Snow and natural beauty may be reason enough to visit the Laurel Highlands. And if it is, then I timed this trip perfectly. There was a common refrain heard over and over again during my visit to the Laurel Highlands: “we are having a real Pennsylvania winter. This is what winters used to be here.” What does that mean? It means the region was experiencing snow and a lot of it. And this was perfect as this trip was planned around wintertime activities.
**Disclaimer: This was a hosted stay, however, all opinions are my own. I strive to provide my readers with my most authentic sentiments.
While snow is never guaranteed in the Laurel Highlands, Mother Nature surely cooperated during this February visit. And it couldn’t have been more delightful. At the higher elevations, ice and snow hung heavy on the tree limbs. At the lower levels, wide-open rural farmlands were blanketed in white. And soul-soothing walks in the woods were enhanced by the sound of ice-encrusted snow crushing beneath one’s feet and the melodic whisper of a nearby stream.
Even without wintery weather, the Laurel Highlands offers many opportunities for adventure, including winter sports and sylvan hikes. If you enjoy more refined activities you will find awesome architecture, adorable small towns, history, and more.
Finally, despite almost constant winter precipitation during my stay, getting around the Laurel Highlands proved to be easy. Because wintery weather is commonplace in this area, Pennsylvania’s DOT and the local municipalities do a great job keeping the roads drivable. And if the weather doesn’t permit you to get out, I’m going to tell you where you can find a fireplace to curl up beside and let it snow!
Where is Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands??
The Laurel Highlands are located in the Southwestern part of the state of Pennsylvania, about 1 hour from Pittsburgh. The region which covers the counties of Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland borders on West Virginia and Maryland and is not far from the Ohio state line. Visitors from Cleveland, Akron, Baltimore, and Washington DC can all expect to arrive in around 3 to 3-1/2 hours.
Philadelphians can reach the Laurel Highlands in around 4-1/2 hours and it’s an easy straight shot out the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From New York City you can expect around a 6-hour drive. But once you arrive you will find plenty to keep you occupied if you decide to spend the week.
(COVID-19 Notice- At this time, if you plan to visit any of the sites listed in this post, you should check with the establishment beforehand as COVID19 restrictions may be in place.)
Try Winter Sports at Seven Springs Mountain Resort
Perhaps the biggest wintertime draw to this area is the ski resorts. Skiers and snowboarders from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio flock here.
I’m not a skier but snow tubing at Seven Springs Mountain Resort was on the agenda. By the time I arrived roads were becoming coated with ice, especially at the higher elevation. Day trippers were fleeing for home. However, this made for some crazy fun snow tubing. I think at one point icicles actually formed on my eyelashes.
Because of the rapidly deteriorating road conditions, I spent the night at the resort. This worked out well as it gave me an opportunity to take a deeper dive into the onsite amenities. Seven Springs Mountain Resorts has something for every member of the family as well as skiers and non-skiers. After a day on the slopes, visitors can soothe their body at the full-service Trillium Spa, or take a dip in the indoor pool. Kids can play games in the arcade or hit a round of miniature golf as a family.
Enjoy a cocktail in the lodge or one of the other onsite lounges. There are multiple dining options from grabbing a slice of pizza slopeside with the kids to an intimate night out at Helen’s where you can enjoy high-end culinary experiences with wine pairings. But no matter where you decide to dine, be sure to check out the baked goods at Gingerbread Dreams. To die for!!
Marvel at a Snow-covered Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater
Architecture enthusiasts and nature-lovers alike will thoroughly enjoy a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Built in 1939, for the Kaufmann family, this UNESCO-designated site is one of Wright’s premier works typifying his organic style of incorporating art and nature. It is the only Wright property to come into the public domain fully intact including the original art and Wright-designed furnishings.
I knew Fallingwater would be a highlight of my trip. I had visited once before many, many years ago. But I was looking forward to seeing this architectural masterpiece coated in snow. And it did not disappoint. Despite the home being closed for tours, I could have spent all day here exploring the 450+ acres surrounding the home and taking photographs. The trails around the home are well maintained and exploring the grounds is easy.
Go for a Hike at Ohiopyle
Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania’s largest State Park, draws outdoor enthusiasts throughout the year. Weather conditions during my visit didn’t allow me to do a lot of hiking but I was able to visit some of the more easily accessible waterfalls. The park offers miles of hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty. The Youghiogheny River runs through the park and offers some challenging rapids for whitewater rafting during warmer weather.
Before heading into the park, visitors must pass through the tiny village of Ohiopyle. I fell in love immediately. It was just such a charming little place with a bowstrung truss bridge built upon the piers for the original bridge that once carried trains from Cumberland MD to Connellsville PA. Today it serves as a biking and hiking path along the Great Allegheny Passage. Visitors are welcomed by a brightly colored mural, a general store, and an outfitter. And of course, there is a little church perched upon a hill.
But the real greeter at Ohiopyle is an orange tabby cat by the name of Tonto!! This little fellow was hanging out in the parking lot of the visitor’s center. Being the animal lover that I am I needed to check to make sure he wasn’t freezing as it was only 20 degrees. I opened my car door and without hesitation, he hopped in. I was tempted to take him home but he was wearing a collar with a tag that read “My name is Tonto. I’m fine. I live here.” Not looking worse for wear, and speaking with the woman at the visitor center I decided this little guy didn’t need my care. But I could have snatched him up in a second. Oh, and did I mention he was wearing the cutest blue and green plaid bowtie??
Stay in a Cozy Cabins in a 18th Century Village
What could be more magical than waking up in a cozy cabin with a crackling fire in a stone fireplace and a layer of freshly fallen snow? Well, I suppose a cabin resort with a full-scale 18th-century village complete with a mercantile building, a tavern, a chapel, and even a sugar shack might fit the bill.
This is exactly what you will find at Oak Lodge, a family-owned and operated resort on 800+ acres. The resort offers luxury amenities include a spa, yoga instruction, an indoor swimming pool and hot tub, plus, over 10-miles hiking trails accessible from the property, ideal for snowshoeing.
In addition to luxury cabins, with soaking tubs perfect after a day exploring, Oak Lodge’s accommodation options include a 4-rooms with king-sized beds located at the lodge plus a 4-bedroom/3-bathroom 19th-century farmhouse with full kitchen facilities. Cabins and lodge accommodations include a scrumptious and satisfying full breakfast.
Oak Lodge, offers everything you need for both a relaxed and luxurious escape.
Explore the the Rockwell-esque Town of Ligonier
Ligonier is a little slice of Americana. The focal point of Ligonier’s downtown is a bandstand situated in the center of town (“the Diamond”) where visitors and locals enjoy live weekly entertainment all summer long. What could possibly be more American?? In addition to weekly summertime concerts, the diamond is the site of festivals throughout the year, including a winter ice carving festival.
But the premier annual event is Fort Ligonier Days, a three-day town-wide event featuring food, entertainment, parades, crafters, and more. However, the centerpiece of the weekend is the reenactment of the Battle of Fort Ligonier, a consequential clash of the French and Indian War.
Just 2-hours from Laurel Highlands is Happy Valley, the home of Penn State University, Victorian Bellefonte and Bald Eagle State Park. You won’t want to miss this area during your Pennsylvania road trip.
Whether you are visiting on a festival weekend or not, this little town deserves a visit. It has everything you would expect in a small Pennsylvania town plus much more. Stroll the boutique shops on the “diamond” or grab a coffee at one of the local coffeehouses and enjoy a break in the parks. This town has everything from an old-school barbershop to a family-owned candy store to an art gallery, theater, and even a bar with a bowling alley. And of course, don’t forget to stop at the creamery.
Pay Your Respects at the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville
Every visitor to the region should take a bit of time (allow 2-1/2 hours) to explore the Flight 93 Memorial, the site of the September 11th crash of Flight 93 near Shanksville. Of course, 2021 marks the 20-year anniversary of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Situated high on a mountain, the Memorial site, part of the National Park Service includes a visitors’ center, the Memorial Plaza, the Wall of Names, and the Tower of Voices. Though the park service does clear the roads, weather conditions, permitted me to only visit the Tower of Voices, a 93-foot-tall musical instrument greeting visitors upon entering the site.
The Wall of Names and the Memorial Plaza which follows the debris path to the crash site sits a few miles away in a farmer’s field. Though it was disappointing not to be able to take in the entire memorial, the snow, ice, and clouds added a certain solitude that may be absent on a bright summer day.
Enjoy a Bit of Nightlife at Live! Casino Pittsburgh
Laurel Highlands isn’t all outdoor fun and cute little towns. Visitors can also experience a bit of nightlife at the nearby newly opened Live! Casino Pittsburgh. This small casino offers all the action you would expect from a much larger gaming venue; table games, slots, FanDuel Sportsbook, including a lounge with a 40′ TV screen, plus multiple bars, restaurants, event space, and even a bowling alley.
When you tire of the action, grab a bite to eat at Guy Fiery’s American Kitchen + Bar. This casual dining spot offers tasty modern comfort foods in a setting inspired by the retro design of a 1940’s diner. The eatery has a fun family atmosphere and is accessible from the exterior so there is no need to ever step foot on the casino floor.
Whether it’s peace and solitude that brings you to the Laurel Highlands or if it’s an adventure you seek, you will find it here and so much more.