Cook Forest State Park
Updated: Apr 9, 2021
How local spaces feed our curiosity when it's not possible to go far.
When I was a child, my mother brought home an old, dented globe from a rummage sale. I was fascinated. Growing up in rural, Pennsylvania, in a farm family no less, we didn’t get to travel much. So my brother and I would spend hours spinning the globe with our eyes closed, waiting for the miniature earth to stop under our fingertips. There were different variations of the game, but usually where our fingers landed is where we would travel to—someday.
The desire to travel and explore was ingrained in me at a young age. It was fed by wooded explorations on the family farm and in hide-and-seek games in cornfields. We didn’t have grandiose vacations or even get to travel every summer, but my parents made sure to feed our curiosity by allowing us to explore what was most accessible: our state parks.
Cook Forest State Park is 8,500 acres of old growth forest nestled in Northwestern, Pennsylvania. With only a short, thirty-minute drive from my hometown, it was a place my family frequented for picnics, hikes, river outings, and old-fashioned tent camping.
Despite being a favorite destination of mine, Cook Forest is environmentally significant because of its history. According to the Pennsylvania DCNR and placards that are stationed near some of the trailheads, the forest was originally hunting grounds for the Seneca Indians until the end of the French and Indian War. Because the Seneca had sided with the French, and thereby lost the war, the land was acquired by the English.
In 1826, John Cook became the first white settler to the area and built a home and several sawmills, which paved the way for a robust logging venture. The land stayed in the Cook family for one-hundred years until it was purchased by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth in 1927 after the formation of the Cook Forest Association. Cook Forest became the first Pennsylvania State Park established to preserve a natural area.
Thanks to the conservation efforts of the Cook Forest Association, Cook Forest is a sanctuary of old growth forest and a great place to escape for a day, or even longer. Whether you enjoy hiking, camping, or rafting, the park offers countless activities for those who enjoy the outdoors.
Cook Forest contains forty-seven miles of trails of varying difficulty levels that appeal to both serious and casual hikers. In addition to hiking, some trails are multi-use and allow for horseback riding, biking, and seasonal cross-country skiing as marked. Baker Trail, when accessed from Forest Road is an excellent multi-use trail that has large sections of flat terrain.
Another popular destination for first time visitors is the Historic Fire Tower and Seneca Point Overlook. Both can be reached by driving 1.5 miles back Fire Tower Road and are a short hike up Fire Tower Trail. Visitors can climb up the 87-foot Historic Fire Tower for a breathtaking view of the river and surrounding forest or admire the view from the fenced rock ledges at Seneca Point Overlook. Visitors should, however, avoid climbing on the ledges outside of the fenced areas due to the hazardous and steep landscape.
If you’re looking for a longer stay, the park has several tent and cabin camping options. Ridge Campground, which is run by the state park, is a popular choice for both RV and tent sites. Ridge Campground has 4 shower houses and 210 campsites that each include a picnic table and a fire ring. Pets are welcome for an additional fee at designated sites.
Additionally, Cook Forest State Park also rents out rustic cabins that sleep 4-10 people depending on the cabin. The River Cabins are located on a hillside overlooking the Clarion River and provide easy access to Cook Trail. The Indian Cabins are nestled behind the park office along Toms Run and are near the Birch and Indian Trails. All rustic cabins are minimally furnished with beds, a gas heater, refrigerator, stove, table, and chairs. They are a great option for minimalist campers who don't want the hassle of setting up a tent.
Aside from state park lodging, there are numerous private campgrounds that have cabin and/or tent site rentals. These include: Black Bear Cabins, Cook Forest Cottages, Cook Riverside Cabins, Cook Forest Top Hill Cabins, Deer Meadow, Evergreen Cabins, Hemlock Rest Cabins, MacBeth’s Cabins, Shiloh Resort, and Stone Crest Cabins. Of these, I have personally experienced Black Bear Cabins, Deer Meadow Campground, and Stone Crest Cabins, and I don't have a single bad thing to say about any of them!
There is so much more that can be explored at Cook Forest and while it isn't across the ocean, it is a place you can go on a first date, a family reunion, or for a solo hike.
I’ve been to Cook Forest countless times and I still discover more each visit. If you are like me, spinning the globe might not be realistic right now. Sometimes we can’t afford to go far, don’t have the free time, or in the case of today’s pandemic, it’s just better to stay close to home. Whatever the reason you are homebound, don’t forget to seek out those spaces you already know. Who knows, you might just find something new.