Gillespie Point (Pine Creek)

On Saturday I managed to fly fish for an hour in the bitter winds along the Allegheny River, catching and releasing one rainbow trout and losing another. Not much for some, but enough inspiration to continue my outdoor weekend. Sunday, I would head out to the Pine Creek Valley in northern Pennsylvania and climb to Gillespie Point.DSCN7647

The weather was cloudless, beautiful for early February, with the temperature climbing into the forties. It was Superbowl Sunday, a time guaranteed to keep the sports fans off the hiking trails and within striking distance of the beer and chips, the televisions and tabbouli salad.

For years I had passed through the village of Blackwell, Pennsylvania on my way to and from some favorite trout streams in the area. Until recently, I had never been aware that Gillespie Point had lorded over Blackwell and the Pine Creek Valley like an ageless Geologic King.



I’d been wanting to make the hike for several years. I wasn’t getting any younger. It was time to get acquainted.

Gillespie Point, called the “Pennsylvania Matterhorn” by some overly imaginative locals, is an anomaly among the high hills of northern PA’s Allegheny Plateau. Its triangular shape is almost a perfect cone, a classic mountain shape although its bare, exposed summit has an elevation of only 2258 feet. One can glimpse the cone-shaped hill some 20 miles downstream. Among the typically long, flat ridges of Pennsylvania, Gillespie Point is a geographic rarity.Gillespie Point

Starting at Big Run Road on the outskirts of Blackwell, PA, I climbed through a half mile of deciduous forest (with occasional views of dying American chestnut trees) while the morning air was brisk and bright. The well-marked trail is steep and angular. The second half of the ascent begins when the hiker reaches the mountain shoulder and the trail turns sharply to the left (north).DSCN7598

The climb along the shoulder to the summit is gradual and more relaxed, though it could feel tiring if the body’s not in shape. A white birch grove can be seen near the summit, and I found it occupied by a flock of birds– mostly chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and brown creeper.DSCN7607

At fifty-five minutes into the climb, including frequent pauses to catch my breath, I reached the summit, glad that I wasn’t wearing extra clothing for warmth. A Cooper’s hawk sailed across the airscape out in front of me, and for a moment I felt like I was being lifted free of gravity from the rocky pinnacle. Ah, the power of a small gray predator in flight!DSCN7611

The hiker at Gillespie Point has nearly a full-circle view of the terrain. Pine Creek can be seen flowing to the south. The Babb Creek Valley sweeps in from the north, and Cedar Mountain sprawls across the western landscape. Directly below the western flank of this summit lies the village of Blackwell and its access to the Pine Creek Gorge.DSCN7628

The trail to the point coincides with Pennsylvania’s Mid State Trail, and one can venture onward from the summit by descending the eastern slope to Big Run Road. Then, turning to the right, the hiker can complete a circuit trail along the gravel road back to Blackwell and the starting point. By doing the circuit trail, the hiker can add another hour or so to the time of climbing to Gillespie Point .

I retraced my steps to the village because I also wanted to explore the lower Pine Creek Gorge just north of Blackwell. I’d be scouting it for hiking and fishing options later in the season.

What I like about short hikes to places like Gillespie Point is that I can have a goal in mind and easily obtain it with a single outing. In my youth, I liked to make the long haul with a backpack and to camp for a few nights. But it often felt like I had something else to DSCN7625prove. I was missing something from those longer jaunts between points A and B. I wasn’t pausing long enough to fish maybe, or to study the birds, or just to relax. I was looking for the inexplicable.

I find that the short hikes into the wild are at least as satisfying as the three-day haul. Besides, they’re a whole lot easier at my grizzled age.

Hiking to a place like Gillespie Point is like fishing a small stream versus trying to fathom a large river or a deep lake. Exploring a small stream or a small mountain can be intimate, a one-on-one with nature, an opportunity to assess the character of a place. It seems easier than doing a thru-hike or casting on water whose far bank is barely noticeable.DSCN7637

Suggestion? Learn the wild spots near or far away. Learn them through the words of others, then really get to learn them and enjoy them with a foot on the trail or in the water.





About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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26 Responses to Gillespie Point (Pine Creek)

  1. Bob Stanton says:

    What an awesome vantage point to take in the Pine Creek valley, definitely gonna have to check it out. Say, is there an acid remediation project on Babb? I thought I had heard that the commission had started stocking it again, but I might be misremembering again. That seems to happen with increasing frequency.

    • Bob, It’s definitely worth the climb! And yes, a big remediation project began on Babb Creek in the 1990s, neutralizing the heavy acid content from years of coal mining upstream of Morris. The project has been successful, in concert with a lot of environmental organizations. There was a steep financial price, but more importantly, Babb Creek is healthy once again. There are wild trout upstream of Morris and, I think, the lower end has been stocked with trout. At least that was the plan. Not certain that stocking has occurred as yet.

  2. Brent says:

    That looks like a great little hike! What would you say: maybe 3 hours round trip with stops to appreciate the surroundings? I wouldn’t mind visiting that one myself this spring or summer.

    • Brent, Yeah, in three hours you could actually take your time and climb not only to the point but go beyond it to complete the circuit back along Big Run Road. The hike is both energizing and relaxing. You guys would like it!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Very nice account of your ramble Walt. I never new that one could fly fish for trout thru the winter months. I always waited for April 1st.
    Keep on hiking,

    • Hi Pete,
      Thanks! One can winter fly fish in PA on most waters if you practice catch and release only. The same holds for a limited number of streams/rivers in NY, though not as many. And the weather has been warm enough so far (but soon to change!).

  4. Of all the times I’ve been to Blackwell, and all the sections of the Black Forest Trail I’ve hiked (some of that was backpacking more than 25 years ago!) why have I never hiked up Gillespie Point? I’ve seen it so many times. How can you not? Thanks for the inspiration, Walt. I’ll have to head up that way before Spring hits (but after this brutal cold).

    • Hey David,
      You know, I’ve asked myself the very same question. Hell, I’ve been driving past it for some 30 years, have seen the hill from way downstream, and yet I never bothered to stop. Sometimes I can’t figure out our species, plain and simple, but David, you should check it out the next time you’re slowly passing through. It doesn’t take long, but is surely worth it. Thanks!

  5. plaidcamper says:

    Walt, I thoroughly enjoyed this ascent up the Pennsylvania Matterhorn. What a feeling to be grizzled and conquering the Matterhorn in mere hours…no one has to know the finer details. And such details in your descriptions and photographs! Bears already?
    Short but strenuous jaunt, exercise and an empty trail? The valley views? Now there is a real super bowl, and Franklin touches down.

  6. My bad, Adam, I feel like I set a trap. A bear trap!

  7. Les Kish says:

    What a grand view of the “Big Sky Country” of Pennsylvania Walt. That green roadbed/trail sure looks inviting.

    • Les, I hadn’t thought of it as Big Sky country before, but it might be as close to MT as PA will get. The trail on top has a lot of moss on it, and it does feel outdoor cozy there. Thanks!

  8. David,
    A mid-April hike should be enjoyable!

  9. Walt those sure don’t look like winter pictures. Nice hike!

  10. Mark W says:

    Walt thanks for sharing your hike with us. I found it interesting that there is actually an angular “mountain” in that area that is not a flat-topped plateau like rest of the area. Backpacking through that area many years ago, I was struck by lack of “peaks”. It looked like the rivers carved out the valleys of a high plateau rather than rock being folded upwards. I wonder if the geology of Gillespie Point is different in someway than the surrounding hilltops?

    • As you say, Mark, a lot of northern PA in this region has been carved out by the streams and rivers pushing through a high plateau, a process that probably began at the retreat of the last ice age when the northward flowing rivers were blocked and forced to reverse their flow. I know that a lot of the escarpments along the Pine Creek ridges are sandstone based as is Gillespie Point, although I should check on that. I’m not that sharp on geological matters. GP is a local anomaly. I don’t think it was formed by an upward fold separate from surrounding ridges, but now that you’ve asked, I want to check on that. Thank you for your thoughts!

  11. loydtruss says:

    Absolutely stunning scenery, with some beautiful streams to fish along the way; one doesn’t need gym time when making these journeys.
    The Titmice and Chickadees are species I see quite often at my feeders. I assume you had your feel glasses with you; what power do you use on your hikes? Thanks for taking all us on this journey, really enjoyed the post!!

    • Thanks Bill! Walks like this help to keep the old bod in decent shape. Around here the winter walks usually don’t reveal a lot of bird life, so it was nice to encounter a local group of our feathered friends in this manner. I usually have a pair of binoculars with me. I favor the powerful 10X on most walks, but when I’m carrying other stuff I sometimes like to use the little Celestron 4 x 30 which is light and quick and easy on the draw. Around the house, 7 power is a good all-around glass.

  12. Ken G says:

    My knees having been telling me lately that I might be best built for the flat lands of Illinois, but my brain wants to still hike up a little mountain like this.

    That’s what prescription Ibuprofen is for, isn’t it?

    Thanks for the hike Walt, I enjoyed it immensely and didn’t have to take any pills when done.

    • Ken,
      I almost took a picture of a sign in the village where I began. It simply said, “Flatlanders Welcome.” You’d be welcome to give your knees a healthy work out here and, like me, have a couple Ibuprofen handy on the return. I’m a bit older than you and know what you mean. Just not ready to say, as yet, that I’m done. That time will come soon enough. Luckily for us, there’s a lot of flatland pleasure besides the climb. Good to hear from you!

      • Ken G says:

        Hitting the big six OH this year Walt. Still in decent shape, but determined to do a little better. The wife has recently mentioned a few times that she’d like to head out northeast to see those little mountains, caught me by surprise. Glad to know us Flatlanders are welcome.

  13. Ken, those little mountains and their trout streams will do one of two things for you– forget that you’re turning 60 years, or really underscore the fact. I’ll bet on the former!

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