Hiking Amongst Waterfalls in Lehigh Gorge State Park
Needing a weekend away from the city, The Beard and I packed our car to the ceiling with our camping accoutrements and bid adieu to Philadelphia for a few nights one warm July evening.
Our destination: Lehigh Gorge State Park, a mere 90 minutes away from Philadelphia. My love for Pennsylvania's state parks somehow never brought me to this particular part of the state (Delaware Water Gap excluded), I shamefully admit. Being so close to Philadelphia, it was one of those parks I had on the backburner as one I'd get to eventually.
"Eventually" turned into months, and months into a year. A slew of bad luck and a need to distance ourselves from routine led us to our camp, and we drew deep breaths to welcome the respite from misfortune. We had one trail on our mind: The Glen Onoko Falls and Lehigh Gorge Overlook Trail. Thanks to my newfound obsession with the AllTrails app, I had been creeping on this trail during my downtime at work, determined to give it a try as soon as I could step out of my heels and into hiking boots.
The Glen Onoko Falls Trail is the shining star of Lehigh Gorge State Park, despite ample warnings of the hike's intensity and "treachery" speckled throughout the trail. Kids in Crocs and their flip-flop wearing moms whizzed by, so I thought perhaps even my hiking sandals were a bit too much. But by the third "hey, you could die" sign, I turned around and switched out of my Chaco's into a sturdier pair of boots. I'm not a total ditz on the trail, but I do take warnings seriously.
To the left of the trail head was a set of rocky stairs; to the right, what looked like a much friendlier start to the hike. We chose the latter, but would soon find out that either choice would work our legs tired within less than an hour. The only difference was how soon we'd see the waterfalls everyone loved so much. We chose to tack on the Lehigh Gorge Overlook to our hike, which added about two more miles to our journey.
No matter which way you take, the trail ticks upward for a good mile without so much as a whisper of a switchback. The frequency of mid-trail boulders made me thankful for the footwear exchange.
After a series of huffing and frequent water breaks, we made it to a small lookout - a waypoint to let us know we reached the top.
Hikers can either choose to continue on Falls Trail or follow a not-so-well marked trail along the ridge of the mountain that would lead us to the Lehigh Gorge Overlook. We chose the latter. But, because the trail markings are few and far between for this portion of the trail, we found ourselves having to follow our footsteps backwards until our route matched the outline on the AllTrails app.
Along the way, The Beard spotted a luna moth just off the trail. Although this species is considered common, they only live for about a week in their gorgeous adult stage, so seeing one (to me) was nearly the same as spotting a fairy.
We could tell he was nearing the end of his life. Ty picked him up without a flap of the wing and he seemed as curious about us as we did about him. I like to pretend he was enjoying our company before his final departure.
Finally back on track, we ambled through thick blueberry patches on mostly-level trail, singing and talking all along the way to make our presence known to bears. Nobody else joined us on this part of the trail, so we slipped a few dirty lyrics into our favorite John Denver songs. When I wasn't offending Mr. Denver's memory, I tasted a few wild blueberries and meandered through the dense barcode of trees.
The level path continued for a mile until opening into a campsite clearing. Just off the side of this clearing was the welcoming sight of the Lehigh Gorge Overlook.
The Lehigh River cut into a landscape marked with surprisingly little evidence of a human population. Railroad tracks followed alongside the water like a little sister chasing her wiser sibling. The smallest towns smeared edge of the valley, accompanied by power lines that shaved through the forest. Still, it was hard to imagine that city life was just a short car ride away. The only sounds we could hear were bird songs and our own breathing.
We carried on into the second half of our hike - a portion that looked like a service road. Being exposed at the top of the mountain at high noon was the least appealing part of the trail, but it felt like a much-needed resting period on level ground.
The trail carved back into the forest after less than a mile and I was thankful for the break from the sun. We followed the trail markers down towards our waterfall destination.
Can I take a minute here to talk about graffiti in the outdoors? I recently posted a photo in the Girls Who Hike PA Facebook Group of a graffiti-clad stone on this very trail and let me tell you, that post blew up. Some women called the markings "shameful," while others fiercely defended the graffiti as "art."
I think the answer here is simple: if it violates the Leave No Trace code of conduct, don’t do it. Graffiti has a time and a place and, with no shortage of talent, can be gorgeous and even poignant. The outdoors is already a considered a dumping ground by people with less empathy. Don’t add to the garbage just to celebrate your ego. I’m looking at you, Casey Nocket.
A few more steps into our journey and we landed on the real money-makers: the waterfalls, each more stunning than the last. We carefully admired the milky-smooth water and, like good little hikers, heeded all the warning signs. If I don’t remember Glen Onoko for the falls, I’ll certainly remember it for the “You might die” signs.
Cascades of water tumbled across slick stones with a low, yet powerful hum. Small creeks murmured as they chased one another to the next fall, where eventually they’d join the chorus.
We chase solitude on every trail, but the popularity of Glen Onoko’s gorgeous backdrop of waterfalls simply did not allow for us to enjoy the scenery on our own. Still, even if I couldn’t snap a picture of the roaring falls without someone wandering into the frame, every trail keeps some of its more stunning moments tucked away into its lesser-known, lesser-photographed parts.
We were welcomed back by the familiar sight of the first "Turn back or potentially die" sign and closed the loop of the Glen Onoko Falls and Lehigh Gorge Overlook Trail. Our clothes were damp with sweat and our lungs filled with the smogless air of not-Philadelphia. All in, we spent close to three hours on a relatively short trail since the sights and sounds encouraged us to remain still and simply be.