Eco-Tourism in the Laurel Highlands: By Bike, by Boat and On Foot

Reader Contribution by John D. Ivanko
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The Laurel Highlands stretch over three counties of mountainous terrain that starts a little over an hour east of Pittsburgh and encompass over 120,000 acres of state and federally managed parks and feature the spectacular Youghiogheny River Gorge in the Ohiopyle State Park – where we spent most of our time traipsing through the woods.  Running the “Yough,” as it’s often called, is one of the best white water rafting opportunities in the Eastern US.

For three days before the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR, held at the Seven Springs Mountain Resort, we rafted, biked, toured some of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes, and savored farm-to-table cuisine that blew us away at The Historic Stone House.  Less than 30 miles from Seven Springs Mountain Resort, we embarked on a nature adventure, bedding down at three very different farmstays every evening.  This is the first of two blogs that reveal the experiences to be had.

Bicycle Tourism in the Laurel Highlands

For bicyclists of all background and levels, you can hop on the nearly flat Great Allegheny Passage bike trail in Washington D.C. and get off in Pittsburgh.  If you’re like us and not long range bikers (and have your kid with you), pick up your rental bikes at Wilderness Voyageurs and take the popular Ohiopyle to Confluence segment, a twenty-two mile round trip, leaving time for a delightful picnic lunch along side the Yough that the tree-lined, crushed limestone pathway follows (read: pleasant, easy, beautiful). If you have a few extra minutes, head out of Ohiopyle on the trail in the opposite direction of Confluence for a panoramic vista from a bridge overlooking the Yough Gorge.

For some serious mountain biking on some of the hundreds of miles of single track, double-track or fire roads around Ohiopyle, rent your Cannondale Adventurer bike and chat with Manager Ben Scoville or Eric Martin for their riding recos.

Traveling the Laurel Highlands by Water

For either a thrill on class 3 and 4 rapids, or the more mellow family-friendly class 1 and 2 rapids, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get on the water.  Since our son was still eleven, we opted for the scenic and slower middle Yough with our guide, Brett Lesnick, now in his ninth season with the Laurel Highlands River Tours.  He helped pass the time during a meandering section of the river with some colorful stories of his escapades as an Eagle Scout while we watched for otters and bald eagles.  Half way down, we even stopped for a picnic lunch along the shore. There’s little danger with this trip on the Middle Yough, so those with limited experience with rafting, boating or swimming will fare fine on this roughly four hour trip.

With our son Liam turning 12 next year, we’re already planning to hit the swift moving and powerful Lower Yough, with the dangerous Dimple Rock and numerous other major rapids.  “Participation is required” for these runs.  While we’ll stick with having a guide in our raft — for our own safety and enjoyment — more experienced boaters can rent duckies or kayaks. 

The Natural Water Slide, south as you head out of the town of Ohiopyle, provides nature’s real-life version of the ubiquitous waterslides found at waterparks.  Settle yourself in at the top of this natural rock formation and “slide” down to a refreshing plunge at the bottom.  Or for those looking for shore-side, dry action, take in the stunning Cucumber Falls just up the road – or the Ohiopyle Falls right in town.

Eco-Touring On Foot

Widely known as the “Father of Organic Architecture,” Frank Lloyd Wright believed in creating buildings and homes that be defined by and emerge from nature. The internationally-renowned Fallingwater home, designed in 1935 for the family of Edgar J. Kaufman, owner of a Pittsburgh department store, became instantly famous for it’s distinct look and design.  Perched over a waterfall, the home and its centerpiece stairway down to the stream, brings the homeowner closer to nature.  Guided walking tours snake through the main home as well as the guesthouse, leaving us with the opportunity to hike the grounds on our own as long as we pleased.

Another of Wright’s masterpieces, Kentuck Knob, is just up the road, nestled near the top of a ridge that offers a panoramic vista of the surrounding countryside.  One of Wright’s last designs in 1954 for Bernadine and I.N. Hagan, Kentuck Knob features a hexagonal

 module design that, like most of Wright’s Usonian buildings, lets nature steal the show and designed to efficiently and beautifully accommodate a family.  Other natural and energy-saving features include radiant-floor heating, cantilevered overhangs for solar heating or cooling, plus clerestory windows that let in natural light.   We couldn’t help but take away inspiring ideas for our own Wisconsin homestead.  We followed the pathway from the home down the hillside through the sculpture garden featuring numerous contemporary artists as well as a chunk of the Berlin Wall.

In the Ohiopyle State Park, a brief drive away, offer hundreds of miles of easy to strenuous hiking trails, depending on our ambition.  The 100-acre Ferncliffe Peninsula National Natural Landmark, forever within earshot of the roaring Yough, contains many rare plants, some sprouting from seeds from Maryland and West Virginia deposited by the north-flowing river.

So, if you’re planning a return to the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR at Seven Springs Resort, you might want to add a few days to your trip to experience some of the natural wonders that await you.  Give us a wave if you spot my family and I running the Lower Yough in 2014.  My next post will cover some of the unique farmstays in the area, plus a few culinary spots not to miss.

Photos by John D. Ivanko

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun.  Both are regular speakers at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS.  Ivanko writes and contributes photography to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living.”  John and his family live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10-kW Bergey wind turbine.

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