Pennsylvania is a curious state.
Some people consider it the midwest, or that Pittsburgh is the “Gateway to the Midwest,” but those of us who grew up in PA know this is absolutely not true. Then again, it’s not really the northeast either. Sometimes it gets lumped in with a few other states into a region by the name of the Mid-Atlantic…but the Keystone State doesn’t even touch the ocean.
For many, it may simply be another drive-through state, just one more obstacle on the way from New England to the West or up and down the Appalachians.
If you spend a little time exploring, and open your mind up to the variety of experiences that aren’t always at the top of everyone’s “to do while camping” list, you might just be pleasantly surprised. From touring Amish country to Union Civil War history, visiting one of the greenest cities in the nation to exploring the country’s first capital, Pennsylvania offers up plenty of diversity, even if it doesn’t always appear that way at first sight.
If you’re the ATV riding, campfire having, buck tagging outdoors type, the state is going to be ripe for exactly your blend of adventure. Then again, plenty of opportunities for white water rafting, paddle boarding, hiking and mountain biking abound as well.
All you need to do is find that perfect spot to call basecamp and take it from there.
Camping in Pennsylvania’s State Parks
Pennsylvania’s state parks can run the gamut from a pretty traditional, “pack ’em in” RV park experience to sites replete with heavily wooded coverage and plenty of privacy from your distant next door neighbor.
If you’re the angler type, give Bald Eagle State Park in central Pennsylvania a go. You’ll need a valid PA fishing license, but most of the state parks offer some type of body of water (though you may need to get used to the vernacular used to describe some of these features, for example “crick” equals creek in the majority of the state). If cooking up a rainbow trout isn’t in your dinner plans, skip the water and take a stroll through some mighty old chestnut oaks which, particularly come autumn, are astounding displays of the size trees that once grew in this part of the country, before our current civilization came into play.
Looking for more of a thrill than waiting for fish to bite or studying trees? Ohiopyle State Park is home to some of the best whitewater rafting in the country, and that is not just a play to make the place seem bigger than it is. From beginner sections of the Youghiogheny River to more challenging, sometimes Class V rapids (which, if you’re not hip to whitewater classifications, Class V is the last step before “certain death”) on the “Lower Yough” (rhymes with “hawk”), people travel the world over to get crazy on the water and then enjoy the truly small town vibe of Ohiopyle itself, a few blocks worth of restaurants, outfitters and some local history.
Not interested in adventure? Just want to cook a few s’mores up and take a leisurely stroll through the forest? Not far from Ohiopyle you’ll find Laurel Hill State Park, which offers all of the above, including an easy trail through a virgin eastern hemlock forest that will leave you wondering if you’ve somehow accidentally driven to the Pacific Northwest.
One final note on Pennsylvania State Parks: they don’t allow alcohol of any sort (even at your campsite), and the rangers strictly enforce this.
Camping Pennsylvania’s National Forests
Some might say that William Penn, the state’s namesake, was the grandfather of national forests. Rumor has it that he brokered a deal with the Lenape people who lived in eastern Pennsylvania whereby he would purchase an amount of land that was “as far as a man could walk in a day,” starting from the Delaware River. Penn never held the Lenape to the deal, but his sons decided they would indeed. So they gathered up three of the fastest guys they knew, and started running from a river a little farther east. What the Lenape thought would be about a forty mile walk ended up brokering a grand total of some 1.2 million acres of land.
Pennsylvania, aka Penns’ woods, would for a long time then be known, truthfully or otherwise, as the largest forest in the nation as it was defined at the time. While this story isn’t entirely based in truth (though not a complete campfire tale either), it would eventually grow into a legend whereby Penn himself walked the entire perimeter of Pennsylvania (easily over 800 miles) to define the borders of what would become the second state of the United States of America. Even into the early 1990s, parents would tell their children tales of how PA was the only state where you could walk ten miles and never reach a road. Hilarious, yes, but it rings to the pride the people of this state have.
All of that said, Pennsylvania is home to only one actual, official national forest, the Allegheny National Forest. Home to an assortment of established campgrounds and plenty of additional dispersed camping, including a baker’s dozen or so places suitable for RVs, the area offers the usual pursuits Pennsylvanians tend to lean toward: hunting, fishing, hiking, kayaking and seemingly singlehandedly supporting Coors Light’s continued production.
Be sure to check out the sleepy town of Tionesta or nearby Benezette, the “Heart of Pennsylvania Elk Country,” where the state’s once abundant (but now extinct) population of eastern elk is slowly being repopulated by elk brought in from the Rocky Mountains.
Camping Near Lake Erie, Pennsylvania
Everyone in Erie, PA talks about “lake effect.” It’s why their winters are colder than the rest of the known universe and what gives them the strength and fortitude to carry on through those long, dark months that last from somewhere around late October and extend into May. Essentially, it’s the idea that winds blowing off of Lake Erie make it colder, snowier, and downright more hellish to live there than just about anywhere on the planet. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s just another part of that PA Pride thing…but lake effect can create massive ice dunes along the shores of Pennsylvania’s only waterfront property, forming a beautiful site for those of us who can drop in for a visit and head south on a whim.
If you’ve timed it right, and decided to not visit this cute little city on the shores of the Great Lakes in the more wicked months, there’s plenty to see and do in town and on the lake alike.
Presque Isle State Park just into Lake Erie itself, is abundant with sandy beaches, birdwatching and easy hiking trails. While no camping is available in the park itself, Sara’s Campground sits just outside and is within biking distance to the park, or walking distance to an amusement/water park.
If you’re more interested in being closer to Erie’s dock (full of waterside restaurants and historic interest) and downtown, you might consider Lampe Marina Campground. An easy bike ride (or a healthy stroll) to State Street, Erie’s “Main Street,” is definitely worth checking out for its assortment of bars and restaurants, Small Town America feel and walkability. And Lampe’s is technically the closest park to Presque Isle State Park – if you’ve got a boat, kayak or happen to be a pigeon.
Camping in the Pennsylvania Wilds
There’s a relatively large hole in the ground in north central Pennsylvania that wears the official title of “Pine Creek Gorge,” but by which the locals (and tourism boards) refer to as “The Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.”
Now, standing above that mighty chasm, and thinking back on the actual Grand Canyon, an out-of-stater might scoff at that nickname. Then again, the softer features, rolling hills, laid back attitude towards campfires and significantly easier “challenging” hikes of the area might leave others thinking they’ve found paradise.
Perception is a mighty pair of sunglasses.
Aside from walking up and down the gorge, or hiking the trail that lines much of the bottom, a real slice of American days gone by is still more than just available here, it’s nearly everywhere you look. Think Sunday drives through farmland where the barns still wear Mail Pouch tobacco signs. Picture little communities like Wellsboro where the public library is still open and the corner diner transports you back to the 1940s.
And it doesn’t end there.
Whether you want to explore Ben Franklin’s (and the nation’s) history via the country’s sixth largest city, Philadelphia; or see the amazing revival of Pittsburgh as the smokey skies covered in the labor that once built the rest of this nation have given way to one of the leading producers of green technology in the United States, Pennsylvania has a forest’s worth of trees to see.