Autumn shows it true colors in northeastern Pennsylvania

October 6, 2014

Lake Jean in Ricketts Glen State Park in Benton, Pa., offers a picturesque place to boat and fish while enjoying fall colors.

BENTON, Pa. — Fresh air and blue skies are easy tonics for the stressed-out city life. Still, I was in a pretty foul mood when I rolled into Ricketts Glen State Park in this scenic, woodsy corner of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Equally distracted by my growling stomach and the country tunes wailing on my car radio, I’d missed the rustic carved-wood entrance sign opposite Red Rock Scoops ice cream shop on Route 118. Google Maps had vaporized along with my cellphone service and, seriously, who still keeps paper maps in the glove box?

Even after a kindly park ranger provided step-by-step directions to the Lake Rose Trailhead Parking lot, the best place from which to start a hike to the park’s famed Ganoga Falls, I’d managed to get turned around in the wrong direction. (I later learned there’s a really cool interactive map on the DCNR website that could have come to my rescue.) A couple of times. But finally, I found it. The road leading to Waterfall Heaven.

Three and a half miles north on PA Route 118 after it intersects with Route 487 (look for the Red Rock Corner Store), up a VERY steep mountain, Main Park Road snakes off to the right. Five minutes later, I was backing into a space at the crowded Lake Rose lot. Or so I thought: I’d actually pulled into Beach Lot #2, where boaters, swimmers and anglers go when planning a day on the park’s 245-acre Lake Jean. This actually turned out OK for two reasons: The concession stand had $3.25 cheeseburgers, and a friendly couple from upstate New York I met in the parking lot had great words of advice, along with directions to where I wanted to go.

Don’t forget a water bottle, they cautioned, as there’s no refreshment on the trail. And go for the 3.2-mile upper loop of the Falls Trail instead of the 7.2-mile full loop, which took the pair almost 3 hours to complete. You’ll still see most of the good stuff, including the majestic 94-foot Ganoga Falls, in a picturesque glen among towering pines, hemlocks and oaks, but with half the effort — a physical exertion, they assured me with damp brows and quivering legs, that’s quite substantial when you hike the entire, rocky distance.

After hiking it, I would recommend ditching the flip-flops and sneakers for sturdier shoes or hiking boots and resist the urge to take short cuts or venture out on ledges. Some of the terrain is pretty treacherous.

Adventurous hikers have been sweating their way through old-growth timber to Ganoga Falls for decades, even before the park and its many recreational facilities opened for business in 1944. Discovered in the 1860s by fishermen exploring Kitchen Creekin neighboring Luzerne County, they date to the last ice age, when increased flow in the Huntington Lake tributary from glaciers enlarged its drainage basin and cut deep gorges.

It wasn’t until Col. Robert Bruce Ricketts named and built a system of trails connecting the series of 22 waterfalls in the early 1890s, however, that they became one of Pennsylvania’s treasures — and the ideal setting in which to enjoy the fall colors.

Ricketts Glen State Park — which covers more than 13,000 acres over Columbia, Luzerne and Sullivan counties — is gorgeous any time of year. But it’s particularly fetching in autumn, when its many black tupelo (gum), dogwood and oak trees — some more than 100 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter — turn glorious shades of brick-red, maroon and brilliant scarlet. This year has provided a very favorable growing season so trees across Penn’s Woods are healthy and vigorous, assuring a very colorful autumn; colors in and around Columbia County are expected to peak between Oct. 8-14. (For a weekly fall foliage report, visit www.leafpeepers.com/pa.htm or call the visitPA hotline at 1-800-847-4872.)

The park also has a nice sense of history.

A Civil War veteran who distinguished himself at the Battle of Gettysburg, Col. Ricketts grew up in nearby Orangeville, a tiny hamlet nearby that today is famous for its twin covered bridges. Built in 1884, the picturesque East and West Paden bridges are one of the only two remaining twin covered bridges in the country.

After the war (where he led the defense against a Confederate attack on Cemetery Hill on July 2,1863), Col. Ricketts starting buying timber land in Columbia, Luzerne and Sullivan counties, eventually acquiring more than 88,000 acres. Much of it surrounded Ganoga Lake, Lake Jean and what would eventually become known as the Ganoga Glen area.

A member of the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, Col. Ricketts named many of the falls after the Indian tribes that at one time lived in the area: Delaware, Seneca, Tuscarora, Huron. Others wear the names of family members or friends. Ganoga Falls, which cascades 94 feet onto the rocks below, is the highest and most spectacular. It means "water on the mountain" in the Seneca language.

After his death, Col. Ricketts’ heirs sold much of the land to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. But not all: It wasn’t until 1942 that they finally sold 1,261 acres, the Falls and the Glens area to the state for use as a state park. The Glens became a registered National Natural Landmark in 1969, and in 1993 was slated a State Park Natural Area.

Most of the Glens’ 22 waterfalls, scattered along 26 miles of trail marked by zig-zaggy switchbacks and dramatic drop-offs, are visible from the Falls Trail. In all, there are 11 individual well-marked trails that range from less than a mile to more than seven, with varying difficulty for hikers.

The trails can be deceptive. A quarter of a mile into the Falls Trail, with the very soft, fairly level terrain cushioning my Mizunos, I was marveling at how great the path would be for a trail run. Then I started down the hill toward the first of the seven falls I’d eventually encounter on my hike, Mohawk Falls, and all bets were off. I was praying I wouldn’t slip on the velvety green moss or twist an ankle on the narrow stone steps that at times seem awfully close to the edge of the trail.

But the hike is worth it. Photos taken with iPhones don’t do justice to the sheer awesomeness of Ganoga Falls and its thunderous cascade of water. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prettier sight in a state park, Niagara Falls excluded.

As sketchy as it was going down, it was tougher still climbing back up. Most of the hikers I passed on my descent — many with walking sticks — didn’t look all that happy. Their expressions read "I’m gonna finish this" instead of "Having a great time!"

I’m kidding, of course. Hiking the trail is a great time and you don’t have to be in particularly great shape to do it. Along with kids (some on their parents’ backs), seniors were well represented. From the Lake Rose Trailhead lot, it took me about 30 minutes to hike down and maybe 10 minutes longer to climb back up. And no trips to the ER.

Even if you miss the fall colors, this park is a gem. Besides hiking, the park offers swimming (May to September) camping, boating, fishing, birding, hunting and riding trails (BYO horse). In winter, there’s cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing on Lake Jean, snowmobiling and ice climbing up the falls.

And when the park closes for the evening, or you’re simply tired of hoofing it? There’s plenty of other ways to spend a few happy hours in the area. Antiquing, wine tasting, eating good food — it’s all part of the package. Columbia County also is known for its many covered bridges.

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IF YOU GO: RICKETTS GLEN STATE PARK

Getting there: Ricketts Glen State Park is in Benton, Columbia County, in the northeastern part of Pennsylvania. Park hours are sunrise to sunset, year-round. Free parking and hiking maps are available throughout.

Lodging: Hiking and camping go hand in hand, so the park is happy to oblige with 120 tent and trailer campsites, with access to hot showers and flush toilets; there also are 10 cabins for rent available year-round. Prices start at $19 for a tent site that can accommodate up to a 30-foot trailer; cabins cost $118 for a 2-night minimum (7-day minimum during the peak summer season) and feature electric heat, water, flush toilets, showers and small kitchens (www.pa.reserveworld.com; 1-888-727-2757).

If your idea of a good night’s sleep instead includes mattresses, linens and indoor plumbing, there are almost two dozen motels and hotels to choose from within a half-hour drive of the park, including the Econo Lodge and Holiday Inn Express at Bloomsburg. From $80/night. Ricketts Glen Hotel (rickettsglenhotel.net), one mile west of the park on Route 118, has rooms starting at $49.95 (single with shared bath) and $61.05 (double with shared bath).

For bed-and-breakfast types, there are a dozen within easy driving distance of the park, including the stellar Inn at Turkey Hill in Bloomsburg (innatturkeyhill.com; 1-570-387-1500). The most luxurious rooms include two-person whirlpool baths, and all come with a gourmet breakfast ($128 and up.) There’s also fine dining on site and the Turkey Hill Brewing Co. pub next door. If you enjoy rural settings, the uber-romantic Pump House B&B outside of Bloomsburg will delight with its lovely creek-side rooms outfitted with antiques, tin ceilings and exquisite spot-on renovation that merited a feature on "This Old House." $125 and up. 

Eat, drink and be merry: There aren’t scores of restaurants to choose from in and around Ricketts Glen State Park, but it’s still possible to get a good meal. The Ricketts Glen Hotel offers upscale American and Italian specialties at reasonable prices. The Old Filling Station in Benton (140 Main St., 1-570-925-6556) also comes highly recommended by locals, as does the Texas-style barbecue at Smoke House Barb-B-Que (225 Center St., 1-570-925-6962). Strevig’s Family Restaurant (4438 Red Rock Road, 1-570-925-0330) has traditional American fare. I had surprisingly good spring rolls and spicy Pa-Nang Mango with Prawns at Bloomn’ Thai, a private dining club in Bloomsburg (442 East St.; a lifetime membership costs $1). Ready Go Burrito (102 E. Main St.) has wraps and burgers in addition to awesome (and cheap) tacos and quesadillas.

Activities: In addition to 26 miles of hiking trails that vary in difficulty from very easy (Evergreen Trail) to difficult (Falls Trail), the park offers fishing and boating on 245-acre Lake Jean. Other ways to spend the day include antiquing, shopping for seasonal goodies at local farm stands and tastings at several wineries, including Colonel Ricketts Hard Cider Winery in Benton. Columbia County also is famous for its 25 covered bridges.

Park information: www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks or 1-570-477-5675

Columbia County information: www.itourcolumbiamontour.com or 1-570-784-8279.

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