Christopher
Stoll

Backpacking Oil Creek State Park

Backpacking Oil Creek State Park

I come from a large extended family, and Easter was one of the days we all got together. My grandmother was a very kind and understanding person, so all of the various personalities that make up a large family were welcome in her home. After my grandmother passed, attendance at family gatherings began to wane. I live two hours away from my extended family and was one of the last regular attendees to family gatherings. Since we live so far away, spending time with family was the only thing we did these holidays. So, when that tradition came to an end we needed to find a new tradition that brings our family together.

Perhaps we could make a tradition of connecting with family by getting away and enjoying nature. Last year we decided to go backpacking at Archer’s Fork over Easter. It snowed. So, this year we looked for some alternative to tent backpacking. We found Oil Creek State Park, which has the 12 mile Gerard Hiking Trai and offers camping in adirondack style shelters.

Adirondack Shelters near Cow Run
Adirondack Shelters near Cow Run – iPhone 8 Pano

We arrived at the Cow Run Shelter parking area on Friday night. The plan was to camp at the Cow Run shelters on Friday night, and hike clockwise to the Wolfkeil shelters where we would spend Saturday night. The shelter sites have very clean vault toilets, potable water, and firewood. It was warm Friday night, so we didn’t start a fire. On the drive in we stopped for dinner at The Taco Shack in Oil City, so we didn’t even need to make dinner. We settled in an got some rest for our Saturday hike.

From the campground it wasn’t immediately clear which way to go to get on the trail, but another camper who was more familiar with the area set us in the right direction. The southbound trailhead was just past shelter 1 and a tent camping area. As we headed out on the trail we saw some of the very old gas and oil equipment which was left behind from the area’s nineteenth century oil boom.

Very old, yet still intact, oil storage container
Very old, yet still intact, oil storage container – Canon T3i, EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

Hiking through areas like this give an implicit lesson on the history of oil field equipment. As we walked from the car to the shelters we saw modern oil equipment with large plastic storage containers. Out on the hiking trail we saw older welded metal storage containers, and even older metal tanks sealed with large rivets. What caught my attention was the very old wooden storage containers which littered the area. These containers are probably twice the diameter of a wooden beer barrel, but about the same height and shaped more like an old-fashioned bucket. In most cases the wooden staves were falling out of the iron hoops that originally held them together. Some, though clearly no longer water tight, were in amazingly good condition. I’m not sure what purpose they served. They could only hold at most a few barrels of oil, so they probably weren’t used for storage.

The history of how those artifacts came to be where they are is also an interesting thing to consider. People came into wooded areas with mineral rights and minimal tools, and they drilled oil wells by hand, or foot, power. Some of those people amassed amazing wealth; came out as multi-millionaires at a time when a million dollars was worth something. Their operations also spilled thousands of barrels of oil and created unimaginable damage to the environment at the time; though they certainly did not want to see the black gold escaping their grasp, and there was little evidence now of the damage. These thoughts of the area’s history filled my head as we hiked onward.

As our Saturday hike progressed it began to rain. At times it rained hard, at others the sun would come out. It was spring, so we were prepared for the rain. The downside was that the wooden foot bridges crossing small creeks were quite slick. The positive side of the rain was that it filled the small streams and animated the countless number of small waterfalls in the park.

Small waterfall along the multi-use trail
Small waterfall along the multi-use trail – Canon T3i, EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

The sun was out when we arrived at Wolfkeil shelter on Saturday afternoon. And though there was no cell service there to check the weather, based upon the ominous clouds in the distance we could surmise that more foul weather was headed our way. We dropped our packs and collected some firewood from the woodpile. The woodpiles are covered, so the wood there stays fairly dry, but we still wanted to have everything set in our shelter before the rain began.

After making camp we took a nap, but it was cut short. The storm we expected had started to blow in, and we needed to move a little further away from the edge of the adirondack. After a brief period of intense thunderstorms, which frightened our dog, the storm front moved through. The front brought cooler weather, so we started the fire we had prepared in the fireplace. Once the fire was established and smoke was no longer blowing aorund the shelter, we made dinner.

Resting in the sun
Resting in the sun – iPhone 8

On previous family backpacking trips we have tried various dehydrated backpacking meals. And, many of those meals aren’t terrible, but for a short backpacking trip I’ll carry a little extra weight in order to have a real meal. Food is an essential part of life, something which should be enjoyed. And, food was a central part of the family get togethers we used to have on holidays, so I though that it should definitely be part of this outing.

For backcountry cooking I have previously used a small, lightweight fry pan and MSR Pocket Rocket. But that really only works for groups of two, maybe three, people. Something else is needed when cooking for four or more people. So, for these types of outings I turn to the NOLS Fry-Bake and the MSR WhisperLite.

Enough hamburger helper for five people cooking on the WhisperLite
Enough hamburger helper for five people cooking on the WhisperLite – Canon T3i, EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

For breakfast I had cooked some bacon, fried some freshly diced potatoes, and scrambled up some eggs. Dinner was a little easier. We heated up some pre-cooked ground beef; which was frozen solid when we left, but thawed by this point. Noodles, water, and spices were added to the ground beef. Everything was cooked until it turned into a nice, creamy backcountry casserole. With the addition of a couple canned beverages, this was a proper Holy Saturday dinner.

It was a cool and raining Saturday night, but I stocked the fireplace before going to sleep, so it was dry and warm in the shelter. We had a breakfast of homemade banana bread, coffee, and fittingly, hardboiled eggs. Then we headed back out on the trail. Not long after crossing Oil Creek there was a very large down tree blocking the trail. To be precise, there were two down trees blocking the trail. One large tree had fallen directly onto another large tree taking it down too. The trees had fallen recently, perhaps the night before. We had to find a way around these trees.

A pair of downed trees, nocked over like dominos
A pair of downed trees, nocked over like dominos – Canon T3i, EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

The detour we found was through an old cemetary which was next to the trail. I was a little surprised that there was a cemetary here, in the middle of an area used heavily for resource extraction. But, based upon the age of the graves, the cemetary pre-dates the oil boom of the late 1800s. At least one veteran of the War of 1812 was buried there. There didn’t appear to be any graves from after around 1890, so the oil boom probably ultimately sent the cemetary into disuse.

Frankie, son of M.W. & F.J. Paine, died Sept. 6, 1869, age 1yr & 18 days
Frankie, son of M.W. & F.J. Paine, died Sept. 6, 1869, age 1yr & 18 days – Canon T3i, EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

After a few more miles of hiking hills, and passing plum dungeon and plum dungeon falls, we arrived back at Cow Run shelter. Along the way we were wondering how the name “plum dungeon” came about – was it a dungeon created by the Plum family, or maybe a dungeon for plums, and if so what type of plums. We never found out.

The second annual Easter backpacking trip was, if slightly wet, a success. We decided that Oil Creek was a place which we could come back to. We might not come back in the summer when bugs could start becoming a concern, but we could definitely come back for a snowy winter trip, with a few caveats. First, if we expect foul weather we would bring two small tarps to close off the openings of the shelter. Also, the weather can’t be forecast to be too bad, otherwise the roads could be impassible. For example, on our way out we stopped at the Oil History Center, and the first route we took to get there was blocked by a downed tree. We were able to take an alternate route. We could also pick a shelter site based upon whether or not we want to have cell service. There was no service near the Wolfkeil shelters, while there was at the Cow Run shelters.

Oil Creek is slightly less remote and rugged than where we have been going recently, but given the weather it was a good choice. I would recommend Oil Creek for a weekend backpacking trip in fall, mild winter, or spring conditions. We are likely to return in the future.

More Photos

Rusty rolled over pipes are common on old oil and gas areas

Canon T3i, EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

Donning rail gear as it begins to pour

Canon T3i, EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

One of a few concrete bunkers along the trail

Canon T3i, EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

Wood stacked in the fireplace to keep it out of the coming rain

Canon T3i, EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

Crossing oil creek and hiking back to the trailhead

Canon T3i, EF 28mm f/1.8 USM

Published: 2019-04-27
Oil Creek State ParkPennsylvaniaBackpackingTravelPhotography