Day Tripping With Rick – Pittsburgh – Laurel Highlands
Today we’ll look at another eastern destination, Pittsburgh. Now this just happens to be my hometown so indulge me. The city itself is tiny. It is constrained by three rivers, the Monongahela which flows from the south, the Allegheny which flows from the north, and the Ohio which is formed when the two rivers meet at a point in the city. The downtown area is confined to a triangle of land between the Mon (nobody spells it out) and the Allegheny. The rivers cut deep valleys so that the land across the rivers rises sharply. These steep hills, especially south across the Mon give beautiful vistas of the city.
There’s a ton of stuff to do there, even if you aren’t a Steeler fan (we all are), but this post assumes that you’ve done everything downtown and are looking for something of the flavor of the surrounding area. Just to the east of the city, are the west-most ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. This region is rich in history and scenic beauty and is a great place to spend a day.
1. Pittsburgh to Chestnut Ridge – Laurel Caverns
Traveling just about any direction out of the city requires you to go through a tunnel. Take the Liberty Tunnel (or Tubes as the locals say) to PA-51 going south 45 miles to Uniontown. Then take US-40 straight up to the top of Chestnut Ridge. US-40 is the National Road and was the first road built through the Appalachians in the 1700s when Pittsburgh was a hotly contested fort and the center of local trade.
At the summit of the ridge is the aptly named Summit Inn with a view all the way to Ohio. Just past the inn, turn right onto Skyline Drive. Laurel Caverns is 5 miles south of US-40. The caverns are a great place to take kids. While not as massive as Mammoth or Carlsbad, the cave system is fairly extensive and the proprietors have done a good job with the guided tours. Our six-year-old absolutely loved it. You can often see scouts rappelling down rocks to get merit badges, and the whole tour can be finished in an hour or so. My kid also highly recommends the gift shop.
2. Laurel Cavern to Fort Necessity
Drive back to US-40, then go east just a few miles to reach Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Pittsburgh wasn’t too important during the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, but we were on the front lines for the French and Indian War 1754-1763, which was called the Seven Years War in Europe where they can’t count. It features the French who were interested in the interior of the US for trapping and trading and who built a fort at present day Pittsburgh which they called Ft. Duquesne to press their claim. They were also very friendly with the local Indians who also profited by the trade. Pitted against these were the British who were pushing westward across the mountains. Several minor skirmishes between the two groups culminated in a fight between a British army patrol led by 21-year old Virginian lieutenant named George Washington, and a French patrol led by a Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville whose name was just too long. Jumonville fell in the battle and when word got back to Ft. Duquesne, a large French force was sent to engage Washington. He set his troops to work clearing a large number of trees to build a small fort in a meadow before the French came back. Of course by doing this, he put himself in a terrible spot as the French simply hid behind the trees and shot into the fort from all angles. At the end of the day, Washington surrendered, and the French made him sign a document stating that he murdered Jumonville in cold blood. As George couldn’t speak French, and was anxious to get out of there, he would’ve (and did) sign anything.
The fort is an interesting sight. Guides in period uniforms give excellent tours. If you’re like me, an amateur historian, then this is great stuff. I’m guessing Washington learned a lot about setting up defensive positions from this disaster, so it paid off for us in the Revolutionary War. Probably the thousands that died in Europe and North America during this war wouldn’t see the upside.
3. Fort Necessity to Fallingwater
Continue east on US-40 for just over a mile, then turn left onto PA-381 for about 10 miles. You’ll come to one of the coolest summer cottages ever built. Now it helps that the guy who had it built in the 1930s was Edgar Kaufmann, whose was a big muckety-muck and owned a large department store chain. It also helped that he hired Frank Lloyd Wright as his architect. Wright convinced him to build the house cantilevered over a waterfall in a small stream without moving any of the trees or rocks. The results are amazing with pre-stressed concrete that is the same color as the surrounding stone. The Kaufmann family donated the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy who maintains it and conducts tours. Watch trying to come here on weekends in the fall when the leaves change as you’ll never get in.
4. Fallingwater to Ohiopyle State Park
Just a short distance from Fallingwater is Ohiopyle. The Youghiogheny River is a major tributary of the Monongahela. It forms in the mountains and starts its plunge down the ridge at Ohiopyle, making this a premier whitewater rafting mecca. A bike trail follows the Yough along a converted railway from near Pittsburgh, past Ohiopyle, and meets up with a second trail that follows the Potomac River all the way to Washington DC. I like to leave a car at the bottom of the ridge at Connelsville, then take another up to the park with your bikes on the back and ride the trail about 20 miles downhill. The logistics are a bit tough, but I’m not pedaling back up.
There is a modest water fall in the river which then empties into a gorge with several highly technical rapids. When I was a kid, the US Olympic team held their trials here for kayaking.
One of the coolest things to do here is to ride the Chutes. There is a small creek that empties into the Yough just downstream of the falls. The stream flows over large sandstone shelves where it has carved a natural waterslide after thousands of years. The water level has to be just right, though. Too high, and you could get hurt here. Too low, and the sandstone is going to take a toll on your shorts.
Back to Pittsburgh
The GPS will tell you to take PA-711 north to Donegal, then take the PA Turnpike back to Monroeville, then I-376 (affectionately known as the Parkway East) back to the city. In Pittsburgh, we park on the driveways and drive on the parkways. Watch the time of day here as the Parkway is the major east-west artery in and out of the city and Pittsburghers cannot possibly maintain their speed through tunnels.
Back in the city, go treat yourself to a Pittsburgh icon, the Primanti Bros sandwich, a Pittsburgh staple that violates the rule that you should never eat anything bigger than your head. Thick-cut Italian bread with about a pound of meat, melted cheese, french fries and cole slaw, toasted and served with more fries in case you didn’t get enough on your sandwich. Catch a ball game if the Buccos are in town at PNC park, the best ball field in the land. Or catch the Pens at the Consul Energy Center.
Hope you enjoyed the Laurel Highlands. I have many, many times. Now for that sandwich and a cold Iron City beer.