When it comes to fall foliage, you can’t get much better than Western Pennsylvania. Right around October, the lush, green hillsides begin to turn to various shades of bright yellow, red, and orange. Each year we pack the kids into the Hyundai and hit the old back country roads to experience Mother Nature’s annual show of color and wonder. This year we decided to head up to one of my favorite attractions: Kinzua Viaduct – a marvel of engineering built in 1882 by the New York, Lake Erie and Western Railway. It was for a time the tallest and highest railroad bridge in the world and called “Eighth Wonder of the World” in its day.
The span was closed to rail traffic in 1959, but it and the land around it became Kinzua Bridge State Park in 1963. The Kinzua bridge was undergoing repairs to strengthen the bridge’s supports when on July 21, 2003, an F-1 tornado ripped through the valley, striking the bridge and causing 11 of its 20 support towers to collapse.
That could have signaled the end of this historic span. But luckily, in 2005, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources came up with a multi-million-dollar proposal to save the remaining spans and create a new observation deck and visitors’ center. Six years later the new Kinzua Sky Walk was opened to the public, giving people a breathtaking view of the bridge’s ruins in the valley far below. It also offers one of the best vantage points for viewing fall foliage.
My kids had no idea what to expect when we pulled into the parking lot of Kinzua Bridge State Park. The bridge itself is shielded from view by the impressive visitors’ center. But then you come around the back and — WOW! — there it is, towering 301 feet above the Kinzua Valley. It’s incredible that people could’ve even envisioned building such a massive structure. It’s good old American ingenuity at its finest.
At first, I didn’t think we’d be able to get my son to go out on the Sky Walk. But after some bargaining (we had to offer him three pieces of gum if he did it), he agreed and we ventured out onto the lofty walkway. I know it’s a cliche, but it really is breathtaking. Looking out from the bridge it’s nothing but forest as far as the eye can see. Far below, the twisted, rusty ruins of the bridge’s doomed towers lie on the valley floor where they fell back in 2003. At the end of the Sky Walk, there’s a large viewing platform featuring a section of glass flooring you can stand on—if you dare! I’m not really that great with heights, so I had to get a good grip on the railing as I peered over the side and at the ant-sized people far below.
By the way, while we were up there, I was tempted to (but didn’t) make a few Bigfoot calls off into the expansive wilderness below. A few years back, someone supposedly spotted one of the elusive creatures in nearby Bradford. Animal Planet actually filmed an episode of “Finding Bigfoot” at the bridge in 2012. I really wanted to make a call and see if I could elicit a response, but I’m pretty sure the only “response” I would’ve gotten would’ve been from my wife. And it wouldn’t have been good.
Good to Know
Stay in Warren PA. My wife and I are suckers for small towns. We love the unique, independent restaurants and businesses you find, and the people are always so friendly. Warren, Pa., is one of these special places. The county seat of Warren County, Warren features an old-fashioned downtown district, complete with pleasing 19th-century architecture and plenty of distinctive mom-and-pop restaurants and shops.
It is just about an hour down the road from the Kinzua Sky Walk – a pleasant drive along country roads shaded by colorful trees, whose leaves sparkled in the soft afternoon sunlight. These old Western Pennsylvania towns feature some of the coolest courthouses you’ll ever see, most from the Victorian period. That’s why this area is a favorite of history buffs and architecture geeks alike!
Budget Weekend We stayed the night in the local Holiday Inn – no architectural masterpiece but it worked for our family. All in, the autumn weekend of lodging, food and activities cost our family no more than $250.
Eat Local Avoid the cookie-cutter franchises for your meals. Be a little adventurous and try some of the local spots. The food is almost always better, and the people are usually extra friendly and aiming to please. For dinner in Warren, we found a cozy little eatery called the Forester Restaurant and Tavern, nestled down a quiet back road within the Allegheny National Forest.
The next morning we headed into downtown Warren and enjoyed a hearty breakfast at the Plaza Restaurant, the kind of old-fashioned neighborhood eatery where everyone knows your name. I fueled up with a very generous western omelet, and my daughter tried (and failed) to eat a pancake the size of a manhole cover. Later, at The Arbor Coffee House, which was only a week old at the time of our visit, we kicked back and relaxed in their four comfy armchairs while enjoying some of the best coffee I’ve had in some time. If I lived in Warren, I’m pretty sure you’d find me working at a table at The Arbor just about every day. My wife and I grabbed a cup of coffee and the kids got a Nutella latte (decaf) at The Arbor Coffee House.
Vintage Jackpot It being a Monday, I was happy to find that Allegheny Antiques, Books & Collectibles was open. And when I walked inside, my mind was immediately blown. This ain’t your mama’s antique store. It’s jam-packed with unique finds from antique railroad lanterns, to vintage toys, to one of the best selections of classic rock vinyl I’ve ever come across. They even had an old coffin on sale, for the person going for that Addam’s Family motif. Best of all the owners are friendly folk who really make you feel welcome. Not only did they give my son a super-cool (and very loud) Optimus Prime Transformer robot thingamagig, but they even took the time to show both my kids a two-headed turtle and let them hold a [supposedly] actual tooth of a Spinosaurus. . I left with two amazing albums — Van Halen’s “1984” and Whitesnake’s self-titled 1987 release — not to mention an unopened package of “Harry and the Hendersons” trading cards. Can you say…jackpot!?
A Cool Corn Maze We were almost to Mercer, Pa., where I could almost hear the wings and an ice-cold IPA from J. Hicks on the Square calling my name, when, along the side of the road, we spotted pumpkins, pedal-powered tractors, a bouncy house, and an old red caboose. “WHAT’S THAT?!” my kids called out in unison, and then, “Can we go there, Daddy? PLEEEEAAASSSE!” So, despite my grumbling stomach, I pulled into the parking lot of Coolspring Maze Westward GO. Over the next hour or so, the kiddos had a blast, crawling on top of and through a large hay-bale maze, racing along in pedal-powered go-cart tractors, shooting a pumpkin-blasting bazooka, mining for gems, and jumping around on a large bounce pad. We even got to do a history-themed scavenger hunt inside a massive, Native-American-themed corn maze. (Apparently, you can also do some Pokémon GO! hunting, if you’re so inclined.)
Avoid the Highways If you’re planning on doing a fall foliage road trip, avoid the major highways and head for the old country roads. Not only is the scenery better, but you get to see how peaceful it used to be to travel back in the day before the advent of the modern super-highway. Plus, you never know when you’ll see a fox or maybe some deer (or Bigfoot). From there we took our time heading home, taking in the peaceful rural scenery along the rolling country roads. At one point we had to slow down for a dog in the road that was in hot pursuit of an Amish horse-and-buggy.
See Franklin PA We really wanted to spend some time in the City of Franklin, Pa. Unfortunately, the day we passed through was the Monday after Applefest, one of the largest three-day fall festivals in the region. Therefore the downtown district was pretty much a ghost town. Next time we’ll try to plan our trip so that we can do a little exploring in this quintessential Western-Pennsylvania town.
by Valentine J. Brkich, October 2016
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Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, autumn vacation, fall foliage vacation, pennsylvania family vacation, pennsylvania with kids, western PA