Canoe Creek State Park offers an abundance of recreational activities, as well as remnants of the Blair Limestone Company’s kilns. Photo courtesy of the Altoona Blair County Development Corporation.

When the Altoona Blair County Development Corporation asked residents and business owners how to incorporate the outdoor economy into its strategic plan, it got a clear answer:

“It was a resounding: the mountains, the mountains, the mountains,” says Stephen McKnight, president and CEO of the organization, which is dedicated to expanding businesses along the I-99 Innovation Corridor that includes Centre, Bedford and Blair counties.

Approximately seven years ago, the development corporation shifted its strategic plan to include the outdoor economy after interviewing residents and business owners as part of its “Voices From the First Frontier” video series

On May 27, the development corporation’s annual meeting at the Blair County Convention Center will feature Nathan Reigner, Pennsylvania’s first-ever director of outdoor recreation. His topic, “The Impact of an Active Economy,” will examine how outdoor recreation touches all aspects of community and economic development.

At last year’s annual meeting, McKnight shared the results of a study conducted in partnership with the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission on the emerging hybrid workforce.

“That study concluded that in the next three years, the population of remote workers in our region will exceed 12,000 people, primarily from Virginia, Maryland and the Pittsburgh area. It also cited a Harris Poll showing that 38% of respondents currently living in urban areas are likely to move toward more rural towns and mountain settings. That study affirmed that the steps we were taking long before 2020 were the right steps to take, and we need to keep doing them,” McKnight said in the report.

This outdoor mecca is less than two hours east of Pittsburgh in the Allegheny Front, which, marks the boundary between the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians in the east and the Allegheny Plateau to the west. 

Blue Knob draws skiers every winter to the second-highest peak in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of the Altoona Blair County Development Corporation.

“We get really distinct seasons, which provide an opportunity to do different types of outdoor recreation year-round,” McKnight says. “The mountains get lots of snow and the valleys stay pretty temperate.

“It’s a great place to enjoy the outdoors and buy a house. The outdoor economy is really an integrated part of our core economy, not something that sits on the fringe.”

A highlight of that is Blue Knob, the highest skiable mountain in Pennsylvania. But Blue Knob State Park attracts visitors year-round to the dome-shaped mountain. Sitting 3,146 feet above sea level, Blue Knob is only 67 feet shorter than the state’s tallest peak, Mount Davis in Forbes State Forest. Blue Knob All Seasons Resort offers skiing and snowboarding as well as mountain biking, hiking and golf in the off-season.

The area overlooks the Ridge and Valley Province to the east and offers 23 miles of trails, including the Lost Turkey Trail, a 26-mile difficult trail that follows railroad beds from the 1930s. It attracts backpackers, cross-country skiers, and day hikers.

About 30 minutes away, Canoe Creek State Park is a 961-acre park with a 155-acre popular fishing lake. 

Hikers can view the remains of kilns from the Blair Limestone Company along Limestone Trail. Swimming is permitted in the lake, and Marsh Trail provides a boardwalk view. 

The park also has cabins, equestrian trail loops, and boat rentals.

The Lower Trail (pronounced like “flower”) begins near Canoe Creek State Park and is a flat, 17-mile trail made of crushed limestone. It is open year-round for hiking, biking, horseback riding, birdwatching, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. 

The trail parallels the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River and was part of the original towpath of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal in the mid-1800s. The rail corridor was abandoned in 1979 and the rails were sold for scrap. It was purchased in 1989 by Rails to Trails of Central Pennsylvania.

Many of the remains of the canal era are still along the trail, including locks and foundations of lock tenders’ houses, and the Mt. Etna iron plantation area. There are several bridge crossings over the Juniata River and a covered bridge. 

The Lower Trail was part of the original towpath of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal in the mid-1800s. Photo courtesy of Altoona Blair County Development Corporation.

If You Visit Blair County

Horseshoe Curve: An Engineering Marvel

When settlers were moving westward in the 1850s, they were blocked by the Allegheny Mountains. The Gallitzin Tunnels and Horseshoe Curve were carved out from the mountains by the Pennsylvania Railroad, largely by Irish immigrants. 

It took three years to complete Horseshoe Curve, which opened in 1854. The Curve was even a target of Nazi spies during World War II. The curve bends around Lake Altoona and the Kitanning Reservoir.  

Now a National Historic Landmark, Horseshoe Curve is operated by Norfolk Southern as part of the Pittsburgh Line. The Railroaders Memorial Museum operates the visitors center, 5 miles west of Altoona in Logan Township. Visitors can watch trains by taking the Funicular incline or hiking to the top. 

Horseshoe Curve, once targeted by the Nazis, is an 18th-century engineering marvel in Blair County. Photo by Brett Bottles.

Where to dine and shop 

After a day of outdoor activities, visitors could stop at Sheetz, which was founded and is headquartered in Altoona. 

Locals also boast Altoona-style pizza, a Sicilian-style pizza with tomato sauce, green bell peppers, peppercorn salami, and yellow American cheese. It began at the Altoona Hotel in the 1960s or 1970s, and today is available at The Original 29th St Pizza Subs and More.

For a beer, be sure to check out JJ Hadley’s and Co. Brewers and Pizza or Levity Brewing Co.

Wildfire Sustainable Goods and Refillery is Blair County’s first eco-friendly store. With ethically made apparel, accessories, and products, the shop welcomes customers to bring their own containers to fill up on products like shampoo, hand soap, and even dishwasher pods. 

Spokes n Skis in Altoona as everything from mountain bikes to skis and snowboards. It also rents winter sports equipment.

For more family fun and for ride enthusiasts, consider visiting DelGrosso’s Amusement Park in Tipton. With two roller coasters and a splash water park, DelGrosso’s is the perfect way to spend a summer day.  

The Outdoor Guide Series is underwritten by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council as part of its effort to promote the outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania and neighboring areas.

Ethan Woodfill

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.