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Cowans Gap State Park has a surprisingly rich history for a tiny little piece of wilderness so far from civilization. Battles were fought, and settlers scratched out a living by farming, mining, and lumbering. The land was stripped bare, plundered of its natural riches. Cowans Gap was covered by a dense growth of oak, maple, and fir, but as of 1907, it was completely bare and exposed to the elements. After the Great Depression, as a part of the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps and hired a cadre of young men to plant thousands upon thousands of trees, rebuild bridges, create new roads, and clear the underbrush to minimize forest fires. They also built a dam that formed the Cowans Gap Lake.
Today, Cowans Gap State Park has a healthy blanket of young trees and native fauna, and the native wildlife has returned to the area. The low rolling hills blaze fire in autumn in a classic New England scene. Camping at Cowans Gap State Park is a pleasant experience. Except for a few days in peak summer, the temperature is mild for most of the year. Winters are cold and snowy, but not bitterly so like upstate Pennsylvania. The hilly swells shelter the lake from the worst of winds, making for a calm, glass-like surface.
The closest large town is Chambersburg, PA, about 20 miles east.
Although Cowans Gap State Park is a smaller park, clocking in at a little over 1,000 acres, it packs in around 15 miles of hiking trails along with water recreational fun. Some of the trails are considered challenging because they require leaping from boulder to boulder or carefully crossing fields of small rocks, left behind by a massive glacier as it retreated north during the last Ice Age, some 65,000 years ago. Standing Stone Trail travels 76 miles, crossing streams, dense woods, other neighboring parks, and up mountain ridges until it finally connects with the Appalachian Trail.
Once nonexistent, wildlife is now abundant. Watch for turtles, deer, and even the shy black bear as they forage for berries and other delicious wild fruits. On warm summer evenings, various bat species take to the skies in search of mosquitoes and other insects. Autumn heralds the migrating swans, snow geese, and Canadian geese. They descend in hundreds, sometimes thousands, to rest at the lake for a few days before continuing the very long journey south. Though most wildlife slumber in winters, watch for a flash of white as a white-tailed deer sprints through the woods. The lake, often covered in a sheet of ice in winters, is popular for ice-fishing and skating.
After the thaw, electric and non-powered boats are allowed on the lake, and in the summers, a concession stand rents out rowboats and paddleboats. There is a small beach open to the public, but visitors should be mindful that there are no lifeguards on duty. RV camping at Cowans Gap State Park, too, is a popular activity.
If those trails aren’t sufficient, the Buchanan State Forest, which curls around Cowans Gap, has several more miles of hiking and recreational fun.
When you search for an RV rental in Fulton County, be sure to secure your reservation at a campground, too. Cowans Gap State Park has 201 sites split between two campgrounds. The larger one is open from April till December, while the other, which looks out on the lake, is open only from April till October. Both sites have 30 amp hookups, but no water or sewer. There are bathrooms and sanitation stations nearby. The larger campground allows dogs, and both sites allow for up to 70-foot vehicles, which makes for roomy motorhome camping.
If space runs out, which happens during the peak season, there are a few other campgrounds in the area. The Burnt Cabins and Family Campground, a few miles north in Burnt Cabins, PA, may be an option. Although the campground is surrounded by historic buildings, the facility itself is anything but dated. It offers modern amenities like laundry, hot showers, and a convenience store, which is great for grabbing forgotten necessities.
There’s plenty of adventures to be had in the surrounding towns. Hop into an RV rental and explore the Pennsylvania woods. Take care, though. Swift deer are known to cross the narrow backroads at an inopportune moment. Pennsylvania is well known for its covered bridges, and a handful remains standing today. Jackson’s Mill Covered Bridge in Breezewood is a classic example, built-in 1889. Though it can be crossed by vehicles under 10 tons, many modern vehicles, and most rental RVs are too wide and tall to fit.
Whitetail Resort, a charming ski resort near Mercersburg is open only in winters. Though it doesn’t quite compare to the grand Rocky Mountains out west, it’s a fun little mountain, complete with ski slopes ranging from bunny to double-diamond, as well as a snow-tubing run and a small snowboarding area with half pipes, rails, boxes, and a couple of features.
Between camping at Cowans Gap State Park, the surrounding state parks and forests, and the small towns dotting south-central Pennsylvania, there’s plenty of things to do and see. Set out and find your adventure!