How to camp in Allegheny National Forest for the first time

Allegheny National Forest
When we arrived it looked like it might rain. The rain didn't make it, but we got to enjoy this rainbow. Sara Welch photo.

I have enjoyed camping for most of my life. My memories stretch back to childhood when my out-of-state cousins would visit and spend weeks camping in an enormous tent in my parents’ backyard. It’s a hobby I’ve shared with my daughter in my parents’ backyard and well beyond the trees we know so well. The process is always the same — set up camp, build a fire, cook meals, relax and enjoy the company and the wilderness around you. Yet, somehow the experience always feels different.

Last weekend was definitely one of my favorites. We camped in Allegheny National Forest in Dewdrop Campground at site 74. I can best describe it as immersive and breathtakingly beautiful. It was like being stuck in a moment so incredibly joyful you can feel the tears welling in your eyes and a lump forming in your throat. That moment before someone typically expects you to describe what you’re feeling when words are impossible to grasp and emotions are impossible to contain.

Only no one asked because, with trees, fresh water and the hushed musings of wildlife in every direction, it was easy to fall into step with everything and everyone around you — and there was no cell phone service. It was easy to sit and become part of the place, simply existing and respecting life.

The hill

Nothing good ever seems to come easy though, and that was certainly true when it came to setting up our campsite last weekend. Site 74 is sought after for its privacy and view, but getting there isn’t easy. The walk-in campsite is located behind a row of parking spots at the bottom of a steep hill. I climbed the hill to shower Saturday morning and my Apple watch recorded seven flights of stairs to my daily total.

It’s not impossible to get your gear to the bottom or packed back up at the end of your stay, but I would highly recommend packing light and wearing comfortable hiking boots. My boyfriend, my 12-year-old daughter and I hauled a tent, four bundles of wood, two coolers and the rest of our gear down and back up the hill without much more than getting winded and sweating profusely. The climb shouldn’t deter you from camping here, but future campers should be aware of the hill before booking the site.

If you did show up and decide the hill was just more than you bargained for or that it may not be safe for everyone in your group, there are campsites at Dewdrop that are easily accessible. A camper with a similar site to ours had his reservation switched to one he could pull his car up to while we were there, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first.

It’s always a good idea to check the accessibility of the site you chose before making a reservation, especially if you have limited mobility. If the description of the site you’re booking doesn’t have enough information online, call the campground to ask questions. The U.S. Forest Service, National Parks Service and state agencies that manage public lands strive to ensure they can be enjoyed by all. There are options to suit your needs.

The essentials

Most of my camping experience has been gained in Ohio’s state parks. I’ve camped in both big ones and small ones, usually picking primitive sites because they tend to be more secluded. I didn’t expect staying in a national forest to be that much different. Just as the view took me by surprise, the amenities did too, specifically, the shower situation.

The first time I saw the ominous buttons I stopped in my tracks. I needed to use the bathroom after our long car ride, but there they were next to each stall and bold, sans-serif signs that read: “Push for three minutes of hot water.” Three minutes seemed like the shortest shower of my life, but manageable. Plus, with my daughter there we could probably take turns and push the button an extra time each if necessary.

I was wrong. Following the coldest shower of my life, I was convinced hot water is mythical in Allegheny National Forest. Vayda, too, believed the promise of hot water to be something that only lived on in her dreams. Certainly, all the warmth in our bodies had been washed away.

Then, Dustin used the men’s bathroom and informed us it was a hot water oasis — hotter than he preferred. As it turns out, the women’s bathroom runs out of hot water quickly, so choose wisely because you don’t get to sleep in past sunrise and get a comfortable shower, ladies. However, I can say there wasn’t a soul in sight when Vayda and I showered at 9 a.m.

The wildlife

Just outside the shower house on the opposite side of the parking area where my car sat, two large steel dumpsters rested idle in the daylight. According to a sign posted nearby, they’re not so vacant at night. The sign warned campers to steer clear of them after dark because black bears occasionally visit.

I wasn’t incredibly worried about black bears, knowing they are curious but not typically aggressive. I was more worried about raccoons when we put away our food and hung our garbage each night. To my surprise, we never encountered a problem. 

Some goldfish crackers the wind blew under our picnic table weren’t disturbed by anything bigger than an ant. I worried about attracting a larger animal due to the crumbs that had been left behind when I cleaned them up, but the closest we came to seeing a mammal was hearing coyotes howl at night.

Allegheny National Forest
On Saturday night, we enjoyed this view of the full moon reflected in Kinzua Creek, just as much as the coyotes. Sara Welch photo.

Pests weren’t much of a problem the entire weekend. Our campsite provided direct water access to Kinzua Creek and we were never burdened by mosquitoes. It sat deep in the woods and we never came into contact with poison ivy. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist there, but I didn’t see any.

The foulest creature we encountered was a dead black squirrel, and in death even it was beautiful. When Vayda discovered it, exploring the shoreline, it had at least 10 eastern tiger swallows feeding on it. They were eventually replaced with one large vulture, who picked away what was left, and even that seemed beautiful somehow. 

Nature constantly existed the way it was intended. At any given moment, at least five to 10 tiger swallows could be observed fluttering around our campsite, a small garter snake might cross our path or a young warbler mother could be spotted tucked into her nest keeping her eggs warm.

A small bird, possibly a warbler, tucks herself into her nest to protect her eggs. Sara Welch photo.

The service

The experience was absolutely incredible. There was no cell phone service, no hot showers and no easy access to enjoy all Dewdrop Campground and Allegheny National Forest had to offer, but everything I traded last weekend was worth it. It was worth it to see a place that truly remains wild and relatively untouched by man.

If you’re thinking about making the trip, plan ahead and prepare to enjoy the trees, wildlife and water. And don’t forget to do your service to the forest and leave things as you found them. Abide by the Leave No Trace principles and enjoy!


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  1. What a great article for first time campers! Thank you for featuring the Allegheny National Forest in your story, I also enjoyed your photography! The ANF is celebrating its Centennial this year with a Hike 100 Mile to Commemorate 100 years, and a new ANF Centennial GeoTrail, and a Centennial Birthday Celebration at Twin Lakes on Sept. 24, 2023 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Maybe these would be something your readers would be interested in?


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