Paddle a River Oasis Through the Heart of the Rust Belt
The Rust Belt’s shockingly bucolic secret is the Allegheny Valley, a defiant swath of wilderness in the heart of the old steel empire and one of the most protected island paradises in the U.S.
After a day on the Allegheny River, I pulled over to the nearest island and found an ideal camping spot: a grassy bluff sheltered by sycamores. Someone had left behind a fire ring and painted a smiling face on one of the trees, and the face and I sat by the fire together, like Tom Hanks and Wilson, listening to rapids rush into the dark.
As far as I felt from civilization, I was only a couple of hours from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, or Buffalo. At 368 acres, Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Islands Wilderness, a string of seven islands, is one of the nation’s smallest federally designated wildernesses. It’s yours to explore at will, an accessible refuge perfect for an annual expedition or an impulsive weekend trip — no fees, no permits, no reservations.
From its source near the New York–Pennsylvania border, the Allegheny runs 325 miles through old industrial towns, the Seneca Nation, Allegheny National Forest, and then on to Pittsburgh, where it meets the Ohio River. In 1992, Congress designated 87 miles of the Allegheny as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The best bet for a weekend trip is the quiet stretch between the Kinzua Dam and Tionesta, a meandering 45 miles of forested vistas and tree-shaded islands. (Beyond the official seven are more than 100 others, many open to camping.) On summer weekends, stretches of the river become a floating party zone of beer-laden inner-tubers and families in canoes — who just might offer to toss you a cold one or steer you to the nearest swimming hole.
Beyond Tionesta, the water trail continues another 62 miles through Pennsylvania’s industrial corridor, which is greener and more serene than the name implies. At Oil City, you hit the Allegheny’s only real rapids, which novice paddlers should avoid. It’s nearly impossible for recreational boaters to go much farther beyond this section, as budget cuts closed four locks to noncommercial traffic. That may change: The Allegheny River Development Corp. is working to reopen them to boaters this summer. If it succeeds, keep going to Pittsburgh, and mark your arrival with a life-changing seasonal feast at Justin Severino’s Cure.
Rent: From Allegheny Outfitters in Warren, Pennsylvania. A canoe or kayak, including the drop-off and pickup transportation for the two-night, 45-mile trip from Kinzua Dam to Tionesta, begins at $110.
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