My traveling companion, Jayla, and I were warned about black bears. Before our departure for the PA Wilds, her friend sent photos of intimidating bears, regaled us with frightening tales of human versus bear encounters and cautioned us to pack “bear spray” (yes, it’s a real thing).
“It’s not the bears you have to worry about, it’s the rattlesnakes,” says Doug Ruffo, owner of Benezette Wines (benezettewines.com). “Just the other day my neighbors found a huge rattlesnake on their front stoop, and my grandchildren and I encountered one last week along the railroad tracks.”
We didn’t see bears or rattlesnakes on our trip, but we did have plenty of adventure—from elk sightings to death-defying feats (all right, fear-defying).
The PA Wilds, a moniker dreamed up by the tourism industry, comprises 2 million acres and 12 counties in Pennsylvania’s north-central region. We confined ourselves to highlights of Elk, McKean, Potter and Tioga counties.
We began at Benezette, ground zero for the only wild elk herd east of the Mississippi. It’s been 100 years since 50 elk were shipped by train from Yellowstone National Park to replace the region’s extinct native elk, and now the herd numbers more than 850. By far the best place to view the elk is at the Elk Country Visitor Center (elkcountryvisitorcenter.com). On our evening and morning visits, we saw at least a dozen elk, and just missed seeing a mother and her fawn.
The second day was all about challenging our fears of heights. First stop was at the Kinzua Sky Walk (visitanf.com), the rebuilt and reinforced remains of a partially collapsed railroad bridge. At more than 300 feet above the forested Kinzua Valley, the Sky Walk is higher than the Brooklyn Bridge. While Jayla reluctantly walked the length and gazed over the intimidating view, she vowed she’d never, ever step on the Plexiglas viewing floor at the walk’s end—until a fearless 8-year-old girl, also named Jayla, teased her while skipping nonchalantly across that window to the depths.
Next stop: Bradford Regional Airport, where I donned a leather helmet and Snoopy-inspired white silk scarf for a ride in a vintage, open-cockpit 1943 Boeing Stearman biplane, the kind used in WWII for basic flight training and aerobatics. Thankfully, pilot Bruce Klein didn’t attempt any loops or rolls, but that’s not to say my stomach didn’t do some flips on my 20-minute ride as we soared 600 feet above the Allegheny National Forest (visitanf.com/vintage-biplane-rides).
We settled in for the evening at the elegantly and eclectically furnished Mansion District Inn (mansiondistrictinn.com) in Smethport, where inn owners and world travelers Jovanna and Ross Porter joined us for wine on the veranda, and Ross, the town mayor, offered a capsulized version of Smethport’s history. The next day, we took a walking tour past the numerous well-kept 19th-century mansions built in the town’s heyday as a vital source of natural gas and other natural resources.
Then it was off to Coudersport and Cherry Springs State Park (dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks), renowned among astronomers for being so remote that the stars are nearly as visible today as centuries ago. “It’s actually very hard to find the Big Dipper because there are so many other stars you’re not used to seeing,” says David Brooks of the Potter County Visitor’s Association.
We rose early the following morning for a hike into the glacier-carved Pine Creek Gorge, known as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. While nowhere near as dramatic as its namesake in Arizona, it is a sight to behold—the heavily forested canyon sides plunging 1,000 feet to the bottom. Jon Dillon of Pine Creek Outfitters (pinecrk.com) showed off the sweeping views from Colton Point State Park’s West Rim Path before leading us on the narrow, rugged and challenging Turkey Path that skirts steep inclines as it winds its way to the bottom of the canyon (again with the heights!).
As we climbed back to the canyon rim, natural sounds resonated in the forest, prompting Jayla to ask: “What’s that noise? Is it a rattlesnake?”
“Nah, just tree frogs,” Dillon said. Then to reassure us, he added, “Anyway, it’s not the big rattlesnakes you need to worry about. They know you’re not a threat, so they just bite you. It’s the young ones that are a problem because they get scared and release all of their venom into you.” We both felt so much better!
Bedding Down: In addition to the Mansion District Inn, try the cabins at Wapiti Woods (wapitiwoods.com), near Benezette; Frosty Hollow Bed & Breakfast (frostyhollowbandb.com), Coudersport; or for traditional hotel accommodations, Penn Wells Hotel and Lodge (pennwells.com), Wellsboro.
Filling Up: Let’s just put it out there—the PA Wilds is not a place for foodies. But you will find a surprisingly full menu of delicious Italian food at a Smethport restaurant with the unfortunate name Corner Pizza Co. (814-887-7755).
Art Stop: At Olga Gallery, Café and Bistro (olgaexperience.com) in Coudersport, try the homemade desserts and shop the two floors packed with wall art, clothing and jewelry created by Ukrainian native Olga Snyder.
Digital Detox: Be forewarned, cell service and Wi-Fi are spotty to nonexistent.
When to Go: September through October is prime visitor time because of elk mating season and fall foliage. Accommodations fill up early, so try mid-week. Consider a summer visit, too.
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