KENNERDELL, PA.: The Allegheny Gorge is a pretty place.
A seven-mile section of the 500-foot-deep valley lies in what’s called the Kennerdell Tract of Clear Creek State Forest. The tract lies north of Kennerdell in Venango County.
It offers a little bit of everything: hemlock-lined ravines or runs; a network of short, interconnected trails for easy hiking; an old iron furnace that dates to the 1840s and a viewing deck that sits 480 feet above the Allegheny River. You may even find bits of long-abandoned oil field equipment.
The state purchased land in 1980 to create a new state park, but later financial concerns ended that scenario. The 3,200-acre Kennerdell Tract instead became part of what’s now Clear Creek State Forest, which covers about 14,430 acres in Venango, Jefferson and Forest counties, flanking the Allegheny and Clarion rivers.
Don’t confuse Clear Creek State Forest with Clear Creek State Park. The state park sits east of Cook Forest State Park on the Clarion River near Sigel in Jefferson County.
The Kennerdell Tract adjoins State Game Lands No. 39 that provides 10,687 additional acres of wildness. For information, call 814-432-3187 or see www.pgc.state.pa.us.
The Kennerdell Tract and a portion of the game lands cover the plateau on the west side of the Allegheny River east of state Route 8 and just north of Interstate 76 and south of Franklin. It is less than two hours from Akron. There are only four main access points into the tract, mostly off township roads, so it takes a little work to get into the interior.
It is a popular spot for hiking and backpacking. You can hike to the Dennison Point Overlook above the Allegheny River where a wooden viewing deck and information kiosk have been built. Unfortunately, trees block half of the view, but you can get a first-rate look at the gorge carved by the Allegheny River as you look north.
In all, the Kennerdell Tract contains 27 miles of trails. Some were designed and built years ago by students in the Grove City College Outing Club.
I began my hike at a large parking lot on the State Game Lands No. 39 property. I headed south on an old road for about a third of a mile. The trail then turned left into the woods. I passed a spot where bog iron was excavated for the old furnace.
I came across something a little out of the ordinary on an April hike on the Overlook Trail: a fence that was installed to keep out white-tailed deer. The trail continues through the 30-acre enclosure and hikers can proceed by passing through gates. I didn’t see any deer, just one chunky porcupine.
After the gateway, the trail split three ways. One leg led to the overlook, sitting on land that was once owned by farmer John Hovis, whose father had emigrated from Russia.
It is about a 1.5-mile one-way hike to the overlook. But lots of options are available with the interconnecting trails. Kennerdell Tract trails are well signed and blazed, but a state forest trails map available online is very helpful.
You can access the River Trail on the Allegheny River’s west bank just before you cross the bridge to Kennerdell. The trail runs 4.5 miles north to the primitive Danner Camping Area.
It gets tougher as it merges into the Fishermen’s Cove Trail that runs to the tract’s northern boundary.
You can also access the Dennison Run Trail off the River Trail. Its eastern terminus is about one mile north of the Kennerdell Bridge over the river. It’s a steep uphill climb along the hemlock-lined ravine.
Dennison Run is the tract’s biggest attraction. It is a high-quality stream that flows 3.25 miles, and its ravine is filled with giant boulders, wildflowers, ferns and mosses.
Dennison Run is specially managed. It is described by the state as an exceptional value watershed with a reproducing native brook trout population.
The trail system near Dennison Run and in the southern part is restricted to hiking. All other trails are open to mountain biking, horses and cross-country skiing. You can make a 7.3-mile loop on the Iron Furnace, South, Kennerdell, Overlook and Dennison Run trails.
Only primitive camping is permitted in the Kennerdell Tract. Boat camping is also permitted on the Allegheny River.
The Kennerdell Tract, sometimes called the Allegheny River Tract, has a varied history: farming, timbering, iron and charcoal making and oil development. The iron-making era ran from the 1830s to the 1850s.
In 1840, William Cross built what was called the Bullion Furnace on Bullion Run in Clinton Township on state game land property. No mortar was used; the sandstone blocks were cut to fit.
It operated for about 10 years with a crew of eight or nine men. It consumed one acre of forest every day it operated. It was shut down in the summer so the workers could farm.
The colliers (charcoal makers) cut the trees and stacked them in piles that were covered with dirt. The piles were then burned in a smoldering fire that turned the wood into charcoal. Small flattened areas containing charcoal can be found on hillsides near the furnace.
Iron ore was mined in shallow open pits along the hillsides. The pits, with trees up to 2 feet in diameter growing in debris piles, are evident in many places.
The furnace could produce up to three tons of iron per day. It was hauled to the Allegheny River by cart or sled and loaded on rafts to be floated to Pittsburgh.
A section of the furnace was damaged by ice in 1959. A 100-ton chunk of iron sits nearby in Bullion Run. The foundation of an old house sits about 100 yards from the furnace.
The first white man to travel the Allegheny River Valley was French missionary Louis Hennepin in 1611. He was a Franciscan friar.
The area was occupied by the Seneca Indians when the first white settlers arrived in the 1740s. There is even what’s left of an Indian petroglyph, the Indian God Rock, on the Allegheny River’s east bank five miles south of Franklin. What was carved into the rock is barely visible now.
Keelboats traveled the river in the 1790s and steamboats came in 1828. In the early 1800s, logging was the major industry.
The early mills were generally on streams and cut mostly white pines. Most of the timber and boards were then made into rafts and floated downstream to Pittsburgh.
Logging railroads were developed in the 1860s. By 1905, nearly all the virgin forest had been cut. The second-growth forest that followed the timbering contained many more hardwoods than the original forest.
Kennerdell offers its own overlook above the Allegheny River on the east bank. You simply drive through Kennerdell on Kennerdell Road and ascend the hillside. The overlook with its kiosks offers a look at the river valley and the Kennerdell Tract.
For more information, contact Clear Creek State Forest, 814-226-1901, www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/stateforests/clearcreek/index.htm.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.