Family road trip on just 1 tank of gas: Check out the Laurel Highlands
All photos by Alex Byers, courtesy of Go Laurel Highlands.
Family travel can be an incredible way to make memories, but we know it can also be a bit of a challenge. Flying is expensive, and frequent flight cancellations and delays have frustrated many families this year. Gas prices are improving, but they’re still not low.
Luckily, Pittsburgh is located near a whole bunch of amazing destinations. So in recent months, Kidsburgh has been taking our readers on a tour of some great spots that you can reach on just one tank of gas. Our first stop was Columbus, Ohio (if you missed it, check it out here) and then we shared a guide to visiting Cleveland with kids (catch that here).
This month, we’re on to a new destination.
Next stop: the Laurel Highlands!
If you’ve grown up in Pittsburgh, chances are you’ve been to the Laurel Highlands at least once – maybe for a day at Idlewild & Soak Zone or to tour the stunning Fallingwater home built by world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The Laurel Highlands – a region comprised of Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland counties – is a local gem stuffed with family-friendly activities for a weekend road trip.
Stay a While
While the Laurel Highlands are not far from Pittsburgh (most destinations are about 1-2 hours from downtown), it’s worth it to stay overnight in the area. The region is rife with state parks such as Laurel Hill, Linn Run, and Ohiopyle, all with an assortment of campsites and cabins. Check out the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to book a spot. If you’re not interested in true camping, there are a ton of other options from the rustic to the glamorous. Though Frank Lloyd Wright fans cannot actually stay at Fallingwater, they can book a night at Polymath Park, which is a collection of smaller homes designed by Wright and his apprentice Peter Berndtson. Several of the homes have been saved from demolition in other states and relocated to the site.
Yogi Bear Jellystone Park Mill Run is also a popular destination. Tent and RV sites, modern cabins, a treehouse and Conestoga wagons are all options at the camping resort. Included with a stay is access to three swimming pools, water slides, tractor rides, and more. For families that prefer a guest house feeling, the Parker House in Confluence has multiple bedrooms, a gaming room and several other common areas for guests.
There’s so many places to eat in the region that it can be hard to pick. Polymath Park boasts Treetops Restaurant, where guests can eat in private treehouse dining pods. In Confluence, PA, don’t miss a chance to dine along the Youghigheny River at River’s Edge Cafe. You can also get a classic Happy Meal and sandwich at the Big Mac Museum, because the iconic burger was actually invented by a McDonald’s franchisee in the Laurel Highlands. And in Ohiopyle, Falls City Pub has indoor and outdoor seating along with $5 kids meals.
Coffee shops abound in the region, too. If your kids have been missing the half-of-a-car that was displayed at Phipp’s Conservatory, no worries. It found a new home at Tissue Farm, a coffee shop, artist residency, and studio space with local baked goods. Silver Horse Coffee in Donegal has a ton of roasts to try as well as a great breakfast menu. The Yougiogheny Coffee Co. in Connelsville has coffee, tea and bubble tea.
The number one reason to travel to the Laurel Highlands is this: There’s just so much to do. From state and national parks, waterfalls, covered bridges, and the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail, it’s possible to take several long weekends in the region and not see everything.
The Flight 93 National Memorial is actually a perfect stop for families with kids, even given the heavy nature of the 9/11 plane crash site. Kids can complete a junior ranger program and be sworn in by a National Park Ranger at the flag pole – they even get a badge. Park staff and volunteers do a great job of helping kids understand the memorial, the nature of the park and their role in preserving history. Don’t miss the Tower of Voices wind chimes on your way out. 40 different tones play in the breeze, and each tone is as unique as the 40 heroes who died that day.
The Laurel Highlands are also home to the largest cave in Pennsylvania, and it is one of the largest sandstone caves in the world. Deep within Laurel Caverns, families can take a guided tour, do self-guided exploration or (for families with older kids) go spelunking far off the main tourist path. The cave is closed in the winter months, as it is the largest natural bat hibernaculum in the northeastern United States.
While you’re at Laurel Caverns, stop at the nearby Fort Necesssity National Battlefield. This free museum is full of hands-on activities for kids and a playground designed to look like a mini version of the original fort. A short walk out to the actual battlefield takes families to a full-size model of the armory where George Washington and his men kept supplies and ammunition. Junior Park Rangers can get another stamp on their National Park passport here.
The Laurel Highlands are most known for their outdoor recreation activities. From trout fishing to kayaking and biking, there is no shortage of options. The Great Allegheny Passage runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, and is largely flat and smooth – easy biking even for kids. Don’t worry if you don’t have bikes, there are plenty of places to rent them in trail towns, such as at Confluence Cyclery and Ohiopyle Co. Families can also rent kayaks, canoes, or take guided whitewater rafting or float trips along the Youghiogheny. The plethora of state parks include beaches, as well.
In the winter months, the Laurel Highlands are the closest skiing to the city of Pittsburgh. Three resorts in the area – Seven Springs, Hidden Valley, and Laurel Mountain – are all run by Vail Resorts. Nemacolin also has a ski slope available to overnight guests. There’s even adaptive ski lessons for people with disabilities or unique winter sports needs. The winter sports resorts also have events happening year-round such as festivals, an Alpine slide and horseback riding.
In between all the big-ticket items, be sure to take some time to explore a covered bridge (you’ll find more of them in this region than anywhere else in the state), stop at a farmer’s market or roadside stand, or pick up some local maple syrup. While there is a ton of fun to be had, there’s also an abundance of space for quiet moments in nature, away from the city.
For more information on visiting this region, contact Go Laurel Highlands, or stop in their visitor’s center in Ligonier. The staff is happy to make recommendations for your weekend away.