I was recently invited to attend a three-day tourism conference at the gorgeous Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in the Laurel Highlands region. Centered around creating networking opportunities between travel writers like myself and the tourism boards who sponsored us, the conference featured several activities planned for us so that we could network in a relaxed environment. These activities also gave us the opportunity to spend a good part of each day exploring the region who was our host. One of my favorite experiences, however, actually took place after the conference had ended: finally getting to witness the well-known Cucumber Falls in Ohiopyle State Park.
One thing that I’ve found to be almost universally true about travel is that the closer that you live to a regional attraction, the more likely it is that you will take it for granted… and potentially never visit it. This is exactly what happened with me and making the scenic drive from Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle to see Cucumber Falls. I’ve lived in this area for well over ten years now, and have visited Ohiopyle and the Laurel Highlands quite a few times… but until this trip I had never made the five minute drive from Ohiopyle to see the Falls!
That was very nearly the case yet again after the conference ended. One thing Pittsburgh is unfortunately well-known for is our more-than-fair amount of grey weather. That Thursday was no different – a solid blanket of gloom hung overhead all morning, gloom that turned into the steady sort of rain that ruins outdoor activities. I had hoped to spend my free time that afternoon hunting vista points from which to photograph the area for a different blog idea I have in mind, but the weather quickly put the kibosh on that.
Feeling mildly dejected about this turn of events, I settled into a comfortable seat at the large picture window in Fuel Coffee Works with a steaming mug of Cafe Americano. I set up my laptop and started to work on catching up on emails and messages. Not long after I was up and running, Jim from UncoveringPA walked in and sat just a bit down the bar from me. We had met at the conference, and after chatting a bit and commiserating about the weather, he too settled in to get some work done.
After about an hour of productive misery, it was clear that no matter how long I waited, the weather simply was not going to break. It was probably best that I pack up and head home. It was as I was packing my stuff that Jim asked his fateful question:
“Where are you headed from here?”
I mumbled some mealy-mouthed answer about how I might go searching for overlooks to photograph, and he suggested that I go check out Cucumber Falls. I’ll spare you the back and forth conversation, but he talked me into heading over there after I stopped at Baughman Rock Overlook. I’m so glad that he did.
As you can see, conditions at the Overlook were not very good for providing me with the sweeping views of the Laurel Highlands and Ohiopyle State Park I so strongly desired. I took a couple photos, explored the area a bit, and ran back to the shelter of my truck. After a quick jaunt back down the winding hill into the village and two turns, I was on the road that leads to Cucumber Run and the Falls.
An indistinct unpaved parking lot with a small sign along the side of the road are all that denote the presence of the regionally-known waterfall… a bit surprising, I suppose, given the popularity of visiting the falls. I pulled in, parked the truck, and got my gear ready for another onslaught of Pittsburgh weather.
As you can see above, it had started to really rain. Even with a jacket, hoodie, and three gallon plastic bag on my camera, I was concerned about my equipment getting wet. This was definitely going to have to be a short visit… which ended up being a shame, because I had the entire place to myself. Between being there on a weekday and the generally miserable weather, nobody else ventured out to the falls during the half hour or so that I was there.
Jim told me that it was only a five minute walk from the parking lot to the waterfall, and I have to admit that I thought he was exaggerating. He was… because it only took about three minutes to reach them, even in the moderately treacherous wet conditions along the trail.
The first thing you see coming down the path from the parking lot is the dilapidated old bridge over Cucumber Run. As you can see above, the creek was a chocolaty deluge from all of the rain. Heading back to the path from the bridge and hanging a left down the hand-cut steps in the hill, you reach a platform where you are greeted by your first view good of the falls.
The snapshot above epitomizes the Western Pennsylvania woodlands and the Laurel Highlands in particular. Ferns, Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurels are surrounded by towering oak, elm and pine trees… all of which perfectly frame a rocky gurgling creek. As much as I obsess over the stark and desolate landscapes of the American West, these high-contrast scenes of the vibrant greens and dark browns of Pennsylvania’s woodlands are my first love.
I was immediately captivated by the deep bowl of rock carved into the forest that borders the falls. Boulders strewn about bear witness to the intense power of rushing water and ice. Fallen trees form precarious bridges over the flow. New life springs up out of the old as the forest perpetually refreshes itself. And, because I had the place completely to myself, the natural sounds of the woods, the creek, and the waterfall were able to speak to me completely uninterrupted.
One of the best things about Cucumber Falls is that anyone with good footwear can easily walk all the way underneath the roaring torrent. On a warm summer day, I imagine that standing all the way behind the flow would be quite refreshing… but the bone-chilling dampness of that September afternoon made it uncomfortable to hang out back there for long.
Walking downstream from the falls, I was quickly enveloped by a shadowy stand of trees. If you scramble carefully across the wobbling branches, rocks, and tree trunks that span the breadth of the creek, you are rewarded with a fairly uncommon view of the falls. On a rainy day though, good footwear is a must for this activity!
By this point, I was drenched: the rain, the mist from the falls, and the creek water slowly soaking up my pant legs had finally dampened my spirits sufficiently to send me packing. It was time for me to clamber up the steps, stow my camera equipment in the truck, and head home.
The trip back to Pittsburgh wove its way through the rain-soaked eastern back roads of the Laurel Highlands, providing me with one last stretch of natural scenery before it was time to merge onto the Turnpike and leave it all behind… But I’ll be back some beautiful summer afternoon for a more in-depth look at this Pennsylvania treasure!