A Day in Pennsylvania's McConnells Mill State Park
One of Pennsylvania's most beautiful state parks, McConnells Mill is filled with loads of gorgeous scenery and great local history. Dense hemlock forest, gentle waterfalls, more than twenty miles of well-manicured hiking trails, a historic covered bridge, and a mid-1800's gristmill all make for a great day trip to the park. Maybe the best part of visiting - no matter where you're at in the park, the sight and sound of Slippery Rock Creek's whitewater rushing through the glacier carved gorge are never far away. In this article we'll detail how to make the most of your time in the park, starting from the southern end and heading north from there. While there's no bad time to visit the park, we really enjoy visiting in winter when a snow covered floor contrasts beautifully with all of the hemlock that blankets the gorge. If you can swing two vehicles for the trip, scroll down to the bottom of the article under Slippery Rock Creek Gorge Extended Hike and check out the hike we describe there. If you have only one vehicle continue reading below.
Hell's Hollow Falls (1 mile/50')
Start the day off with a short hike out to Hell's Hollow Falls, undoubtedly one of Pennsylvania's most picturesque waterfalls come winter. The two tier, fifteen footer is flanked with hemlock on both sides and when the surrounding banks of Hell Run are snow covered it's an incredibly beautiful scene. A staircase at the end of the trail leads down to the water's edge and from there you can rock hop to get a better view. Hiking poles can often help with the water crossing. You'll also notice a fenced off hole in a rock outcropping near the staircase, a remnant of a lime kiln used in the mid-1800's.
Alpha Falls (0.3 miles/100')
After Hell's Hollow Falls, make your way to the northern end of the park to visit Alpha Falls. Parking is limited to a handful of vehicles, but we've never had an issue finding a spot. Alpha Falls is a seasonal waterfall, but after a decent rain or snowmelt it'll be flowing. A good indication on if it's flowing is if you're able to see the top of the falls pouring over the rocky ledge to the right of the wooden fencing at the parking area. If it is flowing, head down the Alpha Pass Trail to the left of the parking area and at the bottom of the stairs you'll find an unofficial, but well-worn path leading to the right. Proceed roughly 100 yards and you'll find yourself at the bottom of the 35' falls.
Kildoo & Breakneck Falls Trail (2.8 miles/250')
Roughly a half mile down McConnells Mill Rd from Alpha Falls you'll find a picnic area and parking for the Kildoo Trail. The trailhead is behind the bathrooms. After a brief walk down a series of stone stairs you'll arrive at McConnells Mill. Originally built in 1852, it was one of the first roller mills in the country, processing corn, oat, wheat, and buckwheat for the local community. It operated for more than 75 years before diminishing profits shuttered its doors, in 1928. It eventually found its way to the state of Pennsylvania and in 1957 became the centerpiece of the newly created McConnells Mill State Park. Today, tours of the historic mill run from Memorial Day through late September, but check the park's website for details.
The historic McConnells Mill Covered Bridge is located right next to the mill. It was constructed in 1875 and is still in use today along McConnells Mill Rd.
The Kildoo Trail continues on from here and is clearly marked with a large sign to the left of the covered bridge. The next mile or so of trail is one of the most scenic areas in the park.
The rocky, hemlock canopied trail hugs the creek offering views of the covered bridge to those who occasionally turn back to look. Use caution if venturing down to the rocks in this area as they're often covered in ice during the winter and falling in would result in a world of shit. You'll find life preservers at certain points along the Kildoo Trail which should be enough of a warning of the dangers here.
Roughly 0.4 miles from the mill and covered bridge you'll encounter a small footbridge and a blue sign marked Trail of Geography 4 on the left side of the trail. Here you'll find Kildoo Falls, a small but gorgeous waterfall with multiple drops. It's best viewed from the left, but either side works. Again, use caution as there is a good amount of ice here in the winter months.
About 0.7 miles later you'll reach Eckert Bridge where you'll clearly see a sign for Breakneck Falls. Continue on the Breakneck Falls Trail for a little less than a quarter mile to reach Breakneck Falls, another small multi-drop waterfall emptying into Slippery Rock Creek. This is a great spot to kick back for a bit or hang a hammock if you have one. In our opinion, the falls are best viewed from the left side. You're not going to be wowed with the falls, but it's a gorgeous spot. When you're done simply retrace your steps back to the Kildoo parking/picnic area.
Grindstone Falls (1 mile/100')
The unofficial trail to Grindstone Falls can be found about ten minutes from the Kildoo Trailhead and picnic area. The easiest way to find the trailhead is to punch in GPS coordinates 40.911071, -80.195397 into maps which will lead you to an unsigned but noticeable dirt and gravel parking area along Mountville Rd. Park here and walk a few hundred feet west along the road until you reach a gated road opposite Nye Rd. You can't miss it. Hang a right here and continue a few hundred feet before reaching a noticeable clearing where you'll find an unmarked, but well traveled path slightly to the left. From here it's a little less than a half mile to reach the falls. Use caution f you decide to go down to the base of the falls as it can get pretty icy here in the winter months.
Cleland Rock Scenic Vista
McConnells Mill State Park isn't big on overlooks. In fact there's really only one around, Cleland Rock Scenic Vista about two miles from Grindstone Falls. If you decide to stay in the park late in the day it's a good spot for sunset. The dirt and gravel road leading to the vista starts with a short uphill climb which can be somewhat challenging if it's icy, but after that it's easy. The view is best in the winter months when foliage isn't obstructing the view as much. Don't plan on being floored with the view, but it's a decent view 400' or so above the bottom of the gorge.
Slippery Rock Creek Gorge Extended Hike (8.5 miles/800')
If you have two vehicles you're in a great spot. What we describe next is by far the best hike to experience in the park because you're able to hit the majority of the can't miss spots on a point-to-point hike. Park one vehicle at the Alpha Falls/Alpha Pass Trailhead and drive over to the Hell's Hollow and Slippery Rock Gorge shared trailhead at the southern end of the park. Start off by hiking out to Hell's Hollow Falls to get a view of the park's most beautiful waterfall. After, retrace your steps back to the Slippery Rock Gorge Trail/Hell's Hollow trail split. Pick up the Slippery Rock Gorge Trail and head north/right all the way until you reach Eckert Bridge. Along the way you'll pass through some really beautiful stretches of hemlock forest with excellent views of Slippery Rock Creek from hundreds of feet above. As you get closer to Eckert Bridge you'll encounter several small stream crossings each with very modest waterfalls. A larger seasonal waterfall can be viewed from a distance just before a set of switchbacks that lead down to the creek's edge, around 5.5 miles. We've never tried anything other than viewing this waterfall from the trail since there appears to be some significant drops, but it might be possible. After descending the switchbacks you'll be hiking along the banks of Slippery Rock Creek until arriving at Eckert Bridge where you'll hang a right, cross the bridge, and pick up the Breakneck Falls Trail on the right. On your return from Breakneck Falls connect with the Kildoo Trail and follow it to reach the mill and covered bridge. From there, pick up the Alpha Pass Trail at the mill to hike out to Alpha Falls. After viewing Alpha Falls your second car awaits you at the Alpha Falls/Alpha Pass parking area above. This route tackles everything we like in the park other than Grindstone Falls and Cleland Rock Scenic Vista which you can always do afterwards.
Kayaking Slippery Rock Creek is also a pretty popular thing to do in the park, but since we've not done it before we can't give an opinion. Sure looks fun though. There's also a minor rock climbing area referred to as Breakneck Rocks, but we've yet to tackle that either. A few scenes from the 2022 Netflix movie The Pale Blue Eye were filmed in McConnells Mill State Park, mainly the mill and a few creekside scenes. If you decide on camping in the warmer months make sure to check out the deck sites at Breakneck Campground. If you're looking for more to do nearby, Moraine State Park is ten minutes away, Buttermilk Falls Natural Area in Beaver Falls (not to be mistaken with Buttermilk Falls in Indiana County) is thirty minutes away, and the Fountain of Youth is about forty minutes away.
Have a blast and make some memories!