Laurel Highlands – Pennsylvania’s Funlands

Story and Photos by Andrew Der

I need to remind myself this is the 21st century. Looking around at the amusement park attractions and vendors, the rides of my childhood whirl in a blur of nostalgic scenery. Recalling one of my favorite episodes of the original black and white Twilight Zone TV series, where the plot features the plight of a jetliner finding its self re-appearing from a storm in the 1930’s. Unlike the frightened airline passengers, especially when arriving over grazing dinosaurs, we were delighted to find ourselves in Idlewild and Soak Zone. Here a pre-eminent example of a premium family amusement park of the simpler 1960’s, restored and reminiscent of an era before Six Flags and other urban and over priced experiences.

Best described as Pennsylvania’s playground, minus intimidating crowds, the Laurel Highlands region of the State is not only home to Idlewild park but a myriad of other opportunities for children of all ages looking for a summer getaway within driving distance of many east coast metropolitan areas. This popular region is also absent of big cities instead providing home to a massive State and U. S. park system, premium golfing, fishing and hunting opportunities for the big kids. Numerous Mayberry-like towns – many with festivals and historical significance and battlefields back to the French and Indian War dot the area.

Some may know this popular destination for its ski crowds at Seven Springs Resort, in winter, but do not think for one minute that summers are quiet. Those with a penchant for active outdoor recreation appreciate one of the best whitewater rafting opportunities east of the Mississippi for expert and beginners alike. The 100 miles of mountain biking, kayaking, nature appreciation and hiking opportunities in pristine forests and crystal clear rivers are offered to everyone.

Numerous other destinations and attractions are available within an hour or two of this serene region. For something different, many visitors will come to appreciate the memorials and testaments to the steadfast resolve of the regional populace and how these stoic communities had endured numerous infamous national tragedies worthy of reflection and reverence. From the tragic Johnstown floods of 1889 to the crash of the fourth plane of 9/11, opposing emotions are juxtaposed when related to the happy ending of the unexpected and miraculous rescue of the nine trapped coal miners. Families can decide whether this may be an opportunity for reflection, paying respects, honoring true heroes and appreciating humanity.

What makes Idlewild park such a special keystone attraction of the Highlands is the ability to spend an entire day (purchase their Funday pass) picnicking among restored rides of a parents youth, premium kiddy parks rather than intimidating adult oriented rides and a modern water park without the hassles of big city crowds, prices, security gate checks and having to park elsewhere prior to admission. Return to your car as often as you would like, bring your own food and drinks, take breaks under shade trees and pavilions – I dare you to not have fun.

The Olde Idlewild – from the 1960s – is the perfect opportunity for “transition” rides many children can share with their parents before the gut wrenching rides of the modern parks – let’s be honest, some of us grown ups can’t quite hack it either. This is a park where onsite tree timber has been recycled to build not only the manageable roller coaster but the picnic pavilions as well. Grandparents who came here as kids themselves are a common sight with the new generation, their grandkids.

Located near the historic town of Ligonier, Idlewild is not just an amusement park – it’s an experience of seven creative theme areas to be savored casually – even for the real little ones. Story Book Forest, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make Believe and Raccoon Lagoon are just right for the stroller set and thoughtfully designed to be interactive. Hooten Holler provides song and dance while everyone rests in seated or grassed areas. Jumpin Jungle really jumps with emphasis on physical exertion – use this at the end to drain off excess kid energy.

While ample choices of food service abound, bring a picnic and plenty of water for hot days. For a premium experience, go July 4th and see the evening fireworks – it is not nearly as crowded as you might expect. Idlewild has just enough of the big city rides to make it fun and modern for those that need just a bit more adrenaline. The recent addition of the Soak Zone provides the right amount of diversion for a hot day – try the long tube water slides with family and friends.

For variety, a couple more amusement diversions that are noteworthy are Caddie Shak Family Fun Park and Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park- both parks offer Paint Ball adventures. The Shak has three go-kart tracks, Bumper Boats with water cannons and two miniature golf courses. Jellystone Park is one of many in the nationwide chain and those in the know find that opportunities for camping and cabin rentals abound. For something different, try the Living Treasures Animal Park with a petting zoo and a White Tiger. Since most of the prime activities in the area are outdoors, an excellent rainy day diversion is Laurel Caverns featuring unique geological formations and the only underground miniature golf course.

Most parents have learned that family fun is a great venue to sneak culture and education in on the sly and Laurel Highlands is no exception. A good start is the picture book town of Ligonier near Idelwild – a place where one can discover a chapter of American history before the Civil and Revolutionary Wars. A stop at Fort Ligonier will provide a glimpse into the pre-independence period of British and the French conflict over control of the Midwest. Numerous other museums and heritage areas flourish throughout the Highlands so some planning may be in order to maximize your time.

Another noteworthy itinerary would be the National Parks system destinations of Fort Necessity National Battlefield, Allegheny Portage Railroad, Friendship Hill National Historic Site and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. If you have adult time, try the most world famous examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s blend of nature and architecture, Fallingwater in Mill Run and Kentuck Knob in Chalk Hill. Advance tour reservations may be required. During your serene country drives, include some routes with covered bridges – they are not just in Madison County.

Do not visit without recreating in the premium unspoiled natural areas that abound in this vast region of outdoor enjoyment. A popular focal point is the intersection town of Ohiopyle surrounded by 20,000 acres of Ohiopyle State Park. Most visitors enjoy hiking and biking the 70 mile long Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail and the Great Allegheny Passage Biking Trail that wind through State Game preserves, forest, parks and natural areas. The Seven Springs resort, recreational and primitive camping sites permeate throughout for overnight stays.

Be advised the premium outdoor activity here is the nationally renowned white water rafting and kayaking – in a way, nature’s Idlewild. Novice and experienced travelers from everywhere come here to raft the Youghiogheny River – you might even hear a foreign language. For most of us neophytes, the most popular outfitter to entrust your experience to is Laurel Highlands River Tours, a one-stop shop turnkey operation. They know the river intimately and offer a spectrum of experiences from easy to challenging. All-inclusive tours range from novice families with kids to die-hard experts. Guided tours include watercraft, meals, put-in and take-out transportation and some of the best scenery you have ever seen. If that is insufficient, try an overnight or multi-day package with nearby accommodations included. This is also a great place to rent bikes if you do not have your own – for the best of both worlds take the Paddle and Pedal package.

Seeking the complete outdoor experience? Go for the multi-day packages with various combinations of rafting, biking, paintball and rock climbing and stay at the family campground near by. When biking on the riverside trail in Ohiopyle, make sure you pass over the immense river bridge for a spectacular view. Stop at the river bend peninsula area for some great hiking. We noticed a complete absence of non-natural sound and a presence of natures unique features. I later learned the unique river-generated air currents have ecologically sequestered the region maintaining a milder climate year-round. While it is easy to achieve a pedaling-induced Zen state, pedal upriver first if returning to your departure point. The barely noticeable grade will cumulatively impact the stamina of the less fit (so I hear), so leave the return trip for the downgrade portion.

A great way to finish up your Highlands experience is an overnight stop at the quiet river town of Confluence – “where mountains touch rivers”. Named for its location at the confluence of the Youghiogheny, Casselman and Laurel Hill rivers, this haven of peace and quiet is a favorite dining and overnight stop for river boaters in the summer and cross country skiers in the winter. Originally known for hunting and fishing, now a prime relaxation destination – a place that can be best enjoyed by foot. Walk the town as leisurely as you can – being in a hurry is not permitted here. The same trail from Ohiopyle meanders through so if you are doing a trail biking package, this is a great stop for a break to eat and spend the night – you may never leave.

Contacts:

www.LaurelHighlands.org
This is the best one-stop-shop for all points of interest, outdoor adventure, amusements and activities for the Laurel Highlands area. Check out suggestions for shopping, dining, museums, galleries and special events as well. Make sure you request their yearly visitors guide magazine to take with you.

www.idlewild.com
Check out the package specials including accommodations nearby.

www.ligonier.com
Learn all about one of the most enjoyable small towns in the area.

www.laurelhighlands.com
Find a plethora of beginner and advanced rafting and kayaking opportunities. Check out the multi day and multi activity packages including biking, rock climbing and paintball.

www.confluenceonline.com
Has everything you need to know about this Mayberry of three rivers.

Accommodations

The Highlands are peppered with the popular chain motels as well as numerous private lodges for both the ski and summer visitors. The above sites will give many suggestions including all-inclusive packages. For two very unique and “undiscovered” gems, the below recommendations make excellent home bases for daily excursions as well as a very high quality activity in their own right.

Foggy Mountain Lodge, Stahlstown
1 877-FoggyMt, www.foggymt.com
An out of the way, recently remodeled, very cozy lodge and country inn with an excellent “better than most” in-house restaurant. Ideal for a quiet and self-contained retreat for skiers and summer visitors alike – this is a superior quality accommodation at a great price.

The Parker House, 213 Yough Street, Confluence
1 814-395-9616, email: TheParkerHouse@worldnet.att.net
A true guest house a block from the river where kitchens and living areas are shared with like-minded relaxation seekers – very spacious and comfortable surroundings.

Dining

The most practical alternatives are whatever is in your area at the time – a multitude of selections abound throughout the region and most places are good values. Keeping with the outdoor adventure lifestyle most menus are meat and potatoes oriented.

Try the following:

Bootlegger’s Bar and Grill at the Foggy Mountain Lodge – an excellent value.

The Firefly Grill, 25 Sherman Street, Ohiopyle – fast food of a restaurant quality.

The River’s Edge Café in Confluence at the river’s edge across from the Parker House – premium ambiance with a riverside view and outdoor seating. This is very popular and most of the food is excellent but don’t order the steak – they inexplicable served mine carbon black and expected me to eat it! What’s worse is they didn’t seem too concerned when I brought it to the server’s attention.

The Sister’s Café, also in Confluence across the Casselman River near the “town center” where breakfast is served all day and there is “no charge for sisterly advice”. This is a snapshot of a 1950’s diner with good food at a good value – and the best place for breakfast.

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