Sidebar: Trip Tips Length: About 300 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round, but especially scenic in autumn.
Not to be missed: Pennsylvania State Laurel Festival, a week-long series of activities held in mid-June, Wellsboro.
Nearby attractions: Peter J. McGovern Little League Baseball Museum, Williamsport; Buzzard Swamp Wildlife Area, Allegheny National Forest; Drake Well Museum, birthplace of the oil industry, Titusville; Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, Salamanca, NY.
Further information: Allegheny National Forest, 222 Liberty St., Warren, PA 16365; tel. 814-723-5150, www.fs.fed.us/r9/allegheny.
Longhouse Scenic Byway
When autumn comes to the Alleghenies, this 29-mile side trip is not to be missed, for the hardwoods here explode with color from mid-September through late October. Heading east from Warren, the tour (named for the large communal shelters once used by the Seneca Indians) begins at the Kinzua Point Information Center. From there it follows Rtes. 262, 321, and 59 around the Kinzua arm of the Allegheny Reservoir. Along the way, you’ll find several overlooks with magnificent views of the reservoir, including one atop the Kinzua Dam, which formed it, and another at Rimrock Overlook, just off Rte. 59.
The longest continuous highway in the country until it was eclipsed by Rte. 20 in 1965, Rte. 6 extends from Bishop, California, to Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Along the way, it tours some of the most diverse scenery of any road in America. This scenic stretch of Rte. 6, which spans the northern tier of Pennsylvania along old Indian trails, is among its loveliest. Called the Grand Army of the Republic Highway in honor of Union veterans of the Civil War, it offers cool forests, friendly towns, and vistas that run from ridge to ridge.
Trim and tidy beneath the four clocks of its 1877 courthouse, the town of Warren (named for General Joseph Warren, a hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill) stands at an important junction in the history of American transportation. Early in the 19th century, when timber barons felled the forests of northwestern Pennsylvania and western New York, they assembled their log drives here, at the confluence of the Conewango and Allegheny rivers. The logs splashed and thundered downstream and south to meet the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, and fortunes flowed into Warren’s serene, mansion-lined streets.
2. Tidioute Overlook
Heading west on Rte. 6 out of Warren, take Rte. 62 south along the Allegheny River until you pass a narrow iron bridge that crosses into the hamlet of Tidioute. A spur road just beyond the bridge leads to the Tidioute Overlook, which affords sweeping views of the broad, smooth waterway.
The Allegheny has come a long way to reach this point. Rising near Denton Hill State Park, the river veers north into New York State, then winds back into Pennsylvania at the Allegheny Reservoir, northeast of Warren. Also visible from the overlook are the red-and-white houses of Tidioute, a patchwork of small farms, and Courson Island (part of the only federally designated wilderness to be found in Pennsylvania).
3. Hearts Content National Scenic Area
After leaving Tidioute Overlook, the drive begins its journey east through Allegheny National Forest. Situated atop a rugged plateau, this 512,000-acre national forest boasts 170 miles of hiking trails and 91 miles of shoreline, but it is most renowned for its timber. Yellow poplar, white oak, and red maple are just a few of the hardwoods that contribute to the more than 65 million board feet of timber harvested here each year. The region’s black cherry is prized by furniture craftsmen, but locals, perhaps, place an even higher premium on white ash, which is used to make a masterpiece of an entirely different sort—Louisville Slugger baseball bats.
One place in the forest, however, has been touched by neither saw nor axe. At the aptly named Hearts Content National Scenic Area, hemlocks, beeches, and white pines still stand straight and tall, as they have for more than 300 years. Absent are American elms that fell prey to Dutch elm disease late in the 1800s all across the continent. To reach Hearts Content, follow signs from the Tidioute Overlook. Once there, you’ll find a mile-long trail that winds through the old-growth timber stand and loops back to the picnic area.
The national scenic area lies at the threshold of another pocket of serenity, the 8,570-acre Hickory Creek Wilderness. Since no motorized vehicles are allowed there, you may prefer the conveniences of Chapman State Park, where campsites cluster around a trout-filled lake. The best way to get to Chapman is to take Rte. 3005 north to Warren, follow Rte. 6 south, and then head west at Clarendon.
Traveling southeast on Rte. 6, the drive reaches the town of Kane. General Ulysses S. Grant was once arrested here for fishing without a license, but the only Civil War hero you’re likely to hear folks talk about is General Thomas L. Kane, who settled the community that now bears his name. A champion of persecuted Mormon pioneers and a mediator in the so-called Mormon War of 1857, Kane was one of the first Pennsylvanians to volunteer for service in the Union Army. He is buried in front of the chapel he built, which has been restored by grateful Mormons and is now maintained as a historic site.
5. Kinzua Bridge State Park
Spanning the Kinzua Creek valley north of Rte. 6, the Kinzua Bridge, at 301 feet in height, was the tallest railroad bridge in the world when it was erected in 1882. Rebuilt with steel in 1900 and abandoned by regular railway traffic in 1959, this towering monument to the golden age of railroads now serves the excursion trains of the Knox, Kane, and Kinzua Railroad, which can be seen chugging along the 2,053-foot-long viaduct from several vantage points in Kinzua Bridge State Park. From June to October you can get on board at Kane or, for an all-day trip, farther south at Marienville and let a vintage steam locomotive carry you through the park’s forests, across the historic bridge, and all the way back.
6. Ole Bull State Park
One of the great violin virtuosos of the 19th century, Ole Bull was renowned on both sides of the Atlantic. His greatest love after music was his native Norway, and since the rugged, deeply wooded hill country of northwestern Pennsylvania reminded Bull of his homeland, it was here that in 1852 he attempted to found a colony called New Norway. Problems with property titles and the hardships of wresting farmland from forest defeated Bull and his followers, but the landscape of his dream is preserved for posterity at 125-acre Ole Bull State Park, located along the banks of Kettle Creek. As you head south to the park on Rte. 44 at Sweden Valley, you’ll be following the path of an old stagecoach route that was called the Jersey Shore– Coudersport Turnpike. Named for the towns at either end of the line, this roller coaster of a road must have challenged weary stagecoach drivers as much as its vistas now delight travelers.
7. Pennsylvania Lumber Museum
Several miles beyond Sweden Valley, Rte. 6 reaches its highest point in Pennsylvania. From the top of Denton Hill, in Denton Hill State Park, you can look down on the headwaters of the Genesee River, flowing northward toward Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence; Pine Creek, which feeds the Susquehanna River and, ultimately, Chesapeake Bay; and the headwaters of the Allegheny River, a tributary of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. At the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, just off the highway near Denton Hill, the river of time flows back 100 years to an era when burly men with big saws cut hemlock and white pine for as long as 70 hours a week. All the tools of their trade are on view here, set among the mills, mess halls, and bunkhouses where they lived and worked. The colorful history of the period comes to life in early July at the Bark Peeler’s Convention, which features, among other activities, single- and double-bladed axe-throwing competitions and sawing demonstrations.
8. Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania
For nearly 50 miles Pine Creek winds southward along a route cut by glacial meltwater during the great ice ages. Nearly one mile across from rim to rim, the wooded gorge—locals proudly dubbed it the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania—plunges to depths of 800 feet along much of its length, although it is nearly twice as deep near its southern end. Nowhere is this natural wonder grander (or more accessible) than at Colton Point State Park and Leonard Harrison State Park, both located several miles south of Ansonia on opposite sides of the gorge. A visit to Colton or Harrison is immediately rewarded with glorious views from scenic overlooks.
At Harrison State Park those with enough stamina—and not to mention, the right kind of shoes—can venture along Turkey Path, a steep switchback trail that travels a little more than one mile from the main overlook to the bottom of the gorge. Somewhere between the rim and the shallow creek, deep amid the rhododendrons and sycamores, you may just happen to cross paths with that quintessentially American bird, the wild turkey. Once plentiful in these parts, these colorful critters came close to extinction as a result of hunting and habitat destruction. But in recent years they have made a surprising comeback.
Among the wariest of fowl, the wild turkey—despite its three-foot length, bright red wattles, and boastful fan of tailfeathers—is easily concealed by the forest and its own quick wits. One may appear out of nowhere, a strutting flash of iridescent bronze, then suddenly dart—as quickly as you can say “gobble”—into a nearby thicket under a cloak of invisibility. But if you’re lucky enough to see this bird, you’ll long remember it.
With its stately stone courthouse, Victorian homes, and gas street lamps, Wellsboro—which serves as gateway to the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania—looks like a New England town that has been transplanted to Pennsylvania. And no wonder, for it was largely New Englanders who settled the community in 1806. Stroll along its shady streets, graced with maples and elms, to the town green, where a bronze statue depicts a scene from the beloved children’s poem “The Dutch Lullaby.” It shows Wynken, Blynken, and Nod adrift in their improbable craft—a seaworthy wooden shoe.
10. Mt. Pisgah
With the highest of the Alleghenies fading behind to the west, Rte. 6 descends toward the Susquehanna River valley. Between the town of Troy and the river lie two of the region’s most delightful recreation areas: Mt. Pisgah state and county parks. Mt. Pisgah itself has a road all the way to its gently contoured summit. From here pastured valleys tumble away in every direction, their grassy folds cradling white farmhouses, big red barns, and herds of dairy cattle.
The two most venerable man-made and natural highways in Pennsylvania—famous Rte. 6 and the Susquehanna River—finally meet at North Towanda. The Susquehanna rises in Otsego Lake, north of New York State’s Catskill Mountains. Snaking through eastern Pennsylvania in the shape of a long, backward S-curve, the swift, shallow river slices through five gaps in the Appalachian Mountains to drain the state’s coal-mining and industrial valleys as it flows to the tidewaters found at the head of Chesapeake Bay.
From Wysox, head southward on Rte. 187 to Durrell, then follow the signs to French Azilum.
11. French Azilum
One of Pennsylvania’s oddest footnotes to history can be found at a horseshoe bend in the Susquehanna River, some eight miles southeast of Towanda. In the autumn of 1793, several prominent Philadelphians sympathetic to royalists displaced by the French Revolution purchased land in the Susquehanna Valley and made it a refuge for exiled aristocrats.
The Azilum, or asylum, became a genteel community of comfortable log cabin homes, the largest of which, La Grande Maison, was reputedly intended for Marie Antoinette and her children. But any hopes the emigrés may have harbored for a new Versailles-on-the-Susquehanna were dashed when the queen was guillotined; not long after, the French community began to disperse. Some of its members headed south; others returned to France when Napoleon granted them amnesty; a few remained in northeast Pennsylvania, where their descendants live today.
Although none of the 50 or so original structures remain, the site of French Azilum is unquestionably one of the prettiest along the meandering Susquehanna River. A nature trail winds along the river where courtiers once sauntered, and the 1836 La Porte House, built by the son of one of the colony’s founders, offers as close a look as we can get at the settlement’s brief but historic heyday.
Return to Rte. 6 at Wysox and take a longer view up and down the Susquehanna River Valley from the Marie Antoinette Overlook, located about seven miles east of the village. Less than three miles farther down the road, another scenic vantage point commands a broad river view near the massive sandstone-and-shale outcroppings called the Wyalusing Rocks. A horse race once held from Wyalusing to nearby Camptown was immortalized by songwriter Stephen Foster, a resident of Towanda, in his familiar, catchy tune popular in the 19th century, Camptown Races.
The drive through the Alleghenies began with sensational views of its one great signature river—the Allegheny—and at the picturesque town of Tunkhannock, it will end with those of another, the Susquehanna. Just ahead lies Scranton, a hardworking coal town and stop on the Lackawanna Valley railroad. In it, you’ll find connections with I-81 to points north and south.
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