Ricketts Glen is an exceptional state park located in Luzerne, Sullivan, and Columbia Counties. (Yes, it’s big – 13,050 acres worth of big!) Named for the Ricketts family, who sold the land that was to become the park to the state in the 1920’s, Ricketts Glen was approved as a national park in the 1930’s, but those plans fell victim to WWII. However, the beauty of the area did earn the park National Natural Landmark status in 1969 and it is well deserved.
Ricketts features a large lake, boating, fishing, camping, and the other normal outdoor activities associated with a state park. It then adds two very special attributes – old growth forests and waterfalls. That combination is simply magical and presents an ever changing environment that allows even frequent visitors to experience something new on every trip.
There are 22 named waterfalls along seven miles of hiking trails through the Glens Natural Area, the tallest of which is the 94-foot Ganoga Falls. Two branches of Kitchen Creek traverse through the sandstone gorges of Ganoga Glen and Glen Leigh. They merge at “Waters Meet” to continue their journey through Ricketts Glen itself. It is in this area that the old growth forest, which is comprised of giant pines, hemlocks, and oaks is at its finest. Here you will find trees that are over 500 years old and soar to 100 feet in height. To better understand how the park lays out click here for a map of the area.
While there are 26 miles of trails within the park, the main focus is usually on the 7.2 mile Falls Trail. This is a beautiful hike, but it can be a difficult one for some folks and one that should not be taken lightly. Although the trail is well marked, well maintained and stair steps are provided in some steep locations, it is strenuous, and at times dangerous, as the trail itself and the rocks that you will be tempted to step out on to see the falls can get very slippery. This is not a place to take young children or to go to if you are in poor physical condition. These warnings are especially applicable when the temperature drops. In the winter, this is no place for anybody who is not properly trained and properly equipped to even think about taking a stroll.
If you go on the Falls Trail you should leave plenty of time, especially if you are going to be doing serious photography. It is very easy to spend a lot of time here, so bring food and water with you and be prepared to carry out any trash that you generate. There is 1000 +/- foot vertical change in the Glens Natural Area and it is wise to remember that what goes down must go up, so make sure you leave enough time and have enough energy to get back well before dark. The DCNR site strongly recommends wearing strong boots and avoiding sneakers, sandals, street shoes, clogs, etc. Take those warnings seriously as well as the other precautions on their page.
On the Falls Trail you will pass 21 of the 22 falls in the park. There are two primary types of falls on display: bridal veil and wedding cake. Although the larger falls are the most dramatic, the smaller cascades and rapid runs offer some of the best photographic options. Interestingly, the waterfall that many consider to be the most photogenic is not on the Falls Trail and is the easiest to get to. Adams Falls is easily accessed from the Evergreen Parking Lot on PA 118 and then taking a very short and easy stroll to the falls on well-marked paths.
Given that you are out in the wilds, it isn’t surprising that there are not many places to grab food, so you may want to come prepared. If you don’t and you find yourself getting hungry, there is an old general store at the corner of PA 118 and PA 487 in Red Rock that makes great sandwiches and is just a fun place to stop in general. Speaking of food, if you are camping, take normal precautions in storing your goodies as there are bears in the area. Sightings are rare (especially for Falls Trail hikers and other non-campers) and the exercise of basic common sense is usually more than sufficient to avoid an unpleasant encounter, as bears generally want to avoid you even more than you want to avoid them.
Serious photography in Ricketts Glen:
Twenty-two waterfalls. What more could you want? The problem is that it is easy to get an average picture of most waterfalls but very hard to get an excellent photograph of one. Most waterfall pictures that really work well are taken at a slow shutter speed to blur the water flow. This means using a tripod and, in most cases, using neutral density filters.
Using a tripod means carrying a tripod, and the trails at Ricketts make that an unattractive proposition. Necessary, but unattractive none-the-less. Also, given the nature of the trails, you are going to be much better off carrying your gear in a backpack rather than a shoulder bag. We have had very good success using the LowePro Flipside 400, as it allows access to your gear without taking the pack all the way off.
From a lens perspective, the 24mm to 200mm (35mm full frame equivalent) will cover you for most of your “normal” waterfall shots. An ultra-wide is less useful than it might seem,, unless you are going to get into the water, and that’s just plain dangerous at most places in the gorge. Longer, pro level, lenses also aren’t that useful because their size forces you to carry ever bigger tripods to avoid camera shake during long exposures and the extra size and weight really becomes an issue in a place like Ricketts.
The most desirable lighting in the Glens Natural Area comes in the “early” morning. Fortunately, “early” is a relative term and, since it takes the sun a bit of time to get high enough to light the gorge areas directly, you’ll find that the “best” light arrives an extra hour or so later than it does on the flatlands. Late morning and afternoon light can be quite bright and harsh as it reflects off of the rocks, making proper exposures difficult. Consider using a three to five stop HDR series to handle the excessive dynamic range.
The high reflectivity also means that on a bright sunny day you are going to need to have hefty neutral density filter(s) to get your shutter speed below the maximum 1/2 second exposure required to blend the water. (Most of our exposures are in the multiple second range.) Unfortunately, in many places the walls of the gorge block the sun before it takes on its warm, late afternoon glow, so you will have to be both lucky and skillful to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of this light. You should also be working quickly because it will change before you know it and remember, you will need some light to get out of the Glens Natural area safely, so don’t shoot too late into the evening even if the light is great!