Backpacking in Oil Creek State Park

If you’re looking for an incredible backpacking destination in Pennsylvania, Oil Creek is one of my favorites!

Having a great time backpacking in Oil Creek
Table of Contents
- Why Backpack in Oil Creek
- Camping at Oil Creek
- Oil Creek Backpacking Itineraries

Why Backpack in Oil Creek

Oil Creek State Park is an amazing place to backpack. I know I’m not supposed to have favorites, but it is top of my list for Pennsylvania backpacking. There are so many things about this park that make it great for backpacking.

Read on for more on why backpacking Oil Creek is amazing and tips for planning your trip!

As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're out exploring! Pack out all trash, leave wildlife alone, and generally leave it better than you found it - for more information visit the Leave No Trace Center.

Tons to See

This park has four waterfalls, a scenic swinging bridge, ruins from the oil boom and more. The Gerard Trail goes by all four waterfalls without needing to detour. Hikers can also pass through restored historic remnants of the oil boom, like Petroleum Center or Benninghoff Farm.

Great Trail

The Gerard Trail is the main trail running through Oil Creek and it is an awesome trail. This 36-mile trail runs along the east and west side of Oil Creek. It’s well-blazed and well maintained making it super easy to just focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

I also love a loop trail. Unlike a point-to-point, you don’t have to stress about a car drop or shuttle as you just hike back to your car. The trail also has variations and paths that cross it (blazed in white) so that you don’t have to hike the entire 36-mile loop if you don’t want to.

For more information about Oil Creek State Park, check out my park overview!

Campsites with Shelters

While I do enjoy sleeping in a tent, I’ve come to prefer the simplicity of staying in an Adirondack shelter. It’s so much easier to camp in bad weather in a shelter. In my opinion, it’s easy to spread out, hang out, and get a good night’s sleep in a shelter. There are two campsites in Oil Creek that offer five shelters each (more details in the camping section below!).

Friendly Park Staff

The park rangers at Oil Creek are the friendliest park staff I’ve encountered across Pennsylvania (and I’ve visited a lot of parks!) From answering all of my mileage questions when I was booking the trip to helping us change from a tent to a shelter reservation while we were on trail to chatting with us about wildlife after our visit, this park’s staff gets my vote as the best park staff in PA.

Want to backpack but need some help? Check out my backpacking guides!
- Must Have Backpacking Gear
- Backpacking Clothing Guide

Camping in Oil Creek

The Gerard Trail is home to two overnight shelter areas – Cow Run and Wolfkiel. Cow Run is located on the east side of Oil Creek and Wolfkiel is on the west side. Reservations are required to stay overnight in both the Adirondack shelters and tent sites and can be made at the PA Reserve America website or by calling the state park office. Please note that overnight stays are limited to one night per location as camping in Oil Creek is designed for backpacking.

Looking for instructions on how to book a backpacking site? Check out my guide on How to Reserve a Backpacking Permit!

Oil Creek Campsite Amenities

Each campsite has firewood, critter boxes, trash and recycling, seasonable potable water, and pit toilets – all amenities that made camping so much easier. The potable water was clutch as it saved a ton of time from filtering water. It was also nice to have firewood that was dry and under a shed, even after two days of rain. The critter boxes were super helpful as we didn’t have to do a bear hang (yes – there are bears!). There is only one critter box for the entire campsite, so respectfully pack your food and don’t take up the whole thing. I also love having trash at camp so that I don’t have to carry everything around in my backpack for days. These campsites were some of the best maintained that I have ever stayed at in Pennsylvania.

Adirondack Shelters at Oil Creek

The shelters were amazing to spend the night in. Each shelter is an Adirondack shelter with a fireplace and chimney. There are 3-5 hooks inside the shelter, making it easy to hang up gear. Each shelter also has a picnic table outside the shelter which is great for cooking and hanging out. While the reservation system says you can fit four people inside, I would not recommend more than three (unless you want to get really cozy). Since it rained our second day on trail, it was insanely clutch having the shelter with a protected fire to dry out our clothing and shoes for the next day of hiking. We also likely would not have been able to start a fire in the rain had we been in a tent site.

Tent Sites at Oil Creek

Each of the shelter areas also has tent sites. The tent site has a communal fire place and communal picnic tables. While we were supposed to have a tent site on our second night, we were able to get enough service to call the ranger station to switch our reservation to a shelter. This was absolutely the right choice for us in a thunderstorm! The price for renting the tent sites and the shelters are the same ($4 for PA residents, $5 for non-PA residents).

Looking to check out more backpacking trails? Check out my list of best backpacking in Western Pennsylvania!

Oil Creek Backpacking Itineraries

One of the great things about Oil Creek is that there are multiple ways to backpack the Gerard Trail. I love doing a loop as opposed to an out and back (I don’t like repeating parts of the trail) or a point to point (requires more logistics and preparation). Because this trail is a loop trail with variations, there’s sure to be an option for any level of backpacker.

There are multiple parking lot options for parking overnight, as long as you’ve registered your vehicle in advance when getting your permits. This is great for allowing different itinerary options!

Hikers can park overnight at the following lots:

  • Park Office
  • Rynd Farm Train Station
  • Either Cow Run or Wolfiel Parking lots
  • Drake Well Jersey Bridge lot

Please plan ahead and prepare and properly assess your hiking ability before heading out on trail. I highly recommend that no matter where you start, you swing by the park office to pick up a trail map.

Full Gerard Trail Loop Backpacking Itinerary

The full Gerard Trail is 36 miles long with significant elevation gain and loss. With only two areas to camp, hikers should be prepared for multiple double digit days on trail if hiking the entire loop. Note that mileage is approximate and based on the park map.

Clockwise from the South (Rynd Farm)

  • Day 1: ~12.5 miles from Rynd Farm Train Station to Wolfkiel Shelter
  • Day 2: ~15.5 miles from Wolfkiel Shelter to Cow Run Shelter
  • Day 3: ~ 8.7 miles from Cow Run Shelter to Rynd Farm Train Station

This is likely the most manageable itinerary of the entire park as the mileage is split relatively evenly. This is the itinerary I will pick when doing the entire park as I like my last day to be shortest and middle day to be longest. If travel time on the first day is a limiting factor, this itinerary could be reversed for those not getting to the park until the early afternoon on the first day.

Clockwise from the North (Drake Well)

  • Day 1: ~ 10 miles from Drake Well Jersey Bridge lot to Cow Run Shelter
  • Day 2: ~ 20 miles from Cow Run Shelter to Wolfkiel Shelter
  • Day 3: ~6.1 Wolfkiel Shelter to Drake Well Jersey Bridge lot

This would be a tough itinerary with a long second day, but could work for those who are time limited on their third day (or first day if the itinerary was reversed). While I have done 20+ mile days before, they are very challenging.

Partial Gerard Trail Loop Backpacking Itinerary

While I want to do the full loop in the future, I have only completed a partial loop. I thought our itinerary was great and hit all of the park highlights without feeling overwhelmed by mileage.

Clockwise from Park Office via Swinging Bridge

  • Day 1: 7.6 miles from Park Office across Petroleum Center Bridge to Wolfkiel
  • Day 2: 12.6 miles from Wolfkiel to Cow Run via Swinging Bridge
  • Day 3: 4.8 miles from Cow Run to Park Office (note: we actually ended up crossing back to the west side of the river at the bike path bridge to see Pioneer Falls again and then walked back via Petroleum Center so our last day was actually 7.5 miles)

I would recommend this itinerary as it hits all the waterfalls and the swinging bridge, which was a highlight for me. Doing this itinerary in reverse would also be great for those who can’t get to the park until later on the first day and only want to do a couple hours of hiking. Personally, I prefer back to back larger mile days so I can’t wait to go back and try the whole loop!

Swinging Bridge is absolutely worth the visit and isn’t on the itinerary if you only hike the full park loop

Clockwise from the North via Petroleum Center

  • Day 1: ~ 10 miles from Drake Well Jersey Bridge lot to Cow Run Shelter
  • Day 2: ~ 12 miles from Cow Run Shelter to Wolfkiel Shelter via Petroleum Center
  • Day 3: ~6.1 Wolfkiel Shelter to Drake Well Jersey Bridge lot

This itinerary is great for those who want to hike a decent amount of miles, but don’t need to do the whole park. Day 2 cuts off 8 miles in the southernmost section of the park

If you want to try staying in an Adirondack shelter without hiking a ton of miles, both Cow Run and Wolfkiel have parking lots close to the shelter area. If you’re new to spending the night outdoors, I’d recommend doing a trial run in a shelter with your car nearby in case sleeping outside is not for you and you want to bail.

How to Find the Best Itinerary For You

If you’re trying to figure out the best itinerary for you, I recommend using the park map to assess distances. When tracking against my watch, I found it to be very accurate. You can access a map of the Gerard Trail on either the Friends of Oil Creek State Park site or the PA DCNR site.

When trying to determine the best itinerary, think about your goals and limitations. I have a guide for How to Plan For a Backpacking Trip that covers all of the things to think about when picking an itinerary!

If you have any questions about Oil Creek backpacking, send me a message on Instagram @torytalkstrails or comment below!

Updated May 29 2024

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