With huge evergreens towering above and cascading rapids to one side, the trail felt more like one in a West Coast national park than in central Pennsylvania. Far from any town, with flowing water and the twittering of birds the only sounds, this stretch alone would be enough of a draw for many hikers. But then, after a mile and a half, I reached the first of 21 waterfalls, all wedged into a narrow Y-shaped canyon.
I was on the Falls Trail in Ricketts Glen State Park, one of the most spectacular hiking routes in the East. About 30 miles west of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., at the eastern edge of the Endless Mountains, the complete loop is a bit less than eight miles long. Following a river known as Kitchen Creek, it starts in a valley, runs upstream through an old-growth pine forest and then climbs steeply through narrow ravines to a plateau almost 1,000 feet higher. There, you find a campground, a lake and rental cabins. This is pretty much where the urban East ends and nowhere begins.
The Falls Trail was created around 1913 by a family named Ricketts as a privately owned tourist destination. The family upgraded the pathway and charged a dollar a car admission. Soon, people wanted to see the glen declared a national park, but the Depression intervened. The land was bought by the state of Pennsylvania and opened to the public in 1944.
Technically, the Falls Trail consists of four sections: The first, running from Pennsylvania Route 118 to Waters Meet, is in the actual Ricketts Glen. (“Glen” is the word they use for “ravine” here.) At Waters Meet, it forks, with Ganoga Glen continuing to the west and Glen Leigh to the east. Finally, the Highland Trail connects the high points of the two forks and closes the loop.
The walk begins with a warning sign reminding you that there are “steep and difficult sections” and “muddy and slippery conditions.” True enough, but there’s nothing to fear if you’ve got your hiking boots on and your food and water in a backpack so you can keep your hands free. Many of my fellow hikers were also using walking poles with great success.
The first falls I came upon were Murray Reynolds Falls, about a mile and a half from the parking lot. They were a pleasure to find, but by the time I’d reached the fourth set, the 47-foot-high Erie Falls, I wondered why I’d even paused for poor Murray. Ganoga Falls, almost twice as high as Erie, stopped me in my tracks yet again. This was nature putting on quite a show.
It was a steep climb to the top of Ganoga Glen, but conditions were in my favor, with a well-cleared path, stone steps in the rough spots and good signage pointing the way. After that, the almost-level Highland Trail seemed like a stroll through a city park. Though I was just minutes away from Kitchen Creek, the sound of rushing water was gone and the hammering of woodpeckers was the loudest noise in the forest.
After going through Midway Crevasse — a boulder formation with a deep crack running through it — I reached Glen Leigh. There, the route was no less spectacular, descending along, around and sometimes almost underneath the eastern fork of Kitchen Creek, passing eight more waterfalls. Not long afterward, I was back at Route 118 and in my car at the end of a tough and exhilarating day of hiking.
But Ricketts Glen State Park isn’t only the Falls Trail. Lake Jean and its beach represent the best swimming hole for miles around, and people from Scranton and Wilkes-Barre come up on summer afternoons as if it were the ocean. The campsites and cabins are also a quiet and inexpensive place for a nature-lover’s vacation.
For me, the feature that makes the surrounding area so interesting is the complete lack of other activities. It’s really quiet here. You can browse in a couple of antiques shops in nearby Benton, but people come here for nature: hiking, fishing, hunting or just sitting by a campfire.
Despite the quiet, you won’t starve here; the area is dotted with restaurants and taverns. While choosing my meals, I tried to stick to what I call “the ketchup rule”: I ordered only things that I’d normally put ketchup on. It worked. At local taverns and family restaurants, I did well with fried egg breakfasts, burgers and even liver and onions. At a barbecue truck down the road from the Falls Trail parking lot, the sauce took the place of ketchup, and the food was fine.
This isn’t the sort of place you’d visit if you were looking for luxury or glitz, but as so many other nearby natural areas get built up and gentrified, Ricketts Glen remains untouched — a place where those who want nothing more than a walk in the wilderness and a warm bed afterward can have an experience they’ll remember for a very long time.
221 Route 118
A local hiker-filled tavern/restaurant with clean, quiet rooms out back. Double rooms from about $55.
240 Main St.,
A comfortable bed-and-breakfast inn. Rooms from about $85.
817 Route 118,
Sweet Valley, Pa.
A simple country restaurant with solid breakfasts, burgers, fried-fish platters, ice cream, pies and more. Dinner entrees are about $10.
Corner of Routes 118 and 487
Red Rocks, Pa.
A food truck serving Texas-style barbecued beef and chicken. Platters are about $8.
695 Route 487, Benton
Contact the park for trail maps, information and conditions, as well as information on campsites, cabin rentals and boat rentals.
Yarvin is a food and travel writer based in New Jersey.