear of the gate when you park. There are other parking areas on the other side of the tract. They are marked on the map.
Trail network map
 The River Trail is an easy walk that stretches along the banks of the Allegheny River.
 The walk is beautiful and lets you get up close and personal with a quiet stretch of the Allegheny River.
 There is very slight elevation changes on the river trail.
 CeCe had an absolute blast. 
 On one side of the trail you see the river, and on the other side you see the steep walls of the Allegheny Valley, with beautiful second and third growth forests.
 Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel are present throughout the tract. No species of trees or vegetation seems to dominate the tract, with a wide array of typical native trees.
 Hemlock has a great presence within the Kennerdell Tract as well.
Here is where Dennison Run splits the two portions of the Kennerdell Tract. The left side of the creek will take you up to the Dennison Overlook area, and the trail to the right, and a continuation on the river trail, will take you to the other portion. Both sides offer aggressive ascents to the tops of the Allegheny River Gorge and are well worth checking out if you are into aggressive hikes.
 This fallen tree, and the adjacent hemlock sapling really caught my attention. I love seeing the cycle of life like this. 
 The river views continue along the River Trail. This is a gorgeous place to explore.
 CeCe eager to continue on the trail.
 Here is one of the small streams that flow down the gorge walls.
 There are some prime examples of older second growth trees throughout the tract.
 Two large white pines managed to grow in this grove of deciduous trees. A whole bunch of pine saplings surround them, presumably from the pine cones of their elders.
The Danner Camping Area. This is roughly two miles in from the lower gate parking area. It is a great place to sit and have a picnic meal, tent camp overnight, or even just to take a break and have a little campfire. We stopped here for some lunch. 
 CeCe was so excited seeing all of the waterfowl.
 Continuing along the trail. 
 The River Trail was marked as closed after the Ridge Trail, so at this point we began our 400+ foot ascent to the top of the gorge. 
The elevation change is rigorous and enjoyable. It is not particularly tricky for maneuvering, aside from an occasional rock that would be hidden under the blanket of leaves. The tract does not have the erosion issues that you often see, nor did it have many boulders or obstacles to maneuver around. 
Approaching the top. From here you can get glimpses of the gorge on the other side of the river, and views down to the river.
The Window Trail. Another upside to the complex is how well they have marked the names for each trail, and how well they blazed the trees. The only downside is that there are no maps that show all of these trails and how they specifically interconnect, though the property is pretty straightforward to navigate. 
 
 This view illustrates how rigorous the climbs and descents are on this trail. You will climb and descend twice if you do both sections of the property above the River and River Trail. 
 We have now descended back to the level of the river and are headed to the Dennison Point Overlook side of the Kennerdell Tract.
 This is the most scenic part of the trail. 
 The forests are a little thicker on the overlook side. The hike from the Dennison Run side is aggressive in elevation change and better developed than the hike up the Kennerdell Trail and South Trail side. I recommend that you make a loop on the Kennerdell Trail and South Trail, because the scenery is fantastic, and then descending back down on this trail. The Kennerdell Trail descent down to the area of the Kennerdell Bridge is not my favorite portion of the trail, with it being located on an uneven hillside in the backyard of a house. 
 Does anyone know why the blazes were painted over and redone?
 Here is the first glimpse of what you see at the Dennison Point Overlook. There is still significant elevation change after this to get up to the overlook. 
There is a nice deck with a bench at the Dennison Point Overlook, a perfect place to sit for a little bit, take in the views, have a snack, and rehydrate. 
This view looks like a hybrid of the Kennerdell Overlook, which is located just up the road from the parking areas, and Brady's Bend Scenic Overlook, which is about a 45 minute southeast drive downstream. As breathtaking as this view is, the hike through the Kennerdell Tract of Clear Creek State Forest is just as awesome. The scenic overlook is just an added plus to the amazing hike.
The hike back down from this direction on the loop hike to the river level involves circuitous switchbacks, which were lots of fun until the last tenth of a mile where the trail seems to not have any improvement and goes down through the hillside in someone's backyard. I do recommend going this way back down to the river level, even with the anti climactic ending, because this route takes you through beautiful woods and through a small rock city. It also takes you by more industrial remnants, including ruins from the old Bullion Iron Furnace, which dates back to the 19th century.
We have not found a limit for hiking with CeCe yet. She could have easily gone another ten miles.
Entering the small rock city. I always love to see how trees manage to grow in rocky areas like this.
The descent is lots of fun. The only part I did not care for was the last portion when you go through someone's back yard. I still recommend doing this leg of the hike, but possibly looping back around from the Kennerdell Trail to the South Trail if you have a good bit of time, because the scenery in this portion of the hike is something you do not want to miss. 
Some old iron remnants from some sort of old industrial purpose, slowly oxidizing and zeroing out their way back to nature.

Overall, hiking in the Kennerdell Tract of Clear Creek State Forest is something that we highly recommend. The hiking is excellent, along with the scenery, second and third growth forests, historic remnants, and river gorge setting. The Dennison Point Overlook, which is the highlight that the trails lead to, is well worth the effort. In my opinion, this is definitely one of the premiere hikes in Western Pennsylvania, and it does not get as much attention as it deserves. This spot was rumored to become a state park, but did not get the designation due to funding issues. I absolutely believe that this place should get State Park designation. It shows the amazing natural beauty of the Upper Allegheny River and the resiliency of nature to bounce back after heavy industrial usage. Here are some relevant coordinates for you to plan an adventure.

Dennison Point Overlook Coordinates (requires a decent hike to get to it)
41.270238, -79.850179

Parking area pull off at river level that I used:
41.263049, -79.842229

Bigger parking area coordinates in Game Lands 
41.268867, -79.872033

Kennerdell Overlook is just a few minute drive up the road, and does not require a hike. Also nearby are Freedom Falls, Rockland Furnace, the Rockland Tunnel, and the Allegheny River Trail, which follows the path of the old Pennsylvania Railroad Line. The Sandy Creek Trail and Belmar Trestle are also close by and offer a great rail trail experience. This is a great area for outdoor adventures. 

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