After a long winter filled with remote working and learning, we’re all ready to get out and enjoy some fresh air. It’s April in the Laurel Highlands and the weather is turning upward. The natural landscape that has laid dormant for months now is about to burst with life. And if you’re like me, you might be ready to burst out of your house with your tribe in tow!
But where should we go? What should we do? Naturally we have our usual spots we head to. Our familiar places. Places my kids have been to a million times and find mundane. We’re all creatures of habit, but I’m looking into some new habits this year.
Grab the gear, put on some sturdy shoes, and ditch the devices. Let’s find a new adventure in the Laurel Highlands.
Biking has made quite the comeback since the pandemic started. This season, my kiddos are all finally off of training wheels and we’ve secured a few new mountain bikes – we’re ready!
I’ll start off with the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), which spans from downtown Pittsburgh all the way to Cumberland, MD. Here it connects with the C&O Canal Towpath trail which runs all of the way into Washington, D.C. It is important to note that while your family is likely not interested in a 334-mile bike ride, there are six GAP trailheads in the Laurel Highlands spanning all three counties (Westmoreland, Fayette, and Somerset). The GAP is a rail-trail, meaning it follows along a railway bed and many times, a river. This also means it is nearly-level, allowing for even the littlest of tikes to pedal comfortably along with the family. The scenery is spectacular and well worth the trip, plus the trail is wide making it easier for kids on bikes to avoid colliding with other bikers while not paying attention.
There are plenty of more localized bike trails scattered throughout the region as well. One that has come highly recommended to me is the Westmoreland Heritage Trail. Currently the trail exists as two smaller portions of trail, each between 8-10 miles offering plenty of greenery and scenery. Work is underway to connect the two, and ultimately connect to the Great Allegheny Passage, but the trail is accessible at many different access points nonetheless. My kids love to seek out the little paths, roots and jumps that dot the edges of trails, and I hear this trail offers plenty of these bonus features.
NOTE to Parents: Helltown Brewery in Export is situated adjacent to the WH Trail and has picnic tables outside in the event you get thirsty on your trek.
Sometimes, figuring out where to go for a walk or hike is the hardest part of the day. The LH is home to 11 state parks and forest lands, which offer hundreds of trails for all levels. This can be overwhelming information to unpack and decipher. Ever catch yourself on a trail near dusk that you swear should’ve ended a mile ago but with no parking lot in sight? Yeah, me too, and unfamiliar trails can be scary.
For safety and sanity’s sake, let me highlight a few spots that offer walking paths and trails on-site, often overlooked when visiting. For the littlest of walkers, consider an afternoon at the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve located adjacent to Saint Vincent College. Trails average about a quarter of a mile and are chalk full of natural flora and fauna perfect for exploring. You’ll almost surely glimpse bees, butterflies, and the occasional frog, turtle, or even snake!
Flight 93 National Memorial is another amazing spot to not only honor the fallen heroes, but to serve as a learning lesson to our future generations. This National Park Service site offers a Memorial Trail spanning 2 miles in a circle around the entire site. The trail is abundant with wildflowers and natural habitats for birds and insects. Furry friends are also allowed on the trail with a leash, but are not allowed on the Memorial Grounds for viewing exhibits.
A few other destinations that offer walking trails on-site: Bushy Run Battlefield, Friendship Hill National Historic Site, Seven Springs Mountain Resort.
Sometimes an afternoon of good ol’ fashioned fun is in order. Our family’s favorite local spot Statler’s Fun Center in Latrobe. The mini-golf is complete with waterfalls and bridges, the go-cart track if perfect for my soon-to-be-teenage son, and the batting cages are the hotspot for my softball-loving middle child. Did I mention there is an indoor arcade complete with tickets and prizes? This is where you’ll find my youngest.
Re-opening in May, Caddie Shak in Donegal, PA is a another must-do stop for the family. This super fun destination offers two mini-golf courses, go cart track options for young to old, batting cages, a driving range, and even bumper boats perfect for cooling down on a hot afternoon. Ice cream treats at the Snack Shak definitely get my gang smiling.
More places for mini-golf fun: Jake’s Mini-Golf, Walnut Hill Miniature Golf.
Who doesn’t love a trip to the zoo or better yet, a petting zoo? At Living Treasures Wild Animal Park in Donegal, PA, visitors get to experience the wildlife up close and personal, some even available for petting and feeding. The park has lots of animals - more than 300 critters from 50 different species to be exact. We love getting to see the animals up close, especially the big cats – lions AND tigers! Bears, camels, monkeys, kangaroos, birds too…you name it, they’ve got it! The property also offers lodging on-site, which is really centrally located in the region. My kids love to stop at the gift shop afterwards in hopes of securing a fuzzy plush or cool souvenir to-go.
Additional places to find furry friends: Nemacolin, Critter Country Animal Farm.
UNDER THE STARS
Fun outside doesn’t have to end just because the sun goes down. Evergreen Drive-In in Mt. Pleasant is a Laurel Highlands classic, showing family-friendly movies in the fresh air with the comfort of your own vehicle. Godzilla vs. Kong on the big screen under the stars? Sign us up! Bring your chairs and pack the cooler. Leashed, non-menacing pets are welcome too as long as you remember to scoop up after them.
For a more exhilarating evening experience, taking in a race at Jennerstown Speedway is an absolute must. Opening night is May 1 and tickets are free for children 12 and under for most Speedway races, making for an awesome family outing that won’t break the bank. The summer lineup includes division races, a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, and even an All-Star Monster Truck tour. Your little ones are sure to be excited by the roar of the engines when you spend a night at the races!