During this unending pandemic summer, it’s hard to go anywhere. In many places, even crossing state lines is subject to a maze of constantly shifting quarantines and restrictions.
Luckily, within our own state, there are plenty of places to get outside, especially within driving distance of Pittsburgh. Some can be done in a day; others may require camping or other overnight accommodations. Here are some good places to start.
Presque Isle State Park
Face it, Pittsburgh, we just don’t have real beaches with waves and such (sorry, Sandcastle doesn’t count). Luckily, the creators of Pennsylvania seem to have thought this through. To the north, the Commonwealth has this odd little bit shaped sort of like a giant feather dropped into Lake Erie. Presque Isle is a long, narrow strip of land that starts getting wider after a few miles, then spreads out into a plume of swamps, peninsulas, bays and miles of beaches with white sand dunes. A 13-mile road, with parallel biking, running and walking trails, loops through the park.
Sunsets are spectacular — at dusk, the sky seems suffused with gold as far as the eye can see. Inland, a network of hiking trails winds its way through many of the park’s six distinct ecological zones. From the shoreline to the ponds, over dunes and ridges, through swamps and forests — the landscape of Presque Isle is shaped by the waters surrounding it. To learn more about the park’s environment, topography and wildlife, check out the exhibits at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center. Presque Isle is known as one of the best birdwatching spots in the country, and 320 species have been identified here. Also of interest is the Presque Isle Lighthouse, as postcard perfect as any on the Great Lakes.
Great Allegheny Passage
How lucky are we to have a 150-mile trail that goes from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, where it connects with the C&O Canal Towpath, which goes all the way to Washington, D.C.? It begins (or ends) at Point State Park, Downtown, and much of it lies along the Youghiogheny River in the beautiful Laurel Highlands. It passes through Ohiopyle State Park and charming small towns like Rockwood, Confluence and Meyersdale, all of which have bike shops and places to eat (and often ice cream). Built on abandoned railroads, the trail is fairly level and accessible to bicyclists of all skill levels. A canopy of lush greenery offers shade for a good part of it, and you can stop at lots of places and dip your toes in the river.
Allegheny National Forest
If you really want to get away from humans, you can do it here. Some of Pennsylvania’s most extensive tracts of old-growth forest are located in this vast cathedral of northern Pennsylvania forest terrain in Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren counties. Inside the 517,000 acres of woodlands you’ll find more than 100 miles of trails for hiking, with enough space for a lot of people to spread out and get some alone time. There are more than 1,000 campsites, and swimming at Allegheny Reservoir beaches. Another fascinating attraction is the Kinzua Bridge Sky Walk — a railroad bridge to nowhere. Built on the remnants of what was once the highest and longest railroad viaduct in the world, it was destroyed in 2003 by a tornado. Perched at 225 feet above the valley floor, tt offers panoramic views of the Kinzua Gorge.
McConnells Mill State Park/Moraine State Park
These two adjacent parks offer a strong combination of outdoor activities, fairly close to the city. Moraine State Park is arranged around Lake Arthur, and you can rent pontoon boats, motorboats, kayaks, canoes and rowboats. McConnells Mill features a gristmill and a covered bridge from the 1800s which is open for tours. The beautiful six-mile Slippery Rock Gorge Trail, which passes through some of the most secluded parts of the park, is a great hiking spot. Hell’s Hollow Falls and Breakneck Falls are the most photogenic of the many waterfalls here.
Pine Creek Gorge/The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania
Known as The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, this is one of the state’s most spectacular natural views. Part of the 165,000-acre Tioga State Forest, this spot in remote Wellsboro, PA, is among Pennsylvania’s most picturesque. The Pine Creek Rail Trail is a beautiful, low-traffic bike trail. There’s a gentle grade, so the trail offers easy pedaling with basic biking gear.
Raccoon Creek State Park
In southern Beaver County, lies one of Pennsylvania’s largest state parks. It’s a great place to hike through the forest, or meadows of summer wildflowers. Try the hike that leads to the Frankfort Mineral Springs Falls. Or rent a canoe or kayak to paddle on the beautiful 100-acre Raccoon Lake. There’s even a small beach for swimming.
Laurel Hill State Park
More than 4,000 acres of mountainous terrain in Somerset County, Laurel Hill State Park is arranged around Laurel Hill Lake. There’s a beach for swimming from 8 a.m. to sunset, and boats (kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards) for rent. In addition, you’ll find 15 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy to very difficult.
Ohiopyle State Park
Though that name could be better — it’s so much nicer than a pile of Ohio — Ohiopyle is a beautiful spot that’s full of fun things to do. It’s the best spot around for whitewater rafting and kayaking, with Class III and IV rapids providing a fair amount of pulse-pounding thrills. Ohiopyle is the terminus for the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, and the Great Allegheny Passage passes through it. Lots of camping options, including cottages and yurts, are available.
Keystone State Park
This 1,200-acre state park in Westmoreland County surrounding Keystone Lake is great for families with kids and close to Pittsburgh and the Laurel Highlands. You can rent a variety of boats at Two Dam Kayak Rentals, and there’s also a small sand beach for swimming.
As with all state parks, check each park’s website for current restrictions and requirements regarding COVID-19 mitigation measures.
As always, we welcome readers’ ideas about other places to go.