With an abundance of paddling, hiking, and biking opportunities, Somerset is a must-see outdoor destination. Photo of Mount Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania, courtesy of Alex Byers/GO Laurel Highlands.

Less than an hour’s drive from Ligonier and Ohiopyle, Somerset County could be the Laurel Highlands’ showcase outdoor destination. Known as the “Rooftop Garden” because of its altitude and agricultural industry, Somerset attracts 5 to 6 million outdoor enthusiasts throughout the year.

Home to 11 of Pennsylvania’s 13 highest peaks, the region boasts Seven Springs and Hidden Valley ski resorts, hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, paddling — and beautiful views of the Laurel Highlands.

“Somerset is an outdoor-driven county between tourism and agriculture, and it even becomes part of the attraction to get people to come here,” says Ron Aldom, executive director of the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a natural recreation destination.”

Somerset is home to an abundance of winter activities, including skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing. Photo courtesy of Alex Byers/GO Laurel Highlands.

A place of tragedy and resilience

Commemorating the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Flight 93 National Memorial offers a peaceful remembrance of the national tragedy that touched Pennsylvania two decades ago. 

At 10:03 a.m. on 9/11, a Boeing 757 heading to San Francisco from Boston crashed into a reclaimed strip mine in Stonycreek Township near Shanksville. All 40 passengers and crew were killed as part of a series of attacks on America that day.

The visitor center features a permanent exhibit telling the Flight 93 story. Recovered debris from the crash is on display, along with phone recordings from passengers. 

The newly constructed Tower of Voices (a 93-foot structure consisting of 40 wind chimes) serves as a visual and audible reminder of the heroes of Flight 93.

Memorial Plaza follows the route of the original fence put up after the attacks and allows for a view of the impact site. A 17.5-ton sandstone boulder placed in 2011 indicates the edge of the impact site while a wall of names remembers the victims with individual polished marble stones. 

The Flight 93 Memorial in Stonycreek Township honors the victims of Flight 93. Memorial Plaza follows the route of the original fence put up after the attack and allows for a view of the impact site. The wall of names remembers the victims with individual polished marble stones. Photo by Ethan Woodfill.

Nearby Patriot Park honors post-9/11 veterans with its Memorial Plaza.

Less than a year after the terrorist attack, nine miners were trapped in the Quecreek Mine in nearby Lincoln Township. All were rescued after 77 hours. 

“These events focused the eyes of the world on Somerset County twice in less than a year,” says Eric Knopsnyder, director of public relations for GO Laurel Highlands. “That resiliency and the spirit of the county were lifted up as an example for the country.”

Year-round experiences

Formed as a result of a Civilian Conservation Corps project in the 1930s, Kooser State Park only has about 1.5 miles of trails, but those come alive in the winter when cross-country skiers hit the park. Kooser Lake was open to swimmers until 2012 but still offers scenic value. Nine rustic cabins remain from the Civilian Conservation Corps, as well as three dozen camping spots. 

Gallitzin State Forest encompasses 24,370 acres in northern Somerset County, as well as land Bedford, Cambria and Indiana counties. The County Line Trail is accessible in northern Somerset County off of PA 56 near Ogletown. This 10-mile trail follows an old, gated forest road and is open to hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. An observation deck offers a spectacular view of the Allegheny Front.

Covering more than 4,000 acres of mountains, Laurel Hill State Park features a variety of summer recreational activities. Swim in the 1,200-foot sand beach at Laurel Hill Lake or launch an electric motor boat before spending the night in one of 262 campsites. Check out 200- to 300-year-old hemlock trees along the Hemlock Trail. For a more difficult hike, try the 2.5-mile Beltz Trail.

Cole Run Falls in Forbes State Forest is a must-see waterfall just a short hike off of Cole Run Road. Photo by Ethan Woodfill.

A two-tiered waterfall located in Forbes State Forest, Cole Run Falls is just a quick walk over from the parking area on Cole Run Road. Cole Run Trail is a 3-mile hike that passes the Blue Hole, a deep portion of the creek where the water looks blue. Cave Falls is another secluded waterfall below Cole Falls. 

Meyersdale and the Great Allegheny Passage 

Aldom says Somerset’s portion of the Great Allegheny Passage, or GAP Trail, is some of the best along the trail. 

“It’s the most spectacular 42 miles,” he says. “There are viaducts, tunnels, the Pinkerton Tunnel, the Eastern Continental Divide. All the structures are here; the scenic value is extraordinary. And our trail towns are exactly what they are supposed to be.”

Meyersdale offers bed and breakfasts, guesthouses and the Inn on Main

“Somerset has got a lot of small towns,” Knopsnyder adds. “There are neat little towns where you can find a lot of accepting, friendly people who will go out of their way to accept a stranger.” 

The Salisbury Viaduct along the Great Allegheny Passage is the longest trestle bridge on the GAP Trail at 1,098 feet long and 101 feet tall. Photo by Ethan Woodfill.

If you’re not ready to take on the 150-mile bike ride, you can visit the Salisbury Viaduct. It was built in 1912 by the Western Maryland Railway for the Connellsville Extension. It was decommissioned for rail use in 1975 and opened in 1998 as part of the GAP Trail.

This 1,908-foot-long trestle provides a spectacular view 101 feet above the Casselman River and is the longest trestle bridge on the GAP Trail. 

Covered bridges

Home to 10 picturesque covered bridges, Somerset is the place to check out these unique structures. Only about 200 covered bridges remain in the state.

  • Southern Somerset County: Lower Humbert, Barronvale Covered Bridge (crosses Laurel Oak Creek), King’s Covered Bridge, Burkholder Covered Bridge, Packsaddle Covered Bridge
  • Northern Somerset County: New Baltimore, Glessner, Trostletown, Walter’s Mill, Shaffer
The Barronvale Covered Bridge at Laurel Oak Creek. Somerset County is home to 10 covered bridges. Photo by Ethan Woodfill.

Water sports

Quemahoning Reservoir and Stonycreek River

This 900-acre man-made reservoir is open for swimming, fishing, boating and whitewater rafting. The Quemahoning Family Recreation Area contains a boat launch and full-service campground with paddle boat and bike rentals.

The Stonycreek River flows for 46 miles and attracts fly fishers to its nine miles of trout water. Stonycreek Canyon has 15 rapids spanning four miles, more than any consecutive miles of rapids in the eastern U.S. The Quemahoning Dam’s 500 cubic feet per second release valve guarantees whitewater rapids every other weekend from April through October. 

Stonycreek Canyon has 15 rapids spanning four miles. The Quemahoning Dam’s 500 cubic feet per second release valve guarantees whitewater rapids every other weekend from April through October. Photo courtesy of Alex Byers/GO Laurel Highlands.

Benscreek Canoe and Kayak Club, which was formed in the 1970s, runs the releases. A volunteer clears the river with an air horn to warn paddlers that the rapids are beginning. 

“There is a one-hour ramp-up to the full release level, a four-hour release, then a one-hour ramp down. The release generally reaches the Stonycreek Canyon — the section with all the fun-filled rapids — at 10 a.m,” says Michael Cook, president of the club.

The organization offers a variety of classes at the Johnstown YMCA swimming pool to help people feel more confident.

“We encourage people of all skill levels to get out and safely enjoy the local waterways,” Cook says. “We have a ton of variety for paddling. Everything from easier low-class III for beginners on the lower Stonycreek Canyon to class IV and V on Dark Shade and Paint Creek, respectively. We also have the whitewater park at Greenhouse Park for those who want to park and play in a wave.”

Greenhouse Park is the first man-made whitewater park in Pennsylvania, and home to the annual Stonycreek Rendezvous, which attracts 1,200 participants from 10 states. It has been held for more than 30 years. 

“We aren’t just a whitewater-focused organization, however, we also do full moon paddles on the Quemahoning Dam, and several flat water trips on the Yough and other regional waterways,” Cook adds.

Maple and moonshine

For the past 75 years, the Pennsylvania Maple Festival has tapped into one of the leading maple industries in the country. Every spring in Meyersdale, the festival brings nearly 20 area maple farms for tastings and tappings, a parade, run/walk, horse pulling contest, and a truck and motorcycle show. The 2024 festival will be held April 20-21 and April 24-28. 

It is fitting that the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was an important issue to the people of the Somerset region. Due to its many fields of rye grain, whiskey was an important product at the time. When the government began to tax whiskey, local distillers joined the rebellion, which was crushed by President Washington in Pittsburgh.

Today, the area has several breweries and a distillery. 

  • Forbes Trail Brewing in Stoystown is located near the Flight 93 Memorial. In a nod to the nearby GAP trail, it offers a Trail Rider Pale Ale and a Patriot Park Pilsner, which donates $1 from every pint to Patriot Park.
  • Whitehorse Brewing in Berlin is a family-owned 10-barrel brewery. 
  • Trail Head Brewing Co. in Rockwood pours a Laurel Hill Lager inspired by the creek, a “clean and chuggable” beer. 
  • Tall Pines Distillery in Salisbury is the Pennsylvania counterpart to its other site in southwest Missouri, and the first legal moonshine distillery in Somerset County since Prohibition. 

Fire & Ice Festival

The annual Fire & Ice Festival brings some heat to the winter season with fun outdoor activities.

“Somerset’s Fire & Ice Festival is the celebration of winter in our mountain community,” says Kelley Duppstadt, community engagement director for Somerset Inc., the community development organization that organizes the festival.

“We know snow, we know winter, and we know how to thrive in it. We celebrate Somerset’s winter season with 50-plus ice sculptures themed differently each year, fireworks, an ice slide, bonfires, a 5K, fire dancing, local food and beverage, music, a chili cook-off and so much more.”

The 2024 festival will be held Jan. 12-14 and is themed “Under the Sea.”

Somerset County is home to a wide variety of outdoor recreation, restaurants and opportunities for family fun. Photo courtesy of Alex Byers/GO Laurel Highlands.

Where to dine and shop

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.

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.