From my campsite, I could hear coyotes calling in the mountains, as well as the eerie cry of a loon from the lake.
But I wasn’t in a remote mountain hideaway far beyond the Chesapeake region. I was camping in a Pennsylvania state park, barely two hours from downtown Washington, DC.
Cowans Gap State Park is a popular draw not just for Pennsylvanians, but also for residents of Maryland and the District of Columbia seeking to get a taste of the wild without traveling too far from their urban and suburban homes.
“If you’re living in an urban situation, there is a lot to do here that can give you that feel of nature,” said Kenneth Gwin, the park manager.
The big attraction at Cowans Gap, without question, is its 42-acre lake, bounded on one side by a wide, 500-foot beach. People can swim in the cool water and gaze up to the surrounding mountains.
The park is in Allens Valley, which is a narrow highland valley. While the valley floor is several hundred feet lower than the Tuscarora and Cove mountains on either flank, it is still several hundred feet higher than the valleys on the other sides of those mountains.
Much of this high valley outside the park is part of Buchanan State Forest.
While the lake may be the big draw, the combination of landscape features in the park and surrounding area provides habitat for a variety of wildlife, such as deer and turkey, as well as smaller mammals such as chipmunks and raccoons.
Hearing coyotes at night is common. Bears are in the area, too: Our camping neighbors came across bear scat while hiking a portion of the rugged Tuscarora Trail that runs through the park. Timber rattlesnakes might be seen in some rocky areas.
Birders might spot forest-dwelling species such as ovenbirds or the Eastern towhee. Migrating raptors are a common site in the fall as they follow the mountains. We saw loons that stopped at the lake during their autumn migration.
Cowans Gap is named for John Samuel Cowan, a resident of Boston and a British loyalist during the Revolutionary War. His future wife, Mary Mueller, was from a family of patriots. When her family didn’t approve of the marriage, the couple eloped and headed west for Kentucky.
They never made it past Pennsylvania’s Conococheague Creek, in nearby Fort Loudon, where their wagon broke down. Cowan traded the wagon and horses to a Tuscarora Indian leader for land in the area, including what is now the park.
In the following centuries, and through a succession of owners, the landscape went through major changes.
The area was repeatedly clearcut from the late 1700s through the 19th century, initially to provide fuel for a nearby iron furnace and later for timber.
In the 1930s, the area became a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. The CCC helped reforest the land and built the rustic cabins and picnic pavilions still used in the park today. The cabins, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, can be rented for overnight stays.
Over a period of three years, the CCC also built the earthen dam that created Cowans Gap Lake. Along with swimming, the lake provides visitors with opportunities to enjoy canoes, paddleboats and kayaks (rentals are available) and to fish from the shore.
Today, the park offers two modern campgrounds with a combined 201 sites, which make an ideal starting point to explore the park, its 11 miles of trails, surrounding forest and historic sites.
The Lakeside Trail is an easy 1.5 mile flat stroll around the lake and across the top of the dam, winding through woods, around the beach and along wetlands. We walked it numerous times over several days; in early morning, dusk and even in the fog. The mood of the lake was different each time.
Being nestled in a narrow valley, many of the hikes involve climbs up mountains. The Knobsville Road Trail is a stiff climb up the side of Cove Mountain that will leave you gasping for breath. On the way up, you can pause at the site of a landslide that took place in January 1996, when 40 inches of snow fell on the mountain followed by a warm front that brought heavy rain. Together, they triggered a landslide of rock, dirt and ice that crashed 1,500 feet down the mountain along a 50-foot wide path, gouging a gully and uprooting all but the largest trees — its impact is still clearly visible.
A bit farther up the trail are the concrete remains of an old incinerator operated by the CCC, a reminder that human impacts were never far from the forest. After exploring the remains, hikers can continue a bit farther up the mountain and reach a spectacular overlook of Allens Valley and Cowans Gap Lake.
I also hiked the One Mile Trail, (interestingly named as it’s only about a half-mile long), which passed through some incredibly dense mountain laurel. I hiked this trail not long after it had rained, and the water-tinged leaves of the laurel, along with thick growth of moss along the ground, seemed to offer every shade of green that could possibly exist.
The park is surrounded by a section of Buchanan State Forest, which stretches up and down Allens Valley and offers hiking including the Tuscarora Trail — a spur of the Appalachian Trail — and a number of overlooks.
Two other historic sites are within 10 miles:
• Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park, an 18.5-acre park that contains a memorial to James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States and the only president from Pennsylvania (though also generally considered one of the worst to occupy the office).
• Fort Loudoun, a Pennsylvania State Historic Site that features a reconstructed wooden stockade built during the French and Indian War to protect settlers along the frontier from raids.
In fact, at Cowans Gap, nothing is ever that far away — nature or cities — all of which, Gwin notes, can easily be accessed by campers who use the park as a base camp for exploring the whole region.
“You are truly in the woods, but you are not so far away that you have to make everything focused on the woods,” Gwin said. “And that’s what I like about it.”
Escape to Cowans Gap
Cowans Gap State Park is in Fulton County, PA, north of Route 30 between McConnellsburg and Chambersburg. The park is open sunrise to sunset daily. Day use areas close at dusk. The swimming beach is open 8 a.m. to sunset May to late September. For information, visit dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/ and click on “Find a Park.”