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!
History & Location
The park is named for John Samuel Cowan, whose wagon broke down there. He & his wife traded what they had with a Tuscarora Indian Chief for the peaceful rights to the land. It is also another state park that was built primarily by the hard-working Civilian Conservation Corps, a group 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, the park & its trails are situated around a beautiful small lake. It was easy to find & the campground was easy to navigate once we arrived.
PRO TIP for the Campground
While we had a great, pet-friendly spot across the road from a lake-view spot in Campground B with one of the cleanest shower houses I’ve ever been in, the starred RV sites below (180, 184 & 186) 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 mountain on rocky terrain, 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. Plessenger meets Lakeside Trail to take you back to your campground.
That might sound convoluted, but it was not hard to connect the trails to each other (even though the distances seemed slightly off to us).
We did the loop clockwise with our dog Franklin, and the first few miles on Tuscarora were uphill over some interesting rock clusters.
On the uphill, Franklin ran over top of a copperhead snake, which thankfully slinked away. Copperheads are poisonous & very common in this area & terrain, so we had been on the lookout. I was able to get a partially-blocked shot of him:
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 estimated on our map- my mileage counter had us at 2.4 miles to the first intersection we wanted to take with Geyer Trail.
The walk downhill on Geyer & Cameron Trails were equally as edgy – and extremely steep! Not to mention, by this time humidity had hit about 600%- can you tell?
Once we calmed down slightly, 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!
Events & Extras
We also enjoyed a free concert at the park. Their upcoming event schedule includes arts, bats, music, and photography- so you & your crew will probably be able to find something that they like going on in the park. If you’re there during the summer, they even have a public sand beach along the lake (but no pets allowed- boo!).
Will Cowans Gap be added to our Top 3 PA State Parks List after this year’s road trips? We’ll see- but it was definitely the wildest so far!