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Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands

by Susan O'Connor
Photo by David Radzieta

When you find yourself with a touch of wanderlust but you only have a three-day weekend, consider heading west toward the gorgeous westernmost ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, to Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands

Named for the native mountain laurel understory shrubs that grow and then bloom in late spring/early summer at higher elevations in the area, this gorgeous native plant is also the state flower of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Covering three counties, the Laurel Highlands is 3,000 square miles of spectacular scenic vistas, no matter which season you go and explore. 

Depending on how scenic a route you choose to travel, and where exactly you intend to land, allow anywhere from two to three hours for your trip, which also allows for stopping along the way at the many roadside farm stands, scenic pull-over viewing areas, or any other place that catches your interest.

The Laurel Highlands is popular among outdoor enthusiasts for ALL the things… camping, hiking, mountain biking, hunting, whitewater rafting, trout fishing, downhill (and cross-country) skiing, golf and viewing wildlife. But because the Laurel Highlands offer four seasons of absolute natural beauty, it’s also home to several Frank Lloyd Wright homes, wineries, fine dining, and luxury resorts.

OUTDOOR ENTHUSIASTS LOVE OHIOPYLE

For the hiker or biker, Ohiopyle State Park hosts a portion of the Great Allegheny Passage and for the whitewater rafters, the park offers some of the best whitewater rafting in the eastern United States! Ohiopyle Falls, sometimes referred to as the “Niagara Falls of Western Pennsylvania,” lies at the very heart of Ohiopyle State Park. With a drop of 20 feet and a width spanning the entire Youghiogheny River, Ohiopyle Falls is one of the most visited and most photographed tourist attractions in the Laurel Highlands.

Not far from Ohiopyle you can tour the well-known homes designed by renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright: Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob

A couple explores the rocky edge behind Cucumber Falls, a 30 foot drop cascading over the rock edge at
Ohiopyle State Park on a spring day.
Photo by Wanderluster.

A DINING EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER

You’ll also find the hidden treasure, TreeTops Restaurant. Located in Polymath Park, which is the home of two more of Wright’s homes: Duncan House and Mäntylä, plus Wright’s apprentice Peter Berndtson’s Balter and Blum Houses

TreeTops Restaurantis a dining experience unlike any other, literally tucked into the trees. TreeTops’ chef and staff provide top-notch service and fine cuisine while creating a relaxing atmosphere as you dine nurtured by nature on the tree-filled property. “Branch” dining is done inside the main building or on the patio, “Treehouse-style” is enjoyed in one of their private treehouse pods that surround the property. There isn’t a bad table in the place, but reservations are necessary for the treehouse pods. If you’re a true fan of Wright’s architecture, you can book a tour and dining experience or go all in and book a stay at one of these architectural treasures. 

ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOR MILES

If you love golf and award-winning accommodations and dining are more your style, the newly renovated Nemacolin Resort is only minutes from Ohiopyle. A short drive on the historic highway, National Pike (Route 40) not only leads you to Nemacolin but to other great destinations such as Fort Necessity Battlefield, Laurel Caverns, The Historic Summit Inn and The Cross of Christ at Jumonville, which on a clear day can be seen from many miles away. 

A MORE UNUSUAL ADVENTURE

If the PA Turnpike is your route of choice and you like your adventure a little more unusual, you may want to check out The Living Treasures Animal Park, south east of a small town named Donegal. First in Moraine, Pennsylvania, Living Treasures Wild Animal Park was built and opened in 1992 by Tom Guiher and his two young children, Fawn, 9, and Adam, 6. In 1997, the family purchased additional land which is the Laurel Highlands location called Living Treasures Animal Park. Fast forward to today and Tom’s children are grown and Adam owns and operates the Moraine location and his daughter and her husband manage the Donegal location.

Not only can you stop and visit the zoo, there are interactive experiences with some of the animals as well as on site accommodations available at the park’s Log Cabin Lodge and Suites which features 24 uniquely decorated rooms and 10 suites.

Photo courtesy Living Treasures Animal Park

From wineries and fine dining, to wild animals, raging rapids and sleeping in a yurt,  there is no shortage of adventures to be had when you plan a trip to the Laurel Highlands. Just head west!

By Melissa Howes-Vitek

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