Cowans Gap State Park, one of the over 100 designated State Parks in Pennsylvania, may often be overshadowed by others with big waterfalls, large rivers, or historical significance.
What Cowans Gap State Park does not lack is an adventure on the water and hiking on trails.
The park’s seclusion most certainly is a draw, and it is certainly a location worth visiting for a weekend getaway.
Although Cowans Gap Lake was actually manmade by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, this 42-acre lake is a beautiful feature. The CCC was created by President FDR during the Great Depression to help get more people back to work.
Situated in between Cove and Tuscarora Mountain, Allens Valley and Cowans Gap were named for those who planted their roots here in the early years of the country.
It is thought that John Samuel Cowan and his wife settled here after their wagon broke down on their way to Kentucky. Cowan traded things like his horses and supplies with the local Indian Chief, getting the land in return.
The Allens and the Cowans were neighbors at one time.
Here is your complete guide for visiting Cowans Gap State Park. Have a question? Leave it in the comments below!
Where is Cowans Gap State Park?
Cowans Gap State Park can be found in south-central Pennsylvania, directly south of State College.
You’ll have to drive over an hour and a half to reach it from there, though!
It’s much closer to the state of Maryland. You can make it to the PA-MD border in about half an hour.
For those coming from a little further distance, the easiest way to access Cowans Gap is to take the PA Turnpike to Fort Littleton. Only about 10 miles of driving are required from there, many of those through rural State Forest lands.
Things to do in Warm Weather
Aside from activities on the lake, hiking is an extremely popular activity in Cowans Gap State Park.
With 13 miles of trails actually within the borders of the park connecting to other long-distance trails, the opportunities are endless. There is a trail here for everyone, young and old.
The Lakeside Trail, a 1.5-mile loop around the entirety of the lake, is a great trail for all ages with mostly flat, even terrain.
For those looking for some varying terrain with a little more of a challenge, begin your hike at Parking Lot #1 and take the Lakeside/Tuscarora Trail around the north end of the lake, across the spillway.
Take a left to follow the Lakeside/Standing Stone Trail, all the way to the southern tip of the lake.
When you reach the road at the southern end, take a right, following what looks like an old logging road, marked with orange blazes, up the hillside.
You’ll be following the Standing Stone Trail, which is over 80 miles long and passes through three counties. The portion of the Standing Stone Trail in this state park is also sometimes known as the Knobsville Road Trail.
You’ll pass evidence of a landslide, historical remnants, and a beautiful overlook of Cowans Gap Lake.
Then, you’ll continue along the ridgeline for some exciting rocky terrain. After some navigation over the rocks, you’ll come to the Horseshoe Trail to return back down the hill.
The Horseshoe Trail is STEEP! We saw this on the park map, and thought… how steep can it be? Let me tell you, wearing the wrong footwear on this trail could be dangerous. Make sure you have secure footwear, or you may risk serious injury.
At the bottom of the Horseshoe Trail, you’ll meet up with the Tuscarora Trail to return back to Cowans Gap.
The Tuscarora Trail, another long-distance backpacking trail covers 252 miles and is considered a route alternative to the Appalachian Trail.
Another great loop route would be to take the Plessinger Trail along the Little Aughwick Creek until it meets with the Cameron Trail, take a right to the South Logging Road Trail, which will return back to the Standing Stone. This one would be a more moderate option.
While fishing is an all seasons activity at Cowans Gap State Park, it’s a popular spring and summertime activity. Bass, perch, catfish, and panfish can be found in these waters.
Fishing is an option either from your boat or around the shore. There are 2 ADA accessible piers for fishing from the shores, which are located near parking lots #1 and #5.
The only spot where fishing is not permitted from the lake’s shoreline is the beach area.
If stream fishing is more your speed, head up the Plessinger Trail along Little Aughwick Creek for a different adventure.
Boating in both motorized and paddle vessels is a popular way to enjoy Cowans Gap Lake.
Bring your own, but only electric motors are permitted here. No gas-powered. Valid boating permits or registrations are required.
Two boat launches provide access to the water.
During the summer months, rentals are available by the hour, half, or full-day for kayaks, canoes, pedal boats, and paddleboards.
Many enjoy fishing from their boats, as well as just relaxing on the water.
A beach located on the east shore of Cowans Gap Lake is a popular spot for swimming and sunbathing, especially from May through September when temperatures are higher.
The beach is about 500 feet long, but swimming here is at your own risk.
Dogs are not permitted to swim in the water here. The beach here is also a nonsmoking area.
Also on the east side of the lake near the beach swimming area, a large picnic area with tables and grills sits in a shaded grove with views of the lake.
There are plenty of picnic tables, and some are accessible, but they’re all first-come, first-serve.
To work off some of those picnic calories, there is a sand volleyball court and horseshoe pit area nearby. A playground helps to keep children entertained.
Biking trails are limited within Cowans Gap State Park boundaries, but there are a few trails to explore.
These trails can also be used to link to a more extensive trail system within the neighboring Buchanan State Forest. In total, there are about 3.5 miles of trails that can be covered by bicycle.
The Lakeside Trail, which wraps around the banks of the lake, covers about 1.5 miles and is fairly easy terrain and partially paved.
The North and South Logging Road trails are more within the park, but these along with the Knobsville Road trail provide access to the State Forest lands.
Winter Activities in Cowans Gap State Park
A small area of the lake next to the beach is marked off during the winter specifically for ice skating, which is similar to the area marked off for swimming during the summer.
The ice skating area is the only spot on the lake where ice thickness is monitored and measured regularly.
Still, proceed with caution.
Cross Country Skiing
Some of the park roads that close in the winter make great trails for cross country skiing once the weather permits.
There are also multipurpose trails that can accommodate skis around the park, providing access to some varying terrain.
Snow and ice conditions are updated periodically and published on the Winter Report, which you can look up by park name.
Ice fishing is permitted on Cowans Gap Lake but is most certainly a “proceed at your own risk” type activity. Of the 42 acres of the lake, only the ice skating area is not available for fishing.
Ice thickness is not monitored on the lake, so be sure to check it for yourself and have safety equipment available. Know the precautions, and don’t congregate in groups!
Where to Stay
Overnight accommodations are seasonal in Cowans Gap State Park. Although there is something to do here during every season, you will not always be able to find a place to stay.
The best bet during the winter months, if you’re looking to enjoy a weekend of snow sports, would be to check Airbnb or VRBO. Booking ahead of time is the best way to make sure you have a spot to put your head on at night, and reservations can be online at ReserveAmerica.
There are two separate campground areas at Cowans Gap, with over 200 spaces in total.
“Camping Area A” is the largest of the two. “Camping Area B” features about 25 mostly RV sites in much closer proximity to the lake, as well as 7 walk-in tent sites for those looking to get a little further away from the hustle and bustle.
Area B is open from mid-April to mid-October, while a portion of Area A is open until hunting season closes in December.
Each site is furnished with at least a picnic table and fire ring, while some sites have modern hookups.
The cheapest sites in the camping area have no electric hookups.
A group camping area to accommodate up to 40 people sits across South Branch Little Aughwick Creek, which would be great for a large weekend get-together.
If you don’t have access to a camper or tent camping isn’t your thing, there are 10 rustic cabins available to rent for your stay in the park.
Each cabin sleeps 4 people on 2 sets of bunk beds. There is a small kitchen with a stove and refrigerator, but you won’t find any running water in these structures. A water faucet can be found outside, and a bathhouse-type structure with showers and more modern toilets is in a central location between all the cabins.
During the cooler months, especially in the evenings, an indoor fireplace will keep you cozy.
Staying in one of the cabins on a weekend does seem to require a 2-night stay.
Fun fact: These cabins are on the National Register of Historic Places, as they were built in the 1930s by the CCC!
Other Things to do Near Cowans Gap State Park
Cowans Gap State Park is somewhat remote. Within an hour’s drive, there are plenty of other options for outdoor activities but not much for those looking for more modern comforts and activities.
Buchanan State Forest
With 71,683 acres of land to explore over 3 counties, which directly border Cowans Gap State Park, this area is a goldmine for outdoor adventure lovers.
Endless trails run through the lands for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and ATV use. Hunting and fishing are also popular activities here.
This State Forest was named for James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States.
Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park
About 10 miles to the south, this small day-use park features picnic areas and fishing holes. It is one of the smaller parks in Pennsylvania’s system but isn’t far away.
Although there are more exciting spots nearby, if visiting each of Pennsylvania’s State Parks is on your bucket list, this would be a great quick side trip from Cowan’s Gap.
Trough Creek State Park
Nestled and hidden, overshadowed by the Raystown Lake Recreation area, Trough Creek State Park is a hidden gem to the northwest.
Adventurous hiking trails and the beautiful Great Trough Creek are featured.
Hike Other Spots on the Standing Stone Trail
With some of the most interesting terrain in Pennsylvania, the Standing Stone Trail is a fantastic hiking trail through south-central Pennsylvania.
There are other options for day hikes, as well as continuing on a thru-hike to Greenwood Furnace State Park.
Wrapping Up: Visiting Cowans Gap State Park
Whether just exploring for a day or a whole weekend, Cowans Gap State Park is a beautiful spot with great trails around the lake and plenty of options for enjoying the water in the summer.
With camping options for everyone including tent spots, RV sites, and cabins, you don’t have to be a diehard outdoors lover to enjoy the space.
Be sure to plan ahead with reservations during busy times, but you, too, can enjoy this beautiful land.