Written by Danielle Taylor | Header photo by Brian Young
If you’ve never visited Cook Forest and haven’t yet grasped what a special place this is, consider where it got its name. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Cook family made their living by logging the area’s woods, but they left the section of forest with the biggest and tallest trees intact and made their homes within this exceptional woodland. Word of its majesty spread, and people began traveling to the area for vacations, retreats, and weekend excursions even while it remained in private hands.
Recognizing the long-term intrinsic value of this irreplaceable natural landscape, the Cooks decided to protect several thousand acres of old-growth trees near the intersection of Tom’s Run and the Clarion River for the public’s benefit instead of clear-cutting them for temporary profit. For 17 years, they petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature to accept the land for use as a park and even chipped in their own money for its purchase. In December 1928, the Commonwealth finally took title to Cook Forest, making it Pennsylvania’s first land acquisition for the purpose of preserving a natural landmark. In December 1967, the National Park Service designated Cook Forest State Park’s Forest Cathedral a National Natural Landmark, bringing national recognition to this Pennsylvania treasure.
Today, a visit to Cook Forest goes far beyond just the state park — the area surrounding it has come to offer a wide range of lodging options, recreational outfitters, retail stores, and other amenities — but the natural aesthetic of the forest remains intact and serves as an elegant canvas upon which its visitors can paint any number of unforgettable adventures.
Within the Park
Cook Forest State Park now spans 8,500 acres where Forest, Clarion, and Jefferson Counties meet on the banks of the Clarion River, and it contains a number of noteworthy natural features and recreational outlets. At its heart, the Forest Cathedral Natural Area holds several hundred acres of ancient, enormous white pines and hemlocks, some of which date back to the 1600s. Among them, the 184-foot Longfellow Pine stands as the tallest tree north of the Smokies in the eastern United States. Once, the continent was full of forests like these, and today, hikers who stand at the feet of these giants can get a feel for the country’s original, untouched landscape.
The park contains more than 50 miles of trails for hikers, wildlife watchers, and snowshoers, 13 miles of the Clarion River for anglers, swimmers, kayakers, canoers, and tubers, dedicated trails and roads for equestrians, cyclists, and cross-country skiers, thousands of acres open to licensed hunters and trappers, designated areas for ice skating and sledding, more than 200 campsites, and a number of rustic cabins available for rental. It also features the Sawmill Center for the Arts, which hosts weekly summer performances at its theater-in-the-round, traditional crafting classes, special events, and a craft market that sells a wide array of creations from a number of local artists and crafts people. Throughout the year, annual events like the French and Indian War Encampment, Herb and Fiber Festival, and Festival of Trees as well as regular park programs including environmental education, flora and fauna identification, and guided hikes draw visitors with all varieties of interests.
No matter what route you take to Cook Forest, the distinctive ambience of this wooded landscape will hit you well before you reach the park’s boundaries. As you approach, signs for cabins, restaurants, attractions, and outfitters begin to catch your eye, but unlike the artificial overload found within many popular vacation destinations, the businesses throughout Cook Forest truly complement their natural surroundings and offer goods and services that enhance the visitor’s overall experience.
The area around the park retains much of the forest’s magic, and here you’ll find a variety of accommodations to fit any budget or group. For couples seeking a romantic getaway, consider a stay at one of the area’s luxurious lodges or cabins, complete with hot tubs for two and in-bedroom fireplaces. For families, try one of the local cabins, RV parks, or private campgrounds, several of which feature playgrounds, laundry facilities, camp stores, and many creature comforts of home.
Restaurants and dining options vary from award-winning fine dining to casual cafés and ice cream shops, so there’s something tasty nearby no matter what kind of menu and experience you seek. Within a short drive, you can also find a variety of wineries, vineyards, breweries, and distilleries.
When you’re not eating, sleeping, or exploring the park, check out one of the area’s many attractions to make the most of your trip. Different outfitters offer canoe, kayak, and inner-tube rentals and shuttle services for a day on the river, while others provide guided trail rides for those who want to experience the forest on horseback. You can also enjoy mini golf, go-karts, water parks, and bumper boats, or you can spend your time shopping or visiting a local wildlife attraction to learn about the animals that roam these woods.
However you choose to spend your time in Cook Forest, be sure to take time to relax and take in the natural beauty of this rare landscape. A vacation here offers vastly different opportunities than you’ll find in other destinations, and it’s one you’ll remember long after you make your way back home.
Learn more about this destination and find other interesting places to explore in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region by going to VisitPAGO.com or calling (814) 849-5197.