Bridging a 280-mile gap, from New York in the east to the undulating foothills of the American Midwest, the state of Pennsylvania was once a stronghold of Iroquois Indian tribes, where sprawling forests and verdant valleys presented an image of north-eastern America’s true natural beauty. Today, this iconic backcountry has been preserved in the state’s various parks, where visitors can still seek out the mysterious primeval forests of oak, hemlock and pine fir to the din of ceaseless roaring rivers and hidden creeks.
Here are five of the top must-see state parks in Pennsylvania, where guests can experience the very best of wilderness, nature, culture and history away from the buzzing metropolises of Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
Situated just south of Harrisburg, this medley of thick woodlands and sprawling wetlands provides a myriad of outdoors opportunities in the heart of southern Pennsylvania. Most visitors come to enjoy the 12 interconnected hiking trails, which wind their way across more than 18 miles of the park’s backcountry and range from high-difficulty sections of the famous Mason-Dixon trail, to leisurely Alpine walks along the boulder-covered forest floor. Gifford Pinchot is also a great water sports destination, with boating, freshwater fishing and wild swimming available throughout the year.
More than 13,000 acres of cascading waterfalls, mist-covered primeval forests, craggy cliffs and rocky creeks await at the Rickett’s Glen State Park in northeast Pennsylvania. It’s an area shrouded in the stories of old, where relics of Native Indian settlements from more than 1,000 years ago have been discovered beneath the undergrowth. It’s also startlingly wild in its appearance, and visitors are today invited to wander the meandering hiking routes that wind their way beneath the thick canopies and around the ancient moss-covered boulders to boot.
Carving its way through the flat, rocky plateaus of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Ridge, the roaring Youghiogheny River throws up mighty sprays and white water rapids, making the Ohiopyle State Park one of the undisputed rafting capitals this side of the Rocky Mountains. Located just a short drive southeast of Pittsburgh, the park is also well served by adventure tour operators out of the city, and easily accessible by car. Visitors are also invited to explore a myriad of walking routes that wind their way westwards into the growing highlands of the American Midwest.
For pining beach-lovers making their way through the largely landlocked state of Pennsylvania, the Presque Isle State Park is the perfect sandy stop off on the shores of Lake Erie. Jutting out into the deep blue waters of America’s fourth-largest lake, it boasts no less than 13 separate beachfronts, where visitors can swim and sunbathe. It’s also hailed as one of the best bird-watching spots in the state, famed for its diversity of natural habitats and unusual marine life.
This wild wetlands park of forested backcountry is the perfect out-of-town getaway for the nature-loving tourist. The park itself was the site of one of America’s earliest conservation projects, and guests can still visit the various national historic sites and cabin towns that were part of the national building projects of the 1930s. There are also miles upon miles of walking routes, all punctuated by managed picnic spots and panoramic lookout points to boot.