Pittsburgh Backpacking

Pittsburgh Backpacking: Gerard Hiking Trail, Oil Creek State Park

This 36-mile loop explores the site of the world’s first oil well—which has been transformed into a scenic park.

In 1859, the Seneca Oil Company drilled the world’s first commercial oil here. Following a boom and bust cycle, the Civilian Conservation Corps helped restore the area’s natural beauty, and Oil Creek State Park now comprises 6,250 protected acres. The streams are clean and full of trout, and the formerly clear-cut hillsides are thick with second-growth trees.

The Gerard Hiking Trail wanders up one bank of Oil Creek and down the other, passing by historic homesteads, waterfalls, and overlooks, and creating a 36-mile loop with designated camping areas along the way. The trail is named after Ray Gerard, a volunteer who organized trail maintenance in the park’s early days. Today the non-profit Friends of Oil Creek State Park maintains the trail system and provides essential info for anyone looking to camp overnight here.

The Oil Creek trails are well-maintained and while most of the hiking isn’t difficult, the constantly changing elevation ups the challenge. Well-marked connector trails allow for shorter loops, either planned or as a bail-out option if the full loop proves too much. 

Camping, as is the case for all state parks, is limited to designated areas only. There are a pair of well-equipped sites with bathrooms, water, bear boxes, and Adirondack-style shelters with stone fireplaces. The park is open year-round, so put a winter trip on your calendar and put those fireplaces to good use. 

Red tape: Camping requires permits (available online from the park website; reserve at least three days in advance). The camp areas have shelter and tent sites, and the cost is $4 per person (plus a $6.50 reservation fee per group). 

More info: Pennsylvania State Parks

Recommended route

For a two-day/one-night hike, park at the Petroleum Center visitors area and head out counterclockwise. This puts the Wolfkiel Run shelter a little past halfway. Alternatively, for a longer stay, you could arrive on a Friday afternoon, hike about five miles to the Cow Run shelter, then hit Wolfkiel on Saturday, and finish up on Sunday afternoon.

Getting there

Oil Creek is a little over two hours from Pittsburgh, a straight shot up Route 8. The town of Oil City is the last significant place to stop for supplies. The road into the park is narrow. 

Where to eat/drink

Located in a 145-year-old storefront, Trails to Ale Brewery in Franklin serves a full range of house-brewed beers, including the signature Holden’s Dream steam beer. Wood-fired pizza and pretzels are a post-hike must (plus check out the dessert menu).

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.