Northwest Pennsylvania’s Great Outdoors
My original plan had been to visit the Great Outdoors during the area’s celebration of its most famous resident, Punxsutawney Phil. I wanted to see what it was like to join 30,000 people hanging around outside, in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter. Wintry weather was late this year, so instead I visited the following week. Somehow, seeing Phil in his little zoo outside the Punxsutawney library just doesn’t have the same high drama as when he’s up with the guys in the top hats on Gobblers Knob.
Still in search of a festival, I found Franklin on Ice. This ice sculpture festival and its close cousin, the Ridgway Chainsaw Rendezvous (held in late February), celebrate the skills of the Pennsylvania chainsaw artist. The 50 or so ice sculptures created for the festival included a throne, a small tractor and a pirate, all installed in the shadow of the historic courthouse on the Franklin town green. Appropriate for the season, the local restaurants compete in a chili contest.
I also wanted to see the elk that have been reintroduced in an area north of Clearfield. The Elk Scenic Drive traverses the herd’s range, where many elk gather along the edge of the road. The enormous animals that I observed were busily devouring whole trees. I hope that they don’t plan on leaving Pennsylvania any time soon!
Finally, I visited S.B. Elliott State Park, home of an extensive collection of cabins, picnic pavilions and other structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC rescued abandoned timber and oil lands, saved historical artifacts and helped develop the state park system. It’s fun to ski around to these historic buildings.
Along Interstate 80, the towns of Clarion, Brookville, Dubois and Clearfield provide access to the usual chain lodgings. I found some great off-season bargains. There are a few motels and B&Bs in some of the smaller towns. Many full-service cabins remain open during the winter around Cook Forest State Park. These cabins and lodges provide traditional northwoods ambiance.
My favorite dinner spots included the buffet at Clarion’s China Town; Clearfield’s traditional Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant, the Dutch Pantry; and Ridgway’s antique-filled Two Scoops. I brought my lunch and snacks every day while I was skiing, since many restaurants close for the winter.
Variable weather requires that visitors have an appropriate vehicle with proper tires or chains in order to drive these hilly roads. Also, check the cancellation policies of your chosen lodgings.
Northwest Pennsylvania provides a unique setting for some interesting places to ski. Skiing here seems most appropriate for independent, beginner-intermediate or intermediate skiers who don’t require lessons or other support normally found at a full-service cross country ski center.