How NOT to Hike Glen Onoko Falls


I have a really bad habit of screwing up what are supposed to be great “life adventure experiences.”

I spent Woodstock ’99 in a makeshift medical tent with a condition somewhere between dehydration and hypothermia. I spent a kayaking trip down the Puerto Rican Bio Bay in complete panic mode getting eaten alive by mosquitos in the pitch black darkness. And the last time my husband and I went hiking – 10 years ago at the Kaulalau Trail in Kawaii – we were thoroughly unprepared. Out-of-shape and wearing wet pumas, we only made it about a mile in.

But now that we are in “the best shape of our lives,” we figured hiking would be a breeze. And rather than start with the vast and manageable trails around the corner in Fairmount Park, we thought we’d head to Glen Onoko Falls in Jim Thorpe, Pa., a particularly treacherous trail known for its breathtaking views and high death count.

For a well-traveled tourist destination, there is surprisingly little information on the trail route online, and a complete dearth of signs or explanation of direction around the trails. There is only this:

photo 1

We entered into a wide, mountainous cavern and asked for some direction from experienced hikers who simply pointed up. We saw loads of people literally running down the rocks with children so we figured it couldn’t be as dangerous as we were told. And as we ascended the rocks, assuming we were heading in the direction due to some orange “blazes” spray-painted on the occasional tree, we felt confident and strong.

Thinking I am pretty bad ass
Thinking I am pretty bad ass

It was just like climbing a really, really lot of stairs. We barely had to stop for a sip of water when we came across a lost-looking couple about a mile up the trail.

Since we fancied ourselves professional hikers at this point, we led them up to what we believed would be “the falls,” a breathtaking view with people basking in the waters at the top of this glorious mountain. And the view at the top was lovely – but where were the falls?

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“What do you mean?” asked our new friends, “There were like 4 huge waterfalls on the way up?”

“Um. We didn’t see anything.”

“Then how did you get up here?”

So, apparently we hiked up the SWITCHBACK, basically a lesser-grade decline trail designed to prevent people from killing themselves on the way down the falls. Lame. And now we were just going to have to hike back down that thing, right?

“Oh no,” said our friends. “We have a map from a guide book that shows this as a 10 mile hike. We need to continue around a massive trail that will lead us back to the bottom.”

I had heard the trail was anywhere from about 2-4 miles round trip. 10 miles was news to me. But no matter – we were FIT! Let’s go. And so we continued to follow this couple into the woods.

A word about this couple and their map: This map was photocopied from what may have been a guide book from 1973. It was really nothing more than a series of dots and lines. This couple also did not own smartphones. They were 25-years-old, newly into hiking, and did not own a GPS device between the two of them.

Of course, I had my phone, and continued to check my GPS and show it to the couple who assured me that we were right on track. This is despite the fact that every now and again we would come across a fork in the road with no discernible explanation on either the map or the trail.

This is a fork in the road. On the tree in the center, there is the letter "T," which is completely meaningless. We chose left.
This is a fork in the road. On the tree in the center, there is the letter “T,” which is completely meaningless. We chose left.

We continued on for a solid hour over every variation of rock trail. Finally I took another look at my GPS and realized we were completely outside the state park area. We were in the middle of nowhere – gamelands, more accurately, where hunters come to shoot deer. It felt like the beginning of every horror movie I have ever seen so I cursed the couple and their “Blair Witch” map and we headed back in the other direction. An hour back in the other direction. Just to get back to the top of the freaking mountain.

By the time we got back down the mountain we had been hiking for five hours. And we still had NOT SEEN A WATERFALL.

Despite our exhaustion we were determined to make the shortest trip possible up the correct route to at least see some semblance of a waterfall. This is where we realized where we made our mistake, completely missing a clear set of stone stairs leading to a trail to the left versus a log laid across the trail to the right. And maybe five minutes up the correct route lays the first – and probably least impressive – of four waterfalls.

The least impressive photo of the falls you will ever see.

I’m not going to lie to you – two days later and I am still really pissed. I have to wonder if we are the only people who have ever made this mistake – and I feel confident that we probably are. I spend six months researching every pair of socks I purchase but put absolutely no study into this trail. But, as ever hiker I met – and even the locals – explained, this place is inexplicably devoid of signage or direction. It just may have helped to be aware of the basic fact that we were meant to HIKE UP WATERFALLS.

I can not imagine that we will have the planning, wherewithal, or childcare to visit Glen Onoko Falls again any time soon. I am at least grateful for the exercise, time away with my husband, and the fact that I did not turn cannibal on the misdirected couple.

I wish all future hikers better luck – but I think common sense might be all that is needed. Don’t forget your hiking boots – we wore sneakers. We also brought this cheap Teton Hydration Pack on Amazon and it was perfect.

Have fun and stay safe! 🙂

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