A recreation area headed up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might not seem to demand a particularly high spot in one’s personal pantheon of places to picnic, walk, or swim. However, Crooked Creek, located a few minutes south of Ford City, is one of this writer’s all-time favorite places to spend an afternoon, regardless of the season. Picnic groves, playgrounds, and baseball fields abound, as do shelters and isolated benches positioned to offer picturesque views of the lake.
The central focus of the park is the lake, which hosts a swimming area in the summer (although it was closed last summer) and boating opportunities. One of the park’s overlooks includes a sign that describes the statistics of the dam that keeps the lake from flooding vulnerable areas. The creek (the trickle of the lake after it has passed through the dam) is popular for anglers; the lower parking lot (where the Shrub Swamp Trail can be accessed) always seems to host a variety of visitors. Not being a fisherman myself, I can’t testify as to the merits of Crooked Creek’s fishing opportunities, but there are certainly less scenic places to spend your afternoons. Indeed, in its modest and gentle way, Crooked Creek is one of the most lovely places in the entire Pittsburgh region.
The trails at Crooked Creek are not well publicized; the primary means of finding information about them while actually at the park is via the map posted outside the park office (don’t bother asking for printed trail maps; they don’t have any, and the information they have about the Baker Trail is not particularly useful for the day hiker). Until one becomes familiar with the trail system (though most trails are simple loops), I suggest using one’s cellular phone to take a picture of the map, thus having a saved image file to reference while actually on the trail (the 21st century’s equivalent of a hasty pencil ‘n’ paper sketch?). Indeed, the map outside the main ranger station contains several trails not on the .pdf file available online, necessitating a brief examination of the posted sign for the trail completist (if such a breed exists).
One of the trails leads up to the Crooked Creek Environmental Learning Center (CCELC), which offers a variety of activities (while walking in the area, I’ve encountered alternative medicine conferences, scout gatherings, etc.). If nothing else, it’s a quaint building that’s enjoyable to trek up to (there is, of course, a road that accesses the CCELC; it’s off of Dam Road, aka the road that, fittingly, crosses over the dam).
Boating appears to be very popular at Crooked Creek; even on off-days in the off-season there is usually at least one vessel out on the water. In the summer, the lake can almost said to be over-crowded with boaters. There is plenty of parking by the boat dock, which also sports a nearby pavilion, playground, and one of the park’s most enjoyable hikes (Laurel Point Trail, with blue blazes, a trail that follows a number of winningly aged bridges and wooden steps to a wonderfully obscure section of the lake, where even boaters are all but unknown).
A few notes on some of the other trails:
The Baker Trail (yellow blaze) wraps around the Fitness Trail; although signs on fences appear to indicate an area that should be avoided, there is actually a gap in the fence at one point, permitting the yellow blazes to be followed. Even if one does not intend to hike the Baker Trail in its entirety (due to time or physical or motivation-related constraints), it is highly recommended that those who are fit enough to do so explore this section of the trail. It provides excellent views of the creek, as well as offering trails up to the Crooked Creek Horse Park. The trail also intersects Houston Road (aka the main road that leads straight into the park, at which point it becomes Dam Road), offering an alternate route back to those for whom doubling back on one’s path is anathema.
Due to Snowmageddon, the bridge on the Fisherman’s Trail was destroyed; until it is repaired, the creek can simply be crossed when the water level is low (which is normally is). Otherwise, an alternate entrance exists further down the road, across the street from the last parking lot before the beach.
What might look like a patch of weeds at the end of the Songbird Trail (and also driving towards the beach or the boat launch on Park Main Road) is actually a neat little maze; trails are cut seemingly at random through the weeds, and though it’s basically impossible to get lost, it’s also difficult to predict precisely where you’ll end up.
The Beach Trail isn’t blazed terribly well; if attempting this trail, it’s best to be prepared to either improvise or walk on the road (or a combination of the two).
Abbey’s Road Trail, an excellent shortcut between the park office and the overlook that contains the dam information sign, was originally called Sticky Fingers Trail, but the name had to be changed because of a complaint on the part of Mr. Allen Klein*.
Directions: From Pittsburgh, head north on Rt. 28 and exit towards Ford City. Follow Rt. 66 South; there are two entrances to the park. You can make a left by Speedy’s Ice Cream (a wonderful stop if you’re in the mood), but the brown sign indicating the turn appears inappropriately late, so Speedy’s is probably your best landmark to look for. If you miss this turn, turning around isn’t necessary; follow the road until the bottom of the hill, and after a straight stretch of road, look for Dam Road (it’ll be on your left).
Of course, given that both of these turns are off of Rt. 66, if it is easier/faster to travel on this road than it is on Rt. 28 because of one’s starting point, simply following Rt. 66 north (or south, from any point north of Ford City) will lead to Crooked Creek. Actually, this might even be a preferable alternative, because the speed limit’s comparable and the view on Rt. 66 is much more scenic and relaxing than the highway gotta-speed-gotta-pass-gotta-get-ahead bustle of Rt. 28.
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If one is heading south on Rt. 28 after leaving Crooked Creek, it might be worth detouring to Kittanning; it’s not that far out of the way, and there’s a great little trail along the Allegheny River. Parking is metered in the commercial district, but there’s plenty of free parking in the residential areas (if entering Kittanning from the south, one will encounter the commercial district first; the residential area begins after the left turn for the bridge).
*Yes, I made that up.