There’s much more to State College than football games. Explore gorges, caves, ice cream, and the sticky world of stamps as you go.
I set my expectations purposefully low. The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, I told myself. Seems a bit gauche. Stand on your own two feet, Pennsylvania! Come up with your own nicknames!
So when I reached the lip of the western rim of Pine Creek Gorge — excuse me, the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania — and an instinctual, primal holy shit slipped out of my mouth, I felt like I owed the whole state an apology. The 45-mile crevasse appeared to have been dropped from the sky, a secret kept by dense forest and a minuscule population. The water was almost unnaturally blue, like it had been dyed in accordance with a locally important holiday, and snaked through the gorge in a way that could only be possible because thousands of years of glaciers had crushed its route into place.
My wife and I spent the previous night at Rough Cut Lodge (rooms from $130), in a pleasant cabin where our next-door neighbor was a taxidermied bear in overalls and a red bandana. I’m not Catholic, but I appreciate that during Lent, the medieval papal edicts force those who are to fry up hunks of seafood every Friday, allowing me to eat a crispy piece of haddock the size of my forearm that evening at the Burnin’ Barrel Bar.
I should rewind here and tell you about the look of disappointment on my wife’s face when, on the drive north, I jerked the car off U.S. Route 15 in such a manner that she expected something exciting and very possibly alcoholic but instead ended up in the parking lot of a regional branch of ConAgra Foods, where I posed with a life-size statue of Ettore Boiardi, the founder of Chef Boyardee. (I’d later grab a four-pack of Replenish IPA from Williamsport’s New Trail Brewing to make up for the detour.)
After spending a few hours in Wellsboro’s charming downtown — where the owner of the Roost handed us two free cups of coffee for seemingly no reason — we headed an hour south to Williamsport, ducking between Little League memorabilia and a remarkably odd business named Billtown Binz, an explanation of which would require a separate story. (Google it, but the business model requires shoppers to dig through gargantuan plastic tubs in search of goods.) That night, we stayed in a room based on the former mailroom of the city’s municipal building, which has been converted into the City Hall Grand Hotel (rooms from $110).
The next morning, we hopped in a reasonably stable boat and entered the limestone passages of Penn’s Cave, stalactites and stalagmites gleaming under our guide’s flashlight. The cave is supposedly the final resting place of a French frontiersman who got sideways with a Seneca chief’s daughter and was thrown into the maw, though nothing seemed particularly spectral about the cavern on our tour.
Every good road trip should include some bone-ogling, so a visit to Penn State came next. After grabbing a cone of Mint Nittany ice cream from Berkey Creamery, we shuffled to the encased skeleton of Old Coaly, the steed responsible for helping to build the campus and a perfect name for a dead mule.
As we made the short drive to our final destination, Bellefonte, I spotted a sign for the American Philatelic Society, which prompted a quick internet search (it means “stamp lovers”) and a last-minute stop. Inside was a bustling hive of philatelists, researchers, librarians, curators and appraisers, brought together by their love of the little things you stick on the corner of a postcard.
They all make their home in this tiny pocket of Pennsylvania, a state with little quirks and grand ambitions that I’m only now, nearly 700 miles later, starting to see.
If you’re heading to Penn State this fall for a game, skip the chain hotels and book a room at the Gamble Mill Inn & Suites (rooms from $99), just 15 minutes north of Beaver Stadium. Housed in a meticulously converted grain mill, the inn features a variety of rooms for all kinds of parties, including a two-story, three-bedroom suite that overlooks Spring Creek.
In Williamsport, head to the handsome John Ryan Brewery, housed in the namesake lumber magnate’s 19th-century Victorian mansion. Start with a Belgian IPA brewed on-site, then stick around for dinner: lamb loin with green chickpeas, or one of the many Japanese-inspired dishes.
If you’re in the mood for exercise, try the Turkey Path Trail at Colton Point State Park, which descends from the western rim of Pine Creek Gorge down 800 feet to the creek itself. Looking for a different kind of athletic tranquility? Sign up for a class at Yoga Lab in downtown State College.
Published as “Taking the Scenic Route to Central PA” in the June 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.