By Danielle Taylor
You won’t find schools closing for the first day of buck season in Philadelphia, and people don’t consider spotlighting for deer a great date idea in D.C. Baltimore doesn’t have a weather-predicting groundhog, and Buffalo doesn’t hold weeklong festivals to celebrate peanut butter, mountain laurels, or a horse thief from 100 years ago. Even in comparably rural parts of eastern Pennsylvania, fireflies don’t coordinate their flashes with each other, and elk don’t wander free in the wild. However, you’ll find all that and more in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region, which has developed a proud identity all its own. The area’s unique character has generated a number of quirky attractions, events, and phenomena, so no matter which corner of the region you explore, you’ll discover some eccentric and intriguing destinations.
Jefferson County, of course, is the mother of all offbeat tourist destinations, as it’s the home of Punxsutawney Phil, the world-famous weather-predicting groundhog. Since the late 1880s, people have flocked to Gobbler’s Knob from near and far to learn what a 20-pound woodchuck has to say about the end of winter. If he sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, he predicts six more weeks of cold and snow. If not, an early spring is on its way. His top-hatted and tuxedo-clad Inner Circle is kind of like Punxsutawney’s version of the Illuminati or the Freemasons, and in addition to taking care of Phil and presenting him to the world for his prognostication each February 2, their other main job is gathering the ingredients for his secret elixir, which gives him seven more years of life with each sip. It’s worth the effort, too; according to irrefutably verified legend, Phil today is the very same Phil who’s been making predictions for more than 130 years. These days, when he’s not making one of his many celebrity appearances, he lives in the town library with his little groundhog wife, Phyllis.
North of Punxsutawney, the Coolspring Power Museum regularly attracts visitors across the globe thanks to its unmatched collection of more than 275 historic internal combustion engines, including the operational 75-foot-long Snow engine. Many of the machines come to life one weekend a month from April to October as the museum opens to the public, and thousands of visitors from around the globe come each year for the museum’s June and October Expo weekends.
Near the center of the county, the Victorian town of Brookville features a number of unusual attractions to intrigue fans of history. More than 100 years ago, a local religious zealot named Douglas Stahlman carved Bible verses and other messages into more than 160 large boulders north and east of town, with the largest concentration found in what is now Scripture Rocks Heritage Park. Some of the 60-plus rocks found there feature religious scriptures that offer hope, while others convey Stahlman’s own sinister messages of death and damnation. Visitors can explore the park via more than 1.5 miles of gravel-covered pathways and enjoy a self-guided tour thanks to interesting interpretive signs along the way.
If you’ve ever been grateful for your car’s four-wheel drive capacities, you have a Brookville business to thank for developing this automotive technology. The Jefferson County History Museum on Brookville’s Main Street features a replica of a 1904 Twyford roadster, the first to offer this useful type of drivetrain, as well as the impressively large and detailed Bowdish Model Railroad.
Near Clear Creek State Park, the mysterious Slyhoff’s Grave continues to baffle visitors. Locally infamous Richard Slyhoff conceived a plan to protect his immortal soul from the Devil after living a life of unrestrained sin, and when he died in 1867, he had gravediggers bury him just downhill from a large, leaning boulder near his home. He reasoned that the quakes and rumblings of Judgment Day would dislodge the rock and roll it to a stop atop his final resting place, but incredibly, the stone has rolled uphill in the past century and a half, and Slyhoff’s Grave is now completely exposed to the sky.
Elk County was named for the abundant eastern elk that once thrived here, and although the original population was hunted to extinction in the mid-1800s, the herd was replenished by animals from out west more than 100 years ago. Today, more than 1,000 of these magnificent creatures roam freely across what has become known as Pennsylvania’s Wild Elk Country, and you can see them throughout the hills and valleys near Benezette.
Just south of the town of St. Mary’s alongside Route 255, the 12-by-18-foot Decker’s Chapel is so small you might not even notice it as you pass by. Some say it’s the smallest chapel in the country, which the church’s managers don’t claim, but it’s undoubtedly among the nation’s tiniest of temples. A deeply religious man named Michael Decker built the church in 1856 as an act of gratitude after recovering from a serious injury, and it has served as a place for quiet prayer and reflection ever since. Another religious attraction in Elk County is The Cross, also known as the Cross on the Hill Interfaith Memorial. This simple wooden edifice stands 13 feet high on a hill overlooking the Spring Run Valley, and the site also features a number of metal panels depicting different events from Jesus’ crucifixion.
As noted above, the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region is home to lots of big rocks, but the unusually shaped Umbrella Rock near Ridgway definitely takes the cake as a natural oddity. This mushroom-shaped Pottsville sandstone rock formation on State Game Lands 44 is part of a larger group of rock outcroppings, and it got its narrow base and wide top from millions of years of wind and water erosion. On a clear day, it’s well worth a hike.
Elk County locals may not even know about the fossilized sea scorpion tracks found in a block of pebbly sandstone along Spring Creek in Hallton. A group of scientists discovered the prints in 1948, and paleontologists from the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh removed a section and determined it to be from a 350-million-year-old Palmichnium kosinskiorum eurypterid arthropod, a seven-foot-long ancestor of today’s modern scorpion. The Elk County Historical Society in Ridgway has a cast of the track at their museum, and local historian Bob Imhof can help interested visitors who want to learn more about the site and its significance.
Near the border between Elk and Jefferson Counties, pedestrians and bikers on the Little Toby Trail can take a small detour to the swinging bridge, which crosses Little Toby Creek near the trail’s midsection. Another swinging bridge can be found at Walter Dick Park in Brookville, crossing North Fork Creek beneath a pair of elevated interstate bridges.
Travelers coming to the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region from Pittsburgh by way of Route 28 know they’ve arrived in Clarion County when the mouthwatering smell of roasting peanuts fills the car. New Bethlehem has been home to a Smucker’s peanut butter factory since the 1940s, and since then, its regular peanut-roasting operations have scented the surrounding air and generated New Bethlehem’s proud claim as “the best-smelling town in Pennsylvania.” The community’s annual Peanut Butter Festival each September honors this distinctive characteristic, and it features themed elements like a peanut butter cook-off, a wing-eating contest where the wings are slathered in peanut butter sauce, and vendors selling peanut butter-related items, such as peanut butter-filled pierogis, soaps, and home decor.
Hunters will find Swift Safariland in Fairmount City quite interesting, as it features approximately 100 exotic animal mounts from around the world. The owner, Vincent Dougherty, harvested each animal on display himself with a .220 Swift, and the collection includes an African elephant, a hippopotamus, a cape buffalo, and a lion in addition to a number of large antlered animals, a grizzly bear, and a crocodile.
About 15 miles northwest of New Bethlehem, the community of Sligo honors its Irish namesake with a sign boasting a leprechaun in a green top hat at the entrance of town. Street names like Shamrock Drive showcase its Irish roots, and a huge black-and-white cow statue was left over from an old dairy in business during the 1970s. 911 operators use it as a navigational landmark, and the town decorates it every Christmas, although it’s worth a visit for an unusual photo op any time of year.
Just downstream of “Newbie,” as the locals call it, the Redbank Valley Trail reopened the Climax Tunnel last year following an extensive restoration, and trail users can get a real feel for the history of the rail line by exploring this passageway. Further west near the town of East Brady, the Phillipston Turntable was once used to turn locomotives around for return trips, and it remains an interesting relic of Pennsylvania’s railroad heyday. Other industrial artifacts in the county include Buchanan Furnace and Helen Furnace, two cold-blast charcoal furnaces built in the 1840s to convert raw iron ore into usable building material.
A much more modern attraction can be found at Kalyumet Fore Fun in Cook Forest — it’s the only place in the state with a virtual reality escape room. After donning goggles and headphones, players must solve clues to free themselves from a mysterious mansion.
As its name suggests, Forest County is covered in lots of trees. Nearly half of the county is contained inside Allegheny National Forest, and each summer, a curious thing happens amidst the trees. The rare and mesmerizing synchronous fireflies flash in unison each warm, dry night for a few weeks each June and July, and they put on a dazzling show for anyone willing to stop and watch. The PA Firefly Festival, held on June 22 this year, is a great place to see these unique lightning bugs in action, but the festival’s organizers also host a number of other viewing events where you can witness these elusive creatures make their magic.
Tionesta Lake in Forest County has two intriguing landmarks, one on either end of the lake. Near its western tip, Sherman Memorial Lighthouse rises above Lighthouse Island at the intersection of Tionesta Creek and the Allegheny River, more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Tionesta businessman and lighthouse enthusiast Jack Sherman built the 75-foot structure in 2004, and it opens to the public for a handful of days each summer. If you can’t get to it on one of its open days, you can still enjoy a stroll around the grounds and great views of the Allegheny River.
On Tionesta Lake’s other end, the Nebraska Bridge isn’t usually much of a tourist attraction, but when the lake’s dam impounds water after a heavy rain and the water level rises, the 85-year-old truss structure finds itself underwater. Paddlers often enjoy taking boats out to explore the bridge’s upper elements when the water is high, as it stays calm and offers an easy but interesting excursion.
Cameron County has made a name for itself as Pennsylvania’s home of the elusive bigfoot, and with extensive forests that see very few humans, it’s easy to see how a sasquatch in hiding could live its life without being spotted by its less-hairy counterparts. Emporium’s Weekend in the Wilds event includes a bigfoot hunt, and visitors can buy bigfoot hunting licenses at the Cameron County Chamber of Commerce.
A few miles outside of town, the Cameron County Historical Society operates The Little Museum in an old Depression-era schoolhouse. In addition to exhibits on local industry and two local celebrities, silent movie star Tom Mix and World War II General Joseph McNarney, the museum features mysterious county artifacts of unknown origin, including a ram’s head carving from the 1880s or earlier. Downtown Emporium features the red-brick Cameron County Courthouse, which features a rare unblindfolded version of Lady Justice.
To learn more about any of these quirky attractions and start planning your trip, go to VisitPAGO.com or call (814) 849-5197.
This article originally appeared in the 2019 Welcome Guide, which contains feature articles, photos, travel tips, upcoming events, and listing information on lodging, attractions, restaurants, and more throughout Jefferson, Elk, Clarion, Forest, and Cameron Counties in northwestern Pennsylvania. Click here to review a digital version of this guide. To get your FREE print copy of this or any other publication by the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, click here and enter your information or call (814) 849-5197.