Pennsylvania's Amazing Natural Wonders

By Wendy S. Royalfall 2010

1.    The Susquehanna River is the longest river on the East Coast. At 444 miles long, it flows from Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York, and empties into the Chesapeake Bay. The river, which was an important source of food and transportation for Native Americans, is still an important resource today. The word Susquehanna means "muddy current" in Algonquian. The river is ancient, and many think it is one of the oldest river systems in the world. Evidence of ancient river civilizations can be found on the large rocks in southern Lancaster County. The Safe Harbor petroglyphs, much like those found in caves, are rock carvings depicting everyday life.

2.    Lake Erie is the only place in PA where the surf meets the shore. On the south shore lies seven miles of sandy beaches on the 3,200-acre peninsula called Presque Isle ("Presque" is French for "almost"). Every year approximately 4 million visitors are drawn to her natural beauty, gorgeous sunsets and numerous recreational offerings. Twelve guarded beaches, 13 miles of trails and plenty of boating and fishing provide the recreational and leisure opportunities that have made Presque Isle a great family vacation destination.

3.    Severe weather and the successful timber industry of the 19th and 20th centuries led to the demise of nearly all of Pennsylvania's virgin forest. Fortunately, there are still stands of Old Growth trees in the state. Cook Forest State Park is home to four such treasures. The Swamp, Seneca, Cathedral and Cook Trails areas all have Old Growth such as eastern white pine, eastern hemlock, red and white oaks, black cherry and American beech. Trees approaching 450 years old can be found in the Cook Trails areas. The state park stretches into parts of Clarion, Forest and Jefferson counties in northwestern Pennsylvania.
    Heart's Content Scenic Area in the Allegheny National Forest also has Old Growth trees     dating back four centuries.

4.    Light pollution does not usually rank high on most people's list of causes, even for those who are the most socially conscious. That is, unless you're a stargazer. Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County is PA's first designated Dark Sky Preserve. Thousands of visitors gather on Astronomy Field situated atop a 2,300-foot mountain, to get a spectacular view rarely seen by the naked eye. The Milky Way, constellations and planets are routinely observed with the aid of a telescope thanks to the area's dark skies. Astronomers and novices alike attend the Cherry Springs Star Parties held twice a year. These weekend events are usually held in June and September. The 2010 Black Forest Star Party is slated for Friday to Sunday, Sept. 10 to 12. Attendance is limited, and preregistration is required.

5.    Also known as Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon, the Pine Creek Gorge is nearly 50 miles long and reaches a depth of 1,450 feet at its deepest point.  The canyon begins in Ansonia, near Wellsboro in Tioga County, and continues to near Jersey Shore in Lycoming County. The best and easiest way to enjoy Pine Creek Gorge is through the two state parks at the northern end of the gorge. Colton Point State Park is located on the western rim, and Leonard Harrison State Park is on the eastern rim. Though the deepest part of the canyon is at the southern end, the best vistas are seen in the overlooks from Leonard Harrison State Park.

    The Pine Creek Rail Trail that runs the length of the Pine Creek Gorge has been called one of     the "10 great places to take a bike tour in the world" by USA Today.

6.    Penn's Cave, a limestone cavern in Centre Hall, has the usual rock formations that are common to caves. But along with the stalagmites and stalactites, the bottom of the cavern is filled with water. In fact, it is the only all-water cavern in the United States. The one-hour boat tour of Penn's Cave takes riders through passageways in an underground world. It is easy to imagine how the cavern appeared centuries ago, since change inside this natural wonder occurs very slowly. Because the cave is a cool 52 degrees year-round, a sweater or jacket is recommended.

7.    Ricketts Glen State Park covers 13,050 acres in Luzerne, Sullivan and Columbia counties. Old Growth trees, scenic trails and diverse wildlife are made even more special by the 22 named waterfalls found in the park.  Ganoga Falls is the highest of the waterfalls at 94 feet.  Ricketts Glen offers hiking and horseback riding trails, as well as boating and fishing on the 245-acre Lake Jean. The glen is one of the most scenic places in Pennsylvania.

8.    The Hickory Run Boulder Field in White Haven is the only geological formation of its kind east of the Mississippi. The area, which is 400-by-1,800 feet, is void of vegetation. The boulder field is at least 12 feet deep. Under the large boulders flows water that becomes a tributary to Hickory Run Creek. Despite minor inconsistencies, the overall appearance of the boulder field is amazingly flat with a surface gradient close to 1 degree.

9.    Unlike Ricketts Glen, Bushkill Falls in the Pocono Mountains is privately owned. And though admission is charged, the scenery is well worth it. Moss-covered rocks, ferns and wildflowers surround the majestic 100-foot Main Falls. Well-maintained trails and bridges make the hike a pleasant one. The Peters family has owned Bushkill Falls for more than a century. The falls have become a complete family destination with a fishing pond, paddleboats, wildlife and Native American exhibits, an ice cream shop, a gift shop and a large picnic area.

10.    The Ringing Rocks of Upper Black Eddy, Bucks County, are truly one of PA's natural wonders. These curious rocks make a metallic, bell-like sound when struck. They are in pretty exclusive company, as ringing rocks are found in only a handful of locations around the world. Ringing Rocks Point of Interest in Montana, the Musical Stones of Skiddaw in England, the Bell Rock Range in Australia and the Hill of Bells in Mexico are other known sites where these rare anomalies can be found.

11.    If you're in Bedford County, Gravity Hill is one of those places that you just have to experience. People have been going to this nondescript location outside New Paris for years and it's been downhill ever since...or is that uphill? If you drive to Gravity Hill and put your car in neutral it will roll uphill! What causes this strange phenomenon, you ask? Is it an errant magnetic force? A bizarre gravitational anomaly? As disappointing as it may be, the force that seems to cause water to flow uphill in New Paris may be nothing more than an optical illusion. It is said that the landscape is responsible for creating this convincing abnormality. The human eye and brain are fooled by this distortion in perspective. Regardless of what actually causes objects to defy gravity on the rural Bedford County road, Gravity Hill is a wonder indeed.

12.     The Youghiogheny River in the Laurel Highlands is a scenic waterway whose headwaters rise in West Virginia and travel north-northeast through Maryland before reaching Pennsylvania. The section of the river that runs through Ohiopyle State Park, known as the Lower Yough, is the busiest whitewater destination east of the Mississippi. This paradise for outdoor enthusiasts welcomes approximately 250,000 visitors each year to experience its Class III and IV rapids. The rapids on portions of the river in West Virginia and Maryland reach a Class V.

13.    The triangular shape of land known as The Point is in the foreground of many photos of Pittsburgh's gorgeous skyline.  It's included in my list of natural wonders, not for its scenic beauty, but for its strategic significance during the French and Indian War. In 1754, the British built a military fort at the confluence of the three rivers, only for the fort to be taken by the French that same year. The French built a larger fortress in that location and named it Fort Duquesne. Because of the strategic advantage it provided the occupier, battle for the fort was key. After an unsuccessful attempt to take the fort in 1755, British and Colonist forces captured Fort Duquesne in 1758, but not before the French burned it to the ground. The rebuilt British bastion was named Fort Pitt. Today, the land at the site of many conflicts has been preserved as The Point State Park where the Fort Pitt Museum resides.

When I first started down this pleasant road to define PA's most amazing natural wonders, I came up with a list of about 35, many of which were nostalgic locations that are particularly meaningful to me but may not make anyone else's list. Ultimately, I narrowed it down to 13 extraordinary natural wonders that would make amazing road trip destinations. They were not listed in any particular order.

These are my personal favorites, but I'm sure there are some that have not made the list that you consider to be incredible natural wonders. I'd love to hear what you think. Share your favorites.

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