Stonycreek River Canyon (Class III-IV)
The character of the Stonycreek River, often referred to as the Stony, is difficult to describe when it comes to size. As its name implies, it can be considered both creek and river. The answer is a little of both – hybrid large creek and small river. The Stony is a play-boater’s dream, yet still offers everyone a fun time. At low to medium water levels, this is primarily a class III run. At medium to high levels the intensity and continuousness of the run picks up dramatically and steps up a notch in difficulty. Most of the rapids are a combination of continuous ledges coming at you from different angles and can be run using different lines. A few of the rapids have large boulders thrown in to spice things up.
For the most part, there are only a couple somewhat serious hazards on the river at normal water levels / conditions. However, as with any stream, situations can change overnight, so caution should never be thrown to the wind. One of these hazards has been somewhat underrated, while the other has been somewhat overrated. Both of these obstructions are not natural to the river, rather man-made structures that pose a threat. The underrated hazard is the river-wide dam (Border Dam) that you must walk around on river left. You will know when you get there due to a large building on river right. The “spill-way” is river-wide. The overrated hazard is directly below this dam where a pipeline crosses the river, creating a large hydraulic. This overrating stems from a canoeing book reference long ago. There is an easy tongue to run on river left that will keep you out of the maw. However, several people paddle through the hydraulic on a regular basis (at very low levels) and seem to have no problem. It is recommended to scout this far river right if not familiar.
There are great play spots along the whole river (keep your eyes open), but the majority of them are within the first three miles or so. The playing only gets better as the level rises! From the get-go, there are plenty of eddy lines, small to medium surfing waves, and holes. The first major rapid, known as Johnsons Hole, is jam packed with play spots and has been loosely referred to as the “Surf Laboratory”. From the beginning of Test Tube Hole down to an overhead railroad bridge, there are 10-15 nice play spots depending on the water level. This rapid is 1/4 mile below where Shade Creek enters the Stony on river right. Next comes Lower Railroad Rapid. This rapid is just downstream of the railroad bridge. The rapid begins with a long slide that ends with a nice haystack wave. Immediately after this comes the locomotive. This is a ledge that stretches nearly across the width of the river. At mid to high levels, the ledge transforms into a hole that is mean and can reach the size of a large locomotive. The hole can be easily avoided on river right. 3 to 5 great surfing waves usually form over the next 100 yards. The next rapid is called The Wall. This will be easily identified when the river makes a hard drop to the right and a shear slope is on your left. Soon after The Wall you will enter a succession of rapids named the three sisters…. wonderful surfing at medium to high levels. The third sister is a near river wide hydraulic than can be enjoyed at low levels also. There have been many boats in the hole (up to 9) at the same time on numerous occasions. The river will eventually bottleneck into a hole named Scout on river right. A play boater’s dream at low to medium levels. The abundance of play spots continues for at least half of the run (too many to mention) until Border Dam. Although the Stony calms down a little after Border Dam, don’t put on the blinders, as there are some very nice waves and holes that you might miss if you don’t keep alert. The scenery is also spectacular along the way. Some other notable rapids on the Stony are Rooster Tail, Hydro, Beast, Hermit, Dislocation, Last Rapid and Showers. Showers the first real rapid of the Stony Canyon section can be run by putting in at Hollsopple, or just up stream of the bridge in Foustwell.
This five mile run can take as long as four to six hours if you play like some of the locals, or as short as 1.5 hours if you aren’t messing around too much. Though improving significantly, the water quality of the Stony has a long way to go, as abandoned mine drainage (AMD) is a serious problem in the area. The Stony’s water quality continues to improve due to the diligent work of the Stonycreek Conemaugh River Improvement Project, as well as other grass-roots organizations in the region.
Runnable Levels and Gauge Information
The Stonycreek River has a minimum runable level of approximately 3.0 using the USGS gauge at Ferndale. This corresponds to a flow of around 450 cfs. The Stony Canyon gauge is painted on the center pier of the State Route 601 bridge in Foustwell and must be read at the site. 1.4 is a minimum on this gauge. The correlation between the USGS Ferndale gauge and the Stony Canyon gauge is USGS Ferndale minus 1.5 to 1.75 feet. The Stony is a great intermediate Class III run up to 3.5 feet on the on the Stony Canyon gauge. From 3.5 to 5.0, it is a solid Class III-IV continuous run. Above 5.0 is big and powerful with no large pools. Running it at 10-13 feet is absolutely huge (large risk). Please…exercise caution and be safe.
Put in at State Route 601 bridge in Foustwell or add an additional 1.5 miles by putting in at State Route 403 bridge in Hollsopple. The take out is a little tricky. From Hollsopple, take State Route 601 to Foustwell. Make a left before the bridge that goes over the Stony onto SR 4039. Follow this road for approx. 2 miles and under Rt. 219 (4 lane). Just past Rt. 219 make a right onto Kaufman Church Road (church on corner). Follow for approx. 1.5 miles and make a right onto SR 4022 (Carpenters Park Road) at a stop sign. Follow over Rt. 219 (4 lane) and down to the Stony takeout (Carpenters Park).
Lower Stony (Class II-III)
The section of the Stonycreek between Carpenter’s Park Bridge and Greenhouse Park is often referred to as the “Lower Stony” This is an easier and shorter section than the Canyon and is often used for beginner trips. It can be run anytime the Canyon is runnable; although at 450 cfs this section gets scrappy at the end. Unfortunately, there is no warm up except in the water under the Carpenter’s Park bridge. It starts with about a 1/4 mile stretch of class II water (with few good eddies), a short breather, and a class III (the only one on the river) rapid under the Rt 219 bridge. After this there a handful of mainly class II rapids and riffles as you paddle down to Tire Hill. About 1/2 mile below the Tire Hill bridge there is a pipeline that can be tricky in high water, stay right. Below that is Greenhouse Park and the take-out. This section is relatively easy for people in whitewater boats and some experience; but inexperienced paddlers are tempted to paddle it in flatwater boats and often swim. Also note that when the Stony is high (above 4′ on the Carpenter’s Park bridge) this section also gets bigger and harder.
Shade Creek (Class – III)
The majority of Shade creek is a fairly scenic and nice class III adventure at low to medium levels. There are a couple rapids that may approach the realm of easy class IV. However, when Shade is booming at high levels, it definitely picks up a notch in difficulty to class IV. Shade Creek is typically fun for everyone. There are three sections to run, the upper, middle, and lower. Each section is obviously separated by a bridge. Shade Creek can be a paddled in combination with Clear Shade Creek or Dark Shade Creek (Clear Shade Creek and Dark Shade Creek join to form the Shade Creek). Shade Creek can also be paddled in combination with the Stonycreek Canyon (Shade Creek dumps into the Stonycreek River a quarter-mile down stream from the Foustwell bridge put-in).
The upper section starts at the confluence of Dark and Clear Shade and ends at the bridge in Hillsboro. This section is roughly 3 miles long and offers some very nice class 3 rapids. This is a very fun section, offering some nice surfing waves and some longer, continuous rapids. On this section, you want to pay particular attention to strainers. Trees are often a problem since it is so small. About a mile into the run, the river channel separates into two channels. This section you definitely want to watch out. Folks typically take the right channel. The creek separates in a couple other spots where strainers may be a hazard.
The middle section starts at the Hillsboro bridge and ends at the next bridge, which I think is on Camp Drive. The middle section is a little shorter than the other two sections and is approximately 2 miles long. This is the easiest section of Shade creek, but is worth running to avoid a shuttle cluster when running the entire length of Shade. Although the larger rapids are not present, it is still very scenic through an isolated gorge.
The lower section of Shade is probably the most paddled and offers the best whitewater. This section is approximately 3 miles long, beginning on Camp Drive Bridge and ending on the Rt. 601 bridge in Seanor. This section of Shade can also be run into the Stony, as it enters the Stony 1/4 mile past the Seanor bridge. The first rapid is about 1/4 into the run where the river makes a 90 degree turn to the left. It is a hole and wave train. After this rapid, the river drops over ledge after ledge. Thrown in the middle are more ledges and holes. Did I say the creek is full of ledges and holes? Toward the end of the run is a fairly large rapid. It can probably be considered a class IV. You will know it is coming when you start to see houses on river left. This rapid, Seanor rapid, is the largest on Shade – it is a combination of curler waves and holes coming from different directions for about 100 yards. Seanor rapid rivals any rapid on the Stony.
The water quality of Shade Creek is not so good. Years of coal mining in the Shade basin has left the creek severely contaminated from acid mine drainage (AMD). Dark Shade particularly contributes to the problem. When Shade is runable, however, the AMD is somewhat diluted and not particularly noticeable. The Stonycreek Conemaugh Rivers Improvement Project (SCRIP) is working to remedy the years of coal mining that has taken on this stream.
Gauge and runnable levels
Shade Creek is typically runable if the Stonycreek gauge in Ferndale is greater than 5.5 feet. However, this gauge does not directly read the Shade. On occasion, isolated storms have dumped on the Upper Stony watershed, leaving the Shade too low to run, yet the Ferndale gauge reading over 5 ft. If this is the case, jump on the Stonycreek Canyon, or Upper Gorge. Those rivers are much worth the while. If you are in the area, you can always check the Foustwell bridge gauge on Rt. 601. This gauge needs to typically read at least 3 ft. for the Shade to be running. When the Foustwell gauge starts to reach the 5.5-6 ft mark, the Shade is usually booming. At low to medium levels the run is a solid class III. As the levels begin to flirt with high levels and flood stage, the upper and lower sections most definitely become class IV. Basically, by looking upstream from the Seanor bridge (the take-out), you can get a good feel for what much of the run looks like. For the most part, the rapids and ledges just upstream from the Seanor bridge are typical of what you will encounter on the Shade. If you think you can handle them, go for it. If it looks scrapey here, the whole run is scrapey, especially the upper and middle sections. If it looks booming from the bridge, the whole Shade will be a fun level.
To run the entire length of Shade, put on at the bridge crossing Clear Shade creek on Rt. 160 and take-off at the Rt. 601 bridge in Seanor. As described above, you can run various sections, depending on your time availability. The Hillsboro bridge (i.e., the take-out for the upper section and put-in for the middle section) can be found by making a right onto SR 1029 about 2.5 miles north of the put-in on Rt. 160. Make your first left and the bridge will be dead ahead a mile down the hill.
The Camp Drive bridge (i.e., the take-out for the middle section or the put-in for the lower section) can be found by driving even further north on Rt. 160 from the put-in. About a mile past the SR 1029 turn-off, you will see a hard left turn with a sign for Berkey Church of the Brethren. Make your first right on this road and follow it to the stop sign. Make a left at the stop sign and Shade Creek crosses under the road. You can see Shade Creek from the Stop sign.
Dark Shade Creek (Class IV)
Dark Shade offers more whitewater excitement than its sister river Clear Shade but it is much shorter and has a lower water quality. The run is approximately 1 mile long and begins with some class 2 – 3 fast moving, micro-eddy, warm ups before the elevation drops into continuous boulder garden rapids of which 2 or 3 are a solid class IV especially at higher water levels. Due to the continuous nature and the possibility of strainers caution must be taken. Most rapids can be tackled by eddy-hopping but a few blind drops exist and should be scouted. Take time to enjoy the run because it’s over before you know it. When the water is up, Dark Shade is the first stop on a 1 day, 3 river, tour that continues to Roaring Fork (class IV) and ends with Paint Creek(class V). Such a day would satisfy any boater’s appetite.
If water is questionable, take a short walk from the bridge over Clear Shade on Rt. 160 to where the two rivers meet. This is the takeout. If Dark Shade has enough water to run then it’s runable. This usually corresponds to 5.5 or 6 feet on the Stonycreek at Ferndale gauge.
The take out is at the confluence of Clear Shade and Dark Shade. To get there, from Windber follow route 160 until you reach the bridge over Clear Shade. There is a small concrete dam pour-over just up stream of the bridge. This is the take out. If you get to Cairnbrook you’ve gone too far. From the bridge over Clear Shade the put in can be found by following route 160 a little further until you see a small local paved road on your right (Village of Rockingham). The put in is a few hundred yards down this road at a small bridge over Dark Shade Creek.
Clear Shade Creek (Class III)
Clear Shade is among the most pristine stretches of boatable water in western Pennsylvania. The run begins with a few miles of fast moving class 1 and 2 water across a forested plateau before coming to a small reservoir (the reservoir may have been breached this past fall). At the head of the reservoir is a dam, which is often times run, but may be easily portaged on either side. After the dam the paddler is presented with a 3 mile onslaught of continuous class III boulder gardens and a few small ledges thrown in for good measure. The ledge which is visible from the take out is representative of the harder drops on the run. Although Clear Shade does not have the great play spots of Shade and Stony or the big rapids of Paint and Dark Shade it remains as one of the favorite runs in the Conemaugh River Basin.
If it looks good at the take out then it is. A minimum level (if there really is such a thing) usually corresponds to 5.5 or 6 feet on Stonycreek at Ferndale (or about 4 at Foustwell). If Clear Shade is too low, good alternatives are Shade or Dark Shade.
The take out is at the confluence of Clear Shade and Dark Shade. To get there, from Windber follow route 160 until you reach the bridge over Clear Shade ( there is a small concrete dam pour over just up stream of the bridge). This is the take out. If you get to Cairnbrook you’ve gone too far. The put in is a little harder. Most folks put in at the iron bridge. Follow 160 back toward Windber for about 2 miles and turn right toward Ashtola before you cross the Roaring Fork (there is a hardware store on the corner). Follow this road for 3 or 4 miles and you will cross Roaring Fork. Shortly after you cross the creek turn to the right and follow the creek for a mile or so. You will come to an intersection where you should turn right. Three miles on this road and you might be at the put in (An iron bridge near water tanks in the middle of nowhere).
Roaring Fork (Class IV-V)
The Roaring Fork is one of the most difficult creeks in the Stonycreek watershed. Although the majority of the run is a solid class IV, a couple of the drops have class V consequences. Thus, the overall rating of this tiny creek is class IV-V. The entire run is about 1.5 miles. The first 0.3 miles is relatively uneventful until the first rapid. The first rapid is a 7 foot falls that has only been run a few times, as there is a large tombstone rock at the base of the falls that slants upstream. The average drop of the remaining mile, after this first drop, is approximately 200 feet per mile. After the falls, the creek remains somewhat a drop-pool. However, the distance between rapids is short and the pools are somewhat swift. Drops vary from single, 5-foot ledges, to multiple ledge drops, to a couple technical rapids that include VW Bug-sized boulders. Rapids typically have one, but no more than two routes because of the small size of the creek. Many of the holes and drops must be run and cannot be avoided unless portaged. The size of this stream makes strainers a real problem. Although the creek has been clear of strainers the last few years, you will want to scout the blind drops for potential problems.
The put-in is about 2 miles north of Clear Shade/Dark Shade confluence on Rt. 160. The takeout is on SR 1029 in Hillsboro. The Roaring Fork runs into Shade Creek about 75 yards above the SR 1029 bridge in Hillsboro.
Runnable Levels and Gauge
The Stonycreek gauge in Ferndale used to indicate whether this creek is runable. Typically, if the Ferndale gauge is 5.5 ft to 6 ft., the Roaring Fork is at a minimum level. There is also a supplementary gauge at the put-in on the Rt. 160 bridge. The bare minimum on this bridge gauge is 0 ft. At 0 ft., the creek is runable, but is scrapey, especially to the first drop. An ideal level on the Rt. 160 gauge is between 0.5 and 1.5 – 2.0 ft. Above 2 ft., the creek becomes very pushy and continuous.
Paint Creek (Class V)
The Paint Creek is one of the most robust creeks (solid Class V) in the area and is challenging enough for most thrill seekers. Unfortunately it is also one of the most polluted streams, though you will be too busy with the rapids to notice it much. The Paint Creek whitewater run is over two miles long and drops over 225 feet per mile. The most widely used put-in area is at the base of a 15 foot waterfall (Sandy Falls) that has been run successfully several times…but has serious hidden consequences that are inevitable if not navigated with precision. Running the waterfall is not recommended. From the base of the waterfall you are almost immediately whisked through a 100-foot arch tunnel which amplifies the noise from the rushing creek around you. The first of many blind drops is at the end of the tunnel. After the tunnel there are three consecutive steep drops that need to be negotiated. Then come the named rapids.
Mousetrap – Approx. .5 miles from the tunnel, you will come up on an island. Go left of the island. Blind entry; continuous; one clean route (left to right). Also has been run backwards, sideways, and upside down – though not recommended. Recommend scouting. Note: Numerous pinning spots.
Catwalk Falls – Approx. .25 miles past Mousetrap. Scrapey cascading drop with catwalk/pipe above. Five feet vertical drop; muncher hole on river-left / middle; pool at bottom. Clean drop on river-right.
Big Falls – You will be aware of entry into this rapid when you see a huge round rock directly in the center of the creek. Wide-open visible line from left to right. Nice boof move. Note: Watch the undercut far river-right. Easily avoidable.
Big Sluice – 30 yards past Big Falls. Blind entry; almost vertical; rooster tail wave half way down; joyous “V” shaped hole at bottom; drops into a fast moving recirculating pool. This rapid has shown up in many nightmares. Recommend scouting. Note: Low volume boats almost always come out vertical here.
Momma’s Crack – 75 yards past Big Sluice. In the middle of a rock garden; deceptively undercut rock at low to medium levels (this undercut has held boats in the past). One lost paddle in “The Crack” to date. Recommend scouting (though you may not even notice it if you are not familiar with it).
Road Hole – House and road will be in front of you on river left. Creek bottlenecks into a recirculating hole; drops into a pool.
The gauge is river-right on a railroad bridge at the takeout near Paint Creek’s mouth at the Stonycreek River (Carpenter’s Park Road). Minimum level is negative one foot. Negative six inches to zero feet are good medium levels. Hold on tight above one foot. The USGS Ferndale gauge will usually need to be at least five feet.
Directions to the put-in: Route 56 near Windber to the intersection of route 601. Exit onto route 601 and go north about 200 yards. Put-in (bottom of the waterfall) is behind the Paint Borough Fire Hall (left side on route 601). Must portage down a weed-covered bank. Directions to the take-out (same area as Stonycreek River Canyon take-out): From route 56 near Windber, take route 601 south about a quarter of a mile and turn right down a short steep hill, over railroad tracks, and proceed about two miles to the bottom of the hill (road parallels the Paint).
Quemahoning Creek (Class II-III)
This stream is continuous Class II with one Class III rapid ½ mile from the end. The trip should take 60 to 90 minutes to complete. There are no river gauge readings for Que-Creek, although generally when the Stonycreek is pumping above 3 ½ feet at Faustwell, Que-Creek should be runable. Look below the put-in bridge and you should not be able to see any submerged rocks on the stream bottom. Please note: when the Stony is high, 6′ or more, this is not an easy stream. It turns into a fairly continuous class III+ stretch with very few eddies, lots of standing waves and very choppy water. Not for the inexperienced!
The first ¾ mile is generally flat water. The first drop should be run on far river left. There is a large strainer on river right, with a tree branch covering ¾ of the stream. Stay away from the strainer and you will have no problem. The whitewater and class II holes are continuous from this point. Many rapids on the river are blind turns. The sound and site of whitewater really is misleading going into these turns. Just when you think you are in for a class IV drop, the stream allows easy passage with only small maneuvering necessary. Many times, wildlife has been spotted on this stream; including wild turkey, deer and the 2 local blue heron to the region. The stream is littered on both sides with mountain laurel and heavy woods, which adds to the beauty. Forty-five minutes into the run, the stream will turn right. You will be able to see the large, high, concrete bridge for state route 219. Above this bridge is the sole class III rapid. There are many hydraulics in this stretch of 40 yards. Most of the hydraulics are small in nature and can be easily punched. The difficulty lies in that the hydraulics lie in several different angles to the main current. Several holes continue downstream before the bridge. The easiest passage under the bridge is river right. Below the bridge are a long series of standing waves, which provide lots of fun before entering the reservoir.
Most beginner and intermediate paddlers will find this stream enjoyable. There are hydraulics throughout the 4 miles of water to provide eddies, ferrying and front surfing waves. This is a great warm-up and/or practice stream to ready yourself for Shade Creek or the Stony Canyon.
Take state route 219 S from Hollsopple to the Jennerstown exit. Turn right from the ramp. Make the next right into the town of Boswell. At the end of Main St., turn left, then an immediate right onto route 601. The first bridge crosses over the wonderful class II stream. Parking and put-in are just below the bridge. The take-out is at the “iron bridge” that spans the Quemahoning Reservoir. This can be reached by continuing on route 601 towards Jerome approximately 1 mile. There is a turn off to the right, which will lead you to the reservoir. The Dam can easily be reached from Hollsopple by traveling on 601 and turning left just past First Miss Steel.
Trout Run (Class IV-V)
Good stream when everything else is too high. Description to follow.
Bens Creek (Class I-II)
Wending its way through the undulating hills and valleys of bucolic southwestern Pennsylvania, the Benscreek is a quirky little stream which the inhabitants of Johnstown have come to regard fondly over the ages. Unlike the Stonycreek and the Conemaugh which are known for their erratic temperament, the Benscreek is serene and giving. Its water does not pound on stone too roughly, but gurgles gently like a contented lover. Sprightly deciduous trees and lush meadows line its banks. Fish and bird, genetically mutated over centuries of forage in its mine-drained water, thrive in its pristine setting. City dwellers from Pittsburgh and DC will do well to consider the reaches of this stream as an ideal site for having a picnic, for a gentle walk in the healing Johnstown breeze, or just for lying down on the soft grass by the riverside for an afternoon nap.
The Benscreek is a favorite of local canoeists and kayakers alike to offer a relaxing experience on a stream. The Benscreek flows into the Stonycreek River just up stream from the Ferndale USGS gauge station. State route 985 follows the Benscreek into Johnstown.
As with any stream, please exercise caution and be mindful of changing conditions.
Stonycreek Gorge (Class III-IV)
Top (Gorge) section is good Class III-IV creek run. Plunges furiously in first few miles, then levels off with medium-difficulty rapids. Scout first significant rapid 0.4 miles below covered bridge near retaining wall for strainers (boulder garden that accumulates debris). Use extreme caution on this entire section during high water levels – rapids become continuous, approaching Class V, with few eddies. To find put-in, from Rt. 30, take S.R. 1007 approx. 4.0 miles to T-565, right turn to covered bridge. Take out at Rt. 30 bridge or upstream at Mostoller bridge.
A more complete description, including gauge information, will follow.
Last revised: May, 2001
Other Rivers: Links are to the Pennsylvania Water Trail Guide
West Branch Susquehanna