Find peace and quiet on the shore of the Allegheny River (Photo: Matt Neimi/Flickr)
As soon as I moved to New York City, I started hearing how great “upstate” was. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for escaping to the lush, green Hudson Valley and the Catskills. The downside? These regions are generally packed with other New Yorkers.
Fortunately, that’s not true of the farther-flung western Pennsylvania, which is now where I live half of each month. I’m bicoastal, if you consider the Allegheny River a coast. And I do.
The outdoors is vast, varied, and uncrowded here; there are endless options for the hiker, the biker, the kayaker, the stargazer, and even the art snob. Whether you’re a glutton for extreme exercise or just looking for a lark on a Saturday afternoon, you can find any level of physical exertion to suit your needs. And you don’t have to compete with an army of weekend warriors while doing it.
Signing in at the Laurel Highlands Trail (Photo: Chiot’s Run/Flickr)
If hiking’s your thing, you can’t beat the Laurel Highlands for well-maintained trails and natural beauty. We recently tackled a daylong portion of this path, originating at Ohiopyle State Park. The 11.2-mile expedition wends through the peaks and valleys of Laurel Mountain, with periodic views of the Youghiogheny River. Rising to challenging climbs and dipping down steep hills, it features yellow markers at intervals — so it’s difficult to get lost, but make sure you have good hiking boots. The entire Laurel Highlands trail runs for 70 miles and is outfitted with camping shelters every 8 to 10 miles. The shelters, which must be reserved in advance, offer drinking water and fire pits. Some of the fire pits are adjacent to a shelter for colder-weather camping.
The converted tracks are now bike paths. (Photo: Jason Pratt/Flickr)
I’m an enthusiastic bicyclist, but I’m not a fan of full-on mountain biking with its likelihood of a sprain-inducing spill over a big rock (though some of my hardcore cyclist friends would argue that’s half the fun). For more sedate riders like me, there’s the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile ride starting in Pittsburgh and going all the way to Cumberland, Md. Though it traverses the Allegheny Mountains, it’s built on a 1-percent grade that reflects the abandoned rail beds it’s on, so the climb never becomes overwhelming. If you crave a rougher trail, try Rothrock State Forest, in State College; its Coopers Gap system of trails is rated the best single-track experience in the state by mountain biking site MTB Project.
Kayaking on Lake Erie (Photo: Sarah Sampel/Flickr)
Opportunities abound for kayaking with lots of personal space. Presque Isle State Park, a local favorite, is on a peninsula that connects to Lake Erie and features a series of lagoons for paddlers to explore. You can rent a kayak for an hour or the day and check out the wildlife (the bird watching here is highly rated) without worrying about boat traffic; outboard motors aren’t allowed in the lagoons. For more of an adrenaline rush, try the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle, where you can also go full-on whitewater rafting.
Autumn leaves creep in around Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (Photo: Via Tsuji/Flickr)
Do you like your outdoor adventures infused with culture? Check out Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house built over a waterfall in the mountains near Pittsburgh (the Kaufmann family, who commissioned Wright to build it there in 1936, owned a major department store in the city, now part of the Macy’s brand). The grounds around the house include two brief but pretty hikes; but you’ll do a substantial amount of walking on the house tour, too.
Zero light pollution makes for amazing stargazing in Cherry Springs State Park (Photo: Steve Eng/Flickr)
Good stargazing is one of life’s most magical experiences — and most elusive, if you live in the heavily-lit eastern U.S. But Cherry Springs State Park, in Potter County at the top of a 2,300-foot-high mountain, is a rare dark area, making it a hot spot for both astronomers and amateur enthusiasts like me. The park offers an easily accessible Night Sky Viewing Area, where visitors are welcome (but encouraged to keep their own light sources minimal and pointed downward). You can also camp here, but you’ll need reservations.
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