Hiking Pennsylvania: the Falls Trail in Ricketts Glen State Park

Sometimes, things not going as expected can be great. My husband and I planned an overnight on the Black Forest Trail late last month, and the weather called for 35-45º temperatures with non-stop rain on the first day. We packed up, hit the trail, and after five miles, we made the mutual decision to bail; it was just too cold and wet to make it any type of fun to spend a night in the woods.

After we got back to our car, we spent a few hours licking our wounds at the New Trail Brewing Company (highly recommended), and found a bed and breakfast to stay at that would give us a chance to visit a trail system that will always have a special place in my heart the following day.

It's impossible not to fall in love with this place. Trust me.

Ricketts Glen State Park is home to a National Natural Landmark, wild waterfalls, old growth timber, and diverse wildlife. It's also one of the first places I hiked when I moved to Philadelphia, and the 2.5h drive makes it a tough day trip. But we were already far from home thanks to our planned Black Forest adventure, and I couldn't think of a better place to spend a day in autumn.

Getting to the Rt. 118 Trailhead, and Other Options

Hikers with an interest in the Falls Trail typically have two options - start at the Lake Rose parking area and hike the 3.2 mile loop, or do what we did, which is to park here on Rt. 118 and hike up Kitchen Creek to Waters Meet, then complete the loop, a 6-mile lollipop shaped route. The Route 118 parking lot is massive, but the park is extremely popular, so it can help to go with a backup plan in case your chosen parking lot is full. But in my experience, the Rt. 118 parking lot doesn't fill as quickly as Lake Rose.

There are more trails in the park providing access to the loop, including the Old Beaver Dam Road Trail and Beach Lot #2 Trailhead, which can be helpful to know during busy times. This map provides details about the trails, and where they all do or don't intersect.

Hiking from Rt. 118 to Waters Meet

Ricketts Glen is an incredible beautiful, special place, and that's obvious as soon as you step on the trail. It's a little over a mile from Rt. 118 to Waters Meet, and the first ~0.75 miles are along relatively flat, meandering terrain. Kitchen Creek is gorgeous, especially in the fall, and the majority of the trail in this spot lets hikers walk side by side.

Walking along the trail from Rt. 118 to Waters Meet, crossing Kitchen Creek.

Within ~0.5 miles, hikers have an option to take a trail along the creek, or head up a small hill to follow a trail in the woods. The trails meet at the first named waterfall, Murray Reynolds (16'), and the only real difference between the two is that the section marked as more difficult is narrower and rockier. We took the more difficult section on our way up to Waters Meet, then took the branch marked moderate on the way down for a change of scenery.

Hiking up next to Harrison Wright (27'), the third named waterfall on our route. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

The second waterfall along the trail to Waters Meet is Sheldon Reynolds (36'), which is one of my favorites, likely because it's the first relatively big one and sets the stage for what's to come. Harrison Wright (27') is next, and it's the last one before the official Falls Trail loop. Part of why we chose the to do the lollipop version of the hike is you'll miss those three waterfalls if you choose to just do the loop.

Hiking the Falls Trail Loop

Whether you opt for the lollipop like we did, or just do the loop, you're in for a treat.  There are ten named waterfalls on the western side of the loop, which is the side we saw first, going clockwise. Coming up from Waters Meet, the first set of waterfalls hikers see on the first 0.25 miles of the loop includes, in order, Erie (47'), Tuscarora (47'), and Conestoga (17').

Walking up the trail next to Erie (47'). 

The trail steadily climbs in between waterfalls, which makes sense; whether you go clockwise or counterclockwise on the loop, you're climbing up a steep gorge for either the second or first half of the hike. The sections of trail adjacent to the waterfalls can be quite steep and slippery from the spray, but every time I've been to Ricketts Glen, taking my time hasn't been an issue. It's not a trail you want to rush, both due to the terrain and because there's always the impulse to stop and look around!

Mohican (39') from a distance.

Continuing clockwise along the trail, the next grouping of waterfalls includes Mohican (39'), Delaware (37'), and Seneca (12'), of which Mohican is my personal favorite. At this point in the hike, we'd seen maybe a dozen people, which is incredibly rare for Ricketts Glen in general. On summer hikes, we've had to wait behind caravans of people climbing stairs adjacent to some of the falls, and all of the parking lots are completely full. I attributed the absence of people to our relatively early (9am) start, and the previous day's 1.5" of rain. But whatever the reason, it was amazing to be there during autumn without the crowds!

Standing at the bottom of Ganoga (94'). (PC: D. Herscovitch)

About 400' up from Seneca (12'), hikers moving clockwise come to Ganoga (94'), the largest of the falls by a good margin. It drops down in two distinct sections, narrower at the top and wider at the bottom. From my vantage point in the photo above, I was getting pelted by mist from the cascading water, and that combined with 40-50º temperatures meant I wasn't standing there for very long.

The trail up past Ganoga (94') is steep, but from there, hikers can look forward three more waterfalls spaced over the next ~0.3 miles. Cayuga (11'), Oneida (13'), and Mohawk (37') are the last three before the Old Beaver Dam Road Trail junction. Continuing the loop clockwise, hikers turn right and use this wide, flat trail for 0.2 miles until another intersection with the Highland Trail.

The signage in the park is fantastic, but I'd still recommend picking up a brochure or printing this map before you go.

Along the 1.2 mile traverse of the Highland Trail, hikers pass Midway Crevasse, a slot cut through tall cliffs. It's smooth sailing on this section of the loop; it's not nearly as rocky as the rest of the loop, the trail is wide, and it covers mostly flat ground. After those 1.2 miles, there's a clear sign pointing in the direction of the Falls Trail, and a right turn indicates there's no more ascending to do. From here, hikers drop back down into deep canyons with more beautiful waterfalls to see.

F.L. Ricketts (38'), the second waterfall on the way back down toward Waters Meet from the Highland Trail.

The first is Onondaga (15'), followed shortly after by F.L. Ricketts (38'), Shawnee (30'), and Huron (41').  We saw hikers going in both directions on our hike, most of whom had come from the Lake Rose Trailhead parking area, and as we descended, I was glad we went the way we did. The falls on both sides are beautiful, but going clockwise, hikers approach Ganoga from below rather than having to hike down a steep trail and turn around to see it. The clockwise route also takes hikers down a less steep route, which I found easier to navigate and easier on my knees!

R. B. Ricketts (36')

After passing Huron, continuing down, the last four waterfalls before hikers end up back at Waters Meet are Ozone (60'), R.B. Ricketts (36'), B. Reynolds (40'), and Wyandot (15'). R.B. Ricketts is my favorite, but all four make the end of the loop just as spectacular as the rest of the route. From this point, hikers backtrack along the trail to Rt. 118 from Waters Meet to complete the loop, and descend back down along Kitchens Creek to the Rt. 118 parking lot.

Things to Know Before You Go

This park is extremely popular, especially on nice days in seasons when you'd expect to find a lot of people on the trail. If you're planning to camp at Ricketts Glen, sites fill up fast, so plan accordingly. If you're just going for the day, plan to arrive as early as possible to snag a parking spot, and have a backup plan in case your first choice lot is full.

You have a lot of options. Take a look at our entire 6-mile route (which it looks like the most current brochure says is 7.2 miles), and if that's not for you, start at the Lake Rose Trailhead or the beach lots, and just do the 3.2 loop without the out from and back to Rt. 118 section. There are also numerous other hiking trails in the park that often get overlooked due to the Falls Trail System's popularity.

If you're hiking any part of the Falls Trail System, you need to wear sturdy (ideally waterproof) hiking boots or shoes with grippy soles, not sneakers, sandals, or street shoes. The trail is super slippery in spring, summer, and fall, even if it hasn't rained recently. The waterfall spray keeps the trails and rocks wet in some spots, and on our recent trip there, we saw evidence of trail erosion. With that in mind...

Stay on marked trails. It's a rule of thumb always, but it's super important in places that see a lot of visitors. Don't cause damage to the surrounding areas by taking shortcuts between trails and switchbacks, and don't walk around puddles.

Who's been here, and in what season? Are you planning a trip here? I'd love to hear from you!

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