If you are looking for a tucked away, wildlife-rich, spotlessly maintained state park in Pennsylvania with really nice camping spots, Cowans Gap State Park might be your kind of place!
Note: I refresh Trip Reports each time we visit to add in new things we can share- so if you’ve seen it before, check it out again!
History & Location
The park is named for John Samuel Cowan. He & his wife were originally from Boston, but had settled near Chambersburg. On their way to make a home in Kentucky in the late 1700s,their wagon broke down in the area of the park. They traded what they had with a Tuscarora Indian Chief for the peaceful rights to the land, which officially became Cowans Gap State Park in 1937.
Cowans Gap is yet another state park that was built up primarily by the hard-working Civilian Conservation Corps. This group was created by Franklin Roosevelt to put young men back to meaningful work after the Depression. You can learn more about their history at the PA DCNR page dedicated to them.
Located just south of the PA Turnpike near Burnt Cabins, the park and its trails are situated around a beautiful small lake. It was easy to find, and the campground is easy to navigate.
Cowans Gap State Park has two distinct loops with 201 sites, including RV spaces, tent spots, and cabins.
Area A is closely packed and only partially pet-friendly. Area B is much more spaced out, has amazing lake views, and allows pets.
Most recently, we stayed at Site #89 in Area A. On the positive side for hiking, we could take a short (although quite weedy) path to meet Little Aughwick Creek and Plessinger Trail from our site. On the negative side, we were quite close to our neighbors.
In a previous visit, we had stayed in Site #185 in Area B.
If you have a choice, Area B is definitely where you want to be!
As you can see in the photo at the beginning of this Trip Report, Site #185 is spacious and shaded – plus it comes with a lake view.
PRO TIP for the Campground
While we had a great, pet-friendly spot across the road from a lake-view spot with one of the cleanest shower houses I’ve ever seen, the starred RV sites below (180, 184 & 186) in Area B offer the best views & most privacy- and you can check their availability here. They each even have their own pathways to the Lakeside Trail that stretches around the entire lake!
Campground map snippet from http://www.docs.dcnr.pa.gov/cs/groups/public/documents/document/dcnr_004759.pdf.
Trails & Wildlife
While the park itself covers a little over 1,000 acres within Buchanan State Forest, some of the trails stretch beyond its boundaries- including one we tackled a piece of, Tuscarora Trail.
While Tuscarora Trail is 110 miles long, you can do two miles of it inside the park heading up the mountain on rocky terrain. From there, you can connect to Geyer Trail for part of the descent to meet Cameron Trail for the remainder of the steep downhill, then finally meander along the creek on Plessinger Trail to create a challenging, wildlife-intense 4-5 mile loop. Plessinger meets Lakeside Trail to take you back to the campground.
That might sound convoluted, but it was not hard to connect the trails to each other (even though the distances cited on the map seemed slightly off to us).
On our first visit to the park, we did the loop clockwise with our dog Franklin. The first few miles on Tuscarora took us uphill over some interesting rock clusters.
On the hike up, Franklin ran over top of a copperhead snake, which thankfully slinked away after the run in (run over?).
Copperheads are poisonous & very common in this area & terrain, so be careful!
We had we been on the lookout, and I was able to get a partially-blocked shot of him in his hiding place:
That’s as close as I was willing to get!
Tuscarora Trail also had some nice rocky overlooks, which we enjoyed nervously after our encounter, believing our new snake friend could have relatives in the area. This is also the section we thought was longer than the estimated 1.5-2 miles it shows on the map- my mileage counter already had us at 2.4 miles at the intersection with Geyer Trail.
The walk downhill on Geyer & Cameron Trails was equally as edgy – and extremely steep!
By this time humidity had hit about 600%- can you tell?
Along these trails, we encountered a giant snakeskin that had recently been shed & a huge pile of bear poop!
Needless to say, we had seen enough wildlife & evidence of it for one day, but of course…
From the Plessinger Trail transition to the Lakeside Trail, we also encountered a few water snakes, including this one sunning himself:
After an action-packed hike, we were happy to return to the peaceful campground!
On our second trip to the park, we decided to cover the opposite side of the trail network.
This time, we took Plessinger Trail out of the campground towards the lake to meet Knobsville Road and Standing Stone Trails.
Knobsville Road Trail included some landslide history markers, as well as an old CCC incinerator site and a gorgeous lookout.
This trail is a long, steady incline before Standing Stone Trail continues the climb and slowly turns into one of the most aptly-named trails we’ve ever hiked:
Our newest dog Hazel, who wasn’t around the first time we visited the park, was able to get in on the rock scrambling fun this time.
To return to the campground in this loop, you’ll have to go down the absolutely precarious, straight-up-and-down Horseshoe Trail.
When we visited in mid-August, Horseshoe Trail was extremely dry, rocky, and difficult to hike without causing small rock slides. In wetter weather, you might be hiking down a small runoff creek.
Once we made it down in one piece, we took Tuscarora and Lakeside Trails back to the campground, creating about a 4 1/2 to 5 mile total loop.
Events & Extras
On our first visit, we enjoyed a free concert at the park. Their event schedule often includes things like arts, bats, music, and photography- so you & your crew will probably be able to find something that they like.
If you’re there during the summer, there’s also a public sand beach along the lake (but no pets allowed- boo!).
PIT STOP! Donut Rebellion
If you are headed west home from the park, you’ll want to get off about an hour along on the PA Turnpike at Exit #146 to Bedford.
This town has a little bit of everything, including boutiques, souvenirs, and coffee, but mainly you’ll want to stop at Donut Rebellion on West Pitt Street.
Their creative and scrumptious signature donuts are not to be missed!
Russ and I shared two- the Patriot (vanilla icing with red, white, and blue sprinkes) and Stars & Stripes (glazed with a raspberry drizzle and red, white, and blue stars).
All that sugar gave us plenty of energy to stroll around the little shops in town and make it the rest of the way home!
The Last Word
We enjoy Cowans Gap State Park so much, we’ve already visited twice!
Can you recommend a park or any places along the way we should stop?
Hazel’s all ears.