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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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 prove. 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.
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.