Exploring the major Westmoreland County parks (Northmoreland, Twin Lakes, Mammoth, Cedar Creek) is a completely different experience than visiting Allegheny County’s parks (e.g., North Park, Hartwood Acres, Deer Lakes). Although there are “formulaic” Allegheny County parks, given that North Park, South Park, and Boyce Park all follow the same basic approach to layout and amenities, all of the Westmoreland County parks I’m familiar with are strikingly similar, in atmosphere and (generally) amenities and attractions.
The primary attraction in each park is a paved trail around a lake, or two, in the case of Twin Lakes (obviously); Cedar Creek is the exception, as we’ll get to later.. These lakefront trails tend to be very well maintained, even in the winter, in my experience. There are also plenty of picnic groves that actually feel relatively peaceful and rural, despite their proximity to a road (something that cannot be said for many Allegheny County parks). This is really the key to the Westmoreland County parks and what makes them so enjoyable; they’re lovely, spacious places with gorgeous landscaping and massive fields that can be a pleasure just to aimlessly walk through (assuming there are no baseball games going on, of course…). All of the parks are located in relatively remote locations; accordingly, they’re somewhat of a pain to get to, but their rural settings surely enhance their best qualities.
It would be a mistake to assume that the Westmoreland County parks are basically interchangeable for the aforementioned reasons, because in truth, all of them are worth making the effort to visit. Each one has an individual flavor and singular features that make them memorable and worthy of repeated visits.
Twin Lakes Park:
Most of the recreational facilities at Twin Lakes are located along one of the two lakes, although in recent years the park has been expanding to include a western section (the primary attractions being a skate park and a community garden). Nevertheless, odds are that you’ll want to spend most of your time at the lakes.
A signature Westmoreland County paved trail encircles both lakes (with a connecting trail between the two). The trail runs for a few miles, and it’s enjoyable enough that you’ll probably want to walk/jog it twice (maybe even repeating one of the lakes for a third time). At one point, the trail passes over the lower lake and leads into a cool “floating” gazebo; in the same vicinity, there is a small waterfall that connects the two lakes. Depending on recent rainfall amounts, this waterfall can be either pretty interesting or altogether forgettable.
The lakeside trails cannot be said to be particularly “backwoods,” but a decent half of the lower lake portion of the trail cuts through a forest, providing a more insular environment to contrast with the sundrenched openness of the lakes.
Also note that the trail around the upper lake is a “fitness trail,” with a variety of fixtures that can be used for stretching and strength exercises. Even if you only take advantage of a few of these devices, they can prove to be very useful.
There are other trails at Twin Lakes, most notably the Wilderness Trail (off of the East Parking Area), but it’s really not worth your while; it’s rather boring and unattractive. Perhaps paradoxically, the paved lakeside trails are far more enjoyable and relaxing.
Apart from walking, the usual suspects are also in evidence (fishing piers, neat-looking playgrounds that make me wonder how my generation survived with just simple slides ‘n’ swings). The boathouse, on the lower lake, rents out paddle boats and canoes, and if you get a kick out of them, the lower lake’s as good a place as any; there’s ample space to maneuver about,
There are plenty of parking areas at Twin Lakes, but many of them are rather cramped; in my opinion, the East Parking Area is the best option due to its ease of pulling in and out of a spot. Although you have to cross Twin Lakes Road to reach the rest of the park, the crossing point is at the bottom of two hills, and hence visibility isn’t really a problem.
Directions: From Rt. 30, east of Greensburg, turn onto Georges Station Road. Make a right onto Donohoe Road, and then look for a left onto Twin Lakes Road. Immediately after making the turn onto Twin Lakes Road, you’ll pass under a bridge; keeping a lookout for this bridge as something of a landmark might be useful if it’s your first time looking for the turn. Most of the major parking areas are located directly off of Twin Lakes Road, so it’s a simple matter of keeping a lookout for signs. As mentioned before, I suggest using the East Parking Area, which will be located on your right.
Mammoth Park is uniquely situated in what might be best thought of as the bottom of a very, very large bowl. The drive into the park is a minor thrill based solely on the joyously unpredictable Western Pennsylvania terrain.
There’s not much that can be said about the lake trail, and I must point out that this isn’t a bad thing; the trail may not have many individual highlights, but the overall atmosphere of the area is very pleasant and relaxing. I do have to say that this trail feels more “exposed” than many other trails, with relatively few trees and otherwise shaded areas. The surrounding hillside probably contributes to this odd ambience.
There is a little “island” in the lake that’s a great place to take a book or a light lunch; there’s a picnic table, a small lawn, and a tree with branches low enough for climbing. Near the bridge that leads to the island, there’s apparently also a suspension bridge that leads to a scenic overlook, but I didn’t see it; perhaps it was temporarily down, or else I simply missed it (I admit that I was so excited by finding the island that this is a definite possibility). Anyway, the overlook is also accessible via the southwestern section of the park, where most of the pavilions are. Also in this section is the “giant slide,” which features a Jack Rabbit-esque double dip (what could be more Pittsburghish than that?), and is definitely worth checking out if you have young children. Actually, you could argue that this is Mammoth’s calling card, and it’s cool to see even if you don’t plan on riding it…
Directions: In short, the park is located off of Rt. 982 (which can be accessed from Rt. 30). Depending on where you’re coming from, more expedient routes might be available. Unfortunately, many such routes are rather complex; for details, please consult the official Mammoth Park website.
Northmoreland seems tiny at first…until one walks or drives around and realizes just how massive the park is. Apart from an array of picnic shelters, there are no less than six soccer fields, a BMX track, a shuffleboard court, a model airfield, and bocce courts. It can be interesting to simply walk around the northeastern section of the park, due to the variety of amenities available. I found myself questioning the utility of having five soccer fields essentially side by side (with a sixth not far away), but presumably they’re trafficked enough to make this vast quantity necessary…
Anyway, back to the perks of this area, the hillside near pavilion #7, which boasts an impressive view of the surrounding countryside, deserves a callout here. It’s a great place to sit on a bench (or the grass) and read a book, or just to take a look around.
Although it’s not on the map, I found a little trail near pavilion #2; it basically led down a hill and then seemed to lose its way…actually, I found it equally entertaining to merely wander between the pavilions, using the woods as something of a boundary to mark my “path” with.
Despite the eminently enjoyable northern section, the most immediate (and possibly memorable) area of the park is the lake. Northmoreland Lake is a joy to walk around, even upwards of half a dozen times, due to the variety in setting and the simple aesthetic appeal of the lake. There are plenty of benches and picnic tables along the trail, even some that are “buried” in little side-trails that narrowly cut through the vegetation to lead down to the lake. The latter type can be a great way to enjoy some privacy and still be able to have a view of the water. I’m rather fond of the benches that sit on the “hill” and keep watch over the lake, but be warned; it can be very windy up there, and even in late spring it can get rather chilly.
There is also a more rugged trail in this area, but it can be difficult to find; it’s not marked, and odds are you’ll only spot it if you’re looking for the clearing. If you’re walking clockwise around the lake, it’ll be on your left in the “forested” section. I have to admit that this is far from my favorite trails, but it’s certainly not bad. It basically leads up a hill and then along the park boundary (coming very close to what looks like a golf course; from a map, I’m guessing that it’s part of Willowbrook Country Club). A decent hike, to be sure, but in my opinion, simply looping around the lake several times is far more enjoyable.
Paddle boating is also enjoyable at Northmoreland, though slightly less so than at Twin Lakes due to the shape of the lake (at Twin Lakes, the lower lake is slightly curved, duly providing significantly different views as one traverses the permitted sections of the lake).
Directions: From Rt. 356 heading north from Rt. 66, a turn for the park will be marked on the left. This road will lead you into the northern section of the park; to access the lake, turn right at the four-way intersection and then continue straight. At the next intersection, the parking lot for the lake will be straight ahead.
Cedar Creek Park:
The one major Westmoreland County park to not feature a lake and accompanying trail, Cedar Creek Park does have the distinction of having what is (in my opinion) the best “hiking” trail of the four parks.
First, it should be noted that Cedar Creek still has the wealth of picnic groves you’d expect at a Westmoreland County park, and tucked among them is a really neat amphitheater, complete with a mural adorning its outer walls. The park also has a model airfield and several baseball diamonds. Although the other parks permit camping, I believe Cedar Creek has the most extensive facilities for this particular recreational activity.
More notably, Cedar Creek has a boat launch; the park is actually situated along the Youghiogheny River, and accordingly, the lower section of the park, by the boat launch, has some great views.
This lower section is also where you’ll probably want to park if you plan on hiking the Cedar Creek Gorge Trail, which is a definite must-do if you’re in the area. There is an alternate parking lot available, off of Timm’s Lane, which might be preferable if it’s busy and you don’t want to drive through the entire area of the park to get to the boat launch area parking. Using this alternate parking lot will necessitate walking a spur trail in order to access the Cedar Creek Gorge Trail proper.
Assuming you’ve decided to park by the boat launch, keep driving through the park until the road basically comes to an end; this’ll occur shortly after one passes Cedar Creek Station, which also serves as a bike shop. Park wherever you can find a space (I’m guessing it’ll be crowded in summer, with boaters and all, but when I went in January, it was all but deserted). At the far end of the parking area, there’ll be a sign for the Cedar Creek Gorge Trail.
The trail can be thought of as comprising two separate sections, an upper part and a lower part. You’ll probably want to hike the lower part first, and finding your way is pretty self-explanatory. The path is cleared very well, and you’ll know you’re heading the right way when you see a suspension bridge that clearly labels the path as the Cedar Creek Gorge Trail. As for the gorge itself, it’s very impressive and rather unique for this area. The trail basically follows the creek (though “creek” seems too diminutive a term for this particular waterway), with massive hillsides on both sides darkening and “trapping” the area. I can imagine a photographer happily spending an entire session all along this section of the trail.
When you come to a second suspension bridge, you’ll know that it’s time for the upper half of the trail. This section runs along a hillside high above the creek. I have no idea what the view is like in summer, but in winter, at least, you still have a great view of the gorge below. I’m guessing most of the creek tends to be obscured by foliage in other seasons, but then, maybe the vegetation’s not particularly thick in that area. Anyway, the trail will appear to split in two after you cross the bridge; you’ll want to take a left, up the hill (taking a right will lead to a virtual dead end shortly after the bend). After you’ve made your way up much of the hill, the trail will seem to split; although you can change your mind later via side trails, I suggest staying on the lower trail from the start. There are actually three “levels” to the upper half of the Cedar Creek Gorge Trail, all running parallel to each other. If you follow the highest of the trails, it’ll basically lead to the model airfield. The middle trail simply ends. The lowest trail, however, will take you back to where you started the trail…well, nearly. It’ll drop you off on the Great Allegheny Passage. Speaking of which…
Yes, a portion of the Great Allegheny Passage cuts through Westmoreland County, along the Youghiogheny River, coinciding with the location of Cedar Creek Park. This particular section is known as the Yough River Trail. I’m not a fan of these sorts of trails, but cyclists will probably find this area invaluable. Note that horses are also permitted on the trail, but they must keep to the grassy areas.
Directions: The road that ultimately leads to Cedar Creek Park is located off of Rt. 51, just north of I-70. Brown signs indicate the turn (Concord Lane, in case you were wondering) and continue to point the way to the park. Unless you plan on using the model airfield or the alternate parking lot for the Cedar Creek Grove Trail, plan on using the main entrance; it’s clearly marked, and the “No Outlet” sign afterwards should tip you off as well.
A note about Rt. 51; if you’ve ever driven it, you know what a pain it can be between the Liberty tubes and Elizabeth. Although it’s ultimately the most direct (and fastest) route from Pittsburgh, to avoid the stop-and-go traffic, you might want to consider taking the orange belt, depending on where you live. Using Etna as my “starting point,” it took me about fifteen minutes longer to take the orange belt than it did to use Rt. 51. Because the drive was a lot less stressful (and more attractive!), I definitely preferred the orange belt route…and heck, if you’re from, say, Penn Hills, it’s probably faster anyway. Just make sure to take the parkway if you’re heading back west, so that the crowds and traffic of Monroeville’s main drag don’t eliminate all the gains you accomplished by bypassing Rt. 51.
Appendix: Other Westmoreland County trails:
In addition to the Yough River Trail, the Regional Trail Corporation in conjunction with Westmoreland County is responsible for a number of other trails in Westmoreland County. These trails are constructed so that they are handicapped accessible. In my opinion, these trails are best suited to cyclists and possibly joggers, but pedestrians of a certain temperament may find them enjoyable.
The Five Star Trail connects Youngwood and Greensburg, as well as including a spur to Armbrust. The spur part of the trail also passes through the main branch of the Westmoreland County Community College.
The Coal and Coke Trail leads from Mount Pleasant to Scottdale. At five miles long, this trail can be cycled in its entirety within a relatively short span of time, although there are plans to expand the trail so that it will connect to the West Overton Museums, which mark the birthplace of Henry Frick.
The Westmoreland Heritage Trail currently connects Saltsburg and Slickville, but it is ultimately planned to extend east to Trafford. This expansion will quadruple the current length of the trail, from five miles to twenty miles. Personally, I’m excited for that to happen, because the trail is slated to cross the Beaver Run Reservoir, which looks awesome while one’s driving across it…unfortunately, there are no permitted stopping points…