Summer fun, safety go hand in hand

The 1.5 mile Alpha Pass trail at the north end of McConnells Mill State Park follows the east bank of the Slippery Rock Creek to the old grist mill.

As warm summer weather sets in, many heed the call to get up and go outdoors.

But be careful out there, park officials warn.

“We welcome you, but know what you’re doing,” said Natalie Simon, environmental education specialist at Moraine and McConnells Mill state parks. “Stay on the trails. Pick up a park map at the office or online and wear sturdy shoes. There is limited parking so be prepared to walk.”

The 2,346 acres of McConnells Mill State Park include a scenic water falls, a gristmill and covered bridge, dating from the 1800s. It is a national landmark created by receding glaciers that created not only beautiful scenery and but also plenty of natural hazards. 

In addition to sturdy shoes, Simon advises park visitors to take their own water since in-park supplies are limited and it is not recommended to drink water from Slippery Rock Creek, which flows through the park.

Other safety tips include carrying safety equipment such as first aid kits, whistles, a flashlight and a poncho; checking weather conditions before hiking; and being aware that some cell phones do not work in some parts of the park. However, Simon said, park rangers are generally available.

“Just be prepared,” she said. “Before you come, educate yourself on what you need to be safe. We have some lovely trails.”

The longest — Slippery Rock Gorge Trail — is six miles long. It is not a loop meaning it won’t bring you back to your starting point, she said.

Simon said hikers should allow a minimum of six hours to hike from the trail head at the Hell’s Hollow parking lot to Eckert Bridge and back.

“And remember where you are,” she said. “There are slippery rocks. People have been known to slip and fall.”

She advises all hikers to stay on marked trails for their own safety and to preserve plants, which won’t survive is they are stepped upon.

Although the trail follows the creek, Simon reminds hikers that no swimming is allowed in McConnells Mill park. Slippery Rock Creek is a dangerous, whitewater creek with a very swift current and several people have drowned there over the years.

“Enjoy the water from a safe distance,” she said. “If you want to swim, there is swimming on two free beaches at Moraine State Park.”

Simon said swimming beaches are at the North Shore Lake View Beach and South Shore Pleasant Valley Beach, the only places where swimming is allowed on Lake Arthur. There are no lifeguards, she notes.

In all, McConnells Mill offers 11 miles of rugged trails which are part of the North Country National Scenic Trails.

In addition to Slippery Rock Gorge, three other trails are featured.

•Alpha Pass, a 1.5-mile scenic trail at the north end of the park that follows the east bank of the creek to the grist mill.

•Hell’s Hollow, an easy half-mile trail from the Hell’s Hollow parking lot that follows the creek, crossing it twice, to an old lime kiln and Hell’s Hollow falls.

•Kildoo Trail, a 3-mile loop beginning at the covered bridge, following the east bank of the creek to Eckert Bridge, crosses the creek and returns along the west bank.

In addition to hiking, McConnell’s Mill features steep terrain for rock climbing and rappelling at Rim Road, across from the grist mill, and a second area for more advanced climbers is at Breakneck Bridge.

“Again, remember the names of these places and be careful,” Simon said. “We encourage climbers and repellers to climb only in approved areas.”

If this is an interest, Simon said, she encourages participants to join experienced groups who can train and outfit new climbers. One such group is Rock & Rescue in Butler. Anyone interested in whitewater kayaking is likewise encouraged to be experienced or to join a group that will train them in the sport. She said Three Rivers Paddling Club of Pittsburgh offers training sessions.

The 16,725-acre Moraine State Park, open from sunrise to sunset daily, offers a paved, seven-mile biking trail. Bikes can be rented at the swimming concessions. Also available for rent are lake-front cabins, pontoon boats, kayaks and canoes for use on the 3,225-acre lake. The park also features an 18-hole disc golf course.

“I remind people to observe water safety rules which include wearing life jackets especially when you launch and tie up the boat. These seem to be the times people are most likely to fall into the water,” Simon said.

The park also offers a Learn to Kayak program

The grist mill, at McConnells Mill, is open from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. six days each week — closed on Mondays.

Visitors are invited to tour the mill to learn its history impact on the area and the people who built it mill.

In addition, she said, a baker comes every other Sunday to offer a program from baking bread to making to making pizza on a grill.

“We have many programs,” Simon said.

She encouraged interested individuals to get on the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website to see what programs are coming  up Upcoming offerings include a three-day camp for children and family fishing programs.


Nancy Lowry is a reporter at the New Castle News. Email her at

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