Pennsylvania, Susquehanna River

Stop 101: Pennsylvania, from Erie to the Poconos

Erie PA lighthouses

From Ohio, we entered the very tip top of Pennsylvania — a very small section squeezed between Ohio and New York — visiting Erie for several days… and getting a good look at Lake Erie, our fourth Great Lake.

Pennsylvania (officially, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania), the 29th state we have visited on this trip across the U.S., is the fifth most populous state, and the ninth most densely populated. It is our first stop into one of the original 13 states of the United States. It has the largest concentration of Amish in the U.S. It is known as the Keystone State and its official state insect is the firefly. The state motto is: “Virtue, Liberty and Independence.”

Interestingly, Erie is the state’s fourth largest city and has been called the “Gem City” because of the sparkling Lake Erie. (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Allentown are larger.)

Lake Erie is the southernmost, shallowest, and smallest by volume of the five Great Lakes…. it has a surface area of 9,990 square miles. Three lightstations in Erie have protected sailors over the years: Erie Land Lighthouse, Presque Isle Erie North Pierhead Light, and Presque Isle Lighthouse… and we visited all of them, starting with the Erie Land Lighthouse (also known as the Old Presque Isle Light and shown in the top left photo of the collage), located on a bluff east of downtown; it is considered one of the oldest on the Great Lakes. It is no longer in use. In fact, it has not been used for more than 100 years; it was decommissioned in 1899, but today serves as a monument to the past; it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (The original was built in 1818; the present stone light station built in 1867.)

We then traveled to Presque Isle, where the other two lightstations are located. Presque Isle is actually a sandy peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie protecting the city from the direct impact of the lake. Presque Isle, comes from the French, meaning “almost an island.” Most of Presque Isle is a 3,112-acre state park; the Coast Guard maintains a station there and some people have permanent houseboats and facilities grandfathered in. Presque Isle was named a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1967.

The main lighthouse is the 57-foot high Presque Isle Light, constructed in 1872 on the north side of Presque Isle, and currently in use and maintained by the Coast Guard. (Seen in bottom left of the collage.) Tours are available (including climbing to the top of the lighthouse) and there is also a small gift shop located there. The other lightstation is located on the southeastern tip of Presque Isle. The Erie Harbor North Pier Light helps sailors navigate the narrow inlet between Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay; it is in the upper right of the collage. It was built in 1857 and moved to its present site in 1940.

Presque Isle State Park

Presque Isle State Park has much more to offer than just the two lighthouses, of course. The park has 13 beaches, and from what we observed, the beaches were definitely the biggest attraction of the park.
Every beach was crowded when we visited, which makes sense as it is the state’s only “seashore.”

We opted to take advantage of the more than 21 miles of hiking and biking trails. The park has an amazing paved (accessible) trail that circles the entire perimeter: the 13.5-mile Karl Boyes Multi-purpose National Recreation Trail. If we had brought our bikes, we may have opted for this adventure, but instead we chose several hiking options. Side note: Because Lake Erie (like all the other Great Lakes) is experiencing higher water levels from all the spring and summer storms, many of the hiking trails were under water and/or impassable. We also found the trails poorly marked, so we think we hiked the North Pier Trail. We had planned to also hike the Sidewalk Trail, but never found it.

Located on the mainland, just before the entrance to Presque Isle State Park is the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, A LEED-certified (environmentally-friendly) 7,000-square foot educational facility that highlights the park’s natural and cultural history. The center also includes a movie theater, gift shop, and cafe. The highlight for us was the 75-foot glass-enclosed tower (accessible by stairs or elevator) that offers views of Lake Erie.

Erie Bluffs State Park

Next up was some hiking in Erie Bluffs State Park, a fairly new state park consisting of 587 acres of undeveloped land overlooking Lake Erie, and located about 12 miles west of Erie. Some of the bluffs are 90 feet above the lake, offering an interesting vista. The park also contains a rare black oak savanna.

We hiked the Black Oak Savanna Trail, where we happily discovered some ripe wild berries to munch on as we hiked! The trail circles through the savanna and around a prairie; it also connects to the Lookout Trail, which wonders through an old growth forest filled with large oaks, cottonwoods, and black cherry trees before leading to the bluffs above the lake. Ran hiked down to get a closer look — and the photo in the upper right of the collage.

The park has several other trails, including the Whitetail Crossing Trail, West Overlook Trail, and Timber Trail — but wet conditions and signs warning us of how to prevent Lyme Disease kept us from some of the less maintained trails!

Laurel Hill Winery

We spent so much time exploring nature that we almost did not have time for any wine-tasting in the region, which is a shame because the area — between Harborcreek, Pennsylvania and Silver Creek, New York — is the largest grape-growing region east of the Rocky Mountains, at least according to the Lake Erie Wine Country… with 23 wineries located along a 50-mile stretch following the shores of Lake Erie. We were able to make one quick stop at Presque Isle Wine Cellars, where we enjoyed a lovely tasting and left with bottle of the 2017 Lake Erie Saudade (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot — celebrating their 50 years of wine-making), and a bottle of Ripper Red (a nice Shiraz made from grape juice imported from Australia).

Once we arrived at our next stop in Dubois, PA, we finally made it a priority to visit another Pennsylvania winery: Laurel Mountain Winery, a member of the Groundhog Wine Trail. (Yes, we were stopped just north of Punxsutawney, PA.) We loved the humor at the winery, as seen in the collage, and enjoyed a tasting of their dry reds, which range from Cabernet Franc to Leon Millot. These also have sweet reds, a range of whites, and several dessert and fruit wines. We were won over by their Marechal Foch, a wonderfully bold and fruity dry wine, and left with a bottle. The winery also has a fun end eclectic gift shop located above the tasting room, which is housed in a renovated barn built in the early 1900s. They also sell lots of wine-making supplies for budding winemakers.

Parker Dam State Park

Besides a little wine-tasting, our main goal in stopping in the Dubois area was visiting Parker Dam State Park, a 968-acre facility that was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. It is surrounded by the Moshannon State Forest, and located about 17 miles northeast of Dubois.

We continue to admire and respect the work done by these young men. The CCC was a work relief initiative that operated in the U.S. from 1933 to 1942; these men built so much of the infrastructure of many national and state parks across the country. We are also so grateful for the amazing foresight of President Franklin Roosevelt for pushing this Depression-era program into existence — a win-win for both those struggling families back during the Depression and for the public who get to enjoy all the work they completed in these parks.

The area around and including the park, like so much of the forested land of the late 1800s and early 1900s, was clearcut by greedy loggers/logging companies. These folks left the land a barren landscape that was devastated by erosion, flooding, and wildfires. Happily, the state stepped in and bought up the land and the CCC came in and accomplished a major reforestation project — as well as building roads, trails, bridges, and structures.

Parker Dam State Park

Parker Dam State Park offers quite a lot for visitors — from hiking and mountain biking trails to camping and picnicking areas to a sandy, swimming beach on the shores of the Parker Lake.

Of the 16 miles of trails in the park, we hiked about 6 miles worth, starting with the easy and beautiful 2.8-mile Beaver Dam Trail loop, which starts just starts near the park office and runs along an old railroad grade and park roads. You’ll encounter streams, beaver dams (if you’re lucky), meadows with wildflowers, and beautiful stands of hemlock, pine, and hardwood. We also hiked part of the CCC Trail, a 1.9-mile trail that follows the route used by workers between the residential CCC camp (now the Organized Group Tenting Area) and the work site at the dam. This area of the park, as well as along the Trail of New Giants (a 1-mile trail that we also hiked up to the overlook), is fascinating for another reason: One can witness the blowdown and regeneration from a tornado that hit the park in 1985, one of Pennsylvania’s largest and strongest tornadoes (with a top internal wind speed of 250 MPH), destroying a towering forest of ash, oak, beech, and sugar maple trees. Several other shorter trails also run through the park.

For those who prefer LONG, backcountry hikes, one can hike the 73-mile Quehanna Trail, which runs through the Quehanna Wild Area.

Finally, the park also includes the Lou and Helen Adams Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which educates visitors about the life and times of the corps members. It is open only Saturday and Sunday afternoons during the summer season.

Milton State Park

From Dubois, we headed to the Williamsport area, in Central Pennsylvania, staying at a lovely KOA that included a small herd of goats! Happily, we were in the area just before the Little League World Series.

We started our adventures at Milton State Park, a neat little 82-acre park on Montgomery Island in the West Branch Susquehanna River. The park has about 3.5 miles of trails, which mainly include a north island loop and a south island loop… so, of course, we hiked both for an entire loop around the island. It’s cool and odd that a major roadway and railroad cross over the island, connecting the towns of Milton and West Milton. The northern part of the island is a bit more developed, while the southern part is mostly undeveloped except for the trails — and the hike there is in a beautiful forest that consists predominantly of silver maple, river birch, and sycamore trees.

Side note: The 444-mile long Susquehanna River is the longest river on the east coast that drains into the Atlantic Ocean. (The main North Branch of the river starts near Cooperstown, NY, while the West Branch starts in western Pennsylvania and joins up with the main branch near Northumberland, PA.

Covered Bridges of Susquehanna River Valley

Another interesting side note that we discovered once we got to Williamsport is that Pennsylvania was a leader in the construction of covered bridges; in fact, at one time, the state had about 1,500 covered bridges. The bridges were cheaper to build — because of the readily available timber, and covering them from the elements helped them to last longer. In the Susquehanna River Valley, 17 bridges remain — and are open to visit and travel across, assuming your vehicle meets weight and height restrictions. We visited two of the covered bridges: Rishel Bridge (built 1830) and Factory/Horsham Bridge (built in 1880). We had planned to try and visit a few more of the bridges, but unlike in Iowa where all the covered bridges had a place to pull over and admire the bridges, it was a bit more difficult to do so in Pennsylvania — perhaps because these bridges are still in use.

As we traveled the area, we also visited Shikellamy State Park, a 132-acre state park located at the confluence of the West Branch Susquehanna River and Susquehanna River. The park is divided into two parts — and we went for higher ground, visiting the overlook, high above the rivers.

We of course also took advantage of being near another Costco — stopping in store #245 in King of Prussia.


Next up was a must-see stop in the Philadelphia area. We are purposely avoiding most major cities on this trip, but certain ones have to be visited — and the “City of Brotherly Love” is one of them. Philadelphia is the sixth largest city in the U.S. with 1.5+ million residents; the metropolitan area has more than 6 million people. With that many people and visitors, we planned ahead and found the perfect parking garage near the Convention Center. We walked through the city’s Chinatown on our way to catching our Big Bus Tour — which allows visitors to tour all the major attractions within the city, most of which we visited; all the buses have live narration, which is often both informative and amusing. The bus makes about 25 stops and you can jump on or off anywhere along the route. (You can purchase one, two, and three day passes though a one-day was all we needed.)

Philadelphia was founded in 1682 by William Penn (whose statue sits atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, shown in the bottom left of the collage)… who was given the land by King Charles II in payment of a debt that was owed to Penn’s father (and supposedly purchased from the native Delaware People. He chose it to serve as the capitol of the Pennsylvania Colony. The city is rich in historical significance to the development of the United States (as discussed later in this post). Today, Philadelphia is the center of economic activity in Pennsylvania, home to several Fortune 1000 companies (including Aramark, Carpenter Technology, Chemtura, and Comcast, Crown Holdings, Pep Boys, and Urban Outfitters).

Philadelphia Museum of Art: Rocky

Amusingly, we started our on-foot adventures in Philadelphia visiting a spot of pop-culture significance (and Stop 15 on the Big Bus): The Philadelphia Museum of Art… and the “Rocky Steps.”

The museum got its start in 1876 as part of the nation’s great Centennial Exhibition, held in Fairmount Park along the banks of the Schuylkill River (a state designated Scenic River) … when more than 10 million people visited the city. Today, the city gets about 25+ million daily visitors. (Side note about Fairmount Park: it contains about 2,000 acres of rolling hills, gentle trails, relaxing waterfront, and shaded woodlands — managed by the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Department.)

The main building of the museum was completed in the late 1920s. It is now one of the largest art museums based on gallery space — and is also one of the top museums based on attendance. But, in terms of pop culture, the museum’s east steps are now known as the “Rocky Steps” because of the role they played in the Rocky films, starting with the first in 1976. Who has not seen the movie’s main character, Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone), training on those steps? One source says the museum’s steps are the second most well known movie location behind New York City’s Grand Central Station.

Located at the base of the stairs (on the north side) is an 8.5-foot bronze statue of Rocky Balboa that was used for Rocky III and donated to the city by Sylvester Stallone. The statue is located at the top of the steps for the movie, but art snobs took offense at that location and the statue moved around a bit before the city (and museum) embraced its impact and value for tourists.

We, of course, walked up and down the steps and did our posing — while watching people and kids of all ages and ethnicities going up and down the steps… all the while humming the Rocky theme!

Just a short walk down from the art museum lies the Barnes Foundation (offering an amazingly large collection of original Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Early Modernist paintings) and the Rodin Museum (which contains the largest collection of sculptor Rodin’s works outside Paris; a cast of The Thinker sits in front of the museum).

LOVE, AMOR Sculptures

Up next was some love, stopping at the two Robert Indiana sculptures located just a few blocks from each other.

The AMOR (meaning “love” in Spanish and Latin) sculpture by pop artist Robert Indiana (which used to be located on the Rocky Steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) is now located at Sister Cities Park (on 18th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway). Indiana created AMOR in 1998 in the same vein as his LOVE sculpture, which was installed in Philadelphia in 1976. Indiana originally conceived the LOVE image through a series of paintings in 1965, later producing a series of LOVE sculptures. (In 1973, the U.S. Post Office used his work to create the LOVE stamp.) Interesting side note: Robert Indiana was born Robert Clark in New Castle, Indiana.

Indiana’s LOVE sculpture is in John F. Kennedy Plaza… better known as LOVE Park, located not far from City Hall. For those playing the Kevin Bacon game, the plaza was designed by famed city planner Edmond Bacon, father of actor Kevin Bacon.

Educational Side Note: The sculptures are fitting for the City of Brotherly Love… but one might question how/why Philadelphia is known by this nickname. The answer may be Greek to you… Philadelphia is actually a compounding of two Greek roots — philos and adelphos — which respectively mean love/loving and brother… thus, it is literally the City of Brotherly Love.

Philly cheesesteak

All of our walking and step-climbing and sightseeing left us hungry for lunch… and in Philadelphia, that can only mean one thing… a cheesesteak sandwich! What is a cheesesteak? It starts with a crusty hoagie roll filled with thinly sliced sauteed sliced beef and melted provolone cheese. It can also include onions and mushrooms… and sadly, some folks use Cheez Whiz for the “cheese.”

There is a plethora of places to find a Philly Cheesesteak, including Pat’s King of Steaks, Geno’s Steaks, Campos, and Steve’s Prince of Steaks… but we chose Sonny’s Famous Steaks, located on Market Street in Old City. Not only has it been rated as the best in Philadelphia, but it was the only one that Jen found that offered the option of a gluten-free hoagie bun. The meat is all cooked fresh — and the line was literally out the door — but the wait was worth it, as you can tell from the pictures! (We typically avoid breads and carbs, but when in the city that invented a food, you have to try it.)

Sonny’s was also close to our next stop in Philadelphia… the National Constitution Center.

(Side note: We used Go Philadelphia to build our own bundle of the Big Bus Tour and the National Constitution Center at a lower rate than purchasing the tickets individually.)

National Constitution Center

The National Constitution Center, created by the Constitution Heritage Act of 1988 and officially opened in 2003, is located on Independence Mall — not far from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written and signed. It is a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution dedicated to providing information about the U.S. Constitution, as well as inspiring people to celebrate the amazing work and dedication — and success — of developing and living in a country with such a document. The center has all sorts of cool interactive programs and exhibits. It also includes a moving 17-minute, multimedia theatrical performance, Freedom Rising, that runs every 30 minutes.

The National Constitution Center owns a rare, original copy of the first public printing of the U.S. Constitution, printed on September 19, 1787—two days after the Constitution was signed. (The original signed, handwritten Constitution is at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.)

The Preamble to the Constitution can be seen in several places throughout the building: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Independence National Historic Park

Our last stop in Philadelphia was to see the Liberty Bell up close. It is part of the Independence National Historic Park, managed by the National Park Service. The bell is located in its own building (with airport-like security) and you simply get in line and wait for as long as it takes for the line to enter the building. (Unlike seeing Independence Hall, which requires a ticket, available for free from a Park Ranger in the Visitor Center Complex; it too requires a security check.)

The Liberty Bell, an international symbol of freedom, once hung in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House — and was known as the State House Bell. It was first forged and created in the 1750s — first from
Whitechapel Foundry in London; when that bell immediately cracked, it was melted down and cast again by Philadelphia metalworkers John Pass and John Stow. It bears a timeless message from the Bible: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.”

In the 1830s, anti-slavery groups named it the Liberty Bell, and sometime in the 1840s, a narrow split appeared; the crack we see today is from a repair attempt in 1846. Later in the 1880s, the city allowed the bell to travel to patriotic events, where it always drew large crowds, but also continued to get damaged. After World War II, the city allowed the National Park Service to take custody of the bell and be placed in Independence Hall, while retaining ownership. It moved to its current location in 2003.

FYI: Getting around Philadelphia is quite easy, and with the massive (four-city block big) Pennsylvania Convention Center centrally located, there are plenty of parking garages and parking areas…. Even the Independence Visitor Center has an underground parking garage.

Philadelphia has so much U.S. history — from the first days of moving toward independence from Great Britain with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the work of the Continental Congress translating that freedom in into the Articles of Confederation in 1777 to the development of the transformative U.S. Constitution in 1787.

One other Philly thing is Penn’s Landing, right along the Delaware River, separating Pennsylvania from New Jersey. While it is not quite where William Penn landed, it does serves as a spot for local attractions and events. Several historic ships are also moored at Penn’s Landing.

On our way to our final stop in northeastern Pennsylvania, we drove through Lancaster and other Amish areas of the state… and enjoyed seeing the simply horse-and-buggy transportation traveling right along the side of the road.

We had been looking forward to our visit to the Poconos for weeks… to a wonderful little RV park tucked in the woods of the Pocono Mountains in the little town of Tobyhanna. The Poconos have long been a recreational retreat for folks in the Tri-State (PA-NY-NJ) area. (It’s also a romantic getaway for many.)

Hemlock Campground & Cottages is one of a handful of campgrounds that rank among our favorites — with great amenities for all types of campers. We loved the good WiFi, clean showers, wooded ambiance, and the ping-pong table. Others might enjoy the pool, playground, and big recreation hall. Each campsite has a fire ring and a picnic table, and the cottages have a fully equipped kitchen and bathroom (along with heat and air-conditioning).

The campground also has good (and friendly) customer service and is conveniently located to explore all the fun the Poconos has to offer, including rolling mountain terrain, breathtakingly beautiful waterfalls, thriving woodlands, and 170 miles of winding rivers. The name of the mountain range comes from the Munsee word Pokawachne, which means “Creek Between Two Hills.”

Pocono Cheesecake Factory

But the mountains could wait, because Ran had been anxiously awaiting a stop at the Pocono Cheesecake Factory, located on
Route 611 in Swiftwater, and one of the few bakeries that make a low-carb cheesecake with Xylitol. (Actually, they make TWO, a plain version and a blueberry almond.)

Weeks before our visit, we had been in contact with Al Johnson, the current owner (along with wife Carole). We love supporting high-quality, small enterprises — and jumped at the chance to see behind the scenes and watch the cheesecake being prepared and baked. Al and Carole have owned the bakery since 2007, taking it over from the founder (and developer of the secret recipe)
Priscilla Moore.

The bakery takes pride in offering the highest quality cheesecakes… most of them traditionally sweetened with sugar, including: plain, chocolate, raspberry swirl, peanut butter cup, cookies and cream, and caramel pecan turtle. They also do some season varieties, such as pumpkin in the fall.

We loved our visit with Al and appreciate his attention to quality and detail, even as costs rise and some customers complain about the premium prices. We bought a whole blueberry almond, low-carb cheesecake and have been enjoying it thoroughly. We were even happier when Al told us he can ship frozen cheesecakes anywhere in the U.S. They also recently got into selling cheesecakes for fundraising for schools and other groups looking to offer a quality product and raise money for their organization.

Big Pocono State Park

Once the cheesecake issue was resolved, we could get back to exploring the beauty of the Poconos, starting with Big Pocono State Park, a 1,306-acre park on the summit and slopes of Camelback Mountain.

The top of Camelback Mountain contains a unique scrub oak shrubland forest containing wind-dwarfed gray birch, quaking aspen, pitch pine, and scrub oak.

Hiking or driving the 1.4-mile Scenic Drive — which we hiked — offers panoramic views of Pennsylvania, New Jersey (including the Delaware Water Gap), and New York. The park also includes 8.5 miles of trails, many with fairly extreme slopes and rough grades.

Since 1921, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry has maintained a fire town on the mountain for use in detecting wildfires in the surrounding private and state forestlands. (Staffed in the spring and fall, with no public access.)

Camelback Ski Resort, recognized as one of the top places in the U.S. to learn to ski and snowboard, sits next to the state park. It contains 37 trails and 15 lifts — and all completely covered by snowmaking. We had fun exploring one of the lift and trail areas.

Tobyhanna State Park

We ended our fun in the Poconos with some hiking at Tobyhanna State Park, a 5,440-acre park that includes the 170-acre Tobyhanna Lake (reservoir) and a portion of Tobyhanna Creek. Tobyhanna is derived from an American Indian word meaning “a stream whose banks are fringed with alder.”

The park is situated in an interesting area — adjacent to the Black Bear & Bender Swamps Natural Area and Gouldsboro State Park. Squeezed among all these natural areas sits the U.S. Military Reservation: Tobyhanna Army Depot. (At one time, the park were part of a large artillery range used by the Army.) Gouldsboro State Park is a 2,800-acre park that includes the 250-acre Gouldsboro Lake (reservoir); the park’s name comes from the village north of the park that was named for industrialist Jay Gould, whose former rail corridor passes through both parks.

We hiked the main trail in the park, a 5.1-mile trail that circles the lake; it is level, well-marked, and generally gravelled.

In addition to trails, the parks offer camping, picnicking, fishing, and boating. Both parks offer boat rentals (kayaks, canoes, paddle boats) in summer months.

While we did not wine-taste in the Poconos, we wanted to mention that Pennsylvania has five American Vinicultural Areas (AVAs) and it is ranked seventh in the nation for the number of wineries (with about 270+ wineries); it is the fifth largest producer of grapes in the country, with more than 14,000 acres of vineyards. The wine industry contributes more than $4.8 billion in economic impact. Some of the grapes grown in Pennsylvania include Baco Noir, Cabernet Franc, Catawba, Cayuga, Chambourcin, Concord, Delaware, Lemberger, Marechal Foch, Merlot, Moscato, Niagara, Noiret, Traminette, and Vignoles.

Next up, we make a quick side trip to Delaware before making our way to New York state.

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