Juniata River

River of the month #91

author: Pat Reilly
date: July 2006

We’re going to talk about the actual Juniata here, and not include any of its three paddeable branches - the Raystown Branch, the Frankstown Branch and the Little Juniata. The beginning of the Juniata is the confluence of the Little J and the Frankstown Branch between the towns of Alexandria and Petersburg in western Huntingdon County, about 8 miles upstream from Huntingdon. From here it flows 101 miles to its scenic rendezvous with the Susquehanna at Duncannon, making it a sizable river, second only to the Susquehanna for Harrisburg-centered paddlers.

I finished this river a while ago so it has been eligible for an ROM write-up for many months. (For you computer geeks that’s River of the Month, not Read Only Memory.) But for some reason I’ve put it off. It seems that I just can’t get very excited about the ‘ole Juniata. Now before we get into this, so as to not peeve any Juniata lovers out there, I want to state that there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with the Juniata River. It much resembles its bigger cousin, the Susquehanna, a river that we all seem to sing the praises of. As it arcs through the heart of the ridge and valley region, cutting mountain gaps and flowing through fertile valleys, it does a splendid job of presenting scenery that is representative of rural Central Pennsylvania.

So what’s the dig? Well, none really, it’s just that I may find the Juniata a little too generic. You only get 4 (5 maybe?) little rapids on the entire river. It just can’t seem to shake the ever-present paralleling roads and railroads. And while the mountains are great to look at, the Juniata’s scenery shows its agrarian side too, with many farms and their accompanying nutrients loading the water with too much algae during the warmer months.

But hey, those complaints can be said about most Pennsylvania rivers. So let’s just let the tour begin and take a good look at this easy paddling waterway. It all starts at a lonely bridge across the Frankstown Branch just up from the mouth of the Little J. You may not know it at first but you’re in an impoundment. The water just gets deeper and slower as you make your way downstream and around the right-hand bend past the mouth of Shavers Fork. I usually complain about impoundments but this one is rather attractive. The river widens into a narrow lake with no development to be seen, just trees and mountains. It does however, have the un-natural flooded look of a man-made lake.

The hydro dam for this lake, Warriors Ridge, sure isn’t pretty though. It’s at least 20 feet high and can’t be carried on the left. That leaves only a very steep and boulder strewn mess on the right. My partner Mike and I carried this dam at night with camp gear laden plastic touring K-1s. Ugh! Approach with caution at high water as the portage begins at a steep bank close to the dam. As high as it is, you don’t want to get sucked over this one!

The next 4 miles below the dam are worth the carry - without a doubt the best 4 miles of the entire river. Hemmed in a narrow valley, with steep wooded sides, the river flows swiftly along with no roads or structures to be seen. There’s even a cool little rapid around a small island. Then it ends, very abruptly, at the town (city?) of Huntingdon with its bridges, dwellings, highways and railroad yard.

After Huntingdon the Juniata cruises past big mountains but now has a highway and a railroad sharing its path. Three miles from Huntingdon the Raystown Branch enters and doubles the flow. Now a respectable sized river, the Juniata continues to cruise past and through impressively big mountains, some with impressively big silica mining scars. Impressively big farms are yet to be seen. The river towns of Mapelton Depot and Mt. Union come and go but the highway stays until shortly after Mt. Union where the river loops back on itself and gets considerably quieter.

Small town Newton Hamilton is situated at the end of the loop and once past town big agriculture comes to stay. Large peaceful farms border the creek, the big highway is gone for now. Smaller roads and some summer homes are present but this is mostly a serene 20 mile northeasterly-flowing stretch to Lewistown. That is, except for just below Newton Hamilton where the river goes over a surprising drop of several feet. A series of shallow ledges at low water or big waves at high water this is probably the Juniata’s biggest rapid.

Approaching Lewistown, the river does two big 180-degree loops while the riverside railroad takes a straight path and crosses the river twice, on 2 identical bridges. With similar scenery it’ll seem like paddling déjà vu going under the second RR bridge! River left between the bridges consists of rare old bottomland woods that contain some huge trees, neat wetlands and a re-watered section of the old Juniata Canal. This area is worth a visit and can be accessed via a campground at the upstream end.

After big town Lewistown, the Juniata flows through a narrow valley between two big mountains. This eight mile stretch is well known to State College commuters as the Lewistown Narrows, the scene of infamous traffic bottlenecks. The river must vie for space with busy route 22/322, another road on river right, a railroad, the old canal and a few houses. It makes for a crowded noisy valley that would otherwise be pretty special due to the valley’s deep ‘V’ shape. It’s currently more crowded and noisy than normal due to the construction of two more lanes on 22/322.

Following the Narrows, the river turns 90 degrees and flows mostly southeast in a leisurely fashion for its last 40 miles. Big mountains, big farms and big route 22/322 dominate the scenery, with many small towns, summer homes and camp grounds too. With fairly productive waters and at least five Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission access areas this section is popular with fishermen as well as paddlers (not to mention paddling fishermen). This last section will be the most familiar to club members and really is nice scenic rural cruising. For a while the river flows up against towering Tuscarora Mountain. From the river to the top of the mountain is as big a vertical distance as any river to mountaintop in the state, 1700 feet! But keep in mind that this popular stretch is far from remote with the railroad on river right, the highway on river left and often strings of summer homes and camps everywhere.

After Newport, the big river livens with a few rapids in its final 10 miles. The first is just above Howe Township’s riverside park and is easily run on the left. Next is the sharp ledge that I would venture to say probably half of CCGH members have paddled over and all have seen when driving route 22/322 near the Midway exit. It has a variety of pourovers forming playable holes at varying levels. The most popular chute to run is in the middle. Shortly downstream some nice mid-river surfing waves form at higher levels.

Throughout its route the Juniata has a fair share of islands, making this a good river for canoe camping. And it does get a number of multiple day paddlers. Mifflintown to Harrisburg was the site of my first 4-day trip way back in 1980 in the old Sportspal, my first canoe. The lower sections are most always runable except in a good drought.

So load your boat, pack for a few days and go see some of the Juniata. Or do like my partner Mike did and knock off the whole river is 2 days!

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2006 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.