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Is Ricketts Glen America’s Greatest Waterfall Destination?

By Johnny Molloy • May 20, 2018 at 4:30 AM

Visiting the 21 named falls of Ricketts Glen State Park over a nearly 7-mile hiking loop is considered by many to be America’s greatest waterfall experience. At this Pennsylvania state park, you will head up Kitchen Creek and a tributary, seeing fall after fall, cataract after cataract, on a remarkable trail system that has to be walked upon to be truly appreciated.

For some waterfall hikers Ricketts Glen State Park is all they need. Why? There simply is no other place that compares to this place where not only can you enjoy 21 named waterfalls, but also see old growth forest and one of the finest state parks in the entire country.

For not only is the natural scenery at Ricketts Glen State Park stunning the outdoor recreation opportunities here are numerous. The park presents a campground, cabins and cottages for overnight pleasure. These accommodations are snapped up during the summertime.

In addition, Ricketts Glen State Park offers not only waterfall-laden streams but also an alluring lake. Here, water enthusiasts can swim at a beach during summer or fish 245-acre Lake Jean. Boaters can tool around on the water. Canoes, kayaks rowboats and paddle boats are available for rent should you want to explore the impoundment that feeds the waterfalls of Ricketts Glen.

Hiking the Falls Trail is undoubtedly the most popular pastime at Ricketts Glen. Yet there are other pathways for both hikers and equestrians. A total of 26 miles of trails course through the park, where the forests are lush and the game is plentiful. This is wild country — bears are known to roam Ricketts Glen.

But Ricketts Glen has always been a wild place. Back in 1868, Colonel R. Bruce Ricketts bought this tract along Kitchen Creek — and an additional 80,000 acres in order to harvest its timber.

Word got back to Col. Ricketts that the streams through his land not only were good for fishing but perhaps more importantly housed a stunning number of waterfalls in addition to old growth pines oaks and hemlocks. He did not harvest trees along the waterfalls of Kitchen Creek, instead built a trail system whereby the waterfalls can be visited.

Later, his descendants sold a huge swath of land to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, but not the falls area. However, in 1942 the falls area was sold to Pennsylvania to create a state park. More land was purchased around the falls until the 13,000-acre park was fully realized.

Over the decades, facilities of Ricketts Glen State Park have improved and continue to progress. Yet the waterfalls themselves cannot be improved upon. Taken in their entirety it is hard to believe this many scenic cataracts can be found in such close proximity to one another.

Thus, it is easy to see why for some waterfallers believe they need no other destination than Ricketts Glen. And the hike is a Pennsylvania classic, a must do American trail endeavor.

The trek starts at the large PA 118 highway parking area. The Falls Trail begins making its way up Kitchen Creek on a wide and well-maintained path, designed to handle significant foot traffic. A little over a mile into the hike you reach your first waterfall — Murray Reynolds Falls. Colonel Rickett named many of the waterfalls for friends, family members and American Indian tribes.

You pass two more cataracts before coming to a spot known as Waters Meet, the point where Kitchen Creek and a tributary creating Ganoga Glen come together. The hike then heads up the vale of Ganoga Glen, visiting a series of mindboggling waterfalls including 94-foot Ganoga Falls, a towering shower of white. Other dischargers in myriad forms are showcased in Ganoga Glen — 10 named waterfalls in all.

After climbing a thousand feet, the circuit hike then joins the Highland Trail as it works its way atop the Allegheny Plateau in rich woodlands pocked with rock outcrops. One of these formations is known as Midway Crevice.

Ultimately, you return to Kitchen Creek where you are now heading downstream, passing still more waterfalls taking multiple forms. You will also undoubtedly appreciate the remarkable stonework that was undertaken to enable hikers a way through the gorge that is a geological wonder.

In some places, the pathway takes you directly alongside the cataracts themselves. The whole adventure is thrilling — not only the waterfalls, not only the trails, but the entire experience that is the Falls Trail at Ricketts Glen.

The waterfalls along this stretch of Kitchen Creek range from 15 to 60 feet in height. Some are tall like Ozone Falls while others are wide such as Wyandot Falls. Undoubtedly, you will find a waterfall that truly captures your fancy.

My two favorites are Ganoga Falls simply due to its huge majestic drop and sizable plunge area and R.B. Ricketts Falls with its double drop complemented by a tributary of Kitchen Creek plummeting into the same plunge pool as does R.B. Ricketts Falls.

A word of caution: since this is a spectacular hike, the trailheads can fill quickly, especially the ones leaving from the high country near Lake Jean. These upper trailheads allow a shorter, smaller loop to be undertaken, where you see 18 of the 21 waterfalls.

However, when coming here go for the classic, the most rewarding event and start your hike down at the PA 118 trailhead. There is a little bit of backtracking but you get to see all 21 waterfalls and experience the prodigious natural beauty found in the gorges of Kitchen Creek and Ganoga Glen.

Give yourself plenty of time, especially if you are a photographer. In fact, waterfall hikers planning to take many pictures can expect the hike to take 10 or 12 hours — no joke. Casual hikers snapping quick shots with their phones will take but four or five hours.

Also, try to come here during off times such as early in the morning or during the weekday. The trail is closed during winter because the mist from the waterfalls renders the trails icy to the extreme, making them downright dangerous. However, properly equipped ice climbers and hikers can make arrangements for passage with the park office.

The trails around the waterfalls are usually wet. Proper footwear is essential. Trekking poles can really help here. Do not wear flip-flops or sandals. Remember the hike does require a 1,000-foot elevation change if making the full loop. Finally, make sure and have a good time, for the experience at Ricketts Glen is what waterfall hiking is all about!

For more information, check out my book Hiking Waterfalls in Pennsylvania, or Pennsylvania state parks.

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