A Visit to the Forest Cathedral: Cook’s Forest State Park

Reaching (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f1.8)

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
― John Muir


A good portion of my life has been spent wandering through the woodlands of Pennsylvania. I am privileged to live close to some of the most beautiful and interesting natural areas in the state.

I often write about and photograph places such as Hickory Run, Nescopeck, and Ricketts Glen State Parks, which are a short drive from my home.

But there at many other spectacular destinations in the Keystone State.  At the far  western end of the “Endless Mountains” region of Pennsylvania, just to the south of the Allegheny National Forest, there is a place that I find myself drawn to, time and again.  I’m speaking of the incomparable Cook’s Forest State Park, home to some of the tallest trees in the eastern US, and the largest tract of true old growth forest in the commonwealth.

Stages of Death (Nikkor 28 80mm ATX f2.8)

I have visited this park on multiple occasions either alone or with my children.  The only person in our family that has not visited there is my lovely wife.

Brigid and Gus in the Forest Cathedral 2006 (Canon s 400)


Now Cathy is very athletic, and when I suggested a visit the park, she welcomed a chance to hike these beautiful trails. Problem is that when I am in photographic mode, I’m not very much fun to hike with, as I am constantly stopping, setting up, shooting, changing lenses, etc. Now that I am also shooting video, I’ve become even more tedious. For this reason, I usually do photography alone.

Two Giants (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 17-38 f2.8)

From my home, this is a 3 hour journey on route 80 west. It is a scenic drive through an ever changing landscape. Now usually, I would camp while visiting such a place. In this case though, I remembered from past visits that this park has a very aggressive population of raccoons (I think of a tug of war with a large male over a bag of potato chips  at my picnic table some years ago).

Because of this and in deference to my wife, I chose to make reservations at the Gateway Lodge, which is a lovely hotel/spa nestled right in the middle of the park.  The original inn was built in the 1930s, of logs taken from the property, and fits perfectly in the rustic surroundings.

Canoes on the Clarion (Nikon D800E, Tokina 28-80mmATX f2.8

The park sits on the Clarion River.  The Cook family first settled the property, in the 1820s, and built a thriving timbering and sawmill business. The settlement became known as the town of Cooksburg. This is a lovely setting with densely forested hills rising out of the slow, winding river.

By the 1920s, the family was quite prosperous, and desired to preserve the remaining old growth forest on the property.  They along with others, formed the Cook’s Forest Association which in 1927 sold the roughly 6000 acres to the state of Pennsylvania to be preserved as a state park.

Cooks Forest Fountain (Fuji X 100T)

I have written before about the old growth of the park. There are several tracts scattered throughout the, forest. The tallest tree in the  northeastern US, the Longfellow pine, a white pine roughly 184( feet high, grows within the “forest cathedral” portion of the property.   As it is surrounded by other woodland giants, it is difficult to identify.  I visited the park office, and queried one of the officers on its location.  Prudently I think, he would not disclose that information for fear that someone will deface its massive trunk.  It is said to be somewhere along the “Longfellow trail” but he would be no more specific.

Many Old Trees (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f1.8G)

I spent the next two days, roving about with camera gear.  I hiked with my wife, but she grew weary of my snail like progression, and encouraged me to solo.  Both in video and still images, I sought to capture the majesty of these enormous and ancient organisms and of this rare environment. It is challenge I think to convey the scale of this forest in either still, or video images.

Deep in the tract, little light reaches the ground, save for where one of the ancients has succumbed. The songs of a wood thrush, or ovenbird punctuate the stillness. Here and there, wind throw has toppled a massive pine or hemlock, the huge upended root ball maybe 15-20 feet high.

For those of you on the Pacific coast, I get it. These ain’t redwoods. But they’re beautiful nonetheless.

As you walk among the tall trees, I like to imagine the reactions of early colonists to these majestic forests. They were familiar only with the depleted woodlands of Europe and Britain.  Old growth such as this would have been widespread throughout the eastern US.

Looking Up (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 50mm f1.8G)

I imagine also, agents of the Crown, marking the tallest and straightest pines, for exclusive use of the shipbuilders in England (the so called “Kings Broad Arrow” trees). This action lead to one of the first rebellions of the colonists against the British. In fact, this forest’s current trees were likely germinated during that period of continent’s history.

At 300-350 year of age, the big pines and many of the deciduous trees are reaching old age (Hemlocks are longer lived). Their crowns are limited to the top 20 percent of their height, at the forest canopy. When they die, there are small trees, some 100 hundred years old, waiting patiently below to grab their piece of the sky.

Old Dead Fall (Nikon D800E, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8)


I shot a short video this time using e D800E which has a more sophisticated video suite than the little Sony RX100 IIII utilized last time. Using interchangeable lenses  facilitated manual focusing. Also I used an Audio-Technica AT8204 auxiliary Microphone. Its directional sound fields made it much less susceptible to picking up my breath sounds than the camera-top mics of the Sony.

The life cycles of forests such as this are difficult for we short-lived humans to grasp. That is because, compared to these ancient pines and hemlocks, our lives are truly ephemeral.

Muir was correct.



As always, the images can be viewed in larger format by clicking on them, and/or visiting my Smugmug site.

About henrysmithscottage

Henry F.Smith Jr. has been involved in photography for 35 years. He has become well known as a chronicler of the Eastern US landscapes , though his portfolio includes, portrait, event, and "street photography". His work has been displayed in multiple galleries throughout the northeastern US, and is available for sale for use in public and commercial spaces. His book "Pennsylvania Seasons" is available through major booksellers. He is also a writer and editorialist whose work has appeared in a variety of "daily's" in Pennsylvania. "Dr. Smith" is also a Pulmonary and Sleep physician who practices in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He is happily married, with two wonderful children. Inquiries to purchase prints, and for photographic services can be made through: Smithcottage@msn.com
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One Response to A Visit to the Forest Cathedral: Cook’s Forest State Park

  1. Pingback: The Wrong Trees: The 1675 Grove in the Adirondacks |

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