Ohiopyle State Park is steeped in interesting history and numerous outdoor pursuits, but the promise of rugged, untouched terrain is what beckons visitors and makes the park a must-see destination.
As you ride the steep curves of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, and enter the little hamlet of Ohiopyle, park your car, grab your backpack and an Ohiopyle State Park map, and follow the signs for “Baughman Trail.”
Once you spot the marker that reads “Baughman Rock,” walk a little farther to the outcropping of immense, gray stone slabs that overlook the Youghiogheny River Gorge. Stunning peaks and valleys blanketed in shade sprawl out in all directions. Point an ear toward valley and you'll hear the faint, rhythmic chug of the “Yough” (pronounced “yawk;” in full it's “yawk-ih-gay-nee”) as its rolls beneath the lumpy spines of the Laurel Highlands. This is wilderness.
This is Ohiopyle.
When deciding on a vacation, some people chase the sights, some crave warm tropical weather, some want comfort. Visitors come to Ohiopyle for the silence, to “get away,” and they have been coming for nearly 150 years.
Roots and Legacy
Long before the rugged land near the Youghiogheny River was settled, a Native American tribe called the Monongahela inhabited it. As European settlers arrived, the Monongahela quickly dispersed, and the area became a hunting ground for the Delaware, Shawnee and Iroquois tribes for a time.
The early settlers were farmers and trappers, but Ohiopyle and the landscape of the Youghiogheny River gorge were forever changed the moment the B & O Railroad finished building its lines along the steep slopes of the Youghiogheny in 1871. The tourists flooded in, and Falls City—later renamed Ohiopyle, derived from “ohio-pehelle” or “ohiopehhla,” meaning “white, frothy water”—ushered in its first golden age. By the early 1900s, Ohiopyle was a well-established resort town, where city dwellers from Pittsburgh and Cumberland came for fresh air and relaxation.
As the bottom fell out of the coal mining industry and tourists traded their train tickets for Model Ts, the prosperity of Ohiopyle waned until 1971, when the park was officially dedicated and the area experienced a rebirth. Today, it's nestled within Ohiopyle State Park, appropriately dubbed the crown jewel of the Pennsylvania state park system. It is the state's largest, boasting 20,500 acres and roughly 250,000 visitors each year.
“The park was set aside specifically to protect the Youghiogheny River and its gorge and the species associated with it,” says Barbara Wallace, an environmental education specialist at the park. “We have a lot of southern species. This is as far north as they come; the gorge has its own little microclimate, which keeps it a little warmer.”
Whether you make your pilgrimage to this outdoor mecca to enjoy fishing, whitewater rafting, hiking, rock climbing or cruising on the natural rock waterslides, Ohiopyle State Park offers abundant options for all outdoor enthusiasts.
Traveler's Tip: Remember to bring small bills for the various toll booths along U.S. Route 40; they do not take credit cards or cash in increments over $5.
Into the Woods
If you are visiting Ohiopyle State Park in the spring, summer or fall, be sure to hike a portion of the 79 miles of scenic trails with an environmental educator as your guide.
“There are so many wonderful hikes here; we usually have a hike of the month,” says Wallace. “If it's birding season, it going through the birding area; if it's spring, it's going through the wildflower area or [seeing] the waterfalls. In the spring, almost every trail has a waterfall. I have been coming here every day for 23 years, and there is still wonder for me.”
The Meadow Run Trail, a 3-mile loop, boasts two waterfalls and is considered one of the easier hikes in Ohiopyle State Park. You can pick up the trail at Cucumber Falls, the most visited site in the park. After you explore the area and admire the amazing, 30-foot bridal veil cascade, check out the Meadow Run Waterslides on the trail. This ancient sandstone slide is 100 feet long and carries powerful currents, perfect for a thrilling ride. Meadow Run has trailheads at both Cucumber Falls and the waterslides, with parking lots by each. On a busy day, parking will be limited, so hit the trail as early as possible.
If you aren't tired of the waterfalls yet, there are two more: Cascades and Jonathan Run Falls, which are accessible via an easy hike on the Jonathan Run Trail. The experienced hiker could try the longer Sugarloaf Trail System, which is a 10.4 miles and has two very steep sections for a total elevation gain of 800 feet.
After a day of hiking through untouched wilderness, find your way back to town and check out Ohiopyle Falls, which is nearly impossible to miss. The best view of this 20-foot waterfall is in the heart of Ohiopyle. Park in the large lot by the visitor's center off Ohiopyle Road and head to one of the observation decks for a beautiful end-of-day stop. The setting sun casts brilliant light on the falls, giving the water an emerald color as it pours downward, disappearing into millions of frothy white ripples.
Although the wonder of the Ohiopyle wilderness is a draw for many, visitors should be mindful that it is wild country, much of it still untrailed, and guides admit that even “easy” hikes are still very rugged. Your first stop in Ohiopyle should be the visitor's center. “You would be surprised at how many people go out without a map and get lost. You need to be self-sufficient when you come out here,” says Wallace.
You cannot rely on GPS due the heavy tree cover, and internet connection is limited as well. Get a map and familiarize yourself with the trails you want to hike before actually walking them. Wear sturdy hiking shoes and never be without sufficient water—plan for at least one liter per person per hour of activity.
Riding the Rapids
If you are visiting Ohiopyle in warm weather, the whitewater rafting on the Youghiogheny is some of the best in the country. Beginners can take guided trips, while experienced rafters and kayakers can rent equipment and go out on their own. The park has four licensed commercial outfitters: Laurel Highlands River Tours, Ohiopyle Trading Post, White Water Adventures and Wilderness Voyageurs. Regardless of which you choose, always make reservations.
The Yough offers class I, II, III and IV rapids. The exciting level III and IV rapids of the Lower Yough make it the busiest section of whitewater in the eastern United States; however, beginners should only attempt this area with experienced whitewater boaters. The Middle Yough contains class I and II rapids, which are ideal for families. Some outfitters offer tours of the Lower Yough with a “deli-style lunch” option. Don't underestimate the amount of energy you will expend on the Yough; you will be famished.
On the day of your river trip, leave plenty of time to find parking and get situated. At your selected outfitter, you'll get brief instruction from your guides before you take off. Bring a water bottle in the raft and dress in light, water-resistant clothing. Take it easy that night; you will be sore in places you didn't know you had.
Before packing your bags and leaving this sprawling landscape, take one final stroll across the Ohiopyle Low Bridge. As you peer through the bowstring trusses, savor the choppy white waters—the ohiopehelle—and appreciate the wonderful wilderness a final time.
Katie Annarino is a freelance writer based in Columbus who loves traveling and being outdoors.