Outdoor Adventure, Iconic Homes Make the Laurel Highlands a Must-visit

Outdoor Adventure, Iconic Homes Make the Laurel Highlands a Must-visit

By Vanessa Orr

I’ve always thought of the Laurel Highlands as a magnet for those who love outdoor adventure, from skiing at Seven Springs Mountain Resort to whitewater rafting at Ohiopyle State Park. But as I recently realized while enjoying a peaceful outdoor picnic and lightly oaked Chardonnay at Greendance-The Winery at Sand Hill, it’s also the perfect place to relax and just take in everything nature has to offer.

Even before the pandemic, people were flocking to the Laurel Highlands, located about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh, PA, to enjoy its spectacular natural scenery and outdoor recreation. The area is also a huge attraction for those who love iconic buildings as it is home to four Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces. And since the establishment of the Laurel Highland Pour Tour in 2019, it’s become even more popular as a place to spend reinvigorating time away.

The Great Outdoors

There are so many ways to enjoy the natural world in the Laurel Highlands that you may never want to go back inside. From its almost 700 miles of hiking and biking trails to whitewater rafting, ziplining and shooting sporting clays, there is something to attract every kind of outdoor adventurer.

Not only is the area home to Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania’s largest park, but it also encompasses Laurel Hill State Park, Laurel Ridge State Park, Linn Run State Park, Kooser State Park, and Keystone State Park, along with four state forests.

Ohiopyle is especially beautiful in the spring and fall when its many waterfalls are at their most scenic; from massive Ohiopyle Falls, which plunges 20 feet into the Youghiogheny River, to the more serene Cucumber Falls with its 30-foot drop. One of the most photographed waterfalls in Pennsylvania, Cucumber Falls is also a visitor favorite because it’s easy to walk right down to the waterfall from the parking lot; just be careful as the stones along the trail can be quite slippery!

World-renowned Architecture

The waterfalls in the Laurel Highlands are so inspiring, in fact, that one was the impetus for the creation of one of America’s most famous homes. Fallingwater, the home designed for the Edgar J. Kaufmann family by world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW), was originally supposed to sit across from a waterfall on Bear Run Creek so that the homeowners could enjoy the view. Instead, Wright decided to cantilever a home directly above it; a set of steps from the living room even leads directly into the rushing water below.

While the house has been limited to outside-only tours through the pandemic, it will be reopening to visitors on May 1 with a new Guided Architectural Tour, so you can see this marvel yourself. I also suggest visiting Kentuck Knob, another Frank Lloyd Wright house located about six miles down the road, which includes a woodland walking trail featuring sculptures by renowned modern artists. While I enjoy Fallingwater, I really love Kentuck Knob; the smaller house feels more homey and is almost denlike in the way that it nestles into the woods.

The Laurel Highlands is also home to Polymath Park, which features two more FLW-designed properties, Mäntylä and Duncan House. While there are daily house tours, and lunch and dinner tours, what is really unique is that you can stay overnight in Mäntylä —one of only seven of his properties in the world where this opportunity exists! Two other homes in the Usonian style, designed by Wright’s apprentice, architect Peter Berndtson, make up Polymath Park and are part of the tours.

Drink in the Ambience

Hiking the Laurel Highlands Trail or wandering through FLW’s masterful creations can build up a thirst, and the Laurel Highlands Pour Tour provides 45 different destinations where you can experience local favorites, whether you’re a fan of craft beer, cider, mead, hard spirits or wine. The trail even includes pop-up and farmers’ market locations.

At Greendance, for example, you can sample delicious fruit wines made with the farm’s own raspberries, blackberries, red and black currants, gooseberries, heritage variety apples and more. They also make picnic lunches to go, as well as decadent desserts—again using their own berries—on-site at Cafe Persimmon. The Laurel Highland Meadery’s products are made using honey provided by a local farmer, and local, farm-fresh products are also the key to Unity Brewing’s impressive, eclectic menu that accompanies its collaboratively brewed beers.

Where to Stay

To truly soak in the ambience of the Laurel Highlands—and to get to visit as many places as possible in this three-county, 3,000 sq. mile area—try to at least spend a weekend if not longer. Lodging choices range from primitive camping and RV camping in state parks, to romantic cabins in the woods, to classic bed-and-breakfasts and chain hotels. The area also has two resorts—Seven Springs Mountain Resort and Nemacolin—for those who prefer higher-end accommodations. 

To learn more, visit www.golaurelhighlands.com.

About the Author: Freelance writer. Roadtripper. Travel diva and dog rescuer. Will write for food or kibbles and bits. Based out of Pittsburgh, PA, via Juneau, AK, Vanessa has been a freelance writer for more than 25 years. An avid traveler, she always brings home amazing memories…and often more dogs. Find out more at http://www.VanessaOrrInk.com or follow http://www.EveryRoadaStory.com.

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