Beyond L.A.: Ricketts Glen State Park (Pennsylvania)

Clockwise from top left: Mohawk Falls, Delaware Falls, Onondaga Falls, Cayuga Falls

You enter an old-growth forest, shaded by spruces and pines. A creek runs alongside the soft dirt trail. Green ferns carpet the ground. You reach a 16-foot waterfall that splits around a rocky knob as it drops into a narrow gorge. The next waterfall is twice as tall, narrow at the top before fanning out at the bottom. A stone staircase climbs along the side of the waterfall where the trail continues higher into the forest. Almost immediately you reach a third waterfall, steadily plunging 27 feet down a dark gray shale cliff. If the hike ended here, it would have packed in enough scenery to be a major draw for outdoor enthusiasts. 

But the Falls Trail in Pennsylvania’s Ricketts Glen State Park does not end here. By this point, it’s barely even gotten started.

TIPS FOR L.A. HIKERS

Covid-19 considerations: As of March 2021, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has lifted any travel restrictions. The park’s restrictions have likewise been lifted or modified.

Getting to Ricketts Glen: The park is located about an hour west of the Scranton/Wilkes Barre area. The nearest major airport is Philadelphia, about two and a half hours away. JFK  is about three and a half hours away, depending on traffic. Pittsburgh and the Baltimore/Washington area are less practical options at 4 hours, unless you plan on doing some other sightseeing along the way. The local airport, AVP, may be an option as well.

Staying at Ricketts Glen: The park offers 10 cabins for year-round use with kitchens and bathrooms. The park also has 120 tent and trailer campsites, the majority of which are open from April to December. For more information, click here. If you are not going to stay in the park, your best bet is to find lodging in Wilkes-Barre or Scranton. For Air B’n’B options in the area, click here.

Weather: Temperatures range from average daily lows of 15 degrees in January to average daily highs of 80 in July. Average annual precipitation is 43 inches, about three times as much as Los Angeles. In winter months, the park will either close the trails or only allow hikers who are equipped for icy conditions. If you are planning on visiting the park during the winter, check the website for up to date information about trail statuses. Valley to Summit offers guided winter hikes in Ricketts Glen.

Cell phone reception: In my experience, there is weak but serviceable reception at the trailhead but none inside the park.

Dogs: Allowed on leash; make sure you are comfortable walking over steep and rocky terrain. 

Safety: The Falls Trail system features steep inclines and declines and sharp drop offs that can be hazardous in wet conditions. Sandals are not permitted on the trail – a rule that, if no park personnel are around to enforce, might end up being enforced by Darwin. Additionally, as someone who rarely uses hiking poles, I found them to be essential on this hike. 

THE HIKE

Approximately 6.5 miles/1,200 feet of elevation gain, with a start from Route 118 and using the Highland Trail. Longer or shorter variations are possible. Allow enough time for a careful ascent and descent and to stop and enjoy the waterfalls; 4-6 hours is recommended.

As described in the intro to this post, the first three waterfalls you reach are Murray Reynolds, Sheldon Reynolds and Harrison Wright. The trail splits shortly before Murray Reynolds, reconvening at the top of the waterfall. The lower route offers a better look at the bottom of the waterfall; consider taking the lower route up, as it is a good warm-up for the type of terrain you will find deeper into the park and the smoother, easier upper route back.

Shortly beyond Harrison Wright, you reach Waters Meet (about 1.6 miles from Route 118). It is here where Ganoga Glen on the left meets Glen Leigh on the right. A bench offers you a chance to enjoy the scenery and rest before the steep climbing begins. From here, you can see 47-foot Erie Falls through the trees and 15-foot Wyandot straight ahead of you. The loop portion of the hike is comparably difficult in either direction. Glen Leigh (the right fork) is slightly steeper, meaning in this case it may be a better ascent option.

Assuming you choose the Glen Leigh route, your first waterfall will be Wyandot, soon followed by B. Reynolds at 40 feet. A steep, narrow stone staircase brings you to the next waterfall, named after park namesake Robert Bruce Ricketts (1839-1918), a Civil War officer who later built the earliest trails in the park and owned a hotel where tourists would stay. (Ricketts’ wife, Elizabeth, nee Reynolds, was the sister of Sheldon, Murray and Benjamin.) R.B. Ricketts at 36 feet is one of the more interestingly shaped waterfalls in the park; the main cascade pours down two levels (an example of the “wedding cake” shape) while a narrower “bridal veil” shaped waterfall comes in from the right.

After crossing a footbridge and climbing another steep set of stone stairs, you reach Ozone Falls, the tallest in Glen Leigh and second tallest in the park at 60 feet. You can observe it both from the bottom and from above, thanks to a footbridge at the top. Next on the docket is 41-foot Huron Falls, recognizable both by its curving shape and by the staircase alongside it, curving in the opposite direction. While Joshua Tree is often considered an inspiration for Dr. Seuss’s illustrations, some might also see the Seuss aesthetic in Huron Falls.

Almost immediately afterward is Shawnee Falls, where cautious hikers can get a good view by stepping out onto a rock promontory. Next up is F.L. Ricketts, a diagonal wedding-cake style falls (38 feet) named after Robert’s younger brother. A shortcut to the Highland Trail branches off at this point, but unless you are pressed for time, continue along the Falls Trail to Glen Leigh’s final cascade. Despite its modest size, 15-foot Onondaga Falls is attractive, all the more so because it is one of the easiest ones to view safely, thanks to several wide rocks at its base. A wooden staircase – a welcome change from the rocks – brings you to the top where you cross a footbridge and meet up with the Highland Trail.

For a longer hike, you can head east (right) and follow the Highland Trail to the Bear Walk Trail or farther to the Beach Trail, along Lake Jean. The most popular way to complete the loop is by heading west on the Highland Trail, as described below.

The connector segment of the Highland Trail gradually climbs about 100 in a mile, providing a welcome break from the steep climb through Glen Leigh and a chance to rest your legs before making the descent through Ganoga Glen. A highlight is Midway Crevasse, a jumble of sandstone boulders that are part of the Pocono Formation.

At the next junction, a spur leads to the Lake Rose parking area, an alternate trailhead for those wanting a shorter hike. Head left and begin your return via Ganoga Glen. The Falls Trail branches off at the next junction, precariously descending along the side of 37-foot Mohawk Falls. The next waterfall is Oneida, a simple but elegant 12-footer with one wide tier. In about a tenth of a mile you reach Cayuga Falls, which despite being the hike’s shortest at 11 feet, is visually distinctive, with a rocky ledge splitting it into a wedding cake cascade closer to the trail and a bridal veil on the far side.

Your first look at Ganoga Falls, the park’s tallest at 94 feet, is from the top. A few large boulders have been placed at the edge of the trail (take the hint). From here, the trail briefly goes up before descending a narrow, steep set of switchbacks. At the bottom, a spur leads to the base of Ganoga, where there are several places to watch the waterfall. Even from thirty feet away, expect to be misted.

Next is easy to miss Seneca Falls, a series of small cascades that can also be seen from multi-tiered Delaware Falls. Mohican Falls, whose 39-foot height consists of a larger upper level and a shorter lower tier, is next, right before Ganoga Glen absorbs a tributary, which is crossed via a footbridge.

Narrow Conestoga Falls (17 feet), like Seneca, is easy to miss, but 47-foot Tuscarora is not. Like a slightly taller version of Sheldon Reynolds (which you will soon be revisiting), it drops in a narrow plunge before widening at its base. Tuscarora is tied for third highest in the park with its downstream neighbor, Erie. A short scramble down a use trail brings you to its base, where the water thunders down the cliff into the pool below.

Soon after, you return to Waters Meet, where you will retrace your steps back down Kitchen Creek to the trailhead. If your hunger for waterfalls has not yet been sated, one more awaits. While not part of the Falls Trail system, multi-tiered Adams Falls can be easily accessed from the parking lot. A short descent brings you to a ledge where you can see the upper tier. The lower tier can be viewed by continuing along the Evergreen Trail to a footbridge and then backtracking up stream via a use trail.

For more descriptions of the Falls Trail, click here, here, here and here.

BONUS ROUND

If you are staying in Wilkes-Barre or passing through it on the way to Ricketts Glen, consider adding a stop at the Seven Tubs Natural Area on Route 115, a short distance southeast of town. It’s not Mini Ricketts; you will hear traffic noise and, sadly, you will see trash and graffiti (though not, thankfully, at a Sapphire Falls level.) Still, it is an example of how natural areas can be found tucked away near urban areas.

The main route through the park is the yellow-blazed Audubon Trail, a loop that is listed at 1.8 miles with about 200 feet of elevation gain, although some of the rocky terrain and steep sections of trail may make it seem longer. A footbridge offers views of both tiers of the park’s tallest waterfall, while another cascade can be found farther upstream. Beyond the waterfalls, the trail loops through the forest, crosses a power line break (where you may be greeted by a freighter on the nearby tracks) and dips back into the woods, making a pleasant creekside return.

Another popular route in the park is Laurel Run, a paved but closed road that descends from the parking lot. This route provides an enjoyable walk alongside the stream, beneath (at least in the warmer months) a canopy of trees; it’s a good option for families with kids or for hikers who don’t like steep ups and downs. The road reaches a clearing just over a mile from the parking lot, where you can return via the same route or make a longer loop with other trails.

Like Ricketts Glen, Seven Tubs is overseen by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as part of the Pinchot State Forest. Leashed dogs are allowed. There is cell phone reception at the parking area; deeper into the park, it is hit or miss.

RICKETTS GLEN PHOTO GALLERY

Evergreen parking area, PA-118
Lower level of Adams Falls from the Evergreen Trail
Heading toward Murray Reynolds Falls
Murray Reynolds Falls as seen from below the junction
Sheldon Reynolds Falls
Harrison Wright Falls
B Reynolds Falls
R.B. Ricketts Falls
Ozone Falls
Huron Falls
F.L. Ricketts Falls
Midway Crevasse
Oneida Falls
Descent to the base of Ganoga Falls
Ganoga Falls
Between Ganoga Falls and Seneca Falls
Mohican Falls
Tuscarora Falls

SEVEN TUBS PHOTO GALLERY

View from the bottom of the bridge
Looking upstream from the top of the bridge
Downstream from the top of the bridge
Spring bloom on the Audubon Trail
Return via the creek on the Audubon Trail
Detail of the bridge on the dirt road
Greenery on the dirt road

Text and photography copyright 2021 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

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