Ohiopyle State Park
Nestled in the sprawling wilderness of southwest Pennsylvania sits the tiny borough of Ohiopyle, whose population barely exceeds fifty residents according to the 2010 census. But as the southern gateway to the Laurel Highlands, this small town is far from sleepy. Every year, millions of visitors flock to Ohiopyle’s streets and surrounding 20,500-acre state park, making it one of the most-visited recreational meccas in Pennsylvania. Outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers alike can appreciate the multitude of natural attractions, picturesque landscape, and roaring rapids of the Youghiogheny River that run through the middle of town.
Before European colonization, Ohiopyle’s land was inhabited by the Monongahela tribe, an indigenous people who engaged in the shell and fur trades. The Monongahela thrived between the years 1000 – 1600, but by 1630, their entire society had mysteriously vanished. In the absence of concrete evidence, many scholars do not attribute the Monongahela’s disappearance to European invasion, as they had little-to-no contact with the settlers. Rather, it is believed they were driven out during an intense warring period with the Seneca Indians, who—along with the Shawnee and Lenni Lenape tribes—later occupied the territory during the 18th century. In fact, the name ‘Ohiopyle’ comes from the Lenni Lenape phrase “ohiopehhla,” which translates to “white, frothy water” in reference to the rapids.
The first Europeans settled the region during the mid-18th century. During this time, the Ohio River Valley was a major point of contention between the nations of Great Britain and France, both of which claimed exclusive settlement rights to the territory. It was not uncommon for armed British or French colonial forces to remove settlements and military outposts of the opposing nationality, which escalated tensions between the two world powers.
In May 1754, a British military expedition, led by then-Colonel George Washington, attempted to navigate the Youghiogheny River on their way to Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh). When Washington’s troupe came across Ohiopyle Falls—an ominous twenty-foot drop in the river—the young commander decided to make the rest of the trek on foot as opposed to risking his ships and lives of his men. Later that week, British forces encountered a small French-Canadian scouting party at Jumonville Glen. The actions of Washington’s men and Indian allies during this confrontation would ultimately spark the French and Indian (Seven Years’) War. Had Washington braved the falls and continued along Youghiogheny as planned, it is plausible to assume that an altercation between the French and British could have been avoided, which would have drastically altered the entire trajectory of American history.
Following Great Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, which designated lands west of the Appalachian Mountains as Indian Territory. Colonists were incredibly displeased with the king’s mandate, as it prohibited settlement in the highly-coveted Ohio Territory. Mounting pressures from the colonies persuaded King George to by the land back from the Iroquois Indians in 1768.
In 1794, forty years after his encounter with French forces, Washington returned to Ohiopyle as President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States, leading an army of 13,000 men to quash the Whiskey Rebellion—an insurrection against the Whiskey Excise Act (or “Whiskey Tax”) of 1791. Washington’s army passed through Ohiopyle and most of western Pennsylvania in search of suspected rebels.
Following the creation of the National Road in 1811, Ohiopyle’s industry and commerce skyrocketed, particularly when it came to lumber. The old growth forests of the surrounding Laurel Highlands provided the necessary resources needed to fuel America’s steel, coal, and iron industries. A major catalyst to Ohiopyle’s development was Congressman Andrew Stewart. A failed Whig Party vice presidential candidate of 1848, Stewart served as president of the region’s railroad committee and oversaw the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s arrival to Ohiopyle in 1871. A branch of the Western Maryland Railway later linked with the B&O RR around the turn of the century.
In addition to lumber, railroads stimulated Ohiopyle’s tourism industry. Trains increased the ease of transportation, which allowed urbanites from Pittsburgh and abroad to frequent Ohiopyle’s rural landscape. The surge in tourism augmented infrastructural and community development. During the 1880s, Ohiopyle saw the construction of numerous luxury hotels and spas (such as the famed Ferncliff Hotel), dance halls, a boardwalk, and a bowling alley. By 1890, Ohiopyle’s population topped eight hundred residents.
However, Ohiopyle’s initial tourism boom did not last very long. The rise of automobiles in the 1920s meant the decline of commuter rail transportation. And since the roads leading into Ohiopyle weren’t sophisticated enough to drive, tourism saw a sharp decline. The town’s decreased commerce was further accentuated by the Great Depression, which caused many of its once-thriving businesses to close their doors for good. Heavy precipitation in 1936 flooded the Youghiogheny River, which swept away many of the abandoned buildings that once lined its shores. Seeing no opportunities, many of Ohiopyle’s residents moved away to find work.
In 1964, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy purchased much of the neglected properties surrounding Ohiopyle and sold them to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the creation of a state park. Many man-made structures were demolished and the woods allowed to regrow. Ohiopyle State Park opened to the public the following year and was formally dedicated on May 28, 1971. Today, Ohiopyle has reclaimed its status as one of Pennsylvania’s marquis tourist attractions, catering to over two million visitors each year.
Ohiopyle has been on my bucket list for quite some time now, ever since I passed through while biking the Great Allegheny Passage. The hiking enthusiast in me wanted to cover every inch of the park’s 79 miles of trails—a daunting task for a one-day visit. So instead, I exercised some self-control and hiked about nine miles on four trails over the course of the day.
My hiking journey started at the Laurel Highlands Falls Visitor Center, where tourists can appreciate the diverse exhibits detailing the region’s geologic, wildlife, and recreational histories. Also at the Visitor Center is the Ohiopyle Falls Observatory, which provides unparalleled views of the twenty-foot falls, Youghiogheny rapids, and Ferncliff Peninsula—a botanical reserve that contains an abundance of prehistoric fossils and several rare vegetative species. The peninsula also features several easy hiking trails that contour the interior of the rapids and pass by the derelict structural foundations of Ohiopyle’s early tourism industry.
From the Visitor Center, I followed a 0.3-mile path marked by yellow footprints to the intersection of Route 381 and the yellow-blazed Meadow Run Trail. Several hundred feet to the left of this intersection are the Meadow Run Natural Waterslides—smooth tubes in the bedrock caused by millions of years of erosion—an exciting solution for a hot summer day!
After exploring the waterslides, I made my way back to the intersection and followed the Meadow Run Trail to the shores of the Youghiogheny. The path parallels the river for the next half-mile and terminates at the famed Cucumber Falls. One of the most photographed scenes in Pennsylvania, this bridal veil waterfall cascades thirty feet over a crescent-shaped sandstone ledge into a popular swimming hole below. Adventurous hikers can climb over boulders and navigate a narrow ledge to get behind the falls themselves. Others may choose to climb the stairs to the Cucumber Gorge viewing platform, which provides an absolutely stunning, full-bodied view of the falls.
Many visitors choose to spend the day swimming and exploring Cucumber Falls, but I had more trails to hike. I got onto the Great Gorge Trail (marked by green blazes) and headed north. The Great Gorge trail is a relatively flat and easy hike with moderate foot traffic that connects Cucumber Falls to the High Ohiopyle Bridge on the Great Allegheny Passage (about 1.25 miles away).
From the GAP Trail, I turned onto the Kiester Trail, a three-quarter mile path that ascends the ridge and connects to the Kentuck Trail. I made a left onto the pink-blazed Kentuck Trail and followed it for about 1.8 miles. The trail can be fairly steep at times and doesn’t offer much in terms of views. It’s more of a low-traffic nature walk for the park’s nearby camping sites than anything else. The trail terminates at the Tharp Knob Picnic Area and the quickest way back to Cucumber Falls is by taking a left onto Kentuck Road and walking on the shoulder for 0.6 miles. Hikers use extreme caution while navigating this route, since the road has some blind corners and steep grades at times.
My 4.4-mile morning hike took about three hours to complete and was nothing short of fantastic. Ohiopyle’s natural splendor was on full display as these trails led me through some beautiful scenery. Since many people choose to park and walk to points of interest (such as Cucumber Falls), the trails are not that crowded at all. The easy grades and manageable distances make the Meadow Run and Great Gorge trails must-dos at Ohiopyle. After finishing the Great Gorge Trail, it probably would’ve been a better idea for me if I had taken the GAP Trail back to Ohiopyle instead of hiking the Kentuck Trail. It added some unnecessary mileage to my hike and didn’t really offer much in terms of views or landmarks; however, it was good workout nonetheless. Trail Rating: 8.5/10
I stopped by the Ohiopyle Old Mill General Store for lunch and some much-needed ice cream to remedy my exhaustion. After a few moments of rest, I drove up Sugarloaf Road to the Baughman Rocks Overlook—a panoramic vista view of Pennsylvania’s deepest gorge (approximately 1700 feet from river bottom to mountain top). I’m sure during the cooler months this view can be breath-taking; however, during peak foliage season, much of the overlook is obstructed by lush vegetation and tree branches. It was lackluster, in my opinion. Fortunately, I did not take the strenuous, four-mile, out-and-back Baughman Trail to figure that out.
For my second hike of the day, I decided to trek a stretch of the Laurel Highlands Trail—a seventy-mile path that extends from Ohiopyle to Conemaugh Gorge (located near Johnstown, Pennsylvania). Obviously, I did not cover all seventy miles. Instead, I hiked 4.6-miles out-and-back to the Youghiogheny River Gorge overlook. The trailhead begins on Garrett Street, which is across the river from Ohiopyle proper. The grade is steady and not too difficult to navigate at first; however, the path becomes rocky and incredibly steep after Milepost 1, which makes for some strenuous hiking.
A small rocky outcropping at mile 2.3 marks the spots of the overlook. Much like Baughman Rocks, some of the gorge’s vista was obstructed by leaves and foliage, but I still managed to gander a beautiful view of the mountains and river below. The Laurel Highlands Trail was certainly my most daunting and strenuous hike of the day. It burned me out to say the least. The view was decent for the effort and distance put into the hike, and I was happy to end my day on a good note. Trail Rating: 7.5/10
Ohiopyle State Park caters to a variety of recreational interests, from hiking and biking to whitewater rafting and more. Though only a few dozen citizens reside in the town, millions of people consider Ohiopyle’s rural getaway a second home. Just one visit leaves little doubt as to why it’s one of Pennsylvania’s most cherished parks.
Click here for a map of Ohiopyle's trails and natural landmarks
For more information on Ohiopyle State Park, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Laurel Highlands homepage, and the Ohiopyle town website
Check out the Penn State Library for more on the history of Ohiopyle