By Helena Kotala
Cameron County is almost 70% public land, the mountainous landscape dominated by Elk and Susquehannock state forests, game lands, and wild and natural areas. It is the least populous county in Pennsylvania, with under 5,000 residents in the entire county as of the 2020 Census. There are two traffic lights in the entire county, both in Emporium, which is the only substantial town.
“Substantial” might even be a stretch — fewer than 2,000 people call Emporium home. Surrounded by woods, dirt roads and several branches of Sinnemahoning Creek, its remote nature is the true attraction of the area. While outdoor recreationalists of all kinds will find something to do in and around Emporium, the area is absolute heaven for gravel cyclists, with endless loops stretching from town into the surrounding mountains in every direction.
My first experience with the area came on a chilly late fall bikepacking trip. I wanted to check out Benezette and its surroundings, and threw together a route that headed north to Emporium for dinner, then up the road to Sizerville State Park to camp for a night, then looping back to the car the following day.
We rolled into town at dusk, grabbed dinner and rode another hour in the dark to the campground. On our way, we saw a bobcat crossing the road. The next day, we packed up and warmed up with a climb to the snow-dusted ridgetop, which we followed southward back toward our cars.
Though Emporium was less than two hours from my home near State College, I had never explored the area via bike, and was immediately impressed. I ended up going back to ride countless times since then, bringing friends along to show them my new favorite roads. There is endless variety depending on your level of fitness and what type of riding you want to do.
The West Creek Trail spans westward from Emporium almost 20 miles to St. Marys, its relatively flat, crushed limestone surface meandering along the river valley on the path of the former Allegheny and Eastern shortline railroad.
The trail makes for a fun day adventure on its own, especially with a midway stop in St. Marys for lunch and/or ice cream (check out Brandy Camp Creamery), but it also can be incorporated into a longer mixed-surface loop using Shawmut Grade Road to the north or Hicks Run to the south, towards Benezette.
Staying in the river valleys ensures a mostly flat ride, but the real goods are at the ridgetops, where uninterrupted forest views reward long and meandering gradual climbs. You can head out in almost every direction and expect to find photoworthy scenery and a healthy dose of solitude. Some of the best vistas are along Ridge Road, southeast of town, where a cluster of overlooks within a 2-mile stretch of road will have you stopping often to take in the views.
Another can’t-miss sight is Bucktail Overlook, which affords visitors a nearly 360-degree panorama of the surrounding tree-covered hills. For a route idea, check out the Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s Elk State Forest Public Lands Ride.
While the gravel riding really shines, it’s not the only great way to enjoy the outdoors in Cameron County.
There are also plenty of hiking trails, such as the 4.9-mile Fred Woods Trail loop. For those drawn to the water, the Sinnemahoning Creek and its branches are lovely paddling trips through remote woods and deep valleys. Multi-sport adventurers should check out the Sinnemahone Triple Crown, a series of three races throughout the year — a paddle, gravel ride and trail run of varying distances. The paddle takes place in the spring (April 8 this year), while the other two events take place in the fall (Sept. 23 for the gravel ride and Oct. 21 for the run).
Growing the outdoor recreation scene
It turns out I wasn’t the only one who never realized what a gem Emporium is. When business owner Josh Zucal was trying to promote his coffee shop and roastery in Emporium, he realized that there was a lack of attraction to the community for outsiders — not because the attractions weren’t there, but because they weren’t being marketed.
With this in mind, when Zucal found out that Cameron County was hiring a director of marketing, he jumped at the chance to do what he knew had to be done — make the world realize what he already realized: The area is amazing for enjoying the outdoors.
Zucal and others in the region have big plans to grow the area’s outdoor recreation scene. An easement on a 9,000-acre property owned by Lyme Timber that is being managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) for recreation is hopefully going to be the future site of a gravel riding loop, with the potential for mountain bike trails on adjoining state forest land. While there are many dirt roads and gravel riding opportunities in the area, there isn’t any mountain biking. There are singletrack trails, but they are all either designated as hiking-only or not well-suited for bikes. Zucal and others hope to change that.
“We are topographically very similar to Jakes Rocks,” he says. “The difference is that here, town is just 10 minutes away and we have all the amenities.”
An adjacent county property that used to be a landfill has been reclaimed by nature, and is currently being promoted for wildlife watching and stargazing. With the area’s dark skies, Zucal hopes to catch overflow from the well-known Cherry Springs State Park, which is about an hour away.
But his first order of business is to promote the assets that already exist — namely, hundreds of miles of dirt and gravel roads. He is currently working on a website that will offer routes and information about riding in the area. Purple Lizard Maps, a brand well-known among outdoor enthusiasts, had an Elk State Forest map in the queue, which will help get the word out about the region (for now, use DCNR’s public use maps to find your way around).
A town of entrepreneurs
While the town of Emporium is small, it is vibrant and full of local flavor.
“Cameron County is the home for entrepreneurs,” says Tina Johns, director of the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce.” You do not have fast food restaurants here. The only chains are gas stations, a Rite Aid and a Dollar General.”
“Every storefront in downtown is filled,” adds Zucal. “This idea that the Walmarts of the world have wrecked small-town culture — it seems to be reversing itself.”
At least in Emporium.
But residents who are promoting tourism in the region also want visitors to be realistic and know what they are getting into. There are a lot of places in the county that are pretty remote and lack cell service and internet coverage.
“And the skies are so dark — sometimes people come from the city and get freaked out,” Johns says. But if you want to get away from it all for a weekend, unplug and recharge, this is the place for you.
Johns sums it up: “Just come hike, bring your bike, bring a canoe, and enjoy the outdoors.”
If you go
Where to eat
Pizza Palace Plus has some good ‘za of course, but also serves up delicious salads, sandwiches, pasta and entrees like fish and steak — something to suit every taste. They’re open for lunch and dinner every day.
Rich Valley Wines offers a tasting room with a variety of wine styles as well as a bar stocked with beers and spirits made in PA. They are open Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as Sunday afternoons. They also offer hours by appointment.
The Buttonwood Motel offers affordable, clean and comfortable rooms, and also has an on-site restaurant that’s open every day from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
A fancier option is The Hygrade Inn boutique hotel located on Main Street in a historic home built in the 1880s.
If you’d prefer to camp, Sizerville State Park is just up the road and offers both electric hookup and tent-only sites in its secluded, streamside campground. The campground is open from mid-April through mid-December.
Other activities and attractions
A half-hour northeast of Emporium in Potter County, the remnants of the Austin Dam are a testament to the little-known 1911 dam failure that engulfed the town of Austin and the nearby Bayless Pulp and Paper Mill (its ruins are also still standing today).
South of Emporium, check out Benezette and various elk viewing areas, as well as the Elk Country Visitor Center. Elk sightings are not guaranteed, but it’s a pretty area regardless, with great gravel roads and doubletrack trails to ride.
On foot, check out the Fred Woods Trail for big rocks and big vistas. Use caution in the winter, however. The roads to get to the trailhead are not maintained.
The Outdoor Guide Series is underwritten by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council as part of its effort to promote the outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania and neighboring areas.