Crooked Creek Lake, PA

Crooked Creek Lake is a recreation area with a couple of public/state roads passing through it. Operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, it offers no services except toilets and sinks. So we set up our Clam to be our shower stall, because the site is near a great rail-trail called the Armstrong Rail-Trail, and knowing we’d be cycling a lot, showers were going to be imperative.

We arrived Wednesday, July 22 via backroads, and there was only one camper and (apparently) no staff around anywhere. As we arrived at the Park Office, an official-looking guy parked (among many other vehicles in the lot) and strode with purpose up to the doors, but they were closed tight. He banged on them a bit and explained to Jack (who was trying to check in) that he was a natural resources biologist and just wanted to charge his laptop.

No dice.

So we drove to the small campground (~45 sites) with the map Jack had picked up at the kiosk and noted that there were no drinking water spigots on the grounds.

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We went out again in search of THE potable water source, indicated on the map to be at the dump station. The equipment and services at the dump station, however, were all locked with padlocks.

So we meandered around some of the pavilions and other recreational areas in search of water. As we were contemplating driving Roomba across the lawn to a water spigot off a toilet house with a closed water fountain, a Ranger drove up and asked if we were seeking the campground. After explaining we knew where our site was but couldn’t find any available water, he gave us the combination to the padlocks at the dump station, and we returned and filled our tank with water.

As we were setting up (site #12) a 1960s-era hearse drove through, checking things out. A strange sight, but hardly prophetic. After setup, we napped in our chairs in the lovely breeze and enjoyed the quiet.

The sole site with electric (for folks needing a C-Pap machine or O2 or suchlike) was occupied by a small trailer. Our quiet idyll was broken by that family returning to their camp, among whom there was always yelling and crying. Luckily, they were away most of the days and left early. The Ranger reported that the weekend would nearly fill the place up as he had 25 new reservations. As it turned out, neither of the sites directly adjacent to us were used by anyone else.

After enjoying another lovely sunset, we threw open the Big Front Window (BFW) and the back window, as our site arrangement caught the wind from the rear (even without a caravan mover, we were able to arrange our awning to face the woods above Crooked Creek Lake, with a fence to keep anyone from accessing the steep sides of the lake from above) and had a lovely sleep—until a raccoon came to visit, trying to push its way through the BFW screen while standing on the bike rack. We chased it away and closed the BFW, but a pelting rain followed the raccoon, and both of us had trouble getting back to sleep.

Thursday, July 23: We rode the grounds on Thursday, which took about an hour to cover the 7.5-ish miles of our short tour (tootling along at an average of 8MPH. There was quite a lot of up and down, however, as we rolled down into the Outflow Recreation Area, a popular fishing/picnicking spot below the dam, and then had to climb back up to the dam; then we rolled down to the beach (which was really a sandy beach with several families spread out and swimming in the lake) and again had to climb back up. Good stretching ride after not much cycling or hiking back at Lake Erie SP. 

After cleaning up and driving into a town called Apollo for groceries (Naser’s Foods—with an excellent butcher) I worked on the blog for a while, and we had hamburgers, sweet corn, and baked potatoes for dinner. Around 6:30-7 we watched an ambulance and a police/sherriff’s dpt. car roll into the campground—lights going but no sirens—and stop at “kuncklehead’s” electric site. We thought maybe he’d be taken in cuffs when the “mom” was loaded into the ambulance, but when she was taken away, “dad” and the two boys left in the car, presumably to the hospital. So he hadn’t decked her, despite all the yelling. All were back on site the next AM so it was some other issue.

The rains returned overnight, as did the ‘coon, who shredded the paper towels under the grill we use to catch the grease drips. With the rains came not a cleansing freshness, but very high humidity.

On Friday, July 24 we were riding the Armstrong Trail by 10:30. Beginning at the southern terminus (Rosston Boat Ramp) we headed north, planning to turn around at about the halfway point (Templeton Boat Ramp) and doing the rest of the 36-ish mile Rail-to-Trail conversion on Saturday, starting at Templeton. Our go-to guide for PA Rail-Trails is the Official Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Guidebook for the state (we have several such books) and it is full of great information and recommendations.

Here’s a brief of their overview of the Armstrong Trail: Connecting riverfront towns along the east and of the Allegheny River, it winds through the lush Allegheny Plateau. The flat trail, currently 35.5 miles (in 2019) follows the river uphill from Rosston to Upper Hillville (with a significant break of urban riding through East Brady, since the R2T Conservancy or the RR had not re-opened the Brady’s Bend Tunnel, which the RR carved as a shortcut across a tight river bend, and thus orphaned 4.5 miles of the trail upriver, from East Brady to Upper Hillville).

The Allegheny Valley RR began laying tracks in 1853, and by 1870 the RR ran between Pittsburgh and Oil City. In 1992, the Allegheny Valley Land Trust acquired it, and land disputes delayed construction of some segments, resulting in a mix of surfaces. But the trail is all off-road, mostly cinder/crushed gravel, a very low grade, and not terribly populated with users.

We began the uphill stretch after speaking to a local at the Rosston Boat Launch, who recommended a short spur trail to take (the Cowanshannock Tr.) to see a lovely waterfall area called Buttermilk Falls. 

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Rosston Boat Launch

We began our ride going through Ford City, whose garden club takes good care of the trail section (separate from any vehicular traffic, and nicely paved). 

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Next came Kittanning, a major urban outpost along the route, with a significant bit of architecture in the middle of town.

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Many sights along the trail were interesting, including Lock & Dam #8 (we saw #9 upriver on our next day’s ride). Here’s what the reader board said about the Lock & Dam system:

Following the American Revolution, the Allegheny River carried an extensive downriver trade including lumber, iron, oil, and passengers. Much of this river traffic ended after the building of the railroad along the river corridor in the 1860s. Yet the river nevertheless needed to be navigable. 

Lock & Dam #8 was constructed between 1928 and 1931 as part of the Allegheny River Navigation System. Several navigational locks on the river consist of single lock chambers and a “fixed crest” dam. This type of dam is a concrete wall across the river, creating a pool of water above the dam at lest 9 feet deep for navigation.

Prior to the construction of the locks and dams, some river depths could be less than 12 inches at certain times of the year, making the river non-navigable. Water that flows over these dams, however, cannot be regulated. Therefore the dams do not provide flood protection. Lock chambers are used to transition boats from and to the different levels of the water along the river.

Another sight is the remains of the Monticello Furnace (whose stack was demolished):

The Monticello Furnace was built by Robert E. Brown in 1859 to extract iron from iron ore. Originally the furnace was heated with charcoal but was later converted to a coke hot blast furnace. Iron ore and limestone were placed in the top of the furnace stack together with coke, which heated the furnace to produce pig iron. 

The furnace provided employment for as many as 200 people and produced 60,000 tons of pig iron, which supplied markets in Pittsburgh and Kittanning. The Allegheny Valley RR was extended to the Monticello Furnace in 1865 to deliver ore to the furnace. From 1866 to 1874, 20,000 tons of Lake Superior iron ore were mixed with local carbonate ore to produce a superior quality of pig iron. This was then used to make nails, steel tools, and other products of high quality. The furnace was in almost constant operation from its completion until it went out of blast in 1875. Near this site were 68 houses for workers and a PO, which operated in the company store. The Cowanshannock Train Station was established nearby. Later RR extension work covered the furnace’s stack, but you can still see the retaining wall near where the furnace stood. A large slag pile remains between the trail and the river.

We missed the Cowanshannock spur on the outbound run, but caught it on the return, and it was a fun short ride to the rocky section of the Cowashannock Creek where the water begins to tumble over large boulders, earning the name “Buttermilk Falls.”

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Hungry and hot by the time we got back to Kittanning, we stopped at a place called Jim Fox’s Pizza and sat outside to eat a small pepperoni and inhale some sugary drinks and water.

Back at home base, our shower set-up worked great, although when the sun was on the Clam, it was terribly hot inside. Because we didn’t bother to crank the water heater for hot water, the cold water shower offset the discomfort and made for an excellent post-ride shower experience.

I put together some leftovers, added some of the remains of our earlier meal of pesto, and used that to top some pasta for dinner for a much-needed carb load.

Bike Stats: 32.64 miles; 2:50 ride time; 1:44 stopped time; 11.47 average MPH (84 feet of ascent—nice, flat trail).

On Saturday, July 25, we drove to Templeton Boat Launch to begin what turned out to be a much hotter ride, even though we started at about the same time of the day.

As we left Templeton we saw this monster chimney, which we dubbed “HellaChimney” attached to an electric plant of some sort. Our guess: it was a typical Appalachian coal-fired energy plant. But man. That chimney.

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The Guidebook recommended taking a different trail off the Armstrong to see two significant tunnels, for which riders must have headlamps to get through. 

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But first, we stopped at the Redbank Coaling Tower. A very impressive piece of construction:

During the era of steam-powered locomotives, trains traveling this RR corridor stopped at this coaling tower to fill their tenders with fuel coal. The PA RR Co. began construction here in 1928, and the coaling tower was placed into service in Feb. of 1930. It was used until 1957 when diesel engines replaced the last of the steam engines on this rail line.

Constructed of concrete poured into wooden forms made from locally-harvested timber, the lines from the wooden forms are still visible on the concrete. Coal from nearby mines was delivered to the tower in hopper cars and dropped into the pit (at the right of the photo below) then carried by conveyors (the slanted section) into the reservoir above the tracks (the round barrel). It was released into chutes, which directed the coal down into the tenders of the trains waiting beneath.

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Excerpt from the Guidebook: 

The Allegheny Valley RR developed the Redbank Valley corridor in the late 1800s to carry passengers, coal, and lumber to Pittsburgh and beyond. While passenger service along the line stopped in the 1940s, freight continued to be carried until the rails were removed in 2007.

Trail users can enjoy Redbank Creek’s waters along the corridor for 41 miles from the Allegheny River to Brookville. 

We enjoyed the 8 miles of the trail we rode, as we rose higher and higher above Redbank Creek’s waters—deep enough at the mouth for boaters to enjoy, but rippling and shallow by the time we turned around. 

Right about at the point where Redbank Creek’s boating depth was lost, was a nice little “covered bridge” across a significant feeder creek, and beside the remains of the trestle that used to carry the trains along Redbank’s corridor.

There’s even a perpendicular spur line that goes 9 miles up to Sligo, PA. That spur sports a 3% grade—a challenge not only for cyclists but also for trains as noted on the reader board below.

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While the guidebook reports Redbank’s grade to be about 1%, we guessed it to be slightly more significant than that—maybe 2%. It was definitely a chug to get to the first (southernmost) tunnel, called Long Point Tunnel. 

We stopped for a snack on the north side of the tunnel, at a camping shelter dubbed “Ray’s Place” in honor of one of the trail’s dedicated volunteers.

Electing to return to Templeton instead of seeing the second (north-most) tunnel (Climax Tunnel) we linked back up to the Armstrong trail and rode without much incident (except catching sight of this extraordinary sculpture, below) back to Templeton Boat Ramp.

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Bike Stats: 36.6 miles; 3 hours ride time; an hour stopped time; 12.46 average speed. 

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We celebrated our stay and rides with a ribeye steak dinner, accompanied by steamed-then-sauteed broccoli, and rice. An excellent end to an overall lovely stay with easy access to a great Rail-to-Trail conversion. Highly recommended.

Next stop: Raccoon Creek Lake State Park, PA—where Jack would have been staying (mostly) alone while I attended my job’s convention gathering in Pittsburgh, had it not been canceled due to Covid 19. So we will have 7 nights and many opportunities to cycle and cook. Our “new” Motto: We Travel to Cycle, and we Cycle to Eat.

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