Sunday, May 5, 2019

Visiting South Central Pennsylvania - Pine Creek Gorge, Flight 93 Memorial, Fallingwater

We left Aunt Laurie’s on April 29, a crisp (31 degrees) but glorious sun-filled day, traveling along NY Route 5 to I-81. This was a pleasant, picturesque route, with lots of farmland, hay fields, wetlands, and lakes.

We branched off to I-86, crossing the Susquehanna River.  As we passed historic Newtown, NY, I traveled back in time, imagining what it would be like to be in this Revolutionary War battle of 1779:  The Iroquois Indians, attempting to protect their tribal lands; The British, enticing the Iroquois to aid Britain against the Patriots, their mutual enemy; and the American Patriots, fighting for one victorious outcome to accomplish two very separate objectives.  We crossed the PA border and stopped for Dad to relieve Mom of driving (and for me to relieve my bladder!)  at the rest area on Route 15 in Tioga, PA, which offered panoramic views of the Tioga-Hammond Lake Dam and Recreation Area.   The Dam, created by the US Army Corp of Engineers, was completed in 1978 to protect communities from flooding.

As he does each time we stop, Dad did a cursory check to be sure we were in good operating condition before we continued down the road.  All systems were go.

We continued along our route, following the travel instructions provided by the campground.  But Gretchen, our new GPS system (Garmin 770), kept yelling at us, telling us there were weight restrictions.  She wanted to re-route us down a dirt road across a corn field!  When we ignored her, she told us to make a left turn into a narrow alleyway!  We retired Gerda, the GPS system that came with our truck, because she got old and confused.  Now we have young Gretchen being as demented as Gerda!   We opted to follow the specific instructions from the campground.  Afterall, they know we are coming with an RV and they should know the nearby roadway restrictions.  As Dad followed the campground’s instructions, Mom noticed that EVERY road included in the campground instructions had a weight restriction.  And she figured out why (which the campground later confirmed):  This was a big area for fracking several years ago.  The fracking operation required tankers of water and chemicals, delivery of heavy equipment, etc.  Some communities despised fracking, so imposing restrictions was a deterrence from fracking vehicles coming through their towns. Fracking vehicles would have to find alternate routes.  Other towns welcomed fracking, and found it could lead to revenues; hence, they required overweight trucks to purchase permits in order to use their roadways.

Anyway, we reached our destination of Canyon Country Campground in Wellsboro, PA.  We picked this campground for its proximity to Pine Creek Gorge, known as the Grand Canyon of PA.  At $45/night, the Campground is very rustic and wooded, with minimal sites to accommodate a setup our size.  Though our assigned site was more than adequate size-wise, it was a total mud pit.  Fortunately, this was shoulder season, so there were few guests in the campground.  Therefore, we opted to take a drier, smaller site to park our 5th wheel, and we parked Big Boomer (our medium duty truck) on the site next to us.  The campground offers decent, free Wi-Fi.  It has a game room, but it was not open yet for the season, so I could not satisfy my Ms. Pac-Man addiction.   Despite the rustic facade of the outhouse building, the bathrooms inside are brightly-colored and well-illuminated, with sparkling clean toilets and shower stalls.  I must say that the campground “office manager” was a bit lazy and not too bright.  But as good-looking as this, who’s going to complain?

Dad made a gruesome discovery as Mom was leveling the RV—we blew a leaf spring!  This was the second leaf spring that went bad in the past 2 months.  Fortunately, we landed at our destination safely.  Dad called two RV service centers within 1.5 hours of the campground, but neither had the required part in stock.  Mom, a very astute problem solver, suggested to Dad that he call Bennett’s RV Center in Granbury, TX, where we have our DRV Mobile Suites 40KSSB4 on order.  Her reasoning was that 1)Bennett's has a HUGE parts department, and had several of our leaf spring size in stock back in March when we blew our first leaf spring (Surely they still had at least one available); and 2)They could overnight it to us right at the campground, so this repair would not delay us or interfere with any of our future reservations.  Dad, being a wise man, acted upon Mom’s suggestion.  And since we still have 3,000+ miles to travel before we return home to TX, Dad ordered 3 leaf springs—it’s not a matter of if, but when, the other 2 original leaf springs of our 2015 Keystone Montana will break. 

Now that we had addressed the leaf spring issue, we went out to explore. Overlook Tower can be accessed right from a trail in our campground.  It cost $3/person, payable by credit or debit card at a turnstile, but we received complimentary access cards from the campground.  Originally built in 1906 at Mount Joy in Valley Forge, PA, this tower was moved to its present site in 1988.  At 2,100 feet above sea level, 100 feet tall, with 100+ stairs to climb, it offers spectacular views of the area, though you cannot actually see Pine Creek Gorge from it.       

Our campground has a trail that connects to Leonard Harris (PA) State Park, which provides access to the East Rim of Pine Creek Gorge.   We would have loved to camp right at this Park (and other PA State Parks nearby), but alas, the RV sites could not handle a setup our size.    We hiked along the poorly-marked 1.5 mile connector trail, and reached The Leonard Harris State Park Visitor Center at 8 a.m., just as it opened.  Lo and behold, they have a film for us to watch!  We did a few short paths at the Rim that offered panoramic views of the Gorge, then began Turkey Path, which leads you on a 1-mile descent via switchbacks and stairs to the bottom of the Gorge.  The Park classifies this trail as “difficult hiking”, but it certainly was a cakewalk compared to our trek down the Grand Canyon of AZ!  There are several waterfalls to enthrall you along the way.  At its maximums, the Gorge is ¾ mile wide and 1,450 feet deep.   Turkey Path connects with Pine Creek Trail.   We hiked a mile or so in each direction of Pine Creek Trail, a smidgen of the 62-miles of this multi-use rails-to-trails project.  But we were privy to watching a tour group float downstream, spotting an eagle looking for its lunch, and glimpsing a juvenile red-spotted newt, before heading back up to the East Rim.  When we returned to the campground, we woke up Dewey the Office Manager from his afternoon nap to collect our package from Bennett’s RV Center.  Bennett’s came through with exceptional customer service, and Dad got our leaf spring fixed up in a jiffy.  It was a very productive day!

The eagle in the tree in the distance...

...And a close-up shot.

Juvenile red-spotted newt

The following day we drove to Colton Point State Park, which gives access to the West Rim of Pine Creek Gorge.  As we have seen so often in our travels to national and state parks, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was responsible for creating many of the trails and buildings here at Colton Point. We started with the 1-mile Rim Trail.  Though relatively flat, the trail was very wet and slick, so I was glad I bought my hiking poles.  It was a foggy, overcast day, so the views were less than stellar at this early hour.

We planned to do the West Rim’s Turkey Path since we completed this trail on the East Rim (unfortunately, there is no bridge that connects Turkey Path from Rim to Rim, so you must do the trail separately on each side of the Gorge).  But upon arrival at the trailhead, we learned the Turkey Path was closed for maintenance/renovations.  So we hiked back to the truck and drove to nearby Tioga State Forest, where we hiked the Bear Run Nature Trail, West Rim Trail (not to be confused with the Rim Trail we did earlier), and portions of the Barbour Trail, which made an additional 4+-mile loop for us.  At the start of the Bear Run Nature Trail is a memorial dedicated to Armed Forces involved with Iraqi Freedom.   I learned that the Forest’s white pine trees can tower as high as 250 feet, and at one time were the lifeblood of Tioga County.  As we traversed along a section of the West Rim Trail, I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye.  I knew right away Dad saw it, too, because he stopped in his tracks.  Just as I had my camera aimed, ready to capture my greatest nature picture EVER of a brawny black bear scrambling along the ridge, my hairbrained mother, who had just spotted the bulky bundle of black fur, let’s out a bloodcurdling scream, scaring the scat out of both me and the bear!  So much for my digital photo to share with you.  Fortunately, I maintain a vivid picture in my mind.

It was a dismal day as we left Canyon Country Campground, but the sun beamed brightly by the time we settled into Shawnee State Park in Schellsburg, PA.  This is a wonderful park within the Allegheny Mountains, whose camping area opens in April and closes in December.  There are several decent-sized sites among 7 camping loops, though not all of the loops/sites have full hook ups.  Non-resident prices for 2019 are $24 for no hookups, $31 for electric only, and $46 for full hook-up Sundays-Thursdays.  Add $4/night for Fridays-Saturdays, and another $2/night if you bring your pet.   (Prices sure have increased substantially since our weekend camping days in PA State Parks.  Back then $18/night got you a full hook up site on a weekend AND covered your pet fee). We chose a 100-foot pull-through on Loop F which was an electric-only site (although it had a water source nearby and a dump station at the beginning of the Park).  But it came with a major advantage:  no other campers on the loop!  The Park has every recreational activity you could want--fishing, swimming, picnic area, boating, hiking, even disc golf (in the winter, it has day-use cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and ice skating).  We arrived as the trees surrounding Shawnee Lake were in full bloom, so it was quite picturesque.

Over the course of our stay, we had some very warm, humid weather, with temps going as high as 78 degrees.  The ticks have arisen from dormancy--Mom already found one on me!   Within the Park, we hiked Forbes Trail, where the dandelions were quite prolific.  Mom wanted to pick some dandelions and make Dad a nice plant-based dinner (using Granny Clampett’s recipe for dandelion soup, sans the squirrel), but oddly, Dad declined her generous offer.  We also traversed Lake Shore Trail, which encircles Shawnee Lake.  The Lake was created in 1950, when they dammed the Juniata River, a tributary of the Susquehanna.  The Canada Geese have invaded this area!  They come to the U.S.A., have their babies, and never leave!  They are such a nuisance and problem to the habitat that it is perfectly legal to hunt Canada Geese within these parts of PA.  Along Lost Antler Trail, we spied a wild turkey.  Shawnee Trail was a bit of an adventure, since most of its paths  were quite muddy and mucky.  Thank goodness we had our waterproof hiking boots.  And at one point, we got lost on the trail.  The map showed that we needed to cross the creek, but for the life of us we couldn’t find any trail marker.  We soon learned why when we backtracked—the trail marker post fell over and was hidden by a thicket of 3-foot-high grasses!

Dandelion soup, anyone?

An example of illegal immigration: Canada geese and their anchor babies.

Shawnee Lake

Bedford and Somerset Counties in PA offer some bucolic, pastural scenes:  cows in the fields, silos, barns, and covered bridges.   More than 14,000 covered bridges once existed in our country. Today, less than 900 still stand, of which nearly 200 lie within the State of PA.  We visited three bridges on this trip (although we have visited several within Bucks County, PA many years ago):  Kings Bridge, originally constructed in 1802, with rebuilds in 1906 and 2008; Barronvale Bridge, built 1830; and Burkholder Bridge, built 1870.  Some high school students were using the Kings Bridge as a backdrop for their prom pictures, while an avid fly fisherman cast his pole nearby.  Burkholder Bridge was not Big-Boomer friendly—it has a height restriction of 8 feet and weight limit of 3 tons, so we parked down the road and walked over to it for photos.

Barronvale Bridge, just one of the three covered bridges we visited.

While out exploring, we stopped to check out Laurel Hill State Park in Jefferson Township within Somerset County.   We were unimpressed, and it was the first PA State Park we have ever visited (about a dozen through the years) with which we were disappointed.  Laurel Hill Park is heavily wooded.  It is an older park (in fact it was the first State Park to be established in PA), so its RV sites are small.  Though they have pull-through sites, they are VERY tight.  The angle of the curve is like a horseshoe and unable to accommodate a big rig.

While in Somerset County, we had an opportunity to get together with RV Dreamers and fellow former New Jerseyans Bill and Kelly.  They are new grandparents spending time with the family’s new bundle of joy.  There are not many restaurant options in this neck of the woods, but our meals at Ruby Tuesdays were decent, and we so enjoyed catching up with this terrific couple.

We were compelled to visit the Flight 93 Memorial.  Though we visited the site in 2012 and donated toward its development, this is the first time we have seen the completed project.  The site was once a mining pit, surrounded by farmland, rolling hills, and hemlock trees.  Visiting the Memorial was quite a poignant experience, and the dismal weather of the day certainly didn’t help.  Out of respect for the lives consecrated on these grounds, we refrained from taking pictures of the actual museum and memorial.  But it was important for us to visit, to pay homage to those victims.  They were everyday people like you and me, going about their everyday lives.   They didn’t know what they would face that day when they boarded that plane.  Yet, once realizing what was transpiring, they accepted their fate and sacrificed themselves to protect others from perishing.  The Memorial is very somber, but tastefully done.    Concrete walls frame a walkway that follows the trajectory of the plane.  The Visitor Center is along this walkway, its rear textured wall in a black hue, symbolizing the hemlock trees that burned as a result of the crash.  There are some very moving exhibits, including the final cell phone messages from some Flight 93 passengers to their loved ones.   The end of the walkway overlooks the point of impact, marked by a boulder within the field.   A walking path leads down to Memorial Plaza, where the names of each passenger and crew member are engraved.  I stopped to read each name, saying a prayer that all are in peace, free from the horror of their violent deaths, residing in the heavens as their own shining stars.  We walked along the wetlands bridge, viewing the Memorial Groves, each grove containing 40 trees, commemorating each Flight 93 victim.   The Tower of Voices is still undergoing construction, but it is quite unique.  It is a 93-foot-tall tower to be comprised of 40 individual wind chimes, representing each of the Flight 93 victims.  Only 8 of the chimes were installed when we visited.  But when completed, I think it will be a melodic symphony of comfort, hope, and unity.

Tower of Voices

After leaving the Flight 93 Memorial, we stopped at the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel/Museum.  The Chapel is now only open for special events, namely for a remembrance ceremony on September 11 each year.  But the grounds are a lovely tribute specific to the Flight 93 Crew.  Across the street from the chapel is a cemetery, its tombstones embraced by a blanket of wildflowers, with dramatic clouds hovering above. 

After stopping for a late lunch at a local sub shop, we headed back to the campground via PA 30, which has some EXTREMELY steep (17% grades) roads!  Along this route is Mt. Ararat, the Allegheny Mountains’ highest peak of 2,464 feet.  

It was a long, somber, weepy day, and I was wiped out.  So I made an early date with Mr. Sandman.  I slept fitfully until about 4 a.m., when I heard a big thump.   Mom heard it, too, so she awakened Dad, who put the scare lights on and perused the perimeter of our RV.  He saw nothing but darkness, and finding everything with our RV in order, we all proceeded back to bed.  When Mom brought our trash out about 7 a.m., she found the campground garbage dumpster had been invaded--trash was strewn EVERYWHERE.  As she picked up all the garbage, she thought maybe it was a raccoon who caused the mess, until she saw that the lid of the dumpster was actually torn off and thrown on the ground.  Perhaps BooBoo the Bear, in his haste to get to his early-bird buffet, tossed the lid on the ground, creating the thump we heard?  Yes, indeed--Park officials confirmed that there are several “regulars” among the bear population who feast at the Park dumpsters.  The Park is constantly fixing dumpster lids since the budget cannot accommodate bear-proof dumpsters.  Seems a little penny wise, dollar foolish to me, but then again, it is government!

We had purchased tickets earlier in the week to visit Fallingwater, a home designed for the Kauffmann family in 1936 by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  Getting tickets was no easy feat--this place is popular and books up quickly, despite it being a bit pricey!   We tried to get tickets any day during our 5-day stay at Shawnee State Park.  Secretly, I was a bit happy that Mom's choice of the $150/person package, which included a 3-hour tour, the privilege to take indoor photography, and a brunch was sold out all 5 days, as was the $80/person ticket (2-hour tour and the privilege to take indoor photography)—it meant me spending less of my cheese money.    Even the $32/person tickets (1.5 hour tour, indoor photography prohibited) were sold out 4 out of the 5 days.  So we were thrilled to score some of the last 9 tickets available on Sunday, our last day staying in this area.

Even the visitor center bathrooms were tranquil, and they were incorporated natural materials into the design (those are twigs in the backsplash).

Bear Run, the land on which the home is situated, was originally purchased in parcels by a local Masonic club.  Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann then purchased the land as a camp for their employees at Kaufmann’s Department Store.  (Founded in 1871, the store remained intact until 2006, when Macy’s took it over and subsequently ceased its operation entirely).  The land was later utilized as the Kaufmann family’s personal summer retreat, appropriately named Fallingwater.   It was the Kaufmanns’ only son, with no heirs of his own, who entrusted the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy with Fallingwater’s preservation.

Fallingwater is majestic in its simplicity.  It is constructed of only four materials:  steel, standstone, concrete, and glass, with the main house situated right above a natural, cascading waterfall.  In fact, the main living space had a retractable glass stair enclosure that provides access to the water.  Wright utilized rich earth tones throughout the home.  His design technique known as compression/release is evident as you traverse narrow, dark, low-ceiling hallways before entering high-ceiling, naturally-lit rooms.  Those low ceilings in hallways may also be attributed to Wright’s personal belief that the perfect height was 5’8” (he was only 5’6” himself, but reportedly wore 2” lifts in his shoes).

Personally, I loved the guest house more than the main home.  The rooms were more spacious, and the house had direct access to the spring-fed swimming pool.  Warm natural tones were used for bedspread and pillow fabrics.

The tour was very informative and very organized.  At least 6 groups of 20 tour the house at the same time, so there is no wandering off or lingering.  No interior photos nor photos taken from exterior patios/verandas are permitted during the tour--you need to score an $80 or $150 ticket to do that.  The tour ends in what was once the carport.  Now the area serves as a venue for the Pennsylvania Western Conservancy to promote its mission and entice guests to become members.  First they show you a video, then you get a spiel from the Development Team, and then they hover immediately outside the room with membership forms and credit card machines.  Memberships start at $60.  They promoted the $125 level, which comes with reciprocity for admission at 29 other Frank Lloyd Wright sites.  We are thinking visiting all his sites may be a cool road trip one year!

The grounds are lovely, too, including The Barn and Bear Run Nature Preserve, right down the road from the main entrance to Fallingwater.  It was once a dairy farm belonging to the Kaufmann family.  Today it is an event venue with hiking trails among hemlock trees,  laurel groves, and babbling brooks.  It was raining, but we still did a couple miles of trails.

I am really glad we had an opportunity to visit Fallingwater.  Good old F.L.W. sure had a knack for blending functionality and aesthetics to create a home of comfort, serenity and spirituality.

Boy, this sure turned into a l-o-n-g post—sorry about that!

We hit the road again tomorrow heading to Florida, NY.  I'll talk to you again real soon!

We would like to thank the following organizations for all the great service and support they offer to the RVing community:

Escapees RV Club


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RV Dreams

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  1. What a beautiful area. We spent some time there last fall but did not make it to the memorial.
    Great job catching the leaf spring, that could have been ugly!

  2. Bummer about your leaf spring...been there! Up here they say a fed bear is a dead bear. It’s probably only a matter of time before someone is attacked then it will cost that park a lot more than purchasing bear proof garbage cans.
    Safe travels!

  3. That was a lot of hiking! We enjoyed that area as well. Lot of excitement with the bear. The Memorial was beautifully done. When we were there they were just breaking ground with the voice tower.

  4. WOW -- no Idea Frank's house tour was SO involved!! You mean to say PO-PO was not able to squeeze in the smallest entrance??
    Great coverage never-the-less!! Be well -- safe travels

  5. Having grown up a little West of Harrisburgh, and having had a Grandfather who was PA's 1st Fire Warden, i very much enjoyed your story@