Often, destinations that are a bit more remote tend to be ignored. Places outside big cities, lacking in national parks or other well-known landmarks, can still be wonderful. There is a calmness to rolling hills, forests and meadows, mountains and streams that are, of themselves, not a focal point for travel.
Southwestern Pennsylvania is one such area. Before my recent visit, I knew little of the land between Gettysburg and Pittsburgh. What would this area offer a traveler, especially one interested in deeper sorts of things?
Let’s start with Pittsburgh itself, land of yellow bridges. (Seriously, most of the bridges here are yellow. Pretty awesome.) Pittsburgh is a city in the midst of rediscovery. Born of the might of US Steel, as that industry has declined, this iconic working-class haven has had to reinvent itself. And it has, but still celebrates its storied past.
Green trees. Blue skies. Yellow bridges.
My favorite example of this past is the Duquesne Incline, a funicular that opened in 1877 to take commuters from the riverbanks to the heights. Nowadays, it is a lovely trip on an old – really old – tram for what might just be the best view of the city!
The view from the top of the Duquesne Incline is worth the time and small (cash only) fee.
Modern Pittsburgh is a hub of technology. Google, Apple, Facebook, and other tech giants all have massive presences here, generating more than $20 billion in annual payrolls to the region. This influx of high-paying tech jobs has attracted a huge number of young professionals, which has in turn made the Steel City a mecca for new restaurants, bars, and other things that such a clientele desire. Try the Smallman Galley, a converted industrial space with rotating food concepts operating in different parts of the open seating area.
Using Pittsburgh as your home base, you can now explore some of the other things this corner of Pennsylvania has to offer. For the architecture lover, Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Fallingwater is easily worth seeing. It is only accessible by tour, although the grounds can be visited without, and tours always book up, so purchase tickets in advance. The home, built in 1939 for a wealthy Pittsburgh family as a retreat, is an architectural marvel, terraces reaching out from a central structure, constructed over a waterfall.
The iconic view of Fallingwater, with the leveled terraces and waterfall visible.
The home was built for the astronomical cost of $155,000 (the equivalent of about $3 million today), but upkeep costs even more than that. Now a museum run by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, it holds mostly original furnishings, much of which was also designed by Wright.
Fallingwater sits just outside of Ohiopyle State Park, a surprisingly beautiful area with some nice waterfalls. The main Ohiopyle Falls on the Youghiogheny River remind me very much of Spokane Falls.
Ohiopyle Falls from one of the observation platforms
Nearby Cucumber Falls offers a completely different look and feel!
Cucumber Falls in Ohiopyle State Park
Natural areas like this may not have the grandeur of Yosemite, but neither do they have the crowds. There is a sense of calm being one of the few people at a place like this, and Southwestern Pennsylvania has dozens.
Further east lies Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a small town that took part in one of the most horrific days in American history. American Airlines Flight 93 was the fourth hijacked plane on September 11, 2001. Using an airphone in the back of the plane, passengers found out that other hijacked aircraft had been flown into the twin towers. They courageously voted to try to regain control of the plane. Flight 93 crashed in a field outside of Shanksville, killing everyone on board, but never making it to its intended destination, thought to be the Capital Building in Washington.
The Flight 93 National Memorial doesn’t offer a lot to see. The story is told, and the brave passengers and crew honored on a memorial wall. The crash site itself is closed to all but the families of the victims, but the Visitors Center is built in the flight path the aircraft took before it impacted the ground.
The Visitors Center at Flight 93 National Memorial
Beyond these sights, the beauty of Southwest Pennsylvania lies in its simplicity. Rolling hills dotted with farmhouses nestle next to small towns dating back hundreds of years. Pennsylvania Dutch (Amish) shops can be found along some of the highways, and are much better stops than fast food restaurants. Leave the interstate, take a small road, and discover what makes this region wonderful!
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