By Gretchen McKay

Head to Laurel Highlands for brilliant fall colors

Categories : Travel
The many hiking trails throughout the Laurel Highlands in fall explode in color.

OHIOPYLE — Nature rules in this quaint little spit of a town along the Youghiogheny River.

In spring and summer, the state park that bears its name and spans more than 19,000 acres boasts some of the best whitewater rafting in the Eastern U.S., drawing thousands of adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts.  Others come for the half-dozen waterfalls scattered across the Laurel Highlands, which are easy to hike to and offer a dramatic backdrop for posting selfies.

It’s also fun just to plant yourself on the rocks along the Yough near Ohiopyle Falls for a picnic, or lazy afternoon of sunbathing and people watching. 

Winter brings skiers and snowboarders to its four ski resorts, which together offer more than 75 slopes and trails ranging in difficulty from beginner to expert, along with apres-ski fun. 

But to me, the Laurel Highlands may be most delightful in fall. Nearly 8 million people visit the region each year, and when autumn comes, it’s easy to see why. When the woods come alive in glorious shades of orange, gold and brilliant scarlet, just about everything seems more scenic. Fall’s cooler weather also makes the hiking, biking, fishing and other outdoor activities less sweaty and more pleasurable.

The crowds are smaller, too, which during these socially distanced days of the coronavirus is a definite positive. 

But don’t take my word for it. The editors at USA Today’s 10Best website ranked the 10 best places in the U.S. to see autumn color in 2020. The Laurel Highlands was No. 3. 

Fall foliage provides the perfect setting for hiking, biking or a driving tour of the region. Points of interest include Somerset County’s 10 historic covered bridges, memorial sites like the Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville and two houses built by famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 

We geared up for our day of fall fun in and around Ohiopyle with a quick latte and gingerbread cookie from the super-cute Bittersweet at The Falls coffee shop. Then it was into the woods for a 20-mile out-and-back bike ride along the Great Allegheny Passage. 

As bike trails go, the GAP trail is a stunner. It snakes more than 100 miles between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md., with Ohiopyle located at roughly the midpoint. Originally the rail bed for the Western Maryland Railroad, it offers flat, easy riding on a wide and shaded crushed limestone surface. Even if you head west (and slightly downhill) like we did toward Connellsville, the less than 1% grade means you won’t feel out of breath as you pedal back up to the famed Ohiopyle High Bridge.

The scenery is spectacular. Giant rock formations and tree fossils speak to the region’s ancient geological history, and the towering sugar and red maples and tulip trees lining the path envelope riders like a giant, multicolored security blanket.  

Listen close, and you’ll hear the whoosh of the Yough as it rushes over the rocks below or whistling freight trains as they rumble in the distance along the CSX line on the east bank of the river.

It’s beautiful and peaceful and just plain good for the soul after a summer marred by COVID-19. And you can safely play for hours without having to don a mask or fret over social distancing because you’re outside in the fresh air, with other visitors at a distance (though masks are required to enter state park buildings and area businesses.)

You can hike the GAP trail, too, along with a variety of other trails through woods and meadows  — some super-short and easy, like the Meadow Run Trail that winds to Cucumber Falls, and others that require real effort, such as the steep and rocky Baughman Trail. (Maps available at the visitors center.) It’s fun for the whole family: Many day trippers bring along dogs, baby strollers, backpacks and even coolers. After our late-morning ride, my husband poked around in the woods for treasure with a metal detector.

When you tire of walking or biking, there are two picnic areas with tables, grills and waterless restrooms to enjoy an outdoor meal. Or grab a sandwich,  slice of pizza or pint of beer in town at one of several restaurants and pubs with outdoor seating. Ohiopyle House Cafe sources many of its ingredients locally, and the muffins and cookies at Ohiopyle Bakery & Sandwich Shoppe will hit the spot after all that exercise.

After a little souvenir shopping at the Ohiopyle Old Mill General Store, we packed up our bikes and headed 20 miles east to Laurel Hill State Park. Its claim to fame is the 63-acre manmade lake with a dam that was built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The young men also constructed the many stone buildings and pavilions used for recreational activities at group camps and picnic areas within the 3,935-acre state park.F

Armed with a box lunch from Highlands Market in Seven Springs, we found our way to the Trent picnic area for late lunch. A leisurely hike along the Pumphouse Trail to the picturesque Jones Mill Run Dam (also built by the corps) followed, along with more metal detecting. We also checked out the “beach” at the Lakeview pavilion, and agreed it would be great fun to swim there in warmer weather.

There are many well-marked trails to explore here, most pretty easy and a few rated difficult. You could easily spend the better part of a day getting lost in your thoughts in Laurel Hill while looking for animal tracks and trying to identify the flora. 

Eventually, our parched throats reminded us we were nearing happy hours. Happily, the Laurel Highlands boasts several breweries, distilleries and wineries where you can unwind with a grown-up beverage after a day of exploring. We ended up at Glades Pike Winery near Somerset, where we enjoyed a glass of petit verdot on the deck. The sun had yet to set, but Mother Nature was getting ready. The sky above the vineyards below were starting to glow with gold.

It was a lovely end to a lovely day enjoying the Laurel Highlands.

If you go

Getting there: Donegal, the center of the Laurel Highlands, is an easy, 50-mile drive from Pittsburgh to Exit 91 on the Pennsylvania turnpike. From there, it’s another 20 miles on PA-381 S to Ohiopyle or 13 miles on PA-31 E to Laurel Hill State Park. 

What to do: The region is full of socially distanced activities and things to see and do. Along with hiking and biking along the Great Allegheny Passage and other trails, there’s shopping, restaurants, wineries and breweries to visit.  There also are two four-season resorts (Seven Springs and Hidden Valley) with golfing, ziplining and other activities, trout fishing (with a license) and guided rafting adventures on the middle and lower Youghiogheny River. If you don’t own or want to bring a bike, no worries: rentals are available. 

If you’re more into history and architecture, take a self-guided tour of the grounds at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater or walk-through house tour of Kentuck Knob, or visit the Flight 93 Memorial in nearby Shanksville or the Quecreek Mine Rescue Site in Somerset, where nine miners were rescued from 240 feet beneath the earth in 2002.

Make a weekend of it: There is no shortage of overnight lodging in the Laurel Highlands, in all prices ranges. They range from rustoic campgrounds and cabins to quaint B&Bs, hotels and motels, and resorts at Seven Springs, Hidden Valley and Nemacolin Woodlands. For reservations, visit https://laurelhighlands.bookdirect.net/#/lodgings

Information: 724-238-5661 or www.laurelhighlands.org/fall