Presque Isle beaches at sunset. Photo courtesy of VisitErie.

Stand along the sandy shores at Presque Isle State Park at dusk, and the sky seems suffused with gold as far as the eye can see.

Shaped like a giant feather dropped into Lake Erie, the park is a long, narrow strip of land that juts out into the lake, starts getting wider after a few miles, then spreads out into a plume of swamps, peninsulas, bays and beaches.

Legend has it that the Eriez Indians, some of the area’s earliest inhabitants, decided to find the place where the sun sank into the water, and journeyed far out into the lake. When a violent storm hit the explorers, the Great Spirit stuck his left arm into the lake to shield the Eriez from the storm. Where the arm had been, a peninsula of land remained, sheltering the Eriez in Presque Isle Bay.

Presque Isle. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1960s, Lake Erie was a mess. Heavy industrial pollution and agricultural and sewer runoff had made the second smallest of the Great Lakes almost uninhabitable, sometimes described as a “dead lake.”

But that’s no longer true.

Still, Pittsburghers know a bit about how it often takes a while for a place’s reputation to catch up with its reality (sometimes never). And the changes in recent decades to Lake Erie and the port city of Erie have been stunning.

Presque Isle. Photo by Jennifer Baron.

The vast, sandy beaches and surprisingly clear water are open for strolling, sunbathing and wading all year. But winter in Erie draws a different crowd that appreciates the changes and solitude the colder weather brings.

Unpowered boats can drift lazily through Presque Isle’s interior lagoons. Fishing picks up in October, when the fish start to feed for the winter — crappies, bluegills, perch and walleye.

Photo courtesy of VisitErie.

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 continuously by the waters that surround it.

To learn more about the park’s environment, topography and wildlife, check out the exhibits at The Stull Interpretive Center.

Birdwatchers can get a checklist at the Stull Center for the more than 300 species of birds that have been identified on the Isle, considered one of the best birdwatching spots in America — particularly during warbler spring migration in May and fall migration in September. Ospreys and bald eagles are often observed, and waterfowl move in through October, as do swarms of Monarch butterflies.

Winter comes early and hits hard up here. With lake effect snow blanketing the peninsula, visitors continue to trek into the park for ice fishing.

Also worth seeing are the miles of ice dunes, formed by frozen surf and spray. Those can be dangerous to tread upon, so mind your step.

Photo courtesy of Bayfront Landing.

The city of Erie

The city followed the usual trajectory of Rust Belt decline, as industry left for cheaper, sunnier places and suburbanization hollowed out once-strong working-class neighborhoods.

However, deindustrialization left Erie a significantly greener, cleaner place than it used to be, especially along the Lake Erie shoreline. The past few years have seen significant development along the water next to Downtown Erie, including two hotels, a convention center and several restaurants.

The ubiquitous observation tower at Dobbins Landing provides panoramic views of the lake, and on many days you can see all the way to Canada.

Photo courtesy of Bayfront Landing.

A short walk up the hill (one of the few) is Downtown Erie, which is in better shape than it’s been in decades. The Warner Theatre, Erie Art Museum, the homes of the Erie Otters (minor league hockey) and Erie SeaWolves (minor league baseball), and growing universities like Gannon and Mercyhurst give Downtown Erie some much-needed foot traffic.

This is part of the ancestral homeland for the Buffalo wing, which stretches from Buffalo across Western New York to Erie — and you’ll find excellent wings in just about every bar.

Another local favorite are pepperoni balls, which are exactly what they sound like: little bread rolls stuffed with pepperoni and sometimes cheese. Every bakery has them but you can’t go wrong with Stanganelli’s or Patti’s Pizza.

For something sweet, try the local specialty known as sponge candy, which has a sugary toffee center filled with air bubbles, covered in chocolate, with a light, crisp crunch. Stefannelli’s Candies (founded in 1929), and the giant Romolo Chocolate complex (which has bulk chocolates in hundreds of shapes) will set you up.

Photo courtesy of The Brewerie at Union Station.

Erie has always been a big beer town, and a bright, crisp Railbender Ale (a Scottish-style ale) from Erie Brewing Company ought to revive you after any outdoor exertion. Perhaps the nicest spot to combine food and beer is The Brewerie at Union Station, which brought the city’s Downtown train station back to life. It features filling fare — pierogies, beer battered fish & chips, Buffalo chicken mac and cheese — and distinctive beers such as Apparition Amber Ale, which commemorates a famous ghost that haunts the station.

Frontier Park is a big city park adjacent to Downtown, perfect for walking, biking (and, since it’s Erie, sledding). You know you want to try the big 40-foot-long slides carved into the hillside, whether you’ve got kids or not.

U.S. Brig Niagara. Photo courtesy of the Erie Maritime Museum.

In Erie, just about everything points back toward the lake and nature. For the nautically inclined, the Erie Maritime Museum is a fascinating glimpse into one of America’s first naval victories — Oliver Hazard Perry’s routing of the British naval squadron in the War of 1812 at the Battle of Lake Erie. A fully seaworthy replica of Perry’s warship, the Brig Niagara — where he raised his battle flag emblazoned with the words “Don’t Give Up the Ship” — is moored next to the museum when it’s not sailing the Great Lakes.

This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide series for NEXTpittsburgh focusing on outdoor recreation within a roughly three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

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.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.