By Christopher J. Shaffer
There are few experiences more unique than waking up to a blanket of fresh snow in a wilderness setting. This being Ohio, we may not have a lot of vast wilderness, near us, but we are surrounded by a large number of small pockets of wilderness. These small pockets allow us to get our “wilderness” fix even when all we have is one night or a weekend to get out.
One of my favorite pockets of wilderness is Oil Creek State Park in Pennsylvania. I prefer to call ahead and reserve a shelter in one of their two camping areas; then I have the option of where to start my trip and what route take depending on how much time I have.
Oil Creek State Park has two designated shelter or camping areas and two organized group camp areas along 52 miles of hiking trails mostly up along the ridges and 9.7 miles of bike trail built along the creek on an old railroad bed, so you have lots of options. These options make this the perfect shakedown before a longer trip, or the ideal way to break in those new snowshoes.
Finding your way in the park is easy. The main 36-mile Girard Hiking Trail is marked with yellow blazes, while the side trails are marked with white blazes.
The 9.7-mile bike trail has frequent historical markers along its asphalt paved length, and old dirt roads crisscross the valley allowing you to pick any length you wish. Most of my favorite routes begin and end at the Park Office in Petroleum Center. Since I hate having to run a shuttle for a one or two-night trip, this tends to work very well to see the most scenery.
If you are lucky enough to have a long weekend or at least an early start on Friday, one of the best routes in the park starts with a half-mile hike along a white blazed side trail directly behind the park office. Once you reach the yellow blazed Gerard Hiking trail, head north (left) and hike a little under five miles to the Cow Run Shelter area.
If you are pressed for time and don’t like the idea of hiking in the dark, you can also get advice from the park office about parking at the shelter’s lot and making your hike in a lot shorter. Unfortunately, parking there is not always an option and it makes your last day’s hike that much longer to get to your car.
After enjoying all the amenities that Cow Run has to offer and eating all of the heaviest foods you packed, the second day of this trip has options that can either make it a fantastic 16-mile historic and scenic tour, or you can take one of several shortcuts to decrease your mileage. Either way, you are going to continue to head north on that yellow blazed trail.
Your first “bail-out” point comes with the Miller Farm Road about 3.75 miles north of the Cow Run Shelters. Turn west (left) on Miller Farm Road to cross the creek and either turn south (left) to jump on the bike trail, or continue up Miller Farm Road to the Main Trail or Wolfkeil Run Shelter parking lot.
Then turn left to get to the shelter area. If I need to take this route, I prefer to take the bike trail maybe half a mile south (left) to a clearing that is marked on the map with a “rustic restroom” and follow the trail up the hill in the northwest corner of the field. Of course if you don’t have a ton of snow and everyone in your group agrees, you could stay on the east side of the creek a while longer. This is actually the coolest part of the trip.
You’ll pass two scenic waterfalls and cross the creek on a pretty unique suspension bridge, before re-connecting with the main trail and looking for Miller’s Falls on the way to the Wolfkeil Run Shelter area. To do this, follow the yellow blazes from Miller Farm Road, keeping an eye out for Boughton Falls at about the 3.75-4 mile mark. At about 4.45 miles north of Miller Farm Road you should find a white blazed trail to the east (left) that leads down a set of switchbacks and over the creek on that suspension bridge.
If you plan on taking this route, be sure to check with the ranger station that the bridge is open. If the suspension bridge is closed, or if your group has a couple of history buffs, keep following the yellow blazes north another 1.56 miles to the final bridge option on the trail. Before you get to the bridge, you’ll see the Drake Well Museum down the hill off to the left. This is the site of the world’s first commercial oil well.
Dug in 1859 pioneering methods still in use today, this is the well that changed the world. Cross the bridge next to the canoe launch and continue to follow the yellow blazes 6.13 miles to the Wolfkeil Run Shelter area for a much deserved rest.
Whether you take the short route or the long road, I love being able to sit under the shelter, next to the fire and smell dinner cooking while watching the snow fall outside. No, these are not cabins; more of an Adirondack-style shelter with walls on three sides and a fireplace in the open end.
There is a picnic table outside each shelter for sitting and cooking, especially if you are using a liquid fuel stove. Most of my friends and I have taken to either packing in “foil dinners” or using freeze-dried meals that just require boiling water. Freeze-dried meals and coffee usually win for breakfast as we want to be sure that the fire is out before we leave.
Once we are all done with breakfast and packed up, we will continue heading south to the park office and our cars. This being a park of many options, we have choices here, too. If everyone is pretty beat up from hoofing it 16 miles yesterday, I usually head down the hill to the clearing and connect with the bike trail.
It’s still about 7 miles out this way, but the easy grades and level terrain allow for a faster pace in all but the snowiest conditions. One other option is to continue following the yellow blazes past Pioneer Falls about 8 miles to Stevenson Hill Road and follow the road east back to the car.
The final option is to finish the whole big loop by following the yellow blazes another 15.58 miles around from the Wolfkeil Run Shelters back to the car. You now deserve to take a nap on the way to the buffet. Just be sure to buy the driver’s dinner as a thank you for allowing you to snore in their passenger seat. For more information about Oil Creek State Park hiking and biking trails, visit their website http://friendsocsp.org.
Photos courtesy of Oil Creek State Park, Jim Delong, Michael Henderson, Craig Holquist and Penn’s Woods Photography.
Oil Creek State Park