This trip was hosted by Visit Potter-Tioga, the two-county region that plays host to the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon and so much more.
Known as the PA Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon of the East, or just the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, the Pine Creek Gorge is one of the most beautiful sites east of the Mississippi. And I’m finding it’s not all that well known!
If you grew up in the Pennsylvania area or even western New York, it’s likely that you know about the PA Grand Canyon. But when you venture just a little further south to my home state of Maryland (just one state away), most people I asked had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned my summer road trip destination.
The Pine Creek Gorge is a natural canyon carved by glaciers about 20,000 years ago. The result is an 800 foot deep canyon that spans 4000 feet from rim to rim. Today, it’s surrounded by state forests and two state parks that give you beautiful vistas year round. But it wasn’t always that way.
The History of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon
The history of the PA Grand Canyon involves a story of utter devastation followed by remarkable success, both at the hands of humans. Learning the story of how the forests were completely decimated before heading to the canyon will make you appreciate it that much more. And there’s no better place to do it than a stop west of the canyon at the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum.
Pennsylvania Lumber Museum
Tell your family you’re taking them to a museum about lumber and you might hear some collective groans. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect either. But this is not a museum about how to saw wood!
Open 9 am to 5 pm every day except Monday and Tuesday, this is a great family stop for a little education about the forests you’re about to immerse yourselves in. The exhibits describe the make up of the forests in the 1700 and 1800s, which included the tall straight White Pines, perfect for ships’ masts.
Visitors have a chance to see what logging camps might have looked like, including sleeping quarters and mess halls (and delousing protocols – yuck!). You’ll also find locomotives and machinery specifically designed to haul logs from these camps.
But as the logging industry swept through north central Pennsylvania, the natural forests were devastated and by the late 1800s, sustainability was finally being considered
But this is a comeback story and come back, it did! With the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the entire region was reforested and as a result, it’s one of the healthiest forests in the country.
When you know the story, you can appreciate the beauty of this place so much more.
Visiting the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon
There are several ways to see the PA Grand Canyon and they’re suitable for any age and any mobility. Hike along the rim of the canyon with some easy and accessible trails or take a leisurely ride through the valley of the canyon on an old covered wagon.
Ole Covered Wagon Tours
We started our trip to the PA Grand Canyon by just barely making it to the departing horse-drawn covered wagon tour run by Ole Covered Wagon Tours. Our fellow wagoneers graciously scooted on down allowing us to sit in the rear of one of two wagons going on tour.
Just across from the loading area is an entrance to the canyon with a trail made specifically for hikers, bikers, and horses. We settled in for our 3 hour roundtrip waterfall tour.
While you’re riding in comfort, your tour guide gives you the local history of the canyon, usually injected with a lot of humor. I loved how our tour guide showed us the places he went swimming as a kid and proudly told of his grandfather’s work in the Civilian Conservation Corps to help reforest the canyon.
About halfway through the tour, you’ll stop for a quick restroom break and an optional hike up to a waterfall overlook while the horses take a break. On the way back, you’ll get the opposite view of what you saw on the way in.
- Wear sunscreen (although you’re mostly covered while riding)
- Bring a jacket in case you get cold
- Bring your own snacks and water (there is a small shop on site before/after the tour)
- Be sure to TIP your guide! They make the trip worthwhile!
- Stick around and grab some ice cream. If you’re lucky you’ll get to see the horses running through the fields after their “shift” is over!
This was a perfect introduction to the Grand Canyon with our guide telling about places to visit along the rim – which happened to be next on the list!
Hiking the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania
With our bearings for the PA Grand Canyon, we headed next to Colton Point State Park, one of two state parks that provide you access. Colton Point encompasses the western ridge of the canyon.
Note: At this time of this writing, Leonard Harrison State Park was closed for the summer for renovations to the visitors area.
The drive is just a few minutes from the Ole Covered Wagon Tours so it made for a quick evening drive. We headed straight for the Rim Trail, which is an easy 1 mile trail with relatively little change in elevation. Some of the areas are handicapped accessible with easy access to an overlook area.
Although this area is popular in the fall for the peak foliage, we happened upon an amazing bloom of Mountain Laurel making the rim seem almost otherworldly.
After spending time looking down in the canyon, we headed to one more trail we had heard about on our covered wagon tour, the Barbour Rock Trail. This trail was named after Samuel Barbour who were perch up high in the canyon watching for log jams and then sprint down the canyon to help. You’ll appreciate his hard day’s work once you see the view.
We had just a few brief hours at the PA Grand Canyon but enjoyed the view from below and above. Although we didn’t see much wildlife (only a heron and some mergansers showed up), the scale of beauty is truly hard to capture in words and photos. I hope I did it justice!
Staying Near the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon
There are plenty of accommodations in the area, whether you’re a camper, glamper, or just prefer the comfort of a hotel. We were guests of the Canyon Motel, right in the heart of downtown Wellsboro, Pennsylvania.
The Canyon Motel was the last stop of our 8 night road trip and we were looking for a quiet, comfortable place to relax and unwind. This quaint motel is immaculate and the staff was incredibly friendly.
Our family of three fit nicely in an extended stay room with two beds and a kitchenette. There’s a lawn out back where we saw local cats and some rabbits (luckily not at the same time!). We also had a porch out front where we were able to sit and chat with our neighbors, who just happened to be the same people we sat next to on our covered wagon tour!
My favorite part of this hotel, though, was what every vacation needs… a nice pool. My son and I went there each evening and had the pool to ourselves! When we finished our nightly swim, we popped into the sauna so we could enjoy a little of the Finnish culture we picked up earlier this year.
If you’re looking for additional amenities, stop into the lobby to enjoy some coffee or tea and grab a towel to wipe down your bike (they’re a biker friendly motel!).
Planning Your Trip to the PA Grand Canyon
The Pennsylvania Grand Canyon is a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts but there are opportunities for everyone to enjoy it, regardless of age or mobility.
We chose to stay in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, which is a fun little town full of great shops and restaurants. In fact, we could walk to town from the Canyon Motel. From Wellsboro, you’re only about 15 minutes to the recreation areas.
If you’re willing to venture even further out, it’s a great area in general for hiking, biking, kayaking, and stargazing.