When it comes to mountain roads, fiery fall foliage, and the smoky fog of autumn, you may not think of Pennsylvania first. Maybe your mind wanders to the rugged wilds of western states, or charming towns of New England. Maybe you think of a place you really want to go. I am going to bet, however...that you're not thinking of Pennsylvania. Which is fine...but...Pennsylvania gets overlooked so often! Maybe that's not so bad. I don't think PA is necessarily the trendiest, most beautiful, instagrammable place on the planet. But it is my home, and I love it. I think it has qualities that make it a hidden jewel. So, I am devoting this whole post as a love letter to my home state. Pennsylvania, you're beautiful and so under appreciated. You have it all. Valleys, rivers, mountains, and even big skies. You're perfect for mindless and winding road trips on lonely roads etched between hills and mountains. If I may, I'd argue that's your best asset.
This time the destination was the illusive Pennsylvania Grand Canyon - a famous scenic point all the way out in Tioga County. It overlooks a stretch of the Pine Creek. Around this time of year, with the weather getting cooler, I get this urge to go to REI or NorthFace, buy everything in the store, then plan a big hiking excursion or camping trip. With peak leaf weekend coming, my mom and I (my favorite road trip companion!) decided to give it a shot. Except...no camping or hiking. We wanted to take this trip purely for the sake of seeing it. The PA Grand Canyon is formally known as the Pine Creek Gorge. It is a little difficult to find, especially with popular apps like Google Maps. We tried to find it before, and failed. So this time, we made ambitious plans: to make the 4.5 hour drive AND BACK all in one night. We didn't feel like going through the whole ordeal of booking a hotel, but we also didn't want to sleep in the back of the car (like last time!!). So we made a plan, and of course, failed to follow it.
Because of my boatload of grad homework, we left way too late. I can't complain because the ride itself was still beautiful. Just having a place for your eyes to rest - in an unfamiliar or new sight - is so refreshing. Even as I was doing most of the daytime driving, I enjoyed every bend and twist between the mountain roads. Once we were really out of the way, far from the nearby towns, we began to worry that the sun would go down before we could reach the Gorge. Without having any idea of what to expect, we figured it would just have to be a spur-of-the-moment, cross-your-fingers sort of discovery.
As it turned out, our route planning (or lack thereof) was a perfect stroke of luck! We drove through Wellsboro, the town situated right on the outskirts of the Gorge, with just enough time to spare to reach the park. As we drove through in a rush, we lamented at our pace because the town was screaming for us to stop and walk through. It has everything a small American town should - gas lamps lining the streets, an old time theatre with a marquee, lots of restaurants and shops with big windows, and of course, a diner (from the 1930s, no less)! But the sun was setting fast, it was getting COLD, and we worried that the park would be closed.
So we made our way, following signs, onward to Pine Creek. As we drove up and up, we kept seeing signs that pointed us in the right direction. As we got closer, I had a reassuring feeling - we were going to make it! The sun was setting fast, but indeed, we made it. We entered the park, turned off the car, and leapt out - I actually ran into the park entrance like an idiot - and it was everything I could've hoped for. Seriously, a photographer's dream!
The park was not desolate; it had a few cars in the lot (always a good sign!). As we entered the park, a staircase leading downward to a platform - yes, down the stairs - led to viewpoints of the surrounding mountains. Luckily for us, there was no need for hiking or any climbing at all! Don't get me wrong, I would've loved to have hiked, to work for the view. But with the timing we had, the vista sprawling before us was perfectly accessible and just as rewarding.The park itself, Leonard Harrison State Park, is great for poor planners like ourselves who really want to see the view but don't plan to hike for it. Breathlessly, I barreled down the staircase toward the platform overlooking the vista. The gorge was everything I thought it would be. Big blue mountains framed by towering pines, golden heaps of autumn trees, and the occasional hawk flying by. The wind was absolutely chilling, and by the end of about 15 minutes or so on the overlook our hands were numb. It was well worth it! It's funny how almost five hours in the car can lead to 15 minutes of pure happiness, curiosity, and wonder.
As you can see, the pictures turned out - which made me happy - but it was truly autumn in its full glory. I think October is hands down the best time to drive through Pennsylvania. Our trip to Pine Creek Gorge was well-timed, in a sense that it was peak leaf weekend. I would love to see it in the snow or in the summer, too.
After leaving the park, we decided to drive through Wellsboro to get a proper look at the town. It was 7pm and we were starving for food, so we decided to eat at the historic Wellsboro Diner. Walking in the diner made me feel like I was being filmed in a 1950s movie: bell on the door ringing as you walk in, a couple or two at the bar, a waiter wiping the counter. The menu was simple: breakfast all day and simple American fare. Eager to warm up, we ordered two hot teas. Then we pulled out our adventure journal - we keep this with us for our road trips - and began to write all of the memorable moments that we had experienced since leaving the house.
Overall, lessons learned: a) Plan just enough ahead, so you don't miss some important things...like almost running out of sunlight. b) Always stop for scenic overlooks. c) Diners are always a good idea.
The Pine Creek Gorge can be easily confused if you're looking on Google Maps like we had been doing (originally). Be sure to look for Leonard Harrison State Park right outside of Wellsboro, PA. It is from the Harrison outlook which these photos were taken! Parking is free and there is minimal hiking involved. If you're a hiking enthusiast or want to get on the trails, there are several beginner-to-advanced trail options for you!