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Unless you are a Penn State Football fan or an outdoors adventurist, central Pennsylvania, and more specifically Happy Valley may not be the first place to come to mind for a long weekend or weeklong getaway. However, visitors may be surprised to learn that there are so many things to do that they can’t fit it all in with one visit. That has certainly proved the case for me.

Update 3/16/2024

Fall in Happy Valley PA. View from The Overlook Restaurant out to farm land.

I first visited for three days in February 2021 to do wintertime activities and have returned at least four times in the past three years. I’ve visited during every season except spring and have always found wonderful things to do from Penn State sports to outdoor activities to museums and festivals. And there are still many things I haven’t yet experienced and I plan to return. 

**Disclaimer: This was a hosted stay, however, all opinions are my own. I strive to provide my readers with my most authentic sentiments.

Where is Happy Valley, Pennsylvania?

Happy Valley is probably best known for being the home of Penn State University and the Nittany Lions. But it is also smacked in the middle of the state of Pennsylvania. Visitors from, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC can drive in under 4 hours.  While the name might imply that Happy Valley is one valley it is a collection of five; Nittany Valley, Penns Valley, Moshannon Valley, Brush Valley, and Bald Eagle Valley. These five valleys include the towns of State College, Bellefonte, Boalsburg, Centre Hall, and Phillipsburg.

This is a rural area except for downtown State College, things are spread out. Build enough time into your itinerary to get from place to place.

Centre County Courthouse Bellefonte PA

Why is it called Happy Valley?

“Happy Valley” is a term synonymous with Centre County, Pennsylvania. It has been called this since the early 1930s having earned the moniker because the region was relatively unharmed by the Depression largely due to the presence of Penn State University.

Happy Pigs, State College, PA

Explore Penn State University’s Expansive Campus

Penn State’s Main Campus located in State College encompasses close to 8000 acres and has 312 buildings on the site. Features include sports complexes, educational and research facilities, residence halls, administrative buildings, agricultural facilities, and more.

Visitors will find much to explore on this largely walkable campus. Don’t miss the iconic Nittany Shrine, a perfect spot for a memorable photo. Indulge in a treat at the Berkey Creamery, offering over 120 flavors of ice cream and sherbets, a must-visit for frozen dessert lovers.

Nittany Lion Shrine Penn State

Visit the new Palmer Museum of Art, opening June 1, 2024, featuring both visiting and permanent collections. This new state-of-the-art complex shares space with the Arboretum at Penn State. Enjoy a leisurely stroll. You will find something of interest every season of the year.

While most of the campus is pedestrian-friendly, some attractions are best reached by car due to the campus’ expansive layout.

The new Palmer Art Museum at Penn State in Happy Valley PA

If you are exploring Pennsylvania colleges, under an hour from Penn State, in Huntingdon PA is Juniata College.

Experience the Thrill of Beaver Stadium

Home to the Nittany Lions, Beaver Stadium is the second-largest stadium in the Western Hemisphere. This massive arena brings together returning alumni, current students, and townspeople throughout the season to root for their beloved Nittany Lions. The atmosphere of a Penn State Football game can only be called electrifying. Be sure to partake in the Blue and White’s epic tailgating customs.  

Game Day at Penn State's Beaver Stadium

Not Football season? Catch a basketball game or concert at the Bryce Jordan Center. Or enjoy a scenic hike to the Mike Lynch Overlook for breathtaking panoramic views of State College and the campus. The hike to the overlook is less than one mile but there is a 600-foot vertical climb. This challenging trek is a tradition for returning alumni.

View from Mike Lynch Overlook looking down on Penn State University

Discover State College: A Cosmopolitan Small City

Often considered the heart of Happy Valley, State College offers a surprisingly cosmopolitan atmosphere with a small-town vibe. Drawing students from around the world, Innovation Park’s presence on the outskirts of town, and first-class research facilities create a level of multiculturalism rarely seen in rural Pennsylvania. This welcoming community provides travelers with everything you’d find in a much larger city.

Public art State College PA

Its rich blend of sports, dining options, nightlife, shopping, and public art make it a hub of activity and culture.  Venture off the beaten path to discover eclectic shops, unique galleries, and the charming WC Clarkes Cheese Shoppe and Coffee Roaster, a local favorite for coffee, cheese, and chocolate aficionados.

Merging family vacations with college tours has become a trend. Check out this list of 14 East Coast Family Vacation Destinations to visit while scouting colleges.

Explore Happy Valley’s Many Museums

Contrary to what one might expect, Happy Valley possesses many impressive museums. Penn State’s campus alone houses several, including the Palmer Museum of Art, the Matson Museum of Anthropology, the All-Sports Museum, the Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery, the Frost Entomological Museum, and the Pasto Agricultural Museum.

Glasswork at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State

Nearby Bellefonte further enriches the cultural scene with the Bellefonte Art Museum, a small thoughtfully curated space with compositions by regional artists and pieces on loan from around the word.

The Centre County Historical Museum, located within the Centre County Library, provides insightful glimpses into the region’s industrial heritage. Additionally, the library contains county archives, 200 years of newspapers on microfilm, and genealogy for over 700 families.

What’s more, many of these institutions offer free admission, or suggested donations, inviting visitors to explore their diverse exhibits.

Bellefonte Art Museum BAM

While touring colleges or exploring Pennsylvania check out Latrobe, PA, home of Saint Vincent College and Mister Rodgers

Discover Historic Boalsburg’s Unique Cultural Attractions

Historic Boalsburg offers a glimpse into the past with the Boal Mansion Museum and Columbus Chapel as well as the Pennsylvania Military Museum. The fascinating Boal Mansion Museum holds a remarkable collection of rare artifacts, including original furniture, portraits, documents, and militaria amassed over generations and kept within the 200+ year-old family mansion.

Boal Mansion in Boalsburg, PA

But Columbus Chapel is the crown jewel. The small chapel was part of Columbus Castle in Spain and was inherited by Mathilde de Lagarde Boal, a descendant of Christopher Columbus. The chapel and its contents were imported and reconstructed on the property, in 1908.

Columbus Chapel at Boal Manion in Boalsburg, PA

Containing numerous 15th to 18th-century European artworks and original clergy vestments, Columbus is believed to be the most important Columbus collection in North America. But the most incredible artifact in the collection is what is believed to be two pieces of the True Cross of Jesus, given to the Columbus family in 1817 by Spain’s Bishop of Leon.

The museum offers drop-in tours Wednesday through Sunday at 2 PM, no reservation required. Admission is $15 per adult, $12/person with a group of 8 or more, $8 per child (7-17), and free to members and military veterans.

Set aside some time to walk the 48-acre property, which includes the Boal Amphitheater, gardens, hiking trails, and a wildlife observation platform.

Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, is recognized as the birthplace of Memorial Day. In October 1864, women decorated soldiers’ graves, starting an annual “Decoration Day” tradition. By 1868, Gen. John Logan dedicated May 30th to honoring fallen soldiers. Although initially sporadic, celebrations became widespread, and in 1971, Memorial Day was officially established as a national holiday.

Boalsburg, PA the Birthplace of Memorial Day, Lorann Jacobs Sculpture

Visit Bellefonte: A Hub of History and Innovation

Known for its Victorian architecture, rich history, and innovation, Bellefonte is the county seat of Centre County. Situated on the “Diamond” you will find the Centre County Courthouse. In front of the Courthouse, you will find a statue of Andrew Curtin, Pennsylvania’s 15th governor, set within the Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial.

Centre County Courthouse, Bellfonte PA

Seven U.S. governors have haled from Bellefonte, giving it the moniker of the “Home of Governors.” Monuments and markers commemorating their contributions can be found throughout town. The monument in scenic Talleyrand Park honors all seven Governors with republicans on one side and democrats on the other.  

Bellefonte participated in the Underground Railroad and was ahead of its time in school desegregation. It played a significant role in both civil and women’s suffrage movements. The Bellefonte Art Museum and historic markers throughout the town commemorate these important contributions. Visitors can also explore the Union Cemetery (East Howard Street), which holds the remains of members of the “Army of James,” an independent Union command of African American soldiers during the Civil War.

BAM Bellefonte Art Museum Underground Railroad exhibit

Visit the Plaza Theater designed by Pennsylvania’s first female architect, women’s rights advocate, inventor, World War I Special Agent, and Bellefonte resident, Anna Keichline. The building exemplifies Keichline’s architectural style and significant contributions.

Want to know more about the Centre County Seat? Check out these 12 Awesome Things to Do in Bellefonte, PA

Inventions like the voting machine and safety matches characterize Bellefonte’s history of innovation. Discover Bellefonte’s legacy of advancement at the original match factory, now home to the American Philatelic Society.

Match Factory and Philatelic Society in Bellefonte PA

This tiny enclave also played a critical role in the early days of airmail service, making it a site of historical interest for aviation enthusiasts. Visit the site of early airmail routes marked by a historical marker at the high school.

These stories of pioneering spirit and creativity are integral to understanding Happy Valley’s rich history and its role in national progress.

Dig into Happy Valley’s Iron Industry Roots

While central Pennsylvania is often synonymous with the coal industry today, it’s interesting that the region’s small towns, including Bellefonte, were historically rooted in the iron industry during the 1800s. Bellefonte, in particular, was a magnet for industry moguls due to its prime location.

Bellefonte Pennsylvania, Spring Creek at Tallyrand Park

The “Big Spring,” the town’s abundant water source, along with the extensive woodlands providing necessary fuel for the furnaces, and the readily available limestone for iron and steel production, established Bellefonte as a perfect settlement for ironworks.

A short distance from Bellefonte’s center lies Eagle Ironworks at Curtin Village, offering a glimpse into the life of a 19th-century iron-making community. This historic site showcases the Pleasant Furnace, powered by a waterwheel and utilizing cold blast charcoal methods, alongside the Roland Curtin Mansion and the original workers’ village, capturing the essence of the era’s industrial spirit.

Curtin House at Curtin Village

If Happy Valley appeals to you, consider Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, home to PA’s largest state park, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and more.

Feed Your Sense of Adventure

State College and its surroundings abound with outdoor adventures for all seasons. Tussey Mountain is a hotspot for skiing and snow tubing in winter and hosts outdoor concerts and activities when the weather warms up. Spring Creek is a haven for trout fishing enthusiasts, offering serene natural beauty. A short drive away, Black Moshannon State Park features kayaking, fishing, and hiking amid a unique bog ecosystem.

Nearby Rothrock State Forest spans over 96,000 acres, encompassing four state parks with a variety of natural landscapes and activities like swimming, fishing, and exploring historical sites. Its extensive trail network, including the Mid-State Trail, invites endless outdoor exploration, making it a prime destination for nature and adventure lovers.

Black Moshannon State Park

About 45 minutes from State College is Bald Eagle State Park, a vibrant year-round recreational area with boating, kayaking, and fishing in Foster Joseph Sayers Reservoir. Biking, hiking, camping, and wildlife observation are all popular activities. Winter invites adventurers to indulge in sledding, ice skating, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and more.

With its blend of academia, cultural and historical attractions, and outdoor adventure, Happy Valley, PA, invites exploration and discovery. Whether you’re drawn to the dynamic atmosphere of Penn State University, the historic streets of Bellefonte, or the area’s natural beauty, Happy Valley and State College offer an array of experiences for every visitor.

Where to Stay in Happy Valley

In State College

Once a dormitory, the Scholar has been transformed into a trendy hotel and part of the Hilton Tapestry Collection. Situated just off campus the location is fantastic for exploring downtown, access to dining and shopping, as well as, all those great museums on campus. Make the Scholar your base for a Penn State Football weekend.

In Bellefonte

Our Fair Lady is a Victorian beauty featuring original hardwood floors, pocket doors, and stained glass details.  The rooms are well-appointed and quiet.

Our Fair Lady BnB Bellefonte PA

The location of this lovely Bed and Breakfast is within walking distance of downtown making it ideal. Park your car in the off-street lot and explore on foot.

You won’t find better hospitality anywhere. The hosts, Bob and Tami are wonderful. They are so helpful. In addition to being gracious hosts, Tami is an excellent cook.

The Queen, A Victorian Bed & Breakfast located within the historic district, this Queen Anne style Victorian BnB offers hospitality, nicely appointed rooms, and a scrumptious breakfast. Nancy, the gracious host is a wealth of knowledge about the community, among other things such as gardening and antiques. And she’s happy to share all that information with her guests at no charge.

Gardeners will truly appreciate Nancy’s lovely gardens. If you visit during fair weather I recommend enjoying coffee and breakfast on the patio where a little patch of heaven surrounds you. And if you are lucky you may even find some of Nancy’s freshly picked berries included with your meal.

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0 Responses

  1. Being Canadian I honestly know very little about Pennsylvania, so this was a really enlightening read for me! It sounds like the Happy Valley has so many beautiful spots as well as a rich and interesting history. Pinning this post in case I ever happen to visit the region!

  2. What a great list of reasons to visit Happy Valley, PA. It’s interesting that the University was able to float the town during the Great Depression. I love visiting places in winter, and the snow adds extra charm to the historic buildings. I would love to explore the museums and eat some cheese!

  3. What a list of reasons to visit Happy Valley, PA. It\’s interesting that the University was able to flat the town during the Great Depression. I love visiting places in winter and the snow adds extra charm to the historic buildings. I would love to explore the museums and eat some cheese!

    1. I love the comments I\’m getting about the cheese place. I hesitated about including it. I\’m glad I did. And you are correct about snow adding a certain charm to the small towns. I enjoyed this trip so much more than I anticipated.

  4. Penn. is actually the last state I\’ve never been to in the U.S., so I\’m actually planning for a trip to as many cool cities in the state as I can find, to make my trip to my 50th state special. I saved & pinned your blog because this looks like the coolest historical Penn. town.

  5. Nice post! I was not familiar with this area. State College looks like a great town. I love art museums, so the Palmer Museum is one I would surely visit.

  6. Thanks for sharing this about Happy Valley, besides that adorable name, the architecture & history seem fascinating. The Bellefonte area looks absolutely adorable & I\’ll be checking it out next time I\’m in Pa.

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