Located at the southern edge of the Allegheny National Forest, the Loleta Recreation Area is one of 43 designated recreation areas inside the national forest, with facilities ranging from simple boat launch ramps to full campgrounds with electric hookups and modern bathhouses. The Loleta area features 38 campsites between two loops, with the non-electric campsites in the upper loop recommended for tents and small RVs, and the electric campsites in the lower loop suitable for tents and RVs up to 50 feet (according to the official camp information). A centrally-located bathhouse lies between both loops, beside the “beach” and picnic area. The sites wildly vary in quality, from muddy grass sites to hard-packed gravel sites, none of which are very level (which would mostly impact larger RVs). We were at the campground while roughly ten others groups of campers moved in and out of the lower loop, and none of us seemed to have much issue leveling our rigs, however, everyone had small RVs or trailers. I’m not sure someone with a large Class A or even a 29 foot or longer trailer would have much luck in any site.
Compared to the couple of state parks we’ve visited in the RV, the Loleta campground is more rustic and wild than either of those. I’ve seen a couple of references to this area as the “Pennsylvania Wilds” and seeing just this small part of the national forest demonstrates the origin of the nickname. The next few paragraphs will cover some history of the forest and the Loleta area, so if you’re not in the mood for a history lesson you might want to skip ahead!
HISTORY OF THE FOREST
We stopped at the Forest Ranger Station in Marienville before officially checking into our campsite. The station offers a wealth of information on the area, from hunting and fishing activities, to off-road vehicle passes, and lots of storyboards about history, wildlife, and environmental issues. The Allegheny National Forest was established in 1923 to restore and protect the Allegheny River watershed. The forest itself spreads over 500,000 acres, including over 11,000 acres of surface water and hundreds of miles of streams and rivers within its boundaries.
In the same way the area around Blue Knob was clear-cut and largely destroyed in the late 1800s, the original area that now includes the Allegheny National Forest was heavily impacted by eager industrialists during the same time period. European settlers in the early 1800s established a logging industry in the area, which quickly grew from producing 10,000 board feet per day by 1840, to 100,000 board feet per day by 1880. Between 1890 to 1930, nearly all of Pennsylvania had been clear-cut, with old growth forests reduced to barren hillsides prone to floods, erosion, and wildfires. Trees of nearly every species in the Allegheny Plateau fueled the wood chemical industry with industrial facilities producing charcoal, wood alcohol, and acetic acid, among other products.
In addition to the logging industry, the blossoming oil industry took a firm grip of the Allegheny Plateau in the late 1800s. Edwin Drake drilled the first successful oil well in nearby Venango County in 1859, jump-starting the commercial oil industry. From 1859 to 1890, the region became the center of the oil industry as new oil fields developed almost daily. This was the time when developers began purchasing oil and gas rights from private landowners and timber companies, severing these rights from a property deed – a practice which would have long-lasting effects, far past the late 1800s.
The value of oil had been well known centuries prior to Drake’s discovery, as the native Seneca tribes collected oil from naturally occuring seeps by trapping it behind dams or skimming it from the surface of water with blankets. This “Seneca Oil” was used for trading, as well as ceremonial and medicinal purposes, from treating stomach ailments to moisturizing dry skin. The commercial product became known as Pennsylvania Crude and, thanks to its high parrafin content, was originally refined for use in lamp oil, solvents, and enventually gasoline. As refining improved and our industrial needs changed, Pennsylvania Crude became the primary lubricant for the nation’s early aviation and automobile industries.
When the government purchased the land in 1923, the hills were so depleted of large trees that people jokingly referred to it as the “Allegheny Brush Patch”. The U.S. Forest Service quickly established a sustainable timber harvest in the forest, and the long road to recovery began. The forest was ultimately renewed and resurrected through the hard work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. On April 25, 1933 the first CCC camp, dubbed NF-1, opened its doors in the Allegheny National Forest, welcoming unemployed young men and veterans into the work program that was the centerpiece of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. From 1933 to 1942, 14 CCC camps opened within the forest providing homes and jobs as the men of the Corps revitalized the landscape while building recreation areas at Twin Lakes, Hearts Content, and Loleta. The log structures and the dam at Loleta were built by these men and still stand today as a testament to their craftsmanship. World War II signalled the demise of the CCC, but by the time the last enrollee was discharged in 1942, “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” had included three million young men who had planted over three billion trees on public lands, among many other vital contributions.
While the methods used to extract natural resources from the earth today may arguably be less invasive and more heavily regulated, the industrial hold on the national forest has never really loosened. While the federal government owns the surface land of the forest, the subsurface ownership of the oil, gas, and mineral rights belongs to private industry. Over 93% of the Allegheny National Forest shares this split-ownership model. As of 2012, over 12,000 privately owned oil and gas wells were located inside the national forest. One acre of land, on average, is required to support each well and the associated infrastructure. The controversial first Marcellus Shale natural gas well was built inside national forest boundaries in 2010, requiring a higher standard of surface infrastructure to support the deep-drilling technology capable of plunging over 7,000 feet into the earth’s surface. The harvesting of natural resources is the prime difference between national parks and national forests – the parks are meant to be preserved and protected in their most natural states, while the forests are meant to be managed and responsibly harvested for resources.
OUR TIME AMONGST THE TREES
While at the Loleta Recreation Area, we enjoyed the slight detachment from technology (we walked about a mile outside of camp to get a cell signal – even boosting the Verizon signal provided little change in the campground) while immersing ourselves in the outdoors. The thick canopy of trees combines with the lush carpet of ferns to create an emerald landscape deep into the forest. We hiked the Loleta Trail, a three-mile loop beginning and ending in the campground, through what (I can only imagine) felt like prehistoric marshland, which eventually gave way to a lightly-used forested trail. This was one of the most rustic trails either of us had hiked, not for its remoteness or length, but simply because of the overgrown nature of the path and the surrounding landscape. Trudging through the swampy, mud-laden trail surrounded on all sides by an unending blanket of ferns and grasses felt almost desolate at times. The overcast sky dampened the atmosphere, lending an unsettling eerie quality to the first part of the hike. I admit feeling a bit relieved when the trail finally delved into a thickly wooded section, just over halfway through the hike. As we thought we were reaching the end of the trail, we crossed paths with a couple we’d seen earlier heading back down from the overlook area. Turns out they were getting turned around on the last bit of the trail, so the four of us hiked the rest of the way out together, following the narrow, tricky switchbacks into camp.
Loleta is close to the Clarion River, which is popular for canoeing, kayaking, and tubing, so we dusted off our bikes and pedaled the gravel Millstone Road to the banks of the river. We followed the aptly named River Road for a couple of miles, enjoying the sounds of the river and watching people frolic in the water. Millstone Road is bumpy and fairly hilly – we hopped off our bikes to push a little bit (sorry Dad, it’s true!) but River Road is flat and suitable for the whole family. Both roads feature officially marked dispersed camping sites – the first we’ve seen – which are free, rustic sites located on public land. Generally suited for tent campers, some sites can accommodate a van, trailer, or small RV. We’ve read and heard that this type of camping is more popular out west among the RV crowd, and we’re anxious to learn more about it and discover more sites in the future.
We relaxed by the small dam at the designated beach area in the camp, watching the water spill over the curved stonework and enjoying the cool breeze off the water. Describing this area as a beach is being generous, as it’s mostly a sandy, damp patch of land beside a creek – but this far inland, it could be a beach if it wants to. This was also our first time spending a weekend in a campground, so we observed the inflow of the weekend campers (on a very small scale) and then the slow exodus as Sunday came to a close.
The Loleta Recreation Area is a good starting point to start your exploration of the Allegheny National Forest. While not the largest or most modern camping facility, it does provide a central location for people seeking to boat the Clarion River, explore the Buzzard Swamp hiking area (about five miles away), or simply relax at the edge of the forest. The Marienville Ranger Station is also a great spot to learn about the history of the U.S. Forest Service, as Allegheny is one of the few national public lands east of the Mississippi. I’d caution anyone with a large RV that this might not be your first choice, simply because of the size of the sites, but the campground and the Marienville station both have large enough parking lots so you could check it out for yourself if you happen to be passing through the area.
Our next stop is the Ives Run COE campground in Tioga PA, before heading north into the Finger Lakes. We already have a list of possible places to visit (wineries, breweries, maybe the Corning glass museum, hopefully some waterfalls) around the lakes, but feel free to share any other suggestions in the comments section!