All Roads Lead to Big FallsAug 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Karin Knaus
Some of the greatest ideas in human history have sparked between good friends talking over a few beers. Unfortunately, many of these lightbulb thoughts are lost by morning. On a late Friday evening in 2002, on a barstool at Wellsboro’s Gas Light Bar & Grill, I collaborated on one of my greatest ever ideas. Fortunately, it led to a tradition that is unforgettable.
As things wound down that evening from a girls’ night out, we sat reminiscing about our youth over some cold, cheap drafts, and someone brought up Big Falls. Big Falls, for those outside the circle, is Tioga County’s most fabled and cherished swimming hole. Its value to the people who love it cannot be overstated. When a sixteen-year-old got a driver’s license in Wellsboro in the 1990s, they were excited for two reasons: one, they could now cruise the strip from McDonald’s to the West End looking for fun on a weekend night, and two, they could cruise out to Big Falls whenever they wanted.
Stories about treks to Big Falls and its lesser known Stony Fork brethren led to the aforementioned idea that night. What if we spent a day visiting all the great swimming holes we knew? We plotted out the “perfect route” on a napkin, and the semi-annual swimmin’ hole tour was born.
We met the next morning, and, after stops at Steve’s Beverage and Terry’s Hoagies, our tour began in the village of Blackwell, where we launched tubes into Pine Creek. It was early July, so the water wasn’t exactly racing, but it moved enough at that spot to lazily ferry us along, dragging beers in a grocery bag to our first hole, Rattlesnake Rock. We disembarked, doing flips and floats and dives off the rock ledge before mounting back up and continuing downstream.
Our sweet, leisurely float came to an end at one of my very favorite spots, a hole we’ve always known as Woodhouse, as adjacent to it, along the road, is a sign that says so. What makes this hole special is it’s deep and calm, and has its own beach. Really! There’s also a rock ledge, a rope swing, and a fairly majestic view of the Pine Creek Valley going south, to boot. Regrettably, a few years after we started touring, someone posted no trespassing signs, and I haven’t been there, other than to glide by on a tube, in many, many years.
After a rowdy dip, Heather, who had stashed a bicycle there earlier in the day, rode back to get the car. We returned to Blackwell, ran down the hill, and around noon swam in the spot Heather and her mom always called the Sucker Hole.
From there, it was a drive with classic country tunes and girl talk across the long, dusty Landrus Road all the way to Arnot, then through Blossburg and out to Pirate’s Rock. There’s a hike in, and you have no idea what or who you’ll find there until you arrive. The irony of this hole is it has cool, clear, crystal blue water, but that beautiful color is caused by the acid mine runoff upstream.
One last, long drive remained for the final leg of this epic tour. Returning to Wellsboro, we traveled out to Stony Fork. There was a stop at Blueberry and at Little Falls, and all the little spots nobody had a good name for in between.
And then, around dinner time, we reached the mecca—Big Falls. Coming down that steep path while the sun had started fading felt like coming home. Still does, in fact. It’s tough to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for, which is just how we locals like it. It’s one of the most beautiful sights these eyes will ever see—a vast, deep, green pool surrounded by rock ledges and cliffs of all sizes, trees and wildflowers, with a waterfall steadily running in.
There are dozens of ways to get into the deep water here. I always chose a running leap from the big ledge. Heather would ride the rope swing out and drop. For you amateurs, only weenies wade in from the shallow side.
Late in the day, we had the hole all to ourselves. We floated on our backs, soaking up the remains of our perfect day.
We continued touring for a few years after that, but, due to babies, cross-country ventures, and life simply moving on, we haven’t done it in a long while.
If you’re lucky enough to grow up somewhere with swimming holes, you already know about their magic. They are fountains of youth—partly because you become a kid again as soon as your aging body plunges into those icy waters, and partly because of all the memories that bubble up. I can’t drive past the Sucker Hole without recalling a summer evening when I was seventeen and rode lying down in the back of a pickup truck looking at the stars the whole way out there for a night swim. I can’t go to Big Falls without thinking of the time I took a group of grown adults out there to do some writing and watched each of them shed their adulthood when they hit that enchanted water. In particular, I’ll never forget watching my friend Dick, who at the time was nearing sixty, climb into a pine tree and launch himself out over the water on a rope swing, coached by a group of teenagers.
Swimming holes mark time in that way. And while it’s been more years than I’d like to remember since my girlfriends and I loaded up brews and hoagies and hit the road, I have no doubt that tour remains one of my greatest ideas.