On a drive from eastern Pennsylvania to Chicago, Illinois years ago, our family pulled into a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Somerset about 80 miles east of Pittsburgh. It was a fine summer day and the low mountains coursing from southwest to northeast looked cerulean blue in the distance. I told my wife, “I’d like to visit here someday.”
That someday finally came true this summer when we planned a trip with friends to visit Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright architectural masterpiece near Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania.
Having grown up in eastern Pennsylvania, I was well aware of the richness of eastern woodlands. But I was admittedly unprepared for the natural beauty of western Pennsylvania. Around every turn there was a new and pleasant vista awaiting. Even without binoculars the views were tantalizing. The country roads between Trent, Pa., where we stayed at a gorgeous (and affordable) Bed and Breakfast called Log Haven, and Fallingwater were an interesting and lovely treat to drive. Of course you had better stay alert because the corners are tight and the shoulders narrow as you go up and down hill after steep hill.
One wonders how the native Pennsylvanians stand up to winter weather on those roads. But winter seems to be the height of tourist season with ski lodges at Seven Springs Resort and other locations around the area. We dined at the resort our last night on vacation and were treated to a quiet spot with a view overlooking the ski hills. A passing rain storm heightened our experience and literally wiped out our view for half an hour as the rain eclipsed even the closest ski hills. How gorgeous those Pennsylvania hills must look in falling snow.
The contrast between seasons in southwestern Pennsylvania are not the only dramatic tensions and changes in the area. The counties southeast of Pittsburgh have been the focus of industry for many years. Coal and mineral mining and the lumber industry have all had their way in western Pennsylvania over the years. A local attraction has been formed around the Quecreek mining disaster north of Somerset, an event in which nine coal miners were trapped deep underground when they broke through to an old mine filled with water. (They were all rescued after a 77-hour ordeal.) Down the road from Quecreek and Somerset is the site of the Flight 93 crash where in 2001 the flight’s passengers are thought to have forced down an airplane hijacked by the 9/11 terrorists.
We were not in the mood for such serious fare during our vacation. But many local merchants did mention the site with pride, albeit with the caveat that we should visit before the government installs a memorial. Whatever the feds have planned out there, the locals don’t seem to think it will be an improvement.
These historical events color much of what you find in western Pennsylvania, which promotes its recent and long past histories with museums, parks and commercial enterprises highlighting points of interest at every turn. From Fort Ligonier with its re-creation of a military fort, to Laurel Caverns Geological Park (Pennsylvania’s largest cave), you can hardly turn around without finding something to do. It all depends on your tastes and interests.
Pennsylvania really seems to have it together when it comes to outdoor recreation. While visiting we saw dozens of families camping at state parks (which are free admission–thank you Pennsylvania) and rafting down the Youghiogheny river (pronounced yaw-ki-gay-nee, or the “yawk” for short) which runs through Ohiopyle State Park. Folks, if you only come in summer and take your kids on a series of rafting trips, or if you want a wild challenge and ride the wild river in company of a guide, your trip will be worth it. Or, rent a cabin (about $95 a day) in downtown Ohiopyle, a hippie town with great eats and a laid back attitude that makes you want to slow down, stare at the clouds and enjoy your veggie sandwich.
Or, you can jump on an amazing bike trail called the Great Allegheny Passage at Ohiopyle. The state converted a former railroad line to a highly navigable cycling path made of crushed limestone. On the day we visited many cyclists had pulled over for a bite to eat in Ohiopyle. Everyone to whom I talked was covering between 20-30 miles on the trail that covers a distance of 150 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, just south of the Pennsylvania State line. The path even connects to a canal trail in Cumberland that can take you to Washington, D.C., 318 miles in all. Now that’s recreation!
It is probably a good thing for cyclists that such a trail exists, because my experiments in riding the roads was a bit discomfiting. Large SUVs and campers are everywhere, and there is not much room with all this traffic for a speeding cyclist on the backroads. Too bad, because the climbs are deliciously difficult and the downhills positively thrilling. I reached 45 miles an hour on my road bike one early morning descent. By contrast, the Great Allegheny Passage is largely flat riding, follows the river valley and is designed more for hybrid bikes than mountain or road models.
Get off your bike and there are plenty of hiking trails in the (free!) state parks. You can take short little day hikes through the woods (where we hardly had problems with bugs) or plan something more prodigious. There are trails through the south Allegheny mountains that challenge even the most experienced hiker. While walking I noticed dozens of species of breeding birds including black-throated green warblers, summer tanagers and pileated woodpeckers. There are highly accessible lakes (Laurel Ridge has an especially family-friendly beach) and natural areas preserved in state parks. In the odd excitement category, one local told us someone released a 17-foot snake in one of the state park ponds. Talk about heightened interest!
Between rides and hikes we focused on the mission for our trip: tours of the Frank Lloyd Wright homes at Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. Both Wright houses were originally commissioned by nouveau riche buyers who were seeking hideaways in the Pennsylvania hills. Fallingwater (http://www.fallingwater.org) sits over a creek that tumbles through a strikingly deep mountain valley. The home features a cantilevered design that frankly (no pun intended) has not held up in every respect. The house began to sag a little, requiring a $10M makeover. But inside the home one quickly gets the reasons behind the design, where light and space play tricks on the eye.
Wright created the home the late 1930s for Edgar Kauffman, Sr., patriarch of a progressive early 20th century family whose commission of the home served multiple purposes of country retreat and social climbing. Considered one of the most significant architectural statements of its time, Fallingwater still stands as testament to the vision of an architect who changed the way people think about the buildings in which they live and work.
Up the road from Fallingwater is Kentuck Knob, which was built on a hill once stripped of trees by the lumber industry. The views originally stretched 50 miles and the caretakers have cleared a view to the east that gives a hint of its original perch on the mountain top. Inside the home still bears the trademark personal privacy delivered by Wright’s design which deftly balanced visual access to the outdoors while screening the view in from the parking lot with screened windows. Masterful.
Both tours are worth spending the $45-$60 to learn what it would be like to own and live in some of Wright’s best work. Not all is perfect with these homes, but that is partly the point. Wright worked in gestures, many of them stunningly original. But the emotional takeaway in both these houses is the liberation of spirit in which Wright so firmly believed.
Returning to our cozy bed and breakfast to relax each night, we were treated to the hospitality of Ron and Betty Bruner, owners and proprietors of Log Haven. Ron did all the interior pine woodwork in the B&B portion of their home that makes the property feel like a woodland retreat. Indeed, the nights were quiet and the breakfasts served each morning were delicious. Active in the area’s tourism industry, Ron Bruner scored us a discount for a production of the musical “The Pajama Game” at the Mountain Playhouse in nearby Jennerstown. We spent the middle day shopping quaint little shops in Ligonier and buzzed over a mountain pass (2842 feet) to Jennerstown to join an admittedly geriatric midday matinee crowd for 2 hours of professional theater. It was a joy and a cap to a fun-filled four days in Pennsylvania.
Plan a trip. Take your family or friends. You can exercise like mad or just sit back and look at the mountains in western Pennsylvania. Worth a trip in any season.