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State park vacations can be inexpensive, yet grand

Mike Bleech Outdoors Columnist

A week ago we started a circuit around Pennsylvania looking at some of our favorite state parks starting with a stop at the Pine Creek Gorge at Leonard Harrison State Park, then a series of spectacular waterfalls at Rickets Glenn, then on to a Revolutionary War iron foundry at French Creek State Park. This week we look at the final three: Ohiopyle State Park, Presque Isle State Park and Cook Forest State Park.

Ohiopyle State Park is situated quite close to our southern border including that with Maryland and West Virginia. The park headquarters and the community of Ohiopyle can be reached by turning north from U.S. Route 40 onto State Route 381 at Farmington, in Fayette County.

The centerpiece of this park is Ohiopyle Falls and the Youghiogheny River Gorge. Other waterfalls, including the Meadow Run Waterslides, are scattered around the park. This is a premier whitewater rafting destination. Trout fishing in the Yough’ is excellent. Scenery is spectacular. One of several nearby places to visit is Mount Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania.

This park is unusual in that it has a bustling community at its center. Businesses here are set up to cater to park visitors, especially river rafters who can hire guide services. Outfitters support activities including hiking, mountain biking, camping and wildlife watching. Be sure to drive north from Ohiopyle to visit Falling Water, a creation of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Now we turn north to visit Cook Forest State Park, which straddles the border between Clarion County and Forest County. This beautiful park lies along the Clarion River which is an excellent canoeing waterway. The stars of this park, though, are trees, some of the grandest in the East. The giant Longfellow Pine is the tallest tree in the East north of the Great Smokey Mountains. Several state record trees stand in this old growth forest. Most famous is the Forest Cathedral, a stand of majestic old white pine and hemlock.

Canoeing, hiking, fishing, there are endless things to do at Cook Forest. Just take State Route 36 to park headquarters in Cooksburg.

Our final highlighted park has no camping, but it is an easy day trip from Warren County. Presque Isle State Park is our window to Canada. The park is formed by a unique sand spit that is an unusual ecosystem with plants and animals that are rare in this state. There is no better place for birding in Pennsylvania during spring and fall migrations. Sunsets and amazing.

The Tom Ridge Environmental Center adjacent to the park is well worth a visit. Allow at least a couple of hours, and maybe enjoy a movie.

Highlighting these six state parks does not necessarily mean these will be your favorite state parks. By focusing on your own special interests you might come up with a completely different list. Pennsylvania has many scenic places, many historic places. One of our state parks, Bucktail State Park is a highway, State Route 120, which is understandable once you drive this route.

For a young family on a budget, or a couple of puffs of hot air who really enjoy the outdoors, a camping vacation to one, or several, state parks, can be a very rewarding outdoor adventure. Various parks offer facilities ranging from primitive camping to partly furnished cabins, all for very reasonable prices.

Start planning a state park vacation at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources web site, www.dcnr.pa.gov. On the opening page click on LEARN MORE, then on the next page click on State Parks. Everything is self explanatory from this point. You can locate parks, look for specific activities, make camping reservations, and generally become a state park expert.

Try a theme vacation such as birding, hiking, fishing or waterfalls.

Make reservations as soon as possible. Camp sites fill quickly on peak vacation days. Cabins tend to fill long in advance at popular parks. Taking a vacation outside of the regular vacation season can make reservations easier to find.

Look over park maps to familiarize yourself with the area. Most likely you will find places you want to see but were not aware of before seeing a park map. The map brochure usually gives directions to the park from major highways. State highway maps generally show the locations of state parks.

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