Travel: Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, Part One

Spring Break Road Trip Time

Our entire family loves road trips that explore history and nature. In 2018 we decided to explore Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands over spring break. The Laurel Highlands are a beautiful mountainous area in western Pennsylvania not far from Pittsburgh.This area is full of fascinating history and gorgeous scenery–from the waterfalls of Ohiopyle State Park and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater to the resilient city of Johnstown.

In Part One of this 2 part blog series, we’ll explore Ohiopyle State Park, Fallingwater, and Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site. In Part Two, we’ll check out the city of Johnstown and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial.


Ohiopyle State Park

Our first stop was Ohiopyle State Park, known for its gorgeous vistas, whitewater river, and waterfalls. We stopped for lunch in the town at a cafe down by the river before heading over to the visitors center.

Youghiogheny River Rapids Ohiopyle State Park
Rapids of the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle State Park.

The Laurel Highlands Falls Area visitors center is perched on the banks of the Youghiogheny River and offers interactive exhibits that allow you to learn more about the flora, fauna, and local opportunities for recreation. There are multiple vantage points over the river. Our daughters had a great time exploring the visitors center which also features a range of green features that helped it attain LEED Gold certification.

Ohiopyle Visitors Center
L: My husband just might have enjoyed the interactive displays more than our kids! R: Ohiopyle visitors can enjoy views of the river from inside or outside.

We then drove around the park for a bit, though solid downpours of freezing rain put a damper on any extended hiking plans, we still made use of our rain boots and ponchos to walk to a waterfall. I had heard a lot about the beauty of Ohiopyle from my parents and friends and was glad to experience it, even with the cold rain–we will definitely be back to explore it further in another season. Our daughters loved the idea of natural water slides.

Cucumber Falls Ohiopyle State Park
Cucumber Falls at Ohiopyle State Park, beautiful in any weather.



The approach though the woods to Fallingwater is dramatic. (Image: Giphy)

Probably the most famous of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s homes, Fallingwater perches over a waterfall sited in a mountainous forest. You park your car, purchase your tour ticket, and walk through the woods to it. Its cantilevered angles and warm colors complement rather than dominate the landscape. Fallingwater is a structure that sparks your imagination and stretches the limits of “home”.

Fallingwater tour group
A tour group heads in to Fallingwater.

Your tour guide takes you through the interior of the house, pointing out unique features and explaining the history of the Kaufmann family, a prominent Pittsburgh family passionate about the arts. My favorite room is the living room, with its expansive windows, broad fireplace, and boulders protruding from the floor. It’s a quirky yet warm room and you can imagine the family entertaining their guests here.

Fallingwater's living room
Fallingwater’s living room (Image: Huffington Post)

Speaking of guests, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera visited Fallingwater during a trip to the United States. The Kaufmann family purchased two of her paintings and some of Rivera’s works are still on display there. Supposedly during their visit Kahlo, ever the rebel, went skinny dipping in the natural pool at the top of the waterfall. Despite her disdain for American culture, Fallingwater made a lasting impression on her; indeed, visitors to her studio in Mexico City may be surprised to see a framed photo of the house on her wall.

Frida Kahlo Fallingwater pool
A mischievous Frida with steps leading down to Fallingwater’s natural pool. (Images: Artsy and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette )

Our family took the Guided House tour; it moves quickly through the structure, and you are usually sandwiched between two other tour groups. The guides do their best to keep you apart but it means there’s not a lot of time for dawdling (or questions). If you are an architecture buff or love Wright and don’t have younger kids in tow, you may want to consider splurging on the In-Depth tour.

Fallingwater bedroom
One of the Fallingwater bedrooms–note the unique window design (Image: Busyboo)

The tour usually concludes with a brief video presentation in the guest house but my family had so many questions for the tour guide, we missed it. Poor guy–guess that’s what happens when you have two educators in your group that love learning (NERDSSS!!!). Regardless of your tour length, you can explore the surrounding trails for as long as you like and the site also features a well-curated gift shop and locally sourced cafe. We didn’t eat at Fallingwater but I did enjoy a delicious cup of fair trade coffee.

Outdoor seating area for the cafe at Fallingwater
Outdoor seating area for the cafe at Fallingwater (Image: Trip Advisor)

Regardless of the length of time you spend there, Fallingwater will fill you joy and wonder and make you appreciate the power of human imagination to complement our natural world.

Frank Lloyd Wright portrait
Fallingwater architect Frank Lloyd Wright: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” (Image:

Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site

The most straightforward way to describe the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site is to say that it was the first direct transportation route between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia that also connected the Midwest with the East Coast.

Allegheny Portage RR 1
For many years, the Allegheny Portage Railroad was the fastest way to move people and good through the Allegheny Mountains.

But to capture the wonder of this piece of history, consider this: the Allegheny Portage Railroad was a short line railroad that basically moved Pennsylvania Canal boats up through the Allegheny Mountains, reducing what was a 23 day journey to about 10 hours.  Guys, they took canal boats out of the water and put them onto rail cars to move them up the mountain! There’s a visitor’s center, engine house, hiking trails, and historic tavern building on site.

Allegheny Portage Railroad
A view inside the Allegheny Railroad Portage Railroad engine house and the misty meadow at the site.

Unfortunately, they had not opened for the season when we visited in April, but a kind park ranger stamped my  husband’s National Parks Passport book and allowed us to quickly check out the engine house. If we are in the Altoona area again, we will definitely visit again for the full experience.

Thank you for reading my Part One of my 2 part series on Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands. Keep your eye out for Part Two coming up next week.

What historic sites have you enjoyed visiting? Please leave a comment.

Want to read more about fun places to learn about and visit? Check out my posts on Travel: Button Farm Living History CenterTravel: Vollis SimpsonWhirligig Park, and Travel: C&O Canal Lockhouse 10 Overnight.

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  1. Noah Hubbard

    This is an excellent article. I love the picture of Falling Water with the moving water. Thanks for sharing this adventure with your mother and I. We treasure the memories.

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