Written by Danielle Taylor | Intro photo by Nicholas Tonelli
The jagged borders of the long and narrow Sinnemahoning State Park in eastern Cameron County may seem a little arbitrary until you look at the topography of the surrounding river valley. At the heart of the park, the reservoir created by the George B. Stevenson Dam normally covers 145 acres, but it can hold significantly more in its role as a flood-control measure for the First Fork of Sinnemahoning Creek and the larger West Branch Susquehanna River Basin. When the state constructed the dam in 1955, it also protected all the land that would be flooded if the reservoir were ever to reach maximum capacity and opened 1,910 acres there for public recreational use as Sinnemahoning State Park.
The park showcases the best of remote Cameron County’s natural beauty, with rolling hills, long stretches of calm water, and a wide range of wildlife found in the air, throughout the park’s fields and forests, and under the surface of its river and lake. Visitors often spot bald eagles, elk, and black bears here in addition to more commonplace animals like whitetail deer and grouse, and if you’re lucky, you may catch sight of an elusive coyote or bobcat.
Aside from the reservoir and dam, the centerpiece of the park is its state-of-the-art, LEED-certified Wildlife Center, which opened in 2011 and features lots of hands-on educational exhibits about the park’s wildlife, environment, and history. Kids love crawling through the bear cave and bobcat den, climbing into a hollowed-out tree, exploring a simulated camping scene and park ranger’s office, feeling real antlers and pelts of mammals found in the park, and learning about their surroundings via touchscreen displays and other interactive technology.
As cool as the Wildlife Center is, however, “The building isn’t why we want people to come to the park,” says environmental education specialist Kim Lott. To encourage visitors to explore on their own, she and other park staff have prepared a number of adventure backpacks filled with binoculars, digital cameras, GPS units for geocaching, workbooks, bug catchers, and more that guests can check out to help get to know the park around them. A good starting point for your explorations is the Arch Tree, located next to the Wildlife Center. Long ago, Native Americans manipulated young saplings into distinctive trail markers, but many in the area were cut down during the region’s lumber heyday. This unusually shaped tree may be a rare survivor of this practice, and its curious character has made it a popular site for weddings and photo sessions.
Another special place in the park is the restful 40 Maples Day Use Area, named for the rows of trees planted by the colorful Chauncey Logue, an early game protector and conservationist who lived here in the First Fork Valley. Logue was a champion horseshoes player, and park visitors today can find horseshoe pits, picnic tables, a volleyball net, a basketball half-court, and two ADA-accessible pavilions at 40 Maples. It’s one of the best places in the park to see bald eagles. Wildlife watchers will also want to spend time at the wildlife viewing area just north of the park office, which features herbaceous openings that attract elk, deer, and turkeys. You can see a bald eagle nest from there, and you may also catch sight of golden eagles soaring in the air above.
The reservoir offers great fishing and boating opportunities, both for electric motorboats and non-powered boats like kayaks and canoes, and interestingly, the dam here is operated by the park staff rather than the Army Corps of Engineers. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission recently installed 249 fish habitat structures in the reservoir, which they stock with rainbow and brown trout among other species. They also stock the streams with brook and brown trout, and anglers can find other fish like small- and largemouth bass, sunfish, pickerel, perch, crappie, and catfish beneath the surface here. If the ice gets thick enough in the winter, you’re welcome to try ice fishing on the lake. Other recreational opportunities in the park include camping at the 35-site campground, snowmobiling, hiking, geocaching, hunting, cross-country skiing, ice skating, and more.
Park staff lead regular environmental education programs through the year to introduce visitors to this unique slice of Pennsylvania and teach useful outdoor skills. Regular outings include wildlife-watching pontoon boat tours, kayaking instruction, winter snowshoe and cross-country ski expeditions, tree identification walks, outdoor photography workshops, eagle-watching hikes, campground stories, and fun lessons on the migratory butterflies and waterfowl that pass through the park.
The park also hosts a number of popular annual events that make the most of the natural resources found here and showcase the unique personality of the First Fork Valley. The ladies-only Women in the Wilds program runs this year on February 8-10 and June 7-9, and it offers an education in several types of outdoor recreation as well as conservation, outdoor cooking, nature crafts, and other wilderness activities. The first day of trout season in April (April 13 in 2019) brings Fishmas, a celebration of all things angling complete with a tree decorated with fishing lures. Herp Hoedown on April 28 focuses on reptiles and amphibians, and experts will take park visitors out to search for different species in the wild. The regular pontoon boat tours of the reservoir get classed up for Mother’s Day (May 12) and Father’s Day (June 16) with a catered brunch on board. On October 12, come for the First Fork Festival, which focuses on the history and culture of the valley and illustrates how its residents live in harmony with the environment here.
This article originally appeared in the 2019 Welcome Guide, which contains feature articles, photos, travel tips, upcoming events, and listing information on lodging, attractions, restaurants, and more throughout Jefferson, Elk, Clarion, Forest, and Cameron Counties in northwestern Pennsylvania. Click here to review a digital version of this guide. To get your FREE print copy of this or any other publication by the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, click here and enter your information or call (814) 849-5197.