This was our first real family road trip with no grandparents, aunts or uncles to bail us out when we needed a break from our three children. It was the second week of July. The adventure: a combination of camping and city lights. On the way to NYC, we camped for three nights in Kettle Creek State Park in northern Pennsylvania. Packing one small vehicle for a camping trip and a city trip was difficult, as was dragging three little kids through Times Square, but I won’t waste your time talking about the NYC leg.
Ok, just one story. All of the wet clothes from creeking, hiking, rain showers and children falling in the creek remained tied up in a big black trash bag in the back of the car in a parking garage in Manhattan. For FIVE days. No one was allowed to open the bag or even touch it until we made it home. It was rank. We didn’t know what to expect when we finally opened the bag, but we knew it was going to be bad. We made it home and unpacked everything…except the black trash bag. Finally, Abby, my brave wife, held her breath and opened the bag. One garment emerged from it soggy and fuzzy and unrecognizable. It was my jeans. They were completely covered in a white and green mold pattern like some dairy product left in the fridge way past expiration! Yeah, we should have done laundry after camping. Ah well, we were able to salvage most of the molded clothing with a little bleach and Kentucky sunlight.
Anyway, about Kettle Creek. The park sits in a breathtaking valley surrounded by walls of thick, tree-covered mountains extending up into the sky out of the water. The Alvin R. Bush Dam is the centerpiece of the park. Built in 1961 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it serves as a flood control measure in the West Branch Susquehanna River basin. There’s also a small dam just south of the Lower Campground. These two dams create several ways to experience the creek.
One: Kettle Creek State Park Lower Campground
Our first experience with Kettle Creek was at our campsite. The Lower Campground has RV electrical sites and tent sites. We reserved a site in advance on their website, and our pre-paid tag was already clipped to the post at the entrance of the site when we arrived at 4pm. There was no check-in process, so we got to work setting up camp while our three children got busy skipping rocks in the creek and exploring the campground. We recommend booking a site in the northern part of the Lower Campground. We chose site 05 – right next to the creek and a short walk to the restroom (the nicest and cleanest state park facilities we had ever seen).
Along the campground, the creek was still and deep. A couple quietly paddled past our campsite in a canoe. A little boy fishing from his kayak waved as he floated by, the current of the creek barely carrying him along. A large white bird flew past us to the south end of the campsite, toward the sound of rushing water. We followed the bird and discovered a swingset and a small dam producing a calming little waterfall at the end of the grounds. I sat on a bench as my son watched the Great Blue Heron attempt to catch his dinner. I thought to myself, “This place is already worth the drive.”
On the way back to the campsite, we met a man and his father from Pittsburgh. He joked about the fly fishing vest he was wearing, and his father whispered (though not quietly enough that his son, who was four feet, away couldn’t hear him) proceeded to tell us about his son’s PTSD and multiple botched brain surgeries from the first Gulf War. The son pulled out his wallet and showed me pictures of the stitches behind his ear from the first surgery. I felt my eyes well-up with tears, but they were cracking jokes, which caused me to laugh at the same time.
They asked us if we’ve seen the bald eagles in the park, past the dam. “No,” I said, “but that sounds amazing.”
“Oh yeah. We saw them yesterday,” one of them said. “I think they must have a nest on the mountain across the water from the park. Two of them flew out of the trees while we were there.”
Two: The Park
The next day, we searched for bald eagles in the park, a five-minute drive north over the bridge and past the dam. Once we passed the dam, we saw all of Kettle Creek Lake. Other campers were paddled and fished on the lake. We parked in the large parking lot in the middle of the park, next to the docks. Nine canoes lay upside down along the edge of the lake. Two people backed their trucks up to the boat ramp and carefully loaded their fishing kayaks onto racks.
Our children wanted to fish. We only had one pole with a few crank bait lures, so they took turns casting out into the lake. Each dock had the words “No Fishing” painted on the threshold. We obeyed, and moved to the sidewalk where there was no prohibition against fishing.
The east side of the lake was forestland: a mountain of trees that appeared to heave out of the water.
Suddenly, two birds exploded out of the tree tops across the lake, screeching and shaking the huge trees as if a strong wind had blown through them. My daughter Anna yelled, “Look, it’s the bald eagles!”
It was. Two of them soared and made a ruckus. I had never seen bald eagles in the wild and it was magnificent. It seemed like they were playing in the tree, gliding back and forth from the south to the north side of the lake with power and majesty. Then, a third one emerged from the trees and we tried to capture it on video. That was a mistake. We should have just kept watching.
Three: Below the dam: Creek fishing
There are more than 60 miles of Class-A trout streams in the Kettle Creek watershed. We drove north of the park to Galeton, PA for lunch one day and bought our license from Cimino Hardware. The teenage boy behind the counter saw we were from out of town. “Let me guess. Hunting or fishing license?”
We chatted long enough that I felt uncomfortable holding up the man behind us who wanted to pay for a lawn chair and a roll of electrical tape. We live in Louisville, home of the Louisville Slugger baseball bats. and I learned from this young man that the Larimer & Norton Lumber Company of Galeton produces the maple billets that are shipped to Kentucky and turned into baseball bats. A gregarious man with three spaniels in his truck confirmed this fact only ten minutes later as we stopped to fill up the gas tank, empty my son’s bladder and get ice for the cooler. “I saw your Kentucky plates,” he said. “Did you know Louisville Sluggers come from the mill right over there?”
Small world. I wanted to tour the mill, but he said they aren’t really set up for that. So, we opened the trunk, loaded two bags of ice, and headed back to the park.
Just below the Kettle Creek Dam, on the north side of the bridge, there was a small gravel lot with picnic tables – a great spot to fish with small children. My daughter climbed onto a rock to look out over the creek and cast a crank bait lure as far as she could in the direction of the bridge. Later, my son waded out into the middle of the creek to cast with me. My flip flops didn’t stand up to the slippery rocks, but I managed to stay dry. We caught a small trout under the shade trees with crank bait, and then headed back to the campsite.
Four: Kettle Creek Vista Road
The fourth way we experienced the creek was from above. A friend once told me that he decides where to travel by using the Explore button on Instagram. I took his advice and searched for posts around the Kettle Creek area and found beautiful photos of the lake taken from the same point high above.
We set out to find the place where people were taking these amazing pictures, and as we left the park where we had seen the eagles, I noticed a sign for Kettle Creek Vista Road. I took a sharp right turn, figuring this must be the road. This was the one time on our trip that I felt more comfortable in our SUV than I would have in a car. The road was paved but rugged, winding steeply in spots. I stopped along the way so we could take pictures of twin fawns frozen in a wide-eyed stare. Finally, at the end of a 15-minute drive, we came to a clearing with wooden steps at one end. The trees were cut back, and on a clear day, we saw a beautiful panorama of the lake 1,000 feet below. I immediately captured the moment and posted it on Instagram.
Making rural Pennsylvania a travel destination may seem a little odd. Most of our friends have had the same surprised (or confused) look when we mention the trip. However, spectacular beauty is your reward for the extra time in the car travelling the snaking roads leading to Kettle Creek State Park. For our children, fishing the creek is the highlight of the trip. For me, bald eagles soaring over a lake is unforgettable. We think about Kettle Creek often.
Kettle Creek State Park is remote. Your vehicle should have a full tank of gas before you leave the last major highway. We filled up in DuBois, PA just off highway 80 before heading north into the park, and once more in Galeton, PA after tubing one afternoon.
- The address for your GPS is 97 Kettle Creek Park Ln, Renovo, PA 17764.
- Coordinates to the Lower Campground in the park: 340589, -77.909678.
What to Bring
- Earplugs. The bullfrogs on the creek in July were noisy.
- Plan on eating all meals at the campsite. The nearest restaurant is an hour away.
- We cooked meals at home, froze them, and warmed them on a propane stove.
- Shoes for creeking.
- A clothesline. It’s a wet place.
- Firestarter. I enjoyed having a roaring fire going in 10 minutes even after a rain.