by Christian Alexandersen
Standing among towering white pines and eastern hemlocks dating back hundreds of years, I was left speechless. I was consumed by the absolute enormity and splendor of my surroundings.
Between my strides, I watched the swaying of the giant trees. I listened to the gentle rustling of leaves. I smelled the decay and regrowth in the soil. I was in Cook Forest State Park. And I was in awe.
Over the course of my 121 In 21 Challenge of running a mile at all 121 Pennsylvania state parks, I had been impressed, even shocked by the natural beauty Pennsylvania has to offer.
But my run at Cook Forest State Park was different. It was overwhelming. It took possession of my senses. It felt as if I was coming home and discovering something new at the same time. It felt transcendental.
And while I can’t promise you the same experience, I urge you to visit Cook Forest State Park. As John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
The 8,500-acre Cook Forest State Park and 3,136-acre Clarion River Lands are located in northwestern Pennsylvania. It is best known for it’s Forest Cathedral — 11 old-growth areas totaling over 2,300 acres.
“Forest Cathedral” is an apt name, for it evokes the images of centuries old churches with spires reaching toward the heavens. As a public lands neophyte, the sight of these big beautiful trees left me without words to describe them.
I had thought — incorrectly, of course, — that these sorts of old-growth trees were only available out west, where so many natural wonders are located. But no. I never had to leave Pennsylvania to see such magnificence.
There are more than 47 miles of hiking trails within Cook Forest State Park and an additional eight miles of hiking trails within the Clarion River Lands.
While there are many ways to get yourself into the Forest Cathedral, I suggest a path that takes you into the very heart of 375 to 500-year-old trees. While it does include difficult terrain and significant elevation changes, it will be worth it.
From the Park Office Parking Lot, take the Birch Trail. After a short time, you’ll reach a swinging bridge. Cross it and link up with the Rhododendron Trail and you’re in the Forest Cathedral. You have the option to follow the 1.2 mile trail to get deeper into the area.
Your ability, time and effort will dictate how far you want to go. Whether you want to spend hours or only moments, take time to visit the beautiful area – which is designated a National Natural Landmark.
While you will feel the urge to take out your phone and take pictures, I urge you to spend some time quietly existing among this immaculate landscape. Take in the air these trees provide. Look at the natural wonders before your eyes.
After 224 days, I finished my 121 In 21 Challenge of running in every Pennsylvania state park in one year. And while so many parks blur together in my memories, the time I spent in Cook Forest is chiseled in stone. It is an experience I hope never to forget. Now, go. Make your own memories.
* Sadly, Cook Forest State Park is under attack by the invasive Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. Click here to learn about a special initiative to protect the Forest and how you can help.
Christian Alexandersen ran one mile in each of Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks in 2021 and has been sharing with us stories and tips from his journey. To read more blog posts from Christian and other PPFF guest bloggers, visit our News page.
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