Pennsylvania to close popular hiking trail, citing safety

Glen Onoko has been the scene of dozens of serious accidents over the years, and several deaths, straining the region's all-volunteer fire departments.

An unidentified woman makes her way to the base of a waterfall

An unidentified woman makes her way to the base of the waterfalls just off the Glen Onoko Falls Trail in Jim Thorpe, Pa., Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Michael Rubinkam/AP Photo)

Jacqueline Zito spends as much time as she can on the Glen Onoko Falls Trail — one of the most scenic and well-known hiking paths in all of Pennsylvania — and was eager to get back out there after recent cancer surgery.

“The Glen is my best friend,” she said Tuesday, admiring one of the roaring, rain-swollen waterfalls. “This place heals me. It’s my church, my therapy and my gym.”

Come May 1, it’ll also be off-limits.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has decided to close Glen Onoko because of longstanding concerns about the trail’s safety, prompting backlash and bewilderment from hikers and nature lovers. The commission’s spokesman did not return multiple calls and emails Tuesday, but state Rep. Doyle Heffley, who represents the area, said that game commission officials had informed him of the decision.

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Glen Onoko has been the scene of dozens of serious accidents over the years, and several deaths, straining the region’s all-volunteer fire departments. Rescues and recoveries can require as many as two dozen first responders.

The cascading falls are on the southern end of Lehigh Gorge State Park, a popular attraction in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, 85 miles (137 kilometers) north of Philadelphia. It’s drawn tourists from the city and throughout the region since the 1800s. Visitors once arrived by train, staying at an opulent Victorian hotel that stood near the falls until it burned in 1911.

The problem is that too many people have gotten themselves in trouble on the steep, rocky and slippery terrain, said Mark Nalesnik, coordinator of the Carbon County Emergency Management Agency. Some get too close to the edge of the steepest falls and plummet over the side. Others wander off the trail and become lost.

“It’s very labor intensive for our emergency responders,” Nalesnik said. “The same four or five people who go in can’t complete the thing on their own because it’s too taxing, too dangerous and too far to carry someone out on a basket. I don’t believe the general public realizes how much of an effort it takes to safely and successfully rescue someone out of that area.”

The falls trail seemed more crowded than normal Tuesday. Some people said they came because they’d heard about the pending closure, and wanted to experience the trail one last time.

Like many locals and outdoors enthusiasts, Brandon Huffman, 23, lamented the loss of a trail enjoyed by generations.

“It’s going to hurt a lot of people. It’s really a shame and I hope they reconsider,” he said.

Huffman, who grew up in nearby Jim Thorpe and has hiked Glen Onoko many times, said that as long as a hiker has good shoes and sticks to the trail, it’s not that difficult.

“To close off nature doesn’t send the best signal,” he said in a phone interview. “Nature can be dangerous. You just have to have your wits about you and have some common sense.”

An online petition to keep the trail open quickly attracted thousands of signers. Zito, 52, who lives nearby, was among them.

She acknowledged that some come unprepared in flip-flops or get too close to the edge. Zito once yelled at a young man who was standing at the lip of the falls while using his cellphone. But she said closing the trail altogether punishes everyone.

“I don’t know what I would do without it,” she said.

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