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Spend A Weekend Exploring ‘The Other Grand Canyon’ In Pennsylvania


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When the mood strikes me to go off on my own for an adventure, I tend to just do it. Exploring new places solo or taking periodic jaunts into the wilderness centers me when I’m feeling overwhelmed by city life. Every once in a while, I simply take off — with little-to-no notice given.

This is pretty easy to accomplish when you’re single. When you’re living with another person, last minute getaways require more finesse. Not that I have any.

“I think I’m going to head out to the Grand Canyon,” I announced a few weeks ago.

“When?” Michael, my partner, said in a remarkably measured tone. He’s gotten pretty used to me traveling last minute, though this trip definitely elicited an eyebrow raise.

“Today, I guess?” I said.

He sighed. “How are you getting there?”

Driving.”

The next sigh was longer. World class. “But, I — we live on the other side of the country. Don’t you think…” He paused. “Call when you get there.”

I laughed. I’m crazy, but in this particular instance I wasn’t planning on driving all night, Andy-and-April-on-Parks-and-Rec-style, to hit Arizona’s famous hole in the ground. I was heading to Pine Creek Gorge in central Pennsylvania’s Tioga State Forest, aka The Other Grand Canyon.

Situated three-and-a-half hours from Philadelphia and equidistant from Pittsburgh (aka the other Pennsylvania city), Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon is a narrow valley cut into the mountains by a powerful river system that’s filled with winding backcountry hiking trails. It’s also an area that has basically anything you could ever want in a weekend getaway: camping, swimming, hardcore 60-mile treks and casual jaunts, delightfully kitschy mountain lodging, and even bomb Mexican food.

The first time I went, I thought, “The Other Grand Canyon” moniker was tongue in cheek. I was wrong. If you’re ready for an escape from east coast city life, here’s how to explore the Other Grand Canyon in one perfect, nature-filled weekend.

Friday: Get There, Then Relax

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Road trip 🏔

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Driving to the gorge from Philly is easy. It’s one of those drives that keeps you occupied the whole time with the landscape changing every hour or so. Starting in a huge city, you push through suburbia and then roll into farm country, eventually winding through the Poconos and out into the wilderness. It’s a drive that gently shifts almost imperceptibly. City life melts away the longer you drive. I felt the tension of the week draining from my shoulders as the color drained from the sky, and I made it to my destination as the last of the sherbet colors turned, finally, to inky black.

For my stay, I chose Bear Mountain Lodge: a dark-stained wood cabin surrounded by lush forest. The lodge contains four small rooms with a rustic bear-and-woods tableaux and enormous decks from which you can watch the earth breathe. After driving three-and-a-half hours, I was happy just to drop my stuff in the room and sit in silence. I spent the night relaxing in the hot tub on the deck and listening to the vanguard of insects and bugs, chirping away about the coming spring.

The main lodge is only about a 10-minute drive from the downtown area of Wellsboro, where there are plenty of restaurants, like The Roost, a pub on Main Street that serves a hearty, hits-the-spot burger and shrimp skewers made with Yuengling beer batter. That night however, I survived on the chocolate-covered strawberries they gave me at check-in before I called it a night. After all, I had big plans for the next day.

Saturday: Hike, Swim, Then Hike Some More

Let me state this on the record: I am not a morning person. If I had my way, I would never wake up before 10 a.m. — except, that is, for hiking. I would do anything if it meant maximizing my time on the trail. I’ll wake up at 4 a.m. to get a head start on a particularly busy one. And so, I was up with the sun on Saturday — ready to make the most of my weekend.

You have a couple of options for unleashing your inner Grizzly Adams in Pine Creek, depending on your speed. If you’d like to do a multi-day trek, I recommend the West Rim Trail, a 30.5 mile trail running north-south on the west side of the gorge. Primitive camping is free, and there are plenty of great views of the gorge plus fresh water sources. Pine Creek Outfitters offers shuttle services to several points, including Rattlesnake Rock, the southern trailhead, in case you want to just do one-way. If you’re going to do the full 61 miles there and back (which, like, to each their own), make sure you have at least five days worth of food and a satellite phone.

This weekend, I was not mentally or physically prepared for that kind of hike, so instead, I opted for Gillespie Point, a 3.6 mile loop to the east of Pine Creek.

An easy 30-minute drive from my hotel, I got to the trailhead just as the morning frost was burning off. It was a moderate climb — maybe 1,000 feet to the top — and ended up with a gorgeous view of the valley below. I’m a relatively fast hiker, so I summited, ate breakfast, and was back at my car in a little over an hour.

Next, I headed to Sand Run Falls, about a 40-minute drive from the Gillespie trailhead. A 6.7-mile loop that led to a broad, squat falls, this was more what I was looking for in terms of intensity and length. I followed the AllTrails recommended loop and wasn’t disappointed. Between the water and the deciduous leaf coverage, it was cool through the mid-afternoon, despite predictions of heat and humidity. One thing I didn’t prepare for: how wet my feet would get. So. Much. Water. But because I love to be prepared, I had an extra pair of wool socks in my backpack, so heading back down to my car was easy and comfortable, nary a blister in sight.

If you’re lucky enough to be here in the summertime, stay at Sand Run for the bomb swimming. Because it’s so far from the road, it’s lightly trafficked, which means you effectively get a private swimming hole. Alternatively, if you’re going to head out to Rattlesnake Rock at the southern end of the West Rim trail, there’s a deep, delicious swimming hole next to the rock itself. Treat yourself to a mid-trek dip.

When I got back to my home base, I immediately hoofed it to Talarigo’s Paradise Grill to order a “fusion cubano,” which I had been told by no less than three people was something I would be an idiot to skip. (Their words, not mine.) Talarigo’s is a food truck serving up wood-fired barbecued Latin food. I ordered nachos with thick, homemade tortilla chips and sweet caramelized onions, swine fries smothered in juicy smoked pork, and, of course, their nod to a cubano — which proved juicy and salty in all the right ways while boasting a hint of vinegar and the snap of fresh bread.

I don’t think I could have ordered poorly here. It was exactly what I needed after a long day of hiking and driving.

Sunday: Wind Down With One Final Forest Day, Then Head Home — After A Stop In Jersey, That Is.

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#PAGrandCanyon from #BarbourRockTrail #shotoniphone

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I slept in a bit and then fit in one last hike in Pine Creek Gorge. Sunday’s hike wasn’t about getting my heart-rate up or anything challenging. It was just about having one last day among the trees. So I went to the Barbour Rock Trail, which is a 2.4 mile there-and-back hike named after, you guessed it, Barbour Rock — an enormous stone outcrop that overlooks the entire gorge. There were a few other people on the trail as I walked up to the viewpoint, but when I got to the outcropping, I was alone. So I sat down and watched the golden light of early morning turn to clear, and the haze of mist and dew transform into bright, searing blue skies.

I sat staring down at the valley, birds wheeling around and calling to one another, until I felt the telltale rumble of my stomach. It was time to go. Of course, before heading home, I had one last stop to make. Yes, I was tired and ready for a shower and my own bed. But it was absolutely necessary for my personal well-being to stop for lunch one last time. This time: in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania.

I mostly went because I’m a born-and-bred Jersey scumbag and I thought it was delightful that there’s another Jersey Shore right next to another Grand Canyon. These are the things that make you chuckle for just a little too long when you’re traveling alone.

But I also went to destroy some tacos at Real Taste Taqueria before making the long journey home. And let me tell you: ohhhhhhh. yes. I demolished two lengua and barbacoa tacos, and I felt good about it.

On the ride home, I didn’t feel the usual stress as houses started to pop up, then towns, then the tell-tale density of the city. I was so refreshed. Good food and hiking, a hot tub, solitude: it was exactly what I needed.

***

“Good trip?” Michael said when I got back as I snuggled up to him on the couch. I looked out our window, onto the Philly skyline, and felt grateful to have found someone so comfortable rolling with my traveling whims and the occasional need to disconnect for a couple of days. And in only two days, I really did feel ready to be back in the bustle of the city and my life.

“Perfect,” I said.

I was glad to be home. At least, until the next adventure.

Want to go there?

From Philly: To get to the gorge from Philadelphia, you take 476 North to 80 West. From there, you hook up with Highway 220, then take PA 44 North, and bam, you’re there.

Stay: Bear Mountain Lodge, in Wellsboro, PA, is super accessible to the adventures — while also providing some lovely creature comforts.

Eat: Talarigo’s Paradise Grill is a must-visit food truck located in town.

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