Seneca Trail old growth forest in Cook Forest State Park

Pittsburgh Hiking: Cook Forest State Park

Photo: Cook Forest State Park

Make a pilgrimage to Cook Forest’s cathedral of old-growth timber.

Don’t be surprised if you have a sore neck after a hike through the Forest Cathedral, this state park’s pocket of virgin timber. Some white pines are more than 200 feet tall—who can resist staring upward?

And that’s just the start. Old-growth northern red oak, white oak, black cherry, red maple, sugar maple, American beech, white ash, yellow birch, black birch, and cucumber magnolia also grow here. Many of the trees are more than 150 years old, and the white pines are double that. Considering how much of Pennsylvania has been clear-cut over the decades, Cook Forest is a bit of a miracle.

How was it saved? The Cook family, the first non-native residents of the area, built a thriving timber business after arriving in 1828, and acquired significant land holdings over several generations. In 1927, the state purchased 6,065 acres from the family, protecting the remaining old-growth trees, and the Civilian Conservation Corps built much of the park infrastructure in the 1930s. Today it’s a National Natural Landmark, also known as the Land of the Giants. 

The best way to see the big trees is on foot. There are more than 40 miles of hiking trails within the park and even more in adjacent Clarion River Lands. Much of the terrain is hilly, but in return for the effort you’ll find a variety of sights in addition to the forest, including big vistas and rock formations. Want to do more than a day hike? Both the Baker Trail (140 miles) and North Country Trail (4,600 miles) travel through Cook Forest. There are campsites and rustic cabins in the park, along with many private campgrounds and cabin rentals in the area. 

The old-growth trees aren’t the only attraction at this 8,500-acre park. The Clarion River runs through Cook Forest, offering excellent swimming, fishing, and boating (boat rentals and shuttles available). So it should come as no surprise that the park can get busy during the summer; still, it rarely sees the crowding that a place like Ohiopyle experiences. 

Recommended Route

This 10-mile loop covers many of the highlights of the park. Start at the Cook Trail trailhead off River Road. Stay to the right to hike this loop counterclockwise. After a bit more than a mile, stay left to connect to Joyce Kilmer Trail. Kilmer ends on Indian Trail. Follow that until it connects to Baker Trail and turn right. At the Log Cabin Inn, head south past the restrooms and find Tom’s Run Trail. Turn right at the intersection of Tom’s Run and Baker. Hike south on Baker and turn left on Sennec View Point Connector. This connector leads to a beautiful vista and a fire tower. Retrace your steps back up Baker and take Seneca Trail past the park office. Seneca links up with Joyce Kilmer; return to the trailhead via Cook Trail. 

Getting There

From most parts of the Pittsburgh area, it is less than 100 miles, but much of it is on two-lane roads with lower speed limits, so allow plenty of time. Routes 28 and 66 north will get you past Interstate 80, then 1005 to 36 will take you into Cooksburg. 

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Where to Eat

Head to the Cooksburg Cafe and take your pick from the 38 flavors of Hershey’s ice cream. Soft-serve is fine, but a hand-dipped cone is the perfect end to any hike.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.