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Destination: Pennsylvania : The Allegheny Alternative : In a state where most people think only of Philadelphia or Amish Country, the scenic forests of northwestern Pennsylvania are their own best advertisement

A crimson sun, barely topping the forested ridges of the Allegheny Mountains of northwestern Pennsylvania, slipped slowly into twilight, and the only sound was a breeze teasing the branches of the trees. In the waning light, a small crowd of spectators stood on a steep hillside hoping to catch a glimpse of the herd of wild elk that inhabit this remote corner of the state. With the luck that frequently rewards persevering sightseers, they weren’t disappointed.

In a most theatrical way, the herd suddenly crested a nearby hilltop and paused briefly to survey the surroundings. And then, led by a large buck with a massive rack of antlers, it stampeded down a long, grass-covered slope, darting this way and that in full view of cameras and binoculars.

In no more than a minute or two, the show was over. Almost as one, the elk suddenly veered away from us toward a lush meadow in the valley far below, and there they came to a stop. Nibbling at the grass, they soon ambled out of sight as darkness fell.

Seeing wildlife in action in its natural habitat is always stirring, and my evening’s outing was a reminder that there is still lots of wilderness and wildlife not far from the big cities.

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One such spot centers on the Allegheny National Forest, a 512,000-acre expanse of mountainous woodlands that encompasses the Allegheny Reservoir,a slender, 27-mile-long man-made lake behind Kinzua Dam. Miles of hiking trails--including 87 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail--and countless fishing streams trace the cool green forest, and the beach-fringed reservoir is a pleasant place for swimming, boating and other water sports. Bordering the forest are several large state parks (in both Pennsylvania and New York), each of them providing more outdoor fun and quite lovely mountain and river valley vistas. By local account, the fall foliage blazes in brilliant reds, oranges and yellows from about mid-September to late October.

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I made my way to the region for a few days late last summer, although I had been intrigued for a long time by the huge green splash on the state map representing the Allegheny, Pennsylvania’s only national forest. My trip proved to be a quiet, pleasantly relaxing and very inexpensive getaway.

Because I planned to spend only a few days, I hadn’t equipped myself for camping or for long-distance hikes--the attraction for many visitors. Instead, I stayed in a very comfortable, $45-a-night bed and breakfastinn, the Faircroft, in the little town of Ridgway on the edge of the forest.

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By day, I roamed the forest and its neighboring parks by car and by foot, enjoying a series of short hikes, a couple of which led to especially scenic viewpoints.

Despite the many areas of real beauty in these mountains, it must be noted that there is a certain hardscrabble look to the region, particularly in its scattering of small manufacturing towns and hamlets--several of which look as if they have scarcely changed in decades.

A small folksy town with an ornate old courthouse on Main Street, Ridgway sits at the southeastern edge of the Allegheny National Forest. I made it my jumping-off point for two full-day excursions into the woodlands, exploring the northern area of the forest and its environs on one day and the southern half on the next.

Allegheny hardwoods--such as black cherry, yellow poplar and white ash--are the most valuable and prevalent species of trees in the forest, I learned from literature distributed at the U.S. Forest Service’s District Ranger Station in Ridgway, just a mile or two up the road from my inn. The black cherry timber in particular is prized by European furniture makers for use in quality crafts work, and Louisville Slugger baseball bats are cut from the local white ash. Lumber trucks crowding the main roads through the forest are a continuing reminder of the local logging industry.

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The ranger station also is a good source for forest maps and recreational information, and I gathered up a handful of hiking and sightseeing leaflets to plan my first day. Dotted throughout the forest are more than 20 woodland recreation areas, many of them built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and here I found some of the most scenic spots in the region. Most offer camping facilities, hiking trails and fishing streams, and at a handful there is good swimming in a stream, pond or lake.

My initial destination was the Allegheny Reservoir, the huge lake at the northern end of the forest formed by the damming of the Allegheny River. The road north out of Ridgway took me quickly into the forest, so dense in some places that overhanging branches formed a dark tunnel over the road. Just south of the lake, I turned onto Longhouse Scenic Drive, a narrow, 11-mile, blessedly truck-free road that yielded my first glimpse of the lake. To reach the lake, I turned into the Kiasutha Recreation Area, a campground with a large grass beach. On a midweek morning, only a young couple was there, and they seemed to be having such a good time playing in the water, I decided I wouldn’t intrude by going for a swim myself. Instead, I took about an hour’s hike on the Longhouse Interpretive Trail, a primitive, leaf-covered path that makes a two-mile loop in the woods alongside the lake.

Back in the car again, I headed for Jake’s Rocks Recreation Area, a cliff’s-edge vista point high above the lake. From this vantage, I had a good view of much of the lake. Tinted in green, it is ringed by steep hillsides carpeted with trees.

By now it was lunch time, and I followed the Forest Service signs to Wolf Run Marina at the eastern end of Cornplanter Bridge, which crosses the southern leg of the lake. Cornplanter is a name derived from the Seneca, who once lived and hunted in the forest. As I sat on the deck of the marina’s Dockside Cafe, I picked up a brochure advertising the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, located about 40 miles to the north in Salamanca, N.Y. I decided to take a look, but only after making a couple of interesting detours along the way.

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The first was a stop at Rimrock Recreation Area, another cliff-edge viewpoint above the lake. A short trail and a series of wooden steps leads from the parking lot down to a wooden platform offering a fine panorama. Then I turned north alongside the lake to New York’s Allegany State Park, which (as you may have noticed) is spelled differently from the Allegheny National Forest, Mountains, Reservoir and River--a fact that must confuse local residents as much as it does a tourist. The drive beside the lake, although short, is one of the loveliest in the region, and Allegany State Park is similarly beautiful. Just inside the park boundary, I found little Quaker Lake with its fine bathhouse and sandy beach.

The road to Salamanca and the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum meanders north through the park, and this drive also is very scenic. Almost all of the New York portion of the Allegheny Reservoir is surrounded by the 30,000-acre Allegheny Indian Reservationof the Seneca Nation, on which the museum is located. The museum exhibits pottery and other Native American artifacts from the area dating back thousands of years.

I got back to Ridgway in late afternoon just in time to take in the big, soggy fire hose contest on Main Street, an annual event drawing competing volunteer firefighting companies from neighboring communities. A portion of Main Street was blocked off to traffic, and at each end a fire truck had been parked. Between the trucks, a taut wire had been rigged at rooftop level, and an empty plastic beer keg dangled from the wire midway between the two trucks. A team of five firefighters at each truck held a hose, and at a sign from the official timekeeper they each turned a powerful jet of water on the spinning beer keg. Victory was awarded the team that in 60 seconds could force the keg farthest toward the opposing team’s truck. Youngsters in bathing suits romped in delight in the cascading spray, as the water ran down the street. How hometowny can you get?

The sensation of touring America’s recent past probably was reinforced by my choice of inns, one of several in the region. Built in 1875, the Faircroft is a two-story, white-frame house that sits on a 75-acre farm purchased in 1911 by innkeeper Lois Shoemaker’s grandfather, an immigrant from Sweden.

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For breakfast on my second morning, I was served a heaping plate of homemade waffles topped with fresh sliced peaches and a big scoop of whipped cream. So maybe I wasn’t really ready for the free beer I was offered a half hour later at the first stop on my tour of the southern half of the national forest. As a beer fancier, I had long known about Straub Brewery, a small, old-time firm distributing its fine beer only in Pennsylvania and Ohio and only in glass bottles--no cans. Straub is located in St. Marys, about a dozen miles east of Ridgway, and I didn’t want to miss a chance to tour its facilities--or, to be honest, to sip a free sample from its famous “Eternal Tap.”

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From St. Marys, I drove northeast through nicely scenic farm country on Routes 120 and 46to the town of Smethport,where I wanted a peek at its most famous emporium--which carries the boastful name “America’s First Christmas Store.” Opened in 1935, the shop occupies a sprawling, three-story Victorian-era brick building on a busy downtown corner. I often pick up Christmas ornaments as a travel souvenir, but at this store the possibilities were almost overwhelming.

Heading west again, I hurried to Kinzua Bridge State Park to witness the noon arrival of the Knox, Kane, Kinzua Railroad, a five-car tourist train pulled by a steam engine. The train makes the scenic 96-mile run June through October from the town of Marienville,which is within the Allegheny National Forest, to the state park, the site of one of the highest railroad bridges in the world.

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Built in 1882 for coal train traffic, the bridge crosses the 300-foot-deep canyon of Kinzua Creek on spider-like legs that do not inspire confidence. On this day, the train pulled into sight a few minutes early, paused briefly at the edge of the bridge and then chugged carefully across it to the other side of the canyon, where the passengers got off to picnic until the return trip.

At lunchtime, I stopped at the Bucktail Hotel in Marienville, where by now I was ready for a bottle of Straub. If any community in the Allegheny forest region can be called touristy, it is Marienville, the starting point for the rail tours. The Bucktail, a tourist-oriented restaurant, has one of the most interesting menus and some of the best food of any place I encountered in my visit. For dessert, I ordered a slice of fresh-baked chocolate/peanut butter cream pie topped with at least four inches of meringue.

Down the road about 10 minutes is the Loleta Recreation Area,another of the national forest’s most pleasant stops.

At the turn of the century, the area was the site of the booming logging town of Loleta. But like much of the Allegheny forest, the hills were stripped bare of trees by 1913 and the town was abandoned. Over the years, the trees have returned to Loleta--and to the rest of the forest.

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But Loleta now is a woodland playground, and the old mill pond has become a swimming hole fed by Millstone Creek. In mid-afternoon, the beach was crowded with youngsters, but I found a secluded picnic table nearby and stretched out on it for a nap beneath a tall tree.

GUIDEBOOK: Sylvan Pennsylvania

Getting there: From Washington, D.C., the drive northwest to Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest is a long one, over six hours via the fastest, less scenic route: Take Interstate 95 to Interstate 695 west around Baltimore and Interstate 83 north through York, Pa., to Harrisburg; pick up U.S. 15 and 11 north to Interstate 80 west, to Pennsylvania 153 north to U.S. 219 north to Ridgway. From Philadelphia, take Interstate 76 west to Harrisburg, then pick up the above route.

Where to stay: I recommend trying one of the bed and breakfast inns near the Allegheny National Forest or a cabin at one of the neighboring Pennsylvania or New York state parks.

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I choose the three-room Faircroft Inn in Ridgway, telephone (814) 776-2539; $50 for a room with private bath and full breakfast. In Cooksburg, the Clarion River Lodge, tel. (800) 648-6743, is a small lodge on a wooded hillside overlooking the Clarion River just south of the Allegheny National Forest; a room for two begins $80-$90 a night including continental breakfast. A brochure by the Bed & Breakfast Association of Western Pennsylvania listing more inns is available from the Pennsylvania state tourism office below.

Rustic cabins for families are available in Pennsylvania’s Clear Creek State Park, tel. (814) 752-2368, and Cook Forest State Park, tel. (814) 744-8407, and New York’s Allegany State Park (Mistix reservations service, 800-456-2267). Some of the New York cabins are winterized for year-round rental.

For more information: Contact the Pennsylvania Bureau of Travel Marketing, 453 Forum Building, Department PR 901, Harrisburg 17120; tel. (800) 847-4872.


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