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Nature shines throughout the 'PA Wilds'

Looking out over the lush Clarion Valley from the rock ledge of Seneca Point Overlook, there he was -- an American bald eagle circling high above the trees.

Mesmerized by his smooth, effortless glide, it struck me that I had never seen a bald eagle in the wild. Our national symbol, with his unmistakable white head, appeared to be fishing in the Clarion River for some lunch. It was thrilling.

"You're lucky to see him," said Ranger Steve Mazik, my guide in Pennsylvania's Cook Forest State Park. I felt lucky, and yet bittersweet. Although still endangered, there's hope these majestic birds can make a comeback under the protection of folks like Mazik.

A scenic drive through the Southern Tier into Pennsylvania leads to Cook Forest, the perfect destination for a late fall getaway into the northeast portion of the state affectionately called the "PA Wilds."

A natural gem that backs up to the bottom of Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Park, Cook Forest covers 7,182 acres and includes a "Forest Cathedral," a group of old growth white pines and hemlocks that have been declared a National Natural Landmark. Some of these 300-plus-year-old trees date back to the days of William Penn, founder of the Province of Pennsylvania.

In 1828, American settler John Cook purchased much of the land where the park now resides. He started a logging and sawmill business that thrived in the rapidly growing New World.

In the 1920s, the Cook Forest Association was formed to save a few areas of old growth timber, and in 1927, the Commonwealth purchased 6,055 acres from A. Cook Sons Company. Cook Forest became the first Pennsylvania State Park to preserve a natural landmark.

During the Great Depression, the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many of the trails and structures within Cook Forest. Their work was a testament to the program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to restore the country's natural resources, and the dignity of the thousands of unemployed.

> What to do

Upon leaving Seneca Point, Mazik pointed out several depressions in the rock created by Native Americans who used the surface to grind grains.

Film buffs will appreciate that a scene in "The Unconquered," a Cecil B. Demille film starring Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard, was filmed at Seneca Point. Also at Seneca Point is the original 1929 Cook Forest fire tower that visitors can climb. On a clear day, it can provide up to 20 miles visibility.

Walking and hiking the woods, of course, is one of the main reasons to visit Cook Forest, especially during the fall when the leaves are at peak color. There are more than 29 miles of trails, including a section of the 141-mile Baker Trail that cuts through northeast Pennsylvania. Stop at the park office to get a park map and informational brochures.

There's also canoeing and kayaking in stunning Clarion River, which hugs the south edge of the park. Rental outfitters provide equipment and transportation upstream so you can paddle your way back down. Prices are reasonable, starting at around $26 for two in a canoe, with $13 added for an additional person.

Where there's a river, there are trout and smallmouth bass. A fishing license is required for anyone 16 or older, and can be purchased at Macbeth's all-purpose dry goods store, T-shirt/souvenir shop located near the park office. A tourist license costs $25 for three days, $33 for seven days.

There's also a fishing pond for children 12 and under, and for persons with disabilities.

Another way to sightsee is on horseback. Nearby stables provide outings for guests who want to experience the woods without the walking.

Within Cook Forest are two interesting structures to visit -- the Log Cabin Inn (built by the CCC) serves as an environmental learning center, and the Sawmill Craft Center.

At the Log Cabin Inn you'll find the Cook family tree, several exhibits of "modern" 1800s logging tools, and pictures of the rafted logs and the loggers. Particularly fascinating are the crosscuts of giant trees with rings marking important points in history, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The Sawmill Center was built as an electrically powered mill in 1949. Today it serves as a location where local artisans can display their works. Some unique gift items can be discovered here, such as baskets, blankets, quilts, pottery and clothing to woodcarvings and jewelry.

> Stay the weekend

If you decide to stay overnight in Cook Forest Park, there options for camping, organized group tenting, RV site hook-up and cabins. Reservations can be made from two days up to 11 months in advance. You can also rent cabins from Mac Beth's Dry Goods (the same place where you get the fishing license).

For those of us who love the great outdoors, but not the "roughing it" aspect, there's always a room at the comfy Gateway Lodge.

Owned by the charming Joseph and Linda Burney, the original portion of the lodge was comprised of only eight guest rooms. In 2000, the couple added 24 suites, each with a king-sized bed, fireplace, Jacuzzi and fluffy towels and robes.

Even better, the Gateway has a spa and in-house restaurant. After a morning of hiking, what could be more relaxing than a Moment's Tranquility treatment followed by tea in an overstuffed chair next to a fireplace? Dinners are served in a cozy room with rustic appeal. Entrees start at $17.25 and include such items as red snapper in lemon butter and a New York strip steak in a brandy peppercorn sauce.

While the main lodge is more suited for adults, the Gateway does have cottages with bedrooms and double beds (and bed linens), fireplaces, kitchens, bathrooms (with towels and robes) and outdoor picnic areas. Firewood is provided for guests, and the cabins are heated during cool weather.

Up river, you can find just as nice accommodations at the Clarion River Lodge Resort and Spa. Here you will also find the fabulous River Room Restaurant, an Irish pub, the River Winds Spa and beautiful rooms, including the main lodge and a separate location up the hill at the Riverview suites.

What's special about the Gateway Lodge and Clarion River Lodge are that they practically reside in Cook Forest Park and offer visitors wonderful accommodations and great dining.

Travel 11 miles and you're in Clear Creek State Park. Somewhat smaller (just more than 1,600 acres) than Cook Forest, Clear Creek is just as beautiful, with camping, cabins and unusual accommodations called "yurts," permanent tent structures, available for rent. If there is no availability in Cook Forest, try Clear Creek, the lesser known of the two parks. If you visit, be sure to hike the Bear Town Rocks Trail to check out the Bear Town Rocks, a group of massive boulders that you can climb for a scenic view.

> The way home

Before you head home after your Cook Forest adventure, check out Mac Beth's Discoveries (not to be confused with Mac Beth's Dry Goods) six miles out on Route 36 south. It's an adorable shop full of handcrafted items and antiques.

Head back and follow Route 36 North to the Route 66 intersection for lunch at the Sawmill Restaurant, then take a stroll through the nearby Country Store. Filled with nostalgic items like old-fashioned candy, soda in an icebox, toys, T-shirts and a sundry of gift items, you can grab an ice cream cone before you pick up Route 66 to head home.

> Upcoming events:

* Fire Tower No. 9 Historical Tour, 1 p.m. today, Saturday and Oct. 28. Bring binoculars. Take a breathtaking view of the brilliant fall foliage from the box at the very top of the Fire Tower and learn how it operated. Call (814) 744-8475.

* "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- One-man show, Oct. 28 in Gateway Lodge; $335 per couple includes one night's stay, wine and dinner for two. See contact information below.

* Gingerbread Tour, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 4-5, in shops from Brookville to Cook Forest along Route 36, Route 322 and side roads. Look for the gingerbread men signs.

* Herbal Soap Making, 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 28-29 at the Quiet Creek Farm, Route 36 north of Brookville. Call (814) 849-9662 or online at www.quietcreekherbfarm.com.

> If you go

For information about the parks, www.dcnr.state.pa.us, (800) 348-9393, (888) PA-PARKS.

Cook Forest State Park, Pa., www.cookforest.org, www.cookforest.com.

* The Pale Whale canoe and cabin rental on River Road, (800) 680-0160, www.cookriverside.com.

* Cook Forest Canoe Rental, (800) 699-0712, www.cookforestcanoe.com.

* Silver Stallion Riding Stables on Forest Road, (814) 927-6636), http://silverstallion.cookforest.com.

* Sawmill Center for the Arts on Forest Road, (814) 927-6655, www.sawmill.org.

Accommodations:

* Gateway Lodge Country Inn & Restaurant on Route 36, (800) 843-6862, www.gatewaylodge.com.

* Clarion River Lodge Resort & Spa on River Road, (800) 648-6743, www.clarionriverlodge.com.

* Mac Beth's Cabins on Route 36, (800) 331-6319, www.macbethscabins.com.

* Cook Family Homestead B&B, near the park office. Info: (841) 744-8869, www.cookhomestead.com.

> Directions

Take the Route 219 south into Pennsylvania until you reach Lantz's Corners. Turn right on to Route 6 and follow to Route 66 south in Marienville.

Continue through Marienville and make a left onto Route 899 south. Go 10 miles and you will see a sign for the Clarion River Lodge on River Road. Turn right and follow the Clarion River into the park area.

Drive is a little more than 2 1/2 hours (145 miles).

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