Rafters paddle down the Lower Youghiogheny river
A group of Wilderness Voyageurs rafters paddles down the Lower Youghiogheny (aka the Yough). The river offers stretches for all ability levels, from calm family oriented floats to class IV whitewater rapids. Photo courtesy of Wilderness Voyageurs.

Sometimes referred to as a gateway to the Laurel HighlandsOhiopyle makes a strong case for being Western Pennsylvania’s original outdoor town. Perhaps best known for Ohiopyle Falls and whitewater rafting, the small town, which claims 38 full-time residents according to U.S. Census data, has arguably also become the epicenter of rail-trail cycling as the roughly halfway point of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail

The attractions don’t stop there. The region is the jumping-off point for the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, a Pennsylvania favorite among backpackers. It’s also home to climbing opportunities, camping locations, mountain biking trails, Frank Loyd Wright’s world-famous architectural wonder Fallingwater, and the 20,000 acres of Ohiopyle State Park. And it boasts a rich history that extends back to the French and Indian War with Fort Necessity.

“Here in Ohioplye we’ve had it figured out,” says Wilderness Voyageurs owner Eric Martin of the region’s long-standing emphasis on recreation. Martin’s parents started guided rafting tours in 1965, making them the first commercial outfitter east of the Mississippi.

“My parents had it figured out,” he specifies. 

But even before Wilderness Voyageurs, the outdoor town tradition goes as far back as the 1880s, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. In those days, Pittsburgh residents could escape from the city for a $1 train ride to Ohiopyle. 

No longer standing, the Ferncliff Hotel once had a bowling alley, boardwalk, walking paths, tennis courts and other amenities along the Youghiogheny River. The site of the former hotel is now the protected Ferncliff Peninsula Natural Area, a wooded space across the river from Ohiopyle and home to a small trail network with a short section of the GAP Trail cutting through it. 

Walkers and cyclists cross GAP Trail rail bridge
Walkers and cyclists along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail rail bridge which crosses high above the Youghiogheny River. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Even before trains reached the area, what is now U.S. Route 40 was originally the country’s National Highway, completed in 1818. At one time it included a tavern at every mile along the road. 

Built by wealthy Uniontown investors in 1909, the Summit Inn still sits atop a ridge overlooking Uniontown and much of Western Pennsylvania, near the famed Laurel Caverns. Designed as a luxury hotel, it is said to have once hosted the likes of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and other industrialists and figureheads of the era.

While whitewater rafting was once Ohiopyle’s cash cow, the town has gone to the cyclists, says Martin.

“River usage (for commercial rafting) is less than half of what it once was. Biking is now the largest part of our business.” 

Like other outfitters in the area and along the GAP Trail, Wilderness Voyageurs offers daily bike rentals as well as trail shuttles and guided multi-day tours.

According to a recent economic study, the Great Allegheny Passage now has an estimated $121 million annual economic impact on the businesses and towns along the roughly 150-mile rail-trail.

Completed in 2013, the GAP Trail has led to a revitalization of Ohiopyle as well as the neighboring towns of Confluence and Connellsville. The three towns are connected by one of the oldest completed parts of the trail, finished back in 1986. 

Falls City Pub, run by Wilderness Voyageurs, was the first bar and dining space to return to Ohiopyle back in 2001. Martin’s parents had previously owned a rough-and-tumble bar which he says they closed in the 1970s because of the clientele.

“At the time, this was the wild wild west,” Martin jokes. 

Aerial view of the town of Ohiopyle
The small town of Ohiopyle has a long history of outdoor recreation. It has continued to grow as a tourism destination with the popularity of the GAP Trail. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Now Ohiopyle is home to a number of coffee shops and dining opportunities. On a busy summer Sunday it feels like a major tourist attraction, but leave town and you can frequently be by yourself on a trail even across the river on the Ferncliff Peninsula

Martin also suggests spring and fall as under-the-radar times to visit because of less tourist traffic.

What’s great about Ohiopyle is you don’t have to be an extreme athlete to have a good time.  

“It’s a popular playground for everyone,” says Bryan Perry, executive director of the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy, the group that manages the GAP Trail. “If you’re on the GAP, it’s the perfect place to stop and try some other sport. It’s the launching point for so much other activity.”

For Go Laurel Highlands Marketing Director Jennifer Benford and her family, it’s the slow-paced shorter rides on the GAP that are the big draw. 

“We’re not huge outdoor people,” Benford says. “It’s a nice place to ride and not have a strenuous trip. You can be an amateur or an expert and still enjoy the experience.” 

A person Mountain Biking in Ohiopyle
In addition to the GAP Trail, Ohiopyle also includes some more aggressive mountain biking terrain. Outfitters like Wilderness Voyageurs also offer clinics for beginner riders. Photo courtesy of Wilderness Voyageurs.

Benford and Perry both recommend making a day of it and riding from Connellsville to Ohiopyle (17 miles one way) or from Ohiopyle to Confluence (10.7 miles)

“It’s nearly level, it’s smooth and shaded. You can take it in pieces, ride it section after section, or you can pick up with an outfitter. Anyone can do this. You don’t have to do it quickly,”  Perry says. “It’s best to take your time. There’s so much to see.”

If you go

Ohiopyle makes a great launch point for much of the Laurel Highlands. The town is situated at the center of the 20,000-acre Ohiopyle State Park

Right out of town, there are a number of roadside and trailside attractions, including the natural water slides on Meadow Run, and the oft-photographed Cucumber Falls. Both make for good places to cool off on a hot day. Baughman Rock Vista Overlook is also worth a roadside stop. The famous cliff gives a postcard-worthy view of the Youghiogheny River valley below.

Cucumber Falls in Ohiopyle
One of Ohiopyle’s many scenic spots, Cucumber Falls, is located just outside of town. On busy summer days it’s a popular roadside spot for cooling off. Photo courtesy of GoLaurelHighlands.com.

For boating, the middle section of the Youghiogheny (Yough) is more of a calm and family-friendly float experience, whereas the Lower Yough is home to the famous class III and one class IV whitewater rapids. 

Some outfitters also offer lessons for beginner whitewater kayakers

Hiking and biking have equally diverse trail options beyond the rugged Laurel Highlands Trail. The trails on the Ferncliff Peninsula are family-friendly, and Sugarloaf Mountain Bike Area is a popular mountain biking spot.

Consider grabbing your morning coffee at Ohiopyle Coffee Company in the middle of town. With a deck that looks toward the Yough, Ohiopyle Bakery & Sandwich Shoppe makes for a great place to grab a quick breakfast or lunch. And the historic Falls Market Restaurant & General Store, located at the town’s main intersection, is a nice place to stock up on trail snacks and refreshments. Like Falls City Pub, they have a solid sit-down, pub-style food menu.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece, Fallingwater, is also right outside of Ohiopyle and a bucket list item for most visitors. His lesser known Kentuck Knob is close by as well. 

Frank Lloyd Wright's famed architectural wonder Fallingwater
Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed architectural wonder Fallingwater is located just outside of Ohiopyle. Photo by Christopher Little courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Purple Lizard makes an excellent trail map for the Ohiopyle area. The company specializes in waterproof trail maps for a number of Pennsylvania and West Virginia destinations that highlight attractions and points of interest. 

Ohiopyle State Park’s visitor center on the edge of town is also a good stop for information. Ohiopyle offers a number of outfitters in addition to Wilderness Voyageurs for whitewater tours and other adventures from town, including White Water Adventurers, Ohiopyle Trading Post & River Tours and Laurel Highlands River Tours and Outdoor Center. Pittsburgh-based Golden Triangle Bike also offers guided tours of the GAP Trail.

Lodging options abound in the greater Ohiopyle region, from the historic Summit Inn to the massive Nemacolin resort. Ohiopyle, Connellsville and Confluence all have a variety of lodging as well, from B&Bs to camping and other vacation rentals. 

For more information and attraction ideas, check out GoLaurelHighlands.com, VisitPA.com and Gaptrail.org.

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.

Sebastian Foltz is a Pittsburgh-based freelance photographer and writer with contributions to newspapers and magazines in Pittsburgh, Oregon and Colorado. An avid whitewater kayaker, mountain biker and skier, Sebastian has a background in news, sports and outdoor journalism.