When I think of iconic Northeastern Pennsylvania hikes there are a few that come to mind. Ricketts Glen is certainly one, with its Falls Trail. The Appalachian Trail in the Delaware Water Gap (although not technically NEPA) is another. And Glen Onoko Falls in Jim Thorpe. This has to be on a hiker’s bucket list. I was introduced to it mainly through doing some research and hearing stories from other hikers. Here’s the narrative that you will most often get. “It’s beautiful and it’s dangerous. People die there.” All of it seemed like exaggeration, except people do get hurt there, sometimes tragically.
Armed with a large does of curiosity, I headed there to walk the loop and see some waterfalls because for all of the warnings, the other universal thing you will hear about the trail is the falls are spectacular. The ride to Jim Thorpe from my place is about an hour, mostly on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and Google Maps took me right to the parking lot at the trailhead.
Here’s the map.
The trail is easy enough to find, and if you get confused, just follow other hikers. This path is heavily used. I was there on a Thursday morning and a check of the license plates in the parking lot clearly showed this was a destination for a lot of people. Most of the plates were out of state.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting as far as difficulty, but the climb up was a bit of a slog. It’s steep in spots. My lungs were burning as much as my legs. I could pin that to doing a lot of running lately and having tired legs, but it’s not an easy hike. Or maybe I’m just getting old.
Also, I went the opposite way of everyone else. When you get to the sign that warns you of the dangers and difficulty of the trail you have two options. The most-common route is to take a left and head to the falls that way. I, perhaps surprising no one, ignored convention and went right, which eventually put me at the top of the falls. A seasoned hiker I met on my way up stopped to chat with me and said “Oh you’re a glutton heading to the falls this way.” Now I know.
A quick word on trails markings. The main trail is blazed orange. I don’t want to be super critical of the the folks who work hard to maintain the trails but a different color choice might not be a bad idea. With fall colors everywhere and a canopy of fallen leaves covering the trail, blazes were not always easy to see and following the trail was maybe a little harder than it needed to be. As a caveat, I stumble off even the most well-marked trails, probably because I have the focus of a 5-year-old.
Eventually the trail levels and you can hear the falls ahead of you. This is where things get cool and maybe even a little complicated. You’re not going to have any trouble finding the falls. They are huge and accessible. The main trail has several unmarked off-shoots that allow you to get as close as you want … so close that at one point I was able to walk behind one of the falls, an incredibly interesting perspective I didn’t expect. But with that access comes room for bad decisions. It’s easy to see why people get hurt there. The rocks are slick with constant running water and your ability to get close and explore is refreshingly free of rules and ropes and stop signs. With that comes risk.
Here’s your public service announcement. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be that guy. Don’t be that person who needs a selfie in a dangerous spot. Don’t put rescuers in a position of having to save your butt because you didn’t do your part. Glen Onoko is a beautiful place. It’s heavily traveled but still maintains a wild side.
There was a recent post to Facebook on the trails in which someone asked if it was a safe trail to take kids. The answer were varied from absolutely “NO” to “Sure, why not.” I did see a few families along the way with some kids. Here’s my advice, I would take my 9-year-old but exercise EXTREME caution. I don’t think I would take anyone younger than that. It’s important for our kids to be out exploring and learning. I absolutely believe it. I think they need to be exposed to potentially dangerous situations so they understand the risks and learn how to treat them with respect. If it was my daughter, she would be on a very tight leash at Glen Onoko.
Back to the falls for a second. I spent probably an hour having lunch, grabbing some photos and just meandering around and chatting with other hikers. A lot of people seemed to find the trail confusing so I played traffic cop for awhile as people tried to find their way back down the mountain.
My walk back down (the way most people go up) was quick and easy. I was rethinking my idea of going up the opposite way of most people. There is another huge bonus to hiking Glen Onoko. You’re in Jim Thorpe. It’s a classic Poconos town where you can get a great lunch just about anywhere and walk around and check out some family owned shops. I did that and also stopped on the way out at Penn’s Peak, one of my favorite concert venues, to pick up some tickets for a few upcoming shows.