5 great places for outdoor learning fun in Pennsylvania and Ohio
Photo above of the McKivigan kids exploring Allegheny National Forest courtesy of Meg St-Esprit.
Pittsburgh, with its hilly terrain and network of rivers and streams, ranks high among U.S. cities for its access to green space. In fact, 92% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. Places like Frick Park, Riverview Park and the 3,000-acre North Park, along with the many riverside trails and creeks you can explore, give city and suburb dwellers so many options for outdoor learning and recreation.
Beyond the city, it only gets better. Our region offers amazing experiences, from hiking trails and waterfalls to natural wonders.
During the 2020-21 school year, we homeschooled our four kids – Eli (10), Ezra and Naomi (8) and Naarah (3) – and we often used the great outdoors as our classroom. Here are a few of our favorite spots for outdoor learning fun that are close enough to Pittsburgh for a day trip or a quick overnight stay:
My kids and I spent two memorable days in a Getaway trailer camping near Beaver Creek State Park. We were completely amazed by the terrain and the animal life we saw. It’s a short drive from Pittsburgh (about 90 minutes). Among our learning adventures: We spent three days checking on a nest of killdeer. If you’ve never seen these unique birds, they make a nest of speckled eggs directly on the ground. When anyone gets too close, they pretend they are hurt and run away from the nest to distract predators. We carefully observed them, keeping our distance so the parents didn’t feel too scared. We also toured the Pioneer Village in the state park, which includes a lock from the Erie Canal and a collection of log buildings. The park has a nature education center, as well.
One of our first “big trips” once the pandemic shutdown lifted was to scramble along the rocks at McConnells Mill. The giant “scars” in the earth left by the Moraine Glacier were pure catnip for kids who had been contained indoors for too long. But do make sure to stick to the signage, because Slippery Rock Creek is very dangerous and fast-moving — it’s not a place for swimming. There are many outdoor learning opportunities, including an actual historic gristmill that is sometimes open for tours (though make sure to check beforehand). We’ve toured the mill pre-COVID, but didn’t during the pandemic. There is so much natural area to explore, it wasn’t even necessary. One great learning tip at McConnells Mill: Keep a close eye out for fossils, as we spotted several seashells and ferns imprinted onto the ancient rocks. (We also found some graffiti on the covered bridge that said “Poopy” which my kids loved.)
Marienville isn’t the exact location of this forest, because the forest is truly massive. It is the only national forest in the entire state. While I spent my childhood camping here at a shared family cabin, my family and I have really taken the past two years to explore this area. We visited Heart’s Content, which is one of the oldest forests in the northeast United States. (It’s currently closed for winter, but check here to know when it’s open later this spring.) My kids tried their hand at emulating their favorite YouTube stars with this video of our hike. Alongside the National Forest, there is a manmade reservoir, Tionesta Lake, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers. From an outdoor learning perspective, the dam alone was fascinating to my kids, because it’s part of the water control system that (mostly) keeps the Allegheny River and Pittsburgh from flooding. The best moments we had on this lake, though, were walking across it, frozen, while strangers taught us about ice fishing. I felt that day like we were watching “Inside Out,” as our kids’ minds made a core memory and popped it into a place of honor in their little brains.
We just can’t stay away from the Laurel Highlands for fun and outdoor learning. It’s only about an hour’s drive, and we have yet to run out of things to do. We have stayed at Jellystone Park in Mill Run for five summers in a row, and we’ve made day trips for all sorts of different events year-round. On a float trip on the Youghiogheny (which we did on a calmer section of the river, just over the border in Friendsville, MD at Precision Rafting), our 3-year-old slept for the entire two hours. She didn’t mind missing the boat ride, though. As our pandemic baby, she was mostly enthralled by the school bus ride to the starting point of the trip, as she had never been on a bus of any type before.
My kids and I usually live at Avalon Pool all summer. But when the pandemic shuttered most public pools and gave others exhaustive wait times, we discovered Keystone State Park. Just shy of an hour from our Bellevue home, it is idyllic and laid back. My kids dug in the sand for hours with each other, ate a picnic lunch we packed, and usually fell asleep on the drive home. One bonus: The bathrooms and changing house are gorgeous, clean and surrounded by picnic tables and a playground. There are cabins and campsites for rent, but we just go for the day.
Getting outside — for outdoor learning or just to soak up some fresh air and sun — has been so vital these past two years. There are so many traumatic things about the pandemic that I worry will shape my kids forever. My twins walked out of kindergarten one day and never went back, my youngest does not even remember a world without masks, and my oldest so vividly remembers a pre-pandemic world that he often grieves its loss.
I wish things could have gone differently over the last two years, but one thing I do not regret is spending as much time in the woods as we possibly could. I hope when my kids are grown and think back on this time, the memories of masks and fractured friendships are not as strong as the memories of piles of muddy clothes, splashing with their siblings, and standing, in awe, in the middle of a frozen lake knowing the water under the ice flowed all the way from our feet to Point State Park.
The Kidsburgh team hopes this guide to nearby destinations helps your family embrace the great outdoors in our region, this year and long after the pandemic is just a memory.