PORTERSVILLE, Pa.: McConnells Mill State Park is a great place to hike, if you are a lifeguard.
Hikers will walk past guard stations, complete with float rings and rope, with which you could rescue paddlers in trouble on nearby Slippery Rock Creek’s white water.
The water in the stream was low and no paddlers needed rescue on a recent visit to the park, 40 miles north of Pittsburgh in Lawrence County. That was good because I never completed my life-saving merit badge as a Boy Scout decades ago.
The 2,546-acre park is dominated by the 400-foot-deep gorge that is a National Natural Landmark and a state natural area. It is dominated by steep slopes and cliffs, moss-covered sandstone blocks, old-growth hemlock forests, gardens of ferns, pretty ravines with sparkling waterfalls and the frothy boulder-filled stream.
It was named one of 20 must-see state parks by the state of Pennsylvania in 2011. You’ll find nine miles of sometimes rugged trails, paddling in the spring and fall, climbing, rappelling and fishing. There’s even a dose of history with an old mill and a covered bridge.
The park’s main trail is the blue-blazed Slippery Rock Gorge Trail that runs 6.2 miles one way. The rugged, rocky, up-and-down trail traverses steep terrain and is rated as moderate to difficult for hikers.
The northern terminus is Eckert Bridge, the southern terminus the Hells Hollow Trailhead off Shaffer Road. The state advises hikers to plan a minimum of six hours to complete a round-trip hike.
Two miles of the trail run through Hell Run Valley, a tributary to Slippery Rock Creek. The gorge trail and Hells Hollow Trail run together for a short distance, but most of the gorge trail runs through the heart of the gorge, descending into the deepest spot, known as Walnut Flats.
The trail was born around a campfire in August 1990, built by volunteers from the Keystone Trails Trail Care Team and the Shenango Outing Club, and dedicated on April 30, 1994.
It is part of the federal North Country National Scenic Trail that, when completed, will stretch 4,200 to 4,500 miles from New York through Pennsylvania and Ohio to North Dakota.
The Kildoo Trail is a 2-mile loop along the creek. It begins near the mill and covered bridge and runs to Eckert Bridge. You then cross the stream and head back on the opposite bank. A portion of that trail is paved, a self-guided nature trail. That’s where hikers will see the lifeguard stations on both banks.
Hells Hollow Trail is a half mile long, running past an old limestone kiln (the Lawrence Furnace that dates to 1846) and pretty seasonal Hells Hollow Waterfall. In the spring, wildflowers abound.
Slippery Rock Creek is especially attractive to paddlers in the spring and fall. The state calls it a “very swift and dangerous white-water creek. Many people have drowned in this dangerous stream.”
Paddlers generally put in outside the park at Rose Point at the U.S. 422 bridge and head south for 2.5 miles to the Eckert Bridge within the state park.
That requires a portage around the 10-foot-high dam next to the mill. It is illegal to paddle over the dam. Paddlers must also stay away from the upswelling of water at the base of the dam.
Paddlers can extend their run by 3.5 miles from the Eckert Bridge to Harris Bridge. You must provide your own canoes, kayaks and small rafts; there are no rentals in the park.
There are specific state rules for paddlers and rafters including the size of rafts. Inflatable boats must be designed for white water. Inner tubes and air mattresses are prohibited. Life jackets are required and helmets are recommended.
The stream is generally rated as suitable for novices, intermediate and advanced, depending on water levels.
No swimming is permitted in the stream; it is allowed at two beaches at nearby Moraine State Park.
The first grist mill was built in 1852 by Daniel Kennedy. It was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1868.
Thomas McConnell, who bought the mill in 1875, replaced the waterwheel with water turbines and the grinding stones with rolling mills. It was one of the first rolling mills in the United States and processed corn, oats, wheat and buckwheat.
Sagging profits and outdated equipment forced its closure in 1928. In 1946, the mill and surrounding property were conveyed to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and later to the state of Pennsylvania. McConnells Mill State Park was formally dedicated in October 1957.
The grist mill is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day with two tours on those days.
Just downstream from the old mill is a picturesque covered bridge, built in 1874 and 101 feet long. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. It is on state park land but is owned by Lawrence County.
Two park areas are open to climbing/rappelling: along Rim Road and near Breakneck Bridge. The Breakneck Creek area is more rugged and is for more advanced climbers.
The best fishing is for bass and trout. Trout are stocked in Slippery Rock Creek several times a year. There is a year-round fly fishing area at Armstrong Bridge.
The park’s rugged nature is caused by its geology. The bedrock formed more than 300 million years ago as layers of sand, mud and peat in what was a coastal area. After becoming rock, these layers were lifted to the surface by geological events.
Glaciers formed three lakes that ultimately drained through the gorge and deepened it 20,000 years ago. That also reversed the flow of the ancient stream.
In addition to the state park, there is also the Slippery Rock Gorge Natural Area. It covers about 1,500 acres.
Cleland Rock off Breakneck Bridge Road and Alpha Pass off McConnells Mill Road at the north end of the state park both offer scenic views.
There actually is a slippery rock. It is under the Armstrong Bridge at the southern end of the park and was a spot on an old Indian trail. The trail crossed the stream near an oil seep that made the rock exceptionally slippery, the state says.
Wells were drilled for oil in the late 1800s, but were largely abandoned after they were invaded by groundwater.
The park hosts a heritage festival on the last full weekend in September with artisans, craftsmen, music, games, refreshments and a Civil War encampment.
The park includes picnic areas off McConnells Mills Road. No camping is permitted.
The park is about two hours from Akron, easily accessible via Interstate 79, U.S. 422 and U.S. 19. Hours are sunrise to sunset.
For more information, contact McConnells Mill State Park, 724-368-8811, www.visitpaparks.com.
Moraine State Park on U.S. 422 features boating, swimming, hiking, hunting, bicycling and other outdoor activities.
You can also get Lawrence County tourist information at 724-654-8408 or www.lawrencecounty.com/tourism.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.