How NOT to Hike Glen Onoko Falls

hike

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?

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 7.15.54 PM

“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.

waterfall
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! 🙂



  • Oops! Fun read, though. And duly noted in case I ever go there. LOL!

  • Diane

    Too funny! I love the way you describe it! I once hiked around a (what looked like) small lake at the Grand Teton National Park in a pair of loafers….totally unprepared. It sure took longer than I thought it would.
    Be careful, girl!

  • Maggie M.

    I liked your outfit. Very 70’s and Royal Tenenbaum. I think I would have turned back as soon as I read that sign. Kudo’s for your persistence!

  • My 19 year old daughter and I were there today, for the second time in a month, and did not find the falls either. We did see some “cute” (according to my daughter) rock climbers, a happy fisherman and his dog, and a few other lost waterfall seekers. Our hiking experience matches everything in your post above except that we only spent two hours going up mountaingoat-worthy trails, and did find some smaller waterfalls. I found your blog in search of a trail map, and hopefully next time we will find the real deal, as well as the fascinating closed railroad tunnel.

  • Paige Wolf

    Glad to know we are not alone! 🙂

  • Samantha Grabler

    okay i had some similar trouble but started over and figured it out. do it again….go right when u get the bottom of the stairs and hike the right side of the waterfall. its not marked but just hug the falls on the right and keep going up… a little further up from the lookout with ropes and danger signs there was this fire pit… looking at the pit and takong a few steps back you will notice a trail on your right. this is the mysterious easy trail and i highly reccomend it as climing down the falls prooves to be much more dangerous than up… the easy trail is marked with purple and then orange diamonds and takes you back down by the bridge at the bottom. i hope my vauge description helps someone! it was easy to take the wrong way but you do not want to miss out. the falls are amazing

    the f

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  • evets32

    It sounds like we had the opposite problem. My wife and I hiked it with our two kids (8 and 5), and we didn’t know about or see the switchback, but like you, we saw people descending with kids and figured it was doable. It was not. We stopped about halfway up and evaluated a steep, muddy slope with no handholds or footholds, sloping ominously toward the chasm below. I continued alone to the top with the camera, and it got significantly more technical. It’s a great hike with an amazing payoff, but definitely varsity-level stuff. I’d love to go back with more time and some homemade signs and do everyone a favor.

  • Hello. Thank you for posting this. It makes me question what I remember of the area…

    It has been a long time since we visited the falls. I remember when we got there, we could not find a map, and simply just followed the crowd under the bridge from the access area, up the trail, up the stairs, up the rocks, and eventually found a few sets of large falls. I say “followed the crowd” because this place was packed when we visited in 2007. It was the first warm-ish day of spring and everyone was out playing. From what I remember, we pretty much just followed the Glen Onoko Run/water up the hill until we found some bigger falls. Then there was a scramble up some rocks and up to the top of some falls, and the base of some others. It was a great hike. But now, after reading your post, I am not 100% sure if I actually saw “all” the falls, or did the actually, “appropriate” hike. All I know is we headed up along the water, saw a few 25+ foot falls, and had a great view into the valley. But now I REALLY want to go back and get actual GPS data of the hike 🙂

    Thank you for putting this post together. I have never read your site before, but will certainly check it out more in the future. If you would ever like to put together a guest post for my site, send me an email and we can talk.

    Keep up the great work.

    -Jeff C

  • Paige Wolf

    It sounds like you went the right way! 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  • Paige Wolf

    Wow! Very scary with kids! For kids, Bushkill Falls is great. We went without the kids and it was too easy for adult hikers! 🙂

  • Stacy DedxEye McGee

    I had the exact opposite experience. We went through the old railroad tunnel then drove down to the river area that if you stay to the leftt turns into a big pond staying to the left you hit the falls then you rock climb up them a mile or so we almost made it to the top which was a 25 ft or more fall . We were both in prime fitness and had our dog who was younger we decided it was a bad idea to take the pup any farther as we had been passing him up to each other on sketchy areas already. By the time we made it back down to the car the puppy was whimpering and wouldn’t jump into the car. I picked him up and he screamed :- hes a sheepdog and I thought he could take it… I guess not

  • Nancy Black

    ok other than the part near the end where it gets seriously scary this is hilarious. love it hahaha

  • Paige Wolf

    Thank you! 🙂

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