The time arrives to pick the place for this summer’s vacation and discord descends on the dinner table. Dad wants to hike the hills, see a ball game. Mom wants to see a show, visit museums, shop for antiques. Son wants to swim, boat and join Dad on a hike. Daughter advocates for a “green” vacation — one made up of attractions that honor the environment.
A vacation therapist — if such an occupation exists — will have no trouble resolving the conflicts. She hands them maps and guides to Route 422 in western Pennsylvania. Here they’ll see some of the most bucolic vistas in Pennsylvania from roads winding over rolling hills. They’ll stop every 20 minutes to photograph churches, old barns, covered bridges, gorges and lakes. They’ll take side trips from 422 to parks and museums. And, at any point, they’ll be little over an hour away from Pittsburgh, a city sure to satisfy city mouse and country mouse alike.
It’s a Wonderful Town
The Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana is a great starting point for the family trip to western Pennsylvania. Stewart, born in 1908, grew up in Indiana and his family life there, amply documented at the museum, clearly affected his films. Pictures and memorabilia — like the old fashioned gilded, ring-up cash register from the family hardware store — from Stewart’s youth evoke scenes from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the classic family film travelers might review, or see for the first time, before a trip.
Contrasting with the iconic images of Stewart’s small-town days are the photos and artifacts in a newly added exhibit devoted to his casually elegant Hollywood home, including photos of stars gathered in the Stewarts’ back yard for parties. In the Hollywood gallery, posters, stills, costumes and scripts recall Stewart’s seven-plus decades as a film star. Every afternoon one of his classics — perhaps “Harvey,” “Vertigo” or “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — plays in the museum’s charming screening room.
The streets of Indiana could well have served as locations for the fictional, all-American town of Bedford Falls, the setting for “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A walking tour of Sixth Street, down the center of town, offers a sample of classic 19th- and 20th-century American homes, many of them stations on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Handsome Victorian buildings also highlight a walk across the campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which dates to 1875. Exhibits at the Indiana County Historical Museum detail the town’s history of farming and coal mining and its Native American heritage.
When it’s time to rest and refresh, head to Bruno’s. For more than 60 years, at tables covered with red-checked cloths, students, locals and visitors have satisfied appetites with lasagna, gnocchi, pizza and pasta.
Armstrong County, west of Indiana on Route 422, offers plenty of opportunities to head for the hills, lakes and trails. Stock a picnic of homemade baked goods and sandwiches at It’s Coffee Time in Apollo, then set out for the Roaring Run Recreation Area. More than 12 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails — some easy, some demanding — take adventurers beside waterfalls and mountain fauna. Or, at The River’s Edge near Leechburg, equip yourself for canoeing and kayaking on the Kiskiminetas (“Kiski”) River. The stream is stocked with bass, walleye and perch, providing some of the best fishing in the state. The Armstrong Trail offers easygoing biking, walking and jogging through forests filled with wildflowers and views of the eastern bank of the Allegheny River. But if you want to see the forests at ease, book a one-and-a-half-hour tour on the Kiski Junction Railroad in Schenley, a working freight train that runs beside the river and through the woods.
If you’d rather skip the outdoors altogether, you can do that, too. The village of Leechburg offers charming shops. Book lovers will savor a light lunch and an extensive selection of used books at the newly opened Books & Beans. Gourmands will load baskets at Graff Gourmet and Specialty Foods, which highlights local products. There are Amish cheeses, hot pepper jellies, sweet and hot pickles and mustards.
Come evening, have dinner at the 1844 Restaurant in one of several handsomely restored dining rooms. The menu embraces sushi, beef entrees and fresh fish flown in from Hawaii. If dinner here leaves you settled into the comfortable past, book the Ancient Egyptian Room, the Lilly Bone Victorian Room or the Royal Suite at the Old Parsonage Bed and Breakfast.
Prairies, Porcelain and Pasta
The vacation menu in Butler County is as varied as it gets. Two outstanding parks could occupy outdoor enthusiasts for weeks. Moraine State Park will gratify advocates of the “green” movement. The 16,725-acre park emerged in 1970 on land once used for strip mining and oil drilling. Now it’s a tranquil oasis of wooded hillsides surrounding 42 miles of shoreline along Lake Arthur. Interested in activities? Pick from hiking, camping, boating, biking and birding.
Walks at Jennings Environmental Education Center move through stream valleys, forests, wetlands and a prairie that is home to blazing star wildflower and the endangered, and venomous, massasauga rattlesnake. The latter make few public appearances, guides say, but visitors are nevertheless advised to keep to the prairie’s mowed paths.
In Butler, the Maridon Museum houses a stunning collection of Oriental porcelain, china and jade amassed over many decades by Butler native Mary Hulton Phillips. Enthusiastic docents provide historical notes about gleaming tea services, dinnerware and exquisitely painted sculptures of humans, animals and birds.
A vast collection of a different sort awaits kids of all ages at Playthings Etc. Housed inside a re-created, gleaming silver spaceship are kites, trains, juggling equipment, slot cars and remote-control helicopters.
A delicious dinner entrée is served up in bounteous portions at Natili Restaurant in Butler: beef, pork and veal meatballs topped with spicy red sauce. This classic dish at the 71-year-old family restaurant is among the best you’ll enjoy.
Butler County is home to many charming B&Bs, including The Mainstay, in the tiny, historic village of Saxonburg, and Stargazer B&B, situated on an alpaca farm.
Bridges, Buggies and Trains
Lawrence County offers contrasts. At the center stands the city of New Castle, with Victorian mansions lining North Hill, the neo-classic Scottish Rite Cathedral perched on a hillside and Warner Bros.’ first film
theater recreated at Cascade Center.
In only a few miles, city opens into lovely countryside, especially near Volant, where you’ll find quilt shops, a gristmill and a winery. Back roads spiraling away from Volant afford glimpses of the Amish, riding in buggies and wearing clothing modeled after that of their Swiss ancestors.
A beautiful gristmill, joined a few feet away by a bright red covered bridge, stands in a valley at McConnell’s Mill State Park. Shaded paths here follow the Slippery Rock Creek as it forms rapids and deep pools in a rugged gorge. It’s picturesque, but take care to stay on the earthen path. The rocks are treacherously slippery.
Children will delight in the Living Treasures Wild Animal Park. They can take pony and camel rides, or hop on a horse-drawn Wagon Safari. On exhibit: simians, bears and lions, plus deer for petting and monkeys for feeding.
The Harlansburg Station Museum of Transportation displays vintage means of transport that date to the early 1900s. A replica train station houses restored Pennsylvania Rail Road passenger cars. An automobile exhibit features early model Fords. Antique scooters and bikes line the halls.
Two B&Bs in Volant — the Candleford Inn and the Pine Hills Inn — offer peaceful sleeps in the countryside.
On to the Emerald City
Known as the Steel City in the days when its steel mills roared with activity, Pittsburgh might now be re-dubbed the “Emerald City,” as it gleams with a fresh new look.
This is evident at “The Strip,” a restaurant and shopping district located on the site of abandoned warehouses. This is where you find sandwiches piled high with French fries at Primanti Brothers and the creations of TV chef Lidia Bastianich at Lidia’s Italy.
Pittsburgh is also home to several outstanding museums. A highlight at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is “Welcome to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” an evocation of the world of the popular TV series created by Pittsburgh native Fred Rogers. The Fort Pitt Museum surveys Pittsburgh’s history during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.
Three big Broadway musicals — “Curtains,” “Hairspray” and “The Producers” — strut the stage this summer at the Benedum Center. Any one of them will send a family home smiling.
For help planning a trip to Pittsburgh and its countryside, contact the following: