Cook Forest Field Guide: Backpacking, Wildlife, Canoe & Kayaking, Fishing and Puppy Trails
Keep these gear-packing tips in mind when planning that camping trip.
You may face dangers in the wilds, but don’t let looking like a newbie be one of them.
Before heading outdoors, consider getting a professional’s opinion. The staff at your local outdoor stores will be happy to help you pick the best backpack for your build; the pack’s pitch, shoulder straps and hip pads should feel custom-made.
It’s a BACKpack.
Put the heaviest items on the bottom of your backpack, close to your back, and as near to the middle as possible. Weight should be distributed evenly from side to side.
Gadgets are fun and impressive, but after a few hours of hiking you’ll wish you had stuck to the essentials — food, filtered water, first-aid kit, a sleeping bag. A water filter is a big plus for filtering stream and lake water.
It’s like backpacking, only faster. Let your bike handle the heavy hauling with saddlebags and frame-friendly attachments that let you pack your essentials on your bike instead of on your back. Don’t forget your helmet.
Cook Forest is dominated by ancient hemlock and white pine (many approaching 350 years old), but also look for white and chestnut oak, black cherry, red maple and cucumber trees (blue magnolia). Eleven old-growth areas have been identified in the state park, totaling more than 2,300 acres. It is believed that these old-growth areas began following a large forest fire in 1644.
The Clarion River, designated a National Wild and Scenic River, flows through the park. It was once used as a transportation route for both people and logging.
Plants found along the river include cardinal flower, mountain laurel and rhododendron.
“Birding by ear” is your best bet to meet the many key species found in Cook Forest State Park, which is designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. Birds commonly spotted include hermit thrush, cedar waxwing, magnolia warbler, scarlet tanager, chipping sparrow, song sparrow, dark-eyed junco, white-winged crossbill and many key species of woodpecker. Sharp-eyed visitors may spot the Eastern bluebird, pine warbler, Northern waterthrush, Eastern towhee and indigo bunting. Bald eagles are becoming more common along the river, but an osprey encounter requires patience and a practiced eye.
Mammalian residents you may spot include the black bear, white-tailed deer, muskrat, porcupine and river otter.
Millions of years ago, a vast ocean covered western Pennsylvania. As the earth’s crust shifted over eons, this ocean lifted to elevations between 1,200 and 1,600 feet, and sedimentary rock settled over the area that is now Cook Forest. Heavy mountain erosion added thick layers of coarse sandstone to the bedrock; when sandstone is exposed, it cracks in large pieces. To see an example, take the Seneca Trail to Seneca Point, where house-sized cracks have formed.
Rumor is that Bigfoot lives in Cook Forest State Park. Thirty-plus sightings have been reported, and the Bigfoot Field Research Organization held an event here in 2018 to share Sasquatch stories. Keep your camera ready.
Clarion River is a Class 1 (easiest) site, providing great canoeing and kayaking, especially during the spring and fall. The average downward flow is 4 mph. Two popular paddle excursions are 4 and 10 miles in length. If you have your own canoe or kayak, it must display either a boat registration, a launch or mooring permit from Pennsylvania State Parks (available at the state park office) or a launch permit from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Three canoe/kayak campsites can be reserved at Thompson Eddy, downstream of Gravel Lick Bridge. These one-night sites are for tent campers who are traveling the Clarion River by canoe or kayak.
When the kid asks what kind of kayak you want, you’ll be glad you got the sit-on-top style. It’s much easier to climb back aboard than a deep-well kayak.
Cook Forest Canoe Rental
Pale Whale Canoe Fleet
Trout, warm-water game fish and panfish can be fished from Clarion River, and about 2.5 miles of Toms Run is stocked with trout. A trout-stocked Children’s Fishing Pond can be found by the park office.
All Cook Forest trails are dog-friendly, and most outdoorsy dogs will jump into a canoe or kayak and brave the Clarion River with little encouragement. The River Trail (1.2 miles) is rated high on difficulty, but most dogs would race over it like an agility champ. All the more reason to include your furry friend on your next Cook Forest adventure.
If you’re overnighting, dogs are permitted at designated tent and Rustic Cabin sites for an additional $2 fee.
What to Bring
- Poop bags
- Copy of health records
- Emergency kit
- Fetch toys
- Ruffwear Palisades Dog Pack
Fido carries his own gear with this pup-pack featuring removable saddlebags, two collapsible hydration reservoirs and padded handle. ($149.95, rei.com)
Geocaching.com lists more than 90 geocaches in Cook Forest State Park. Here’s a typical one:
Black Cherry Cache
41°21’65”N , 79°12’91”W
Difficulty 3.5 stars
Terrain 2.5 stars
Description: The cache is in a green ammo can, and has lots of prizes (including a first finder’s reward). The cache is located near a monstrous black cherry within the Deer Meadows Old Growth Area and Forest Road. Much of your search will be through old-growth forest, so please tread lightly.
Gur pnpur vf ybpngrq va gur
ivpvavgl bs Qrre Zrnqbj Genvy.
A B C D E F G H I J K L M
N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
(letter above equals below, and vice versa)
SAWMILL CENTER FOR THE ARTS is located at a historic mill site in the heart of Cook Forest State Park, just off of Black Bear Trail. Local artisans and craftspeople have displayed and sold their handcrafted works there since the 1970s; the center also offers the opportunity to teach traditional arts to the public in a classroom setting. Festivals and events such as the Herb & Fiber Festival, French & Indian War Encampment, Family Fun Fest, Chainsaw Carvers’ Roundup, Cook Forest Gingerbread Tour and Festival of Trees are a big draw. During the summer months, live productions can be seen at the Sawmill Theater each weekend.
COOK FOREST STATE PARK IS FOR EVERYONE. There are Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant trails, cabins, pavilions, picnic tables and parking spaces for wheelchair accessibility, including:
- Η Paved Trail
This paved trail loop winds through a mature hardwood forest. Reach it via the water tower access road near the entrance of the Sawmill Center for the Arts.
- Cabins: Indian Cabin 8, River Cabin 6 and River Cabin 7 are ADA-accessible.
- Fishing: A trout-stocked fishing pond with an accessible pier is located by the park office.
- Picnic Shelters & Pavilions: Shelter 1, Shelter 2, River Road Shelter and Ridge Campground Shelter are ADA-compliant. Comfort stations at the Shelter 1 area and the sawmill/pool area are wheelchair-friendly.
For more information, call 888/PA-PARKS, 717/558-2710, or 711 (AT&T Relay Services).
Cell service at Cook Forest State Park can be very unreliable; a free wifi hotspot is available at the park office. If you’re near your vehicle, a signal booster such as the WeBoost Drive X can work wonders. If you’re backpacking in the woods with a friend, a set of walkie-talkies such as the Motorola T-800 Talkabouts is a great way to stay in contact if you get separated. Going solo? A Spot Satellite Messenger can be a lifesaver, allowing you to share your GPS coordinates and ask for help.