A visit to northeast Pennsylvania for the ultimate waterfall hiking experience
Today, California Trekking becomes Pennsylvania Trekking to take a brief detour out of California and cover one of the most – if not THE most – spectacular waterfall hike on the East Coast: the Falls Trail in Pennsylvania’s Ricketts Glen State Park. This incredible 7.2 mile route visits a total of 21 named waterfalls, the highest of which is the spectacular 94′ Ganoga Falls. At 13,050 acres, Ricketts Glen is one of the largest and most scenic of Pennsylvania’s State Parks. In addition to a variety of camping, boating, and fishing opportunities, the park has 26 miles of maintained hiking trails. While the Falls Trail is the star attraction of the park, there are plenty of other things to do and trails to hike if you have the time.
Ricketts Glen was a favorite haunt of mine when I was growing up in Pennsylvania, as I lived less than an hour away and made frequent trips to the park. At the time, I had no idea just how unique the place actually was. While there are plenty of beautiful waterfalls on the East Coast, the Falls Trail is the only place where you’ll be able to visit so many of them in such a short hike. Over the years, I’ve returned time and again to hike the glens and explore the park’s other trails. Don’t come here expecting the jagged peaks and sweeping vistas you’ll find in California and elsewhere in the American West. Here, the mountains are older, lower, and worn down from eons of erosion and glaciation. The fabled hardwood forest that once covered all of the state is still intact here, offering plenty of shade but making scenic vistas few and far between. Instead, Ricketts Glen offers scenic beauty in liquid form – twenty-one separate waterfalls ranging from 11′ to 94′ in height, each one different from the one above it or below it. It’s a waterfall lover’s dream, and a memorable experience for any hiker.
Ricketts Glen State Park is named for Robert Bruce Ricketts (1839-1918). Ricketts enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private when the American Civil War broke out in 1861, and rose through the ranks to command an artillery battery during the Battle of Gettysburg. In a meteoric career that would be impossible today, Ricketts left the Army in 1865 when the war ended as a full colonel. Returning to his native northeast Pennsylvania, Ricketts ran a number of businesses and engaged in land speculation, eventually acquiring ownership or control of over 80,000 acres in Sullivan, Columbia, and Luzerne Counties. Ricketts’ holdings became the centerpiece of a huge lumber operation that was very active in this area during the 1890s. Most of the area around Ricketts Glen was extensively logged during this period, and the forest you see today is mostly second-growth – except for pockets of virgin forest along the Falls Trail.
Fishermen discovered the amazing series of waterfalls along Kitchen Creek in 1865. However, hiking into the steep, narrow gorge remained difficult until 1893, when a construction crew hired by Ricketts completed the trail and installed the stone steps that still provide access to the glens today. The trail took four years to complete and is a marvel of human effort, as all the work had to be done by hand due to the terrain in the glens. Throughout the years, the trail has seen many improvements and repairs, as floods occasionally wash down through the glens, destroying bridges and washing away parts of the trail that run close to Kitchen Creek. When I first came here in the 1970s, the bridge at Waters Meet consisted of a fallen tree trunk that had been cut in half had a single wooden guardrail mounted on top. Today’s bridges are constructed entirely of finished lumber. While they don’t have quite the same rustic charm as the old bridges, they’re a lot safer and easier to cross.
By the time Colonel Ricketts died in 1918, the lumber boom had played out, and his heirs began to sell off the land. In the 1920s, 48,000 acres were sold to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, forming the nucleus of the current State Game Lands that surround the park. Ricketts Glen was proposed for national park status in the 1930s, but World War II broke out before the plan could be completed and the area that now comprises the Glens Natural Area was sold to the state in 1942. Ricketts Glen State Park first opened to the public in 1944. Over the years, additional land purchases have expanded the park to its current 13,050 acres. The Glens Natural Area was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1969. Additional protection came with designation by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a State Park Natural Area in 1993.
Distance: 7.2 miles semi-loop trip
Elevation gain/loss: +1100’/-1100′
Hiking time: 3-4 hours minimum. If possible, allow at least 6 hours to stop and admire the 21 waterfalls along the trail.
Permits and fees: No permit required. Admission to the park is free, but there is a fee for use of the park’s campgrounds and cabins.
Maps: The Ricketts Glen State Park Recreational Guide, published by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), is the best map for this hike. Copies of the Guide are usually available for free at the Evergreen Trailhead and at the park’s Visitor Center. The Guide is also available as a series of PDF downloads at the park’s official website, under the MAPS tab. The Ricketts Glen State Park Map covers the entire park, while the Glens Natural Area Enlargement Map covers the Glens Natural Area, including all of the waterfalls on the trail. You’ll need both maps for the entire hike. Alternately, the Red Rock 7.5′ USGS quadrangle also covers the entire trail. However, the individual waterfalls are not shown, and the Falls Trail itself is not accurately depicted.
Best time to go: The Falls Trail is usually accessible from early spring until late fall. In winter, the trail is closed due to icy conditions, although properly equipped ice climbers and mountaineers can still access it. Do not attempt to hike in the glens in winter without crampons and ice ax – you WILL need them. Early spring is “mud season” in the Northeast, and while the trail is open, it’s also usually even muddier than it is during the rest of the year. Late spring is one of the best times of the year for a visit, as conditions are dry, temperatures are pleasant, and blooming trees and wildflowers make for an idyllic hiking experience. Summer is the most popular time of year to visit the park, but hot, humid conditions and afternoon thunderstorms are common. It’s best to start your hike early in the morning. Fall is also extremely popular, with the spectacular fall foliage accenting the beauty of the waterfalls and making it one of the best times of the year for photography.
Ricketts Glen lies about 25 miles west of Wilkes-Barre, PA on Pennsylvania State Route 118. If you’re coming from the south, exit Interstate 80 near Bloomsburg, PA onto Route 487. Drive north about 35 miles on Route 487 and Route 118 East to reach the park. The Falls Trail begins on the west side of the Kitchen Creek bridge on Route 118. Parking is available at two trailheads in this vicinity. The Evergreen Trailhead is just across the road from the start of the trail, while the Route 118 Trailhead lies on the north side of Route 118, just east of Kitchen Creek. The Route 118 Trailhead has a picnic area and a short connector trail that crosses a bridge over to the east side of Kitchen Creek to reach the main Falls Trail. The Evergreen Trailhead lies next to Adams Falls, a 36′ cascade just below the bridge on Route 118.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates:
Evergreen Trailhead: N41-17.967, W076-16.476. Elevation 1260′.
Route 118 Trailhead: N41-17.992, W076-16.441. Elevation 1270′.
If you’re beginning this hike from the Evergreen Trailhead, you might want to start by taking the brief side trip down the hill from the parking area to Adams Falls. This lovely 36′ waterfall lies immediately below the Route 118 bridge over Kitchen Creek, and provides a good taste of what you’ll see up in the Glens. Despite its close proximity to the busy highway, Adams Falls is surprisingly quiet and peaceful. For a longer detour, the self-guiding Evergreen Trail continues downstream from Adams Falls for a one-mile semi-loop through old growth hemlock forest along Boston Run. Hikers beginning at the Highway 118 Trailhead will want to follow a short connector trail that crosses Kitchen Creek on a wooden bridge and joins the main Falls Trail on the west bank of Kitchen Creek.
A kiosk at the Evergreen Trailhead usually has a supply of free park brochures. If you don’t already have a copy, be sure to pick one up. The park brochure has the most accurate, detailed map of the park and comes in handy for identifying all of the waterfalls you’ll see on this hike. Once you’re ready to start hiking, carefully cross Route 118 and find the official start of the Falls Trail on the west bank of Kitchen Creek, just next to the highway bridge. A wide path leads north along the creek, shortly coming to a wooden bridge on your right. This is where the connector trail from the Route 118 Trailhead joins the Falls Trail. Continue north along Kitchen Creek under a canopy of classic hardwood forest.
This portion of the Falls Trail follows an old roadbed that runs along Kitchen Creek. The roadbed is wide and the grade is mostly flat, making for an easy start to your adventure. You’ll be walking in a dense hardwood forest for the entire trip. As the trail climbs up into the glens and onto the Allegheny Front, the plant community transitions from Southern Hardwood Forest to Northern Hardwood Forest. Thus, you’ll see a variety of oak, hickory, and tulip trees along this stretch of trail, while at the higher elevations the forest changes to a mix of beech, birch, maple, hemlock and spruce trees. You’ll also pass through rare pockets of old growth forest up in the glens. Here, the steep, rocky terrain prevented the logging operations that removed most of the original forest from the surrounding area. If you’re hiking in the spring, look for blossoming dogwood trees and a variety of wildflowers.
On the way up to the first waterfall, you’ll cross a sturdy wooden bridge over to the east bank of Kitchen Creek, and then pass back over to the west bank on another bridge just before reaching a split in the trail. Here you have a choice between following either the Lower Trail or the Upper Trail. Both routes reconnect in about 0.4 miles. The Lower Trail to the right descends to follow very closely along the bank of Kitchen Creek. The trail is narrow and occasionally quite exposed, but provides an intimate look at Kitchen Creek. It’s a good choice when water levels are relatively low and you don’t have small children with you. To your left, the Upper Trail climbs briefly to contour along the hillside on a wide, level path. If water levels in Kitchen Creek are running high or you have small children with you, the Upper Trail is the better choice.
Both the Lower and Upper Trails reunite at the first waterfall in the Glens: 16′ Murray Reynolds Falls. While it’s not particularly high, this waterfall is quite beautiful and provides a taste of what you’ll encounter further up the trail. As you pass each waterfall, look for small wooden signs identifying the name of the fall. These signs are attached directly to the rock on the opposite side of the creek, usually near the crest of the waterfall. Flooding occasionally washes these signs away, and when I hiked this trail in May 2013, many of them were missing.
Continue on a gradual climb along Kitchen Creek, passing 36′ Sheldon Reynolds Falls and 27′ Harrison Wright Falls before reaching a major trail junction at Waters Meet. Here, the trails split, with the Ganoga Glen Trail continuing straight up the west bank of Kitchen Creek, while the Glen Leigh Trail crosses a bridge to your right to climb up into Glen Leigh. Waters Meet is the idyllic heart of the Glens Natural Area, with waterfalls visible up both of the glens. For our hike, we’ll climb up Ganoga Glen, then take the Highland Trail over to Glen Leigh, where we’ll descend into Glen Leigh and eventually return to this spot for the final part of our hike.
Starting up Ganoga Glen, the trail passes 47′ Erie Falls, 47′ Tuscarora Falls, and 17′ Conestoga Falls. The trail gradually becomes steeper and more narrow as you climb up the glen. Staircases assembled from natural stone help with the ascent of the steeper sections, but lack guardrails of any kind. Water seeps down onto the trail from above, meaning that you are virtually guaranteed to encounter muddy, slippery conditions at any time of year. Continuing your climb up the glen, cross a side stream on a wooden bridge and come to 39′ Mohican Falls. Pass 37′ Delaware Falls and 12′ Seneca Falls before reaching a trail junction on your left. This signed trail connects to the Ganoga View Trail and the Old Beaver Dam Road Trail to the west of Ganoga Glen.
Looking up the glen, you will shortly see Ganoga Falls. At 94′, it’s the highest waterfall in the park, and twice as high as any of the other waterfalls. Before climbing to the top of the falls, you’ll want to take an unmarked side path to your right that leads over to the base of the falls. This is where you’ll find the best view of the entire waterfall. Views are limited at the top of the falls, as the trail has to climb above a steep embankment rather than follow along the bank of the stream. Resist the temptation to wander off-trail down the embankment for a better view – this is where many accidents have occurred over the years.
Continuing uphill, you’ll pass 11′ Cayuga Falls, 13′ Oneida Falls, and 37′ Mohawk Falls before reaching a major trail junction. Here, turn right on the Lake Rose Trail and continue uphill. The trail to the left connects to the Old Beaver Dam Road Trail. The Lake Rose Trail eventually leads up to the Lake Rose Trailhead, a possible alternative start if you want to do a shorter loop and still see most of the park’s waterfalls. After 0.2 miles, turn right onto the Highland Trail for the traverse over to Glen Leigh. The trail here is very different than the one you’ve been on so far. It’s mostly a level walk through the woods. You’ll also notice that it’s much quieter away from the constant roar of the falls back in Ganoga Glen. On your way across the plateau to Glen Leigh, you’ll pass through Midway Crevasse, a narrow passageway through a rock formation of Pocono sandstone.
As you gradually drop into Glen Leigh, you’ll want to continue straight at a signed junction with a shortcut trail that drops down to F. L. Ricketts Falls. The Highland Trail eventually ends at another well-marked trail junction. Turn right here onto the Glen Leigh Trail for the descent into Glen Leigh. The trail to the left leads uphill to the main park campground and is another possible alternate route if you’re camping at the campground.
Unlike Ganoga Glen, the trail down through Glen Leigh crosses and re-crosses the stream many times. At each crossing, sturdy wooden bridges provide safe, easy passage and great views downhill into the glen. Some of the bridges pass directly over the crest of the glen’s waterfalls. Glen Leigh is also the steeper of the two glens – something to consider if you’re following the semi-loop in a counterclockwise fashion.
The first waterfall you’ll pass in Glen Leigh is 15′ Onondaga Falls, followed shortly by 38′ F. L. Ricketts Falls. 30′ Shawnee Falls are next, then 41′ Huron Falls just below. Continue down the trail into the Glen Leigh gorge, passing 60′ Ozone Falls, 36′ R. B. Ricketts Falls, and 40′ B. Reynolds Falls. By the time you reach the last waterfall in the glen, 15′ Wyandot Falls, you’ll be able to see the bridge at Waters Meet just below you. When you reach Waters Meet, you will have completed the semi-loop of the Falls Trail and passed by all 21 waterfalls. Turn left here and follow the Falls Trail for 1.8 miles back down to the trailhead on Highway 118.
- Both the Evergreen and Route 118 Trailheads offer paved parking and restrooms. The Route 118 Trailhead also has a picnic area with tables and charcoal grills.
- The trail through the glens includes steep, narrow sections with stone staircases. However, there are no guardrails. Springs and seeps above the trail make for persistent wet, muddy conditions even if it hasn’t rained recently. Exercise caution on these parts of the trail and near the numerous steep drop-offs adjacent to the waterfalls.
- For the reasons stated above, the Falls Trail is not suitable for small children. While older children should have no problems, parents with toddlers or infants should limit their hike to the section between Highway 118 and Murray Reynolds Falls.
Also in the Area
The vast majority of visitors to Ricketts Glen come to hike the Falls Trail, and it’s undoubtedly the most spectacular hiking opportunity in the park. However, if you want to avoid the crowds and see some of the less-visited parts of the park, there are about 21 miles of other trails available that are well worth the extra time and effort. The Evergreen Trail starts from the same trailhead as the Falls Trail, descending into a lower stretch of Kitchen Creek and passing through one of the largest remaining areas of old growth forest in the park. The Grand View Trail starts on the west side of Route 487 at the top of North Mountain and climbs to a fire lookout and an impressive view of the surrounding countryside. Cherry Run and Mountain Springs Trails run deep into the park’s wilder east side, where you’ll see far fewer people and more wildlife. The Mountain Springs Trail takes you to Mountain Springs Lake, a man-made reservoir that was the site of an ice-harvesting operation that ran here as recently as 1948, when the advent of modern refrigerators rendered the ice-processing industry obsolete. The park brochure includes brief descriptions of these and other trails in the park, and the park map accurately shows their location.
Camping is available within the park itself, and is probably your best bet if you’re staying in the area for a few days. The park’s campground has 120 tent and trailer campsites, and features hot showers and flush toilets. For a more luxurious stay, ten modern rental cabins are also available. The cabins are fully furnished and include indoor bathroom facilities. The cabins are extremely popular and you’ll want to reserve one well in advance of your visit. Reservations for both the campground and the cabins can be made online at the Pennsylvania DCNR website.
This is a lightly-populated area of the state, and lodging options outside the park are limited. However, the Ricketts Glen Hotel lies just outside the park, only a few minutes from the trailhead on Route 118. “Conveniently located in the middle of nowhere” is their motto, and it’s a great place to eat, drink, or spend the night. Ricketts Glen Hotel features a full-service restaurant serving a variety of American and Italian dishes, and a hotel in the same building. Although the hotel has only six rooms, it’s not hard to get a reservation, as most visitors to the park stay in the campground. Weather permitting, be sure to stop in for a post-hike beer or glass of wine out on their outdoor patio, which overlooks a large beaver pond.
If you want to get the real, north woods Pennsylvania experience, head to one of my favorite places – the Central Park Hotel. It’s about a 15-minute drive west from the Falls Trailhead in the tiny community of Central. Originally an old, Victorian-style hotel, today it functions mostly as a restaurant and bar. Rooms are available upstairs, and are popular with hunters during Pennsylvania’s white-tail deer hunting season starting in late November. The food is good, but it’s the old-style ambiance you’ll remember. As befitting a rustic hunting lodge, the dining room is decorated with a wide variety of stuffed animals from the local area and beyond, including the elusive jackalope (Lepus temperamentalus). They have no website, but you can contact them here:
Central Park Hotel
976 Central Road
Benton, PA 17814
The Ricketts Glen State Park website, hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), should be your first stop in planning your visit. It has a wealth of valuable information about the park, and includes links to trail maps, campground maps, and the reservation website for reserving a campsite or cabin. The park can also be contacted at:
Ricketts Glen State Park
695 State Route 487
Benton, PA 17814
If you have an interest in the fascinating history of the rise and fall of the timber and ice-harvesting industries in the area, Charles F. Petrillo’s Ghost Towns of North Mountain is an excellent resource. While the print edition is now out-of-print, you can download a PDF edition at the link provided.
For more information about the natural history of the park, including identification guides to the park’s diverse trees, shrubs, and flowers, the Hiker’s Guide to the Trees, Shrubs, and Vines of Ricketts Glen State Park, by Dr. George P. Chamuris is an excellent resource. Print editions of the guide are available at the park’s visitor center, or you can browse an online version at the above link.
For more photos of this hike, see the complete set on Flickr.