My guide to the area known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania was Strawberry, a short, white horse with reddish dappling on his back.
He tolerated the mistakes of an inexperienced rider and kept a gentle pace, although at times he seemed to want to cut loose. I thanked him frequently during our seven hours together.
Strawberry lives at the Mountain Trail Horse Center near Wellsboro, Pa. My day with him was the centerpiece of a weekend spent exploring the woodlands of north-central Pennsylvania.
The Grand Canyon (its real name is Pine Creek Gorge) and the surrounding state parks and forests are a magnet for fishermen, rafters, canoeists, hikers, bikers, hunters and equestrians. Pine Creek cuts through the foothills of the Appalachians north of Williamsport, carving a gorge that's 47 miles long and up to a mile wide at some points.
Unlike its namesake in Arizona, this canyon's scenery is more pretty than spectacular. Instead of multicolored clay walls, it's lined with fuzzy-looking, evergreen-covered mountains about 800 to 1,000 feet high. The charm of the area is that since the timber companies moved on, they've left a rural area full of rolling hills and farmland (but, alas, with virtually no old-growth forests) that's an outdoor playground, still free of any upscale resorts.
I didn't know all that when I made plans for my husband and myself to take a daylong horseback ride through the area. I just knew that I had received the horse center's brochure for a few years and had made a resolution to go someday, even though I hadn't been on a horse in 25 years.
Because our day with the horses wouldn't take us through the canyon itself, we made sure to visit Leonard Harrison and Colton Point state parks, which straddle the gorge, to get a view from above. The day before the horseback trip, we rented bicycles and rode the rail-trail on the canyon floor.
The straight, flat, gravel trail wouldn't make much of a horseback ride, but it was just right for bikes. We rode for 18 miles, round-trip, alongside Pine Creek, passing canoeists and fishermen angling for trout.
Pine Creek flows at a leisurely pace, forking around grassy or marshy islands that pop up here and there. A thick forest covering on the far side of the creek gives way occasionally to shady, flat, green spaces that were the camping spots of my dreams.
Indeed, Tiadaghton, the halfway point on the trail and our turnaround spot, was such a place, set up for camping with pit toilets, but no showers, nearby. A couple of fishing parties had pitched their tents here, and we stopped to lunch on muffins and water. What a difference from the trails we'd take the next day.
Warned and ready
Our horseback day started at 9:30 a.m., with two hours of instruction on safety and horse behavior.
Jill Maier, who has owned the 52-horse center for nearly 18 years with her husband, Patrick, led our group with the help of two other guides, Lee Golden and Laurie Snavely.
Maier told us that horseback riding is one of the most dangerous recreational activities there is -- the 64th most dangerous, to be exact, according to some report she cited.
Remember, she told us, horses are thinking beings, and the trail can be unpredictable.
"We've had branches blow down, grouse flying up, deer jumping out. ... When things happen, a lot of times they happen like this," she said, snapping her fingers.
Along with tips on finding our "deep seat" on the saddle, sitting up straight and gripping with our thighs, Maier warned us never to let go of the reins. If we did, then, "whatever happens to you is up to your horse, and that's not a good position to be in."
We picked our horses. I stayed away from the likes of Commanche, Cherokee and Black Star. Instead, I made friends with Strawberry by stroking his mane for a few minutes.
Properly warned and acquainted, we headed out at 11:30 a.m. Most of the early riding was spent climbing hills, crossing a few streams and making our way back down those hills. It was quiet and slow enough to get a look at some of the forest.
Growing up, I had spent many weekends riding motorbikes on woodland trails in rural Virginia. I often wondered how that would compare to being on a horse.
What I realized now was that on a motorcycle, I came to know the trail well -- with its dips, mud puddles and fallen branches -- but only the trail. On a horse, I got to see the forest. And I was able to develop a relationship, however temporary, with a gorgeous, intelligent animal.
I felt, as rider Deb McGrail put it, "that joy of being outdoors on such a beautiful creature."
The forest floor was thick with low-lying shrubs, and we could see in the distance to ridges and valleys beyond.
Our ride took us through a maze of logging roads as well as barely discernible trails. At times the horses would have to make their way gingerly over rocky slopes and at others they could amble through grassy meadows. We ducked a lot to avoid what one of our party called "face plants."
Some of our 16-mile ride followed a mountain stream, which we could hear as we sauntered along. It was a hot day, and we stopped occasionally to let our horses have a drink.
Breaking up our reverie, though, we got a glimpse early on of why Maier had cautioned us so strongly. We came upon a grassy field cleared for power lines where we let our horses canter. Two of the horses had some kind of disagreement, and one of the riders fell.
The rider wasn't hurt, and she didn't hesitate to get back on, but it brought home some of Maier's pre-ride lessons.
A short break
Around 1 p.m., we tied our horses up around trees in a clearing and sat down for lunch, which was sandwiches packed back at the center and bottled water and soda, now warm from the ride in our saddlebags.
Sitting on fallen trees, we had a chance to get better acquainted with our fellow riders. McGrail had brought her husband, three teen-age children and brother-in-law from Allentown, Pa.
She was loving it.
There was also a group of sisters from upstate New York in their 30s and 40s. One brought her college-age daughter and another college-age woman, her daughter's friend. It was a girls' weekend, and this was part of the party.
The sisters had done the half-day ride last year, and, although one of their number had fallen off a horse and fractured a rib (she did.not come this year), they had a great time and were back for more.
After lunch, I began to feel glad that I had opted for the full-day ride, instead of a shorter one offered by the horse center, because it gave me time to feel more comfortable with Strawberry.
We wound through more forest and eventually came out at a logging road where, again, we would let our horses canter, maybe even gallop. We lined up, faster horses first, and took off when Maier gave us the word.
At 125 pounds, I had a hard time staying in the saddle. Others had better luck and looked for the chance to run as often as they could.
Around 3 p.m. we had one more break and then started on the final leg.
As the day wound down, I became sore and began to wonder if I'd bitten off more than I could chew. As a novice, perhaps I should have opted for the center's three-hour ride.
Around 5 p.m., Maier stopped the group on a grassy knoll and offered us a few choices.
Did we want to take another break? We said no, sensing we were close to the ranch.
Did some of us want to take a shortcut, accompanied by another guide, that would shave about 20 minutes off the ride while she led the rest of the group through the trail? She told us the longer ride would take about an hour. We said no. (Call it peer pressure.)
Did everyone want to canter or gallop? A few of us were uncomfortable at that prospect, so we brought up the rear, where we could fall back with Golden if the rest of the group left us behind.
The remainder of the ride was not exactly as we had expected. The trail was overgrown enough that any extended cantering was out of the question. And it wasn't an hour more but 90 minutes. Since we were feeling the cumulative pain of the day at this point, every minute counted.
Jan McCracken, one of the New York sisters, said everyone in her party considered dismounting and walking back, but no one spoke up, and they didn't realize they were having the same thought until after the ride. She agreed that the long ride was too much for many people.
For her part, Deb McGrail was sore but happy.
"The entire day for me flew by. It seemed like it was just two or three hours. It was the most fun I'd had in ages. I probably could have ridden for another couple of hours," she said later.
We were quiet as we ambled through the last fields back to the horse center. When I dismounted, my knees, thighs, upper and lower back and arms hurt. I was happy to have my feet on the ground.
The horses must have been relieved, too. I watched as the saddles were taken off, and workers led them to a nearby field. Strawberry immediately turned over and rolled his back on the soft ground, seemingly happy to be rid of his load.
I didn't take it personally. I hope he didn't.
A group of sisters from upstate New York had done the half-day ride last year, and although one of their number had fallen off a horse and fractured a rib. The others had a great time and were back for more.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: Most lodging near the horse center and Pine Creek Gorge is in Wellsboro. From Baltimore, take Interstate 83 north. Just beyond Harrisburg, take Route 15 north 116 miles to Route 414, near the town of Liberty. Head west on Route 414 for 10 miles, then take Route 287 north into Wellsboro. The trip takes about 4 1/2 hours.
Mountain Trail Horse Center:
The center offers a variety of rides, including covered-wagon trips in Pine Creek Gorge during the summer. Rates for the wagon rides are $12.50 for adults and $6.25 for children ages 4 to 12 during the week, $16 and $8 on the weekend. Wagons depart twice a day on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, and once on Sunday. The other days of the week are reserved for group bookings. Walk-ins are welcome, but you should call ahead to check availability.
Horseback expeditions range from a half-day ride to trips of five days and four nights. The half-day rides cost $45 weekdays, $51 weekends. Daylong rides go for $80 weekdays and $90 weekends. The long excursions range in price from $124 to $641, depending on length, the level of luxury you request and the number of people in your party.
Mountain Trail takes only riders 12 and older on its horseback trips, but the center does offer family vacation rides that feature gentler camping and riding expeditions and accept children as young as 8. The basic package for these rides costs $200 per person.
Pine Creek Outfitters rents canoes, mountain bikes and cruiser bikes, and they put together guided float trips. Bikes cost $5 an hour, and for a flat $25 you can rent a bike and travel one-way the entire 19 miles of Pine Creek Trail. Pine Creek Outfitters will pick you up in a shuttle at the other end.
You can rent canoes from Pine Creek for $28 weekdays, $34 Saturdays and $30 on Sunday. If you want to paddle the 19-mile stretch of gorge along the trail, they'll pick you up at the other end for $41 during the week, $48 on Saturday and $43 on Sunday.
Raft rentals range from $55 to $70 without the shuttle service; from $80 to $90 with. Kayaks rent for $20 to $43, depending on whether you want a single or double kayak, whether it's a weekday or weekend and whether you want shuttle service.
Pine Creek also arranges multi-day rentals of all its boats, group camping trips and day-and-a-half float trips.
Mountain Trail Horse Center, Middlebury Center, Pa.
Online: www. mountrailhorse.com
Pine Creek Outfitters, Ansonia, Pa.
Ask for their free newsletter, which has helpful information about the area.
Leonard Harrison State Park (570-724-3061) and Colton Point State Park (570-724-3061), Wellsboro, Pa.
General state park information is available at 888-727-2757.
The best views of Pine Creek Gorge are from overlook points at the state parks.
Tioga County Visitors Bureau, Wellsboro, Pa.
The bureau offers brochures on area lodging, dining, attractions and events.
The Blue Moon Bed and Breakfast, 129 Main St., Wellsboro
The Blue Moon is a lovely place with dining-room murals painted by Susan Clickner-Aronson, who owns the inn with her husband, John Aronson. Breakfast is terrific. Room rates range from $50 to $125.
The Penn Wells Hotel and the Penn Wells Lodge
The Penn Wells Hotel has 75 rooms and a 6-foot-by-10-foot flag made of 1,400 red, white and blue Christmas ornaments in its lobby. The hotel dates from 1869. Rooms start at around $50. The Penn Wells Lodge has 55 rooms. Rates are in the $70-$90 range. The lodge offers a heated pool and whirlpool. This is important after a horseback ride.
Cedar Run Inn, about 40 minutes southwest of Wellsboro, in Cedar Run
Online: pavisnet.com / cedarruninn
The inn has 13 rooms. For $55 per person, you get dinner, breakfast and a room; a room by itself costs $35 per person. Make reservations well in advance, even if you just want to eat a meal there. This is a popular place.
Mountain Trail Horse Center, Middlebury Center, Pa.
Online: www. mountrailhorse.com
Features: The center rents out a cottage that sleeps up to 12 people and has an outdoor hot tub. Rates are $75 per night for two people and $12 for each additional person; $150 for two nights, with a charge of $20 for each additional person; and $385 per week for two, $65 for each additional person.