As all the backcountry campers plodded past us, my husband and I should have known something was different in the Allegheny National Forest. I’d never seen as many trekkers loaded down with gear for multiple days in the woods. There we were, a pair of urban-dwelling tent-and-car campers not prepared for much more than a couple hours’ hike. And that was before we got lost and encountered our first bear. One hairy weekend was ahead.
U.S. national parks tend to get all the nature-love, especially around their centennial last year. But national forests are their wild-child little cousins. Think fewer amenities and easy-to-plod trails; more animals, adventure and backcountry-camping setups; it’s accessible wilderness. The Allegheny National Forest, just an hour and a half south of Buffalo, is located right beyond the Pennsylvania state line.
The key to forest camping is a little more thorough preparation. Come prepared with a smart daypack and everything-you-need camping gear, from the marshmallows to the headlamps. Keep calm (and your food locked in the trunk of your car). If you can manage that, even families with small kids should enjoy exploring some of the 800 square miles that make up Allegheny.
In this national forest, we couldn’t reserve a campsite (many are first-come, first-served) but arrived to find plenty of spots open at Willow Bay, even at the autumn foliage peak in mid-October. Plan ahead and many cabins are also available, although they have to be booked in advance. Though they’re also federally administered and wholesome-sounding, national forests are less trafficked than national parks. The park system saved wild American land at its most pristine, while the forest system more often recovered spoiled land. To this day the forests draw half as many visitors (149 million, compared to the parks’ 308 million, in 2015).
Although the drive down through Ellicottville was quicker than we thought, at 90 minutes, by the time my husband and I had pitched our tent and gotten our bearings, the time was after 3 p.m. Late-fall sunlight slanted through the rigid vertical lines of hemlocks as we set off on the Morrison Trail, a five-mile loop. Leaves creaked under us, and we inhaled their woodsy decay. The massive stacked-layer rocks kept amazing me, beached ships among the trees.
"Holy smokes," I breathed as something slinked across the trail in front of us, slouching like a celebrity trying to keep a low profile in baggy clothes. Its dark, powerful shape slipped behind some of those big rocks.
But this star of the Western Pennsylvania forest couldn’t go incognito: it was a black bear, easily 500 pounds of latent muscle. He eyed us again through a break in the rocks, and prowled off.
Black bears are incredibly common at Allegheny, with a population estimated in the hundreds. Buffalo friends who’d stayed in the forest before had actually seen campers foolish enough to feed bears near their tent. And indeed, the rescue workers we talked to later were less concerned about bears than irresponsible people. They can endanger both fellow humans and the animals as well, since bears conditioned to food or garbage usually have to be killed.
Distracted by bear thoughts, I didn’t realize we had even bigger problems until the GPS on my Garmin watch beeped six miles. We must have turned off the five-mile Morrison Trail and onto the Rimrock Trail. Rimrock was a wider loop, about 11 miles, so theoretically we’d arrive back at our car — but I calculated we had maybe an hour left of sunlight, and two hours still of hiking. No water, snacks, or bathroom stops, we wordlessly agreed. We concentrated on getting our footing under the confetti of leaves as the light dimmed.
Around 10 miles in we came across more of those backcountry campers setting up their tent for the night; they said the trail’s end was not far ahead. We soon spotted flashing lights and stumbled in just before the night turned black. Ambulances and official trucks were parked in the lot. Crews milled around waiting for less fortunate hikers to be pulled out. "To be honest, we hate doing this," one worker told us, suspenders holding up his baggy fireman’s pants.
"We had headlamps," I blurted (leaving out that we’d only had one between the two of us. I resolved to always carry two, and to start tossing foil emergency blankets in my daypack, too.)
"Thank you," he said. "Everybody should do that."
Feeling at least figuratively out of the woods, I barreled our Honda down the road toward the campground. We were talking over the bear, and our close call getting out, when six eyes flashed. Three deer leaped into the road. My brakes crunched hard. Still, the last deer hit us, glancing the back corner of our car.
We let out a breath — for its life and ours — only when it kept going and vanished into the woods. The deer-miss made for a third close call to relive that night over our s’mores. (Fortunately, we’d packed everything we needed for the evening, right down to the roasting sticks and several much-needed beers. Even the few convenience stores were closed.)
In the bright morning, still dazed and reeking of campfire, we wandered in sight of camp around the Willow Bay basin, out in the open where we couldn’t get lost. The deep-green pines set off the hemlocks’ chartreuse leaves, reflecting tranquilly on the water. I’d heard of mountain biking, river paddling, and even skydiving opportunities in Allegheny National Forest, and on another trip we’d maybe try those adventures. For now, we’d happily take an uneventful walk. n