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Great weekend getaways in Western PA

White water rafting on the Youghiogheny River.

Shopping in Ligonier.

On the beach in Erie.

After last weekend’s weather, it’s safe to say, summer has officially hit in Western Pa. In keeping with the spirit of the season, we’re ready to hit the road, exploring paths both well trodden and less traveled, and creating memories that can only be made in temperatures above 65 degrees. Luckily, adventure is well at hand on this side of the commonwealth with leisure options as wide-ranging as wine tasting and repelling into a cavern.

With this in mind we’ve created three itineraries for fun weekend getaways that won’t break the bank or the odometer. In fact, Erie, Ohiopyle and Ligonier are all less than a two-hour drive from Pittsburgh and each provide a unique adventure. Pick one to check off of your Western, Pa. list or better yet, visit all three.

A wine grape vineyard in Erie.

Sandy shores and ripe vineyards in Erie

Travel time: Two hours
How to get there: Hop on I-79 due north.

Why we love it: Erie is a vibrant city on the shore of the eponymous Great Lake. It offers a variety of fun activities for visitors of any stroke, including beaches, a national park, wineries, an amusement park, theatres, museums and more.

Where to stay: While there’s no shortage of chain hotels throughout Erie, you’ll experience the most charm from one of the many bed and breakfasts in the area.

“Erie’s locally-owned bed and breakfasts offer a hands-on, comfortable experience that will make you feel as if you are one of their own family,” says Christine Pennsy, director of Communications at Visit Erie.

She recommends Spencer House, William Sands House and the George Carroll House.

“Each of these B&Bs does a really nice job making their guests feel at home,” says Pennsy. “They are all former mansions in a historic district called ‘Millionaire’s Row’ so these are renovated refurbished B&B’s that have all kept the integrity of the original structure. “

Room rates for Millionaire’s Row range from $75 to $180 a night on weekends and the rate includes a continental breakfast including standard accoutrement like eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruit and pancakes.
Where to eat: “The Erie food scene is pretty diverse,” Pennsy says. “We have fabulous ethnic restaurants that serve up Thai, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Italian, fusion and American cuisines.”

For example, Bertrand’s Bistro is known for its French cooking and an excellent wine list. For something more family-friendly, Smugglers Wharf is a pirate-themed restaurant on the shorefront that serves up seafood classics and American favorites like Langostino-Crab Cakes and slow-roasted prime rib. The restaurant also has great views of the lake and easy access to two viewing towers that provide vistas of Presque Isle and its bay to the north and the sweep of Erie's historic downtown to the south.

What to do when you get there: Take a leisurely stroll through Presque Isle State Park, a thin peninsula that juts out from the shoreline and provides residents and visitors alike with trails and beaches, as well as opportunities to bike, fish, kayak, boat and bird watch.

Wineries are also a big draw in Erie. Lake Erie Wine Country is home to more than 20 wineries. Wines you can expect to find in this region include vinifera, ice wines, fruit wines and specialty wines such as brandies, Sherries and ports. Beyond wine tasting at these establishments, many offer tours to give guests a behind the scenes look at the winemaking process. 

“The majority of the wineries located in Erie are clustered together so it’s easy to get to multiple wineries in a short span of time,” says Pennsy. “Each winery offers their own blends of award-winning wines, some have retail space, some have quaint cafes and the new Five & 20 Spirits [in nearby Westfield, N.Y.] even offers their own brandies, port and limoncello.”

If you have children in tow on your trip, there’s Waldameer Water World, an amusement and water park combo that features rides for children of all ages including the Ravine Flyer II, ranked sixth best wood coaster in the world, or the Midnight Plunge water slide, a fully enclosed tube slide with periods of complete darkness.

The entrance to Laurel Caverns.

Outdoor adventure in Ohiopyle State Park

Travel Time: One and a half hours

How to get there:  Take I-76 east.

Why we love it: Ohiopyle State Park is perfect for an outdoor adventure with a side of architectural admiration. The area boasts not only a 20,500-acre state park, but also Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water and Kentuck Knob, as well as the Laurel Caverns.

Where to stay: Overnight accommodations in the area mostly consist of campsites and cabin rentals; you can even rent a yurt. Visitors can rent directly from the state park for as little as $17 per night for a basic campsite or as much as $450 per night for a deluxe cottage that sleeps six. Camping information is available at the park’s website.

Where to eat: Aside from the obvious option of cooking out at the fire pit, Falls City Restaurant & Pub is a great option for dining while visiting Ohiopyle. The restaurant touts an extensive beer list including many micro-brews and serves a variety of sandwiches, burgers, salads, wraps and traditional dinner entrees. There’s also the Firefly Grill that serves sandwiches and other lunchtime fare with several vegetarian-friendly options. Both eateries have outdoor seating so you can continue to enjoy the fresh mountain air while you dine.

What to do when you get there: The park is in the Laurel Highland Mountains, making it a perfect place for a host of outdoor activities such as camping, fishing, kayaking, white water rafting and hiking

“We are the largest state park in Pennsylvania and also have the deepest gorge in Pennsylvania,” says Stacie Hall, assistant manager of Ohiopyle State Park. “We’re best known for white water rafting, but many people come just to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife. We have several scenic overlooks and waterfalls throughout the park.”

Speaking of rafting, one of the most thrilling activities in this region is getting out on the rapids of the Youghiogheny River. It’s one of the best ways to experience the breathtaking views of the park’s pristine natural landscape and is broken into two parts—the lower and middle. The lower Youghiogheny is the most popular route and is an exciting ride for families with older children, first-timers and even experienced rafters. The middle is best for families with younger children and inexperienced rafters looking for a more mellow rafting experience.

There are a variety of tour groups that provide rafting tours and rentals, including White Water Adventures, which offers guided and unguided opportunities. A guided tour costs $63 per person and an unguided tour costs $26 per person and requires at least a group of four per raft. Hall recommends that inexperienced rafters take a guided tour of the lower Yough, which is classified as an intermediate river.

Bicycle-enthusiasts can also ride straight to the park via the Great Allegheny Passage, which runs directly through Ohiopyle.

While the park itself is full of attractions, there are also a variety of things to do and see just outside its limits. For example, the Laurel Caverns are the largest caves in Pennsylvania featuring three miles of underground labyrinth. From November through April, the caves also serve as the largest natural bat hibernaculum in Pennsylvania.

A traditional tour of the caves costs $12 for adults and tours start every 20 minutes from 9AM to 4:30PM. The Laurel Caverns also offer repelling and spelunking for $35 for those looking for more of a challenge.

However, If checking out cool architecture is more your speed, the area is also home to two residences designed by famed American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright: Falling Water, which is among the architect’s most famous work, and Kentuck Knob. Both homes embody Wright’s vision of the Prairie School and are less than seven miles from each other, making it easy to visit both. Tickets for adults are $22 for Kentuck Knob and $25 for Falling Water.

The Ligonier Valley Railroad Museum.

History comes alive in Ligonier

Travel Time: One hour and 15 minutes

How to get there: Hop on I-76 due east.

Why we love it: Ligonier is steeping with history and was the location of Fort Ligonier, the British forces’ westernmost camp before reaching the Ohio River during the French and Indian War.

Where to stay: Ligonier’s small town feel makes it a great place to take advantage of the variety of locally owned hotels and Bed and Breakfasts. Holly Mowry, executive director of the Ligonier Chamber of Commerce recommends Thistledown at Seger House and Campbelll House Bed & Breakfast. Both are housed in old historic buildings and conveniently located close to the town center. 

Where to eat: Despite being a small town, Ligonier has a wide variety of dining options.

Mowry recommends the French cuisine at Brasserie Du Soleil, as well as Ligonier Tavern. The Ligonier Tavern serves up a menu of American fare and features a large second floor outdoor patio space, providing an excellent view of the town’s active main street.

What to do when you get there: “We have a lot of history here,” says Mowry, “it’s a very family oriented town.”

That being said, Fort Ligonier is a must-see for any visitor’s itinerary. The historical site features a full-scale recreation of the original fort that served as a post of passage to Pittsburgh’s very own Fort Pitt from 1758 until 1766 during the French and Indian War. The site also features a museum with exhibits including the Washington Collection, which features George Washington’s pistols, a Rembrandt Peale portrait of Washington painted in 1772, and a hand-written, autobiographical, 11-page recollection of Washington’s six dangerous years on the Pennsylvania frontier.

“Fort Ligonier will always be the historic landmark of the town and valley,” says Mowry. “The Fort is adding 41 new pieces of artillery, covered wagons and several new items of rolling stock to the outdoor display, including an authentic ammunition wagon.”

Not a history buff? Not to worry, Ligonier has something for everyone. The town boasts more than sixty unique shops including antiques, art galleries, novelties and eateries that grace tree-lined streets. The town center features a beautiful park with a bandstand in the middle, which has held Sunday evening band concerts for the past 64 years.

Ligonier is also home to Idlewild & SoakZone, sister parks to Pittsburgh’s beloved Kennywood and Sandcastle.

“The park is over 125 years old and is the third oldest amusement park in the United States,” says Mowry. “It’s also been voted the number one family park in America.”

This family-focused park features a variety of rides and attractions suitable for young children such as a Daniel Tiger meet and greet and Story Book Forest. The park also includes classic rides such as a Tilt-A-Whirl, Ferris wheel and spinning teacups. The park’s SoakZone attractions include a swimming pool, wave pool, tube and body slides, water playgrounds, and a lazy river. Tickets can be purchased in advance online for $27.99 per person.
Taking one of these trips? Document it on Instagram using #PopCityGetaways.
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