Southwestern Pennsylvania‘s Beautiful Nature Getaway
Nature holds and heals us. Just over an hour south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania lies a region rich in in rolling hills, waterfalls, and big sky: the Laurel Highlands.
What follows are photos of this magical area to transport you to calm. I’ve added travel tips and an itinerary as well, should you choose to visit in real life.
What is the Laurel Highlands?
Being Boston-based, I’d never heard of the Laurel Highlands before my friend Jeremy pointed it out earlier this year.
“Hey,” Jeremy the Pittsburgh expert counseled, “You said you’re in Cleveland visiting family this July? If you and your husband want a great getaway destination, southwestern Pennsylvania is gorgeous, and is just three hours south of where you’re staying.”
“Ooo…” replied I, yanking out our calendar to circle a free date. “We’re in!”
A Bucolic Vacation for Couples and Families
When you work multiple jobs and have two young and delightful yet mischievous kids, a couples getaway is a precious, precious entity that cannot be squandered at a sub-par location.
Would Jeremy’s recommendation prove positive, or would I have to pummel my friend for leading us astray? We had just two nights to try out the Laurel Highlands. Would the region deliver?
Truly, a Relaxing Destination
As you’ve likely already surmised from these stunning Laurel Highlands photos, YES, southwestern Pennsylvania delivered relaxation, romance, and beauty… big-time.
There are a handful of regions I’ve visited which, immediately upon entering them, embrace the visitor with waves of calm (truly — you feel them in your heart). Cape Cod is one such area for me, as is southwestern Ireland. Now, I can add the Laurel Highlands to that list.
The moment our car entered the undulating hills, my shoulders unclenched from the constant “on” of parenting, and my breath steadied. My husband and I rolled down the car windows and drank in the nature-cleansed air.
“Now THIS is going to be a VACATION!” I sighed with bliss.
Where to Stay in the Laurel Highlands:
On the recommendation of local Laurel Highlands experts, we stayed at the luxury-rustic gem, Oak Lodge Bed and Breakfast… in our own private log cabin!
Click that link to read the full story about why that bed and breakfast so unique (hint: a hidden 18th century village???), but suffice it to say that it now ranks as one of our favorite hotels of all time.
Fallingwater: Must-See Laurel-Highlands Attraction
Of course, the #1 reason most people visit southwestern Pennsylvania is to see the most famous house in America: Fallingwater.
Before coming to the Laurel Highlands, I had definitely heard of Fallingwater, but I didn’t know where in the country it sat. How glorious to learn it’s just a few hours south of my in-laws’ house in Cleveland!
Even better: It’s highly satisfying to be able to report that Fallingwater exceeds all expectations. It is beyond worth the trip, and no photos can do justice to the genius that lies within its walls.
Outdoor Fun at Ohiopyle State Park:
While our main activity on Day 1 in the Laurel Highlands was Fallingwater, we devoted Day 2 to Ohiopyle State Park: a 19,000+ acre natural preserve that boasts whitewater rafting, hiking, biking, natural waterslides (!), waterfalls, and glorious views.
The town of Ohiopyle itself is tiny (a wee year-round population of 59 inhabitants), but has enough restaurants, equipment rental stores, and charming re-creations of mining chutes to satisfy the 1.5 million visitors that cavort through the surrounding park each year.
Whitewater Rafting is Connected to Ohiopyle’s Name
Let us pause and discuss the name “Ohiopyle” for a bit. Does this title come, we wondered, from the fear that the state of Ohio (precariously perched above Pennsylvania on a map) would tumble down into a pile of Ohios upon the park?
Did it come from a potential insult: “You’re such a pile of Ohios, man!”
In fact, no. None of these extremely educated and logical guesses are true. Rather, the name “Ohiopyle” is from the local Native American term for, “it turns very white”, which references the churning waters that run through that Laurel Highlands park. Oh.
The Small Shops in the Tiny Town of Ohiopyle
I confess that we were extremely lazy the day we visited Ohiopyle, and thus the first part of our “nature hike” in the Laurel Highlands, was actually wandering inside the delightful general store in town, ogling the rainbow bounty of the souvenir rocks pictured below.
Ahh, that took me back to my youth, visiting similar such stores in small towns when I was a little girl, begging my father, “PLEEEEASE can I have the shiny teal stone? Pllleeeeeeease? I want it so much!”
“But what would you DO with that rock?” I remember my father asking all those years ago.
“Umm…” I replied — and that was the end of that negotiation, because I sure hadn’t thought beyond the wanting. Wise father!
Youghiogheny River Recreation in Ohiopyle
Ahem — back to the actual reason people visit Ohiopyle: The water play!
Below, you can see the frothy river “steps” of the Youghiogheny River, upon which white-water rafters race through the park. Colin’s expression sums up our take on tackling those rapids by boat: “Fun… to watch from behind this sturdy railing!”
Where to Get a Great View Overlooking the Laurel Highlands:
Now, I promise I am really an athletic gal with a brilliant weekly exercise routine, but the next piece of information is not compelling evidence to support that assertion.
You see, one of the best views overlooking the Laurel Highlands can be achieved with a car drive about about 20 steps — no hiking required. Baughman Rock in Ohiopyle State Park (pictured below) is an “easy win” tourist destination, and sure produces beautiful photos!
Just remember the rule of travel fashion: When photographing in front of a mostly green background, pick clothes in the red, pink, or purple family so your pictures POP! (Here are more juxtaposition examples of this fashion photo trick.)
Cucumber Falls: Laurel Highlands Waterfall Delight
We only scratched the surface of Ohiopyle State Park (I’d love to hear in the comments section what YOU enjoy doing there!), but we did make it to Cucumber Falls, which I highly recommend.
My photo of it is earlier in the article because it’s so pretty: 30 feet of lace-like, graceful water flow, pouring into a clear pool. If you’re brave, you can swim around in the lower area, but I’ve heard from locals that one needs to be extremely cautious with the slippery rocks, so tread careful.
If you enjoy hiking, also consider looking beyond Ohiopyle to Linn Run State Park and Forbes State Forest near Ligonier, PA. They have excellent, easy Laurel Highlands hiking options with fun sights — including some “ruins” that provide magical photo backdrops.
What are all these sunset photos?
Glad you asked. On our last night in the Laurel Highlands, I said to my husband, “I think I’ll just leave my big camera in the hotel when we go out for dinner. It’s getting dark anyway. Why would I need to lug it around?”
Colin whipped around. “Lillie!” he gasped, “Every time you say that, there is the most amazing sunset that night, and you spend the whole evening wailing about how you wish you had your camera with you! Remember how that happened during your movie at Folly Beach?”
“Oh right,” I muttered. I guess that’s one reason (among many) that people get married: To have a witness who can snap you out of the silly mistakes you keep making!
Sure enough, Colin was 100% right. The sunset on our last night in the Laurel Highlands was perfection — and it just kept getting better and better, as seen from the five different photos of it in this article! Thank you, dear spouse, for making sure I had my trusty camera with me to preserve the beauty.
What are YOUR Laurel Highlands Thoughts?
We left the Laurel Highlands (after a hilarious stop at a local farm market for peaches) deeply rested, connected to each other, and happy… already making plans for the next time we would return!
So what about you? Have you been to the Laurel Highlands? What did you do and think, of so? If you haven’t been yet, does it seem like a region you’d like to visit? Do share!
We were guests of the Laurel Highlands, but all rock lust and opinions are my own.
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 3.7 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!