This 14-acre island sits in the Allegheny River, just across the water from Blawnox. It’s a special place for several reasons. The floodplain hardwood forest is a very rare environment globally, and creates a great ecosystem for mushrooms (always identify them with certainty before you gather). The primitive setting—no bathrooms, tables, or other amenities—makes for a truly wild camping experience. And the boat-only access nearly guarantees solitude.
Besides a quiet camp, you’ll find a few miles of hiking trails, and a few relics from a boating club that thrived here about half a century ago.
Sycamore Island is a little-known part of the Allegheny Land Trust’s publicly accessible greenspaces. The Allegheny Land Trust is a non-profit dedicated to preserving local land, and currently has 3,100 acres in 32 different locations.
The island’s path to becoming a nature oasis was winding. A century ago it was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which in 1936 leased the island to the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. Sycamore existed as a bird sanctuary for a few decades, then a boat club occupied the island in the 1960s and early 1970s. But a hurricane caused massive damage and the club was abandoned. A few ruins of the club still exist, but the Allegheny Land Trust has worked to return the island to a natural state.
The Allegheny Land Trust is always looking for volunteers to help with preservation projects here and elsewhere.
Permit required for camping: https://alleghenylandtrust.org/green-space/sycamore-island/
There is a tiny boat launch at the end of Center Street in Blawnox, but there is limited parking there. The Aspinwall Riverfront Park is further downstream from the island and has plentiful parking and a public boat ramp. Paddle about 3 miles upstream from Aspinwall to reach the island. The best landing site is about halfway up on the south side. (There’s no dock, and the shorelines are often muddy.)
Take Freeport Road east from the Highland Park Bridge. Both possible launch sites are right off Freeport.
Where to Eat
Check out Farmer x Baker in a converted shipping container right in Aspinwall Riverfront Park. It was founded by the owner of Root and Heart Farm and is an obvious labor of love. The tiny restaurant uses almost all locally sourced, organic, non-GMO ingredients. The small menu is both vegan and carnivore-friendly. Link: