Suffering from the summer's-end blues?
A ride into the Pennsylvania wilds to experience Mother Nature's fall splendor is just what you need. A ride south has great components: the classic struggle of man vs. nature (and vice versa), cozy accommodations and great eats.
There's some drive time on this trip to catch up with your traveling companions. For hikers (experienced or novice), there are opportunities to take a trek in the woods.
Elk Country Visitor Center, Benezette, Pa.: Get an early start. You'll be on Route 219 most of the way. Dina's in Ellicottville (www.dinas.com) is a great place to fuel up with a late breakfast.
Take Route 219 through Johnsonburg to PA-255; go through St. Mary's to PA-555 up Winslow Hill Road to the Elk Country Visitor Center, where you will find "everything elk."
The LEED certified (green) environmental center is home base for trails to elk viewing blinds, interactive exhibits, displays and a discovery room where kids can learn the story of the Pennsylvania elk herd.
This isn't a zoo. It is hit or miss when it comes to sighting elk, but autumn, the season of "love" (to mid-October), increases your chances.
Those naturally wondering how the elk ended up here can see an excellent movie that tells the elk story through special effects and "friends" around a campfire. Be sure to watch the "pre-movie" outside the theater, with a bull elk whose antlers are tangled in a tire and rope swing. The daring rescue is riveting.
The story is this: Native elk once roamed the Northeast, but by 1867, the last elk had been killed -- wiped out by man.
During the early 1900s, the Pennsylvania Game Commission introduced 177 Western elk (many from Yellowstone) into the area. Their descendants (more than 760 in about a dozen subherds) now happily roam among several Pennsylvania counties. You'll see elk signs posted on area roads and should take them seriously.
In the center, touch screens bring nature to the forefront. Youngsters can identify birds and trees, learn about "Critters of the Pa. Wilds," test their knowledge at the "scat" (poop) exhibit and even bugle like an elk. Fantastic interpreters are on hand to answer any questions.
Outside, walking trails take visitors to elk viewing areas, and a horse-drawn wagon ride carries visitors into the fields. We were fortunate to see about 25 elk (adults and youngsters) on our excursion.
We spotted them from a distance, never thinking they would stick around as the wagon approached, but they did. We sat mesmerized.
Some elk studied us. Some kept grazing.
They were magnificent. Much bigger and thicker than deer. Native Americans called them "wapati" -- a powerful name for a beautiful animal.
We left grateful for the work of organizations like the Keystone Elk Country Alliance and the center.
The Elk Visitors Center (elkcountryvisitorcenter.com) is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week in September and October; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday-Sunday in November and December; weekends January through March. Admission is free; movie, $3; wagon ride, $10. The property's Elk Country Homestead farmhouse with observation deck sleeps up to 10 and is available for rental.
On the way: Consider a visit to Elk Mountain Winery on Route 255 (www.elkmountainwines.com); and Elk Country Store Gift Shop and Medix Hotel on Route 555 in Medix Run (medixhotel.com).
Smethport and the Mansion District Inn: Take Route 219 to Route 6 to Smethport for a stay at the Mansion District Inn, 905 W. Main St. (www.mansiondistrictinn.com).
The Inn is everything a B&B should be. It has superb hosts in Jovanna and Ross Porter, neat surroundings (a Queen Anne mansion with period furniture and decor), modern amenities (TV, Wi-Fi) and of course, a fantastic breakfast (fresh ground coffee, juice, citrus, sweet roll, fresh cherries and apricots, egg crepe with asiago, local bacon and cantaloupe.)
After a day of sightseeing, relax on the big porch. If you need to stretch your legs, the Porters have walking tour brochures of Smethport's mansions and historic buildings, including their own place, the Hamlin-McCandless Mansion.
For dinner, head to the very casual (and very hidden) Westline Inn (www.westlineinn.com). Escargot Bourguignon, Steak Au Poivre, Bouillabaisse, lamb, chicken, seafood -- the Westline pulls off French and American cuisine in the middle of the woods. From the B&B, take Route 59 to Route 219, go left (south) to the bottom of the hill, turn right at the Westline sign and drive until you reach the inn.
Kinzua Sky Walk: Take Route 6 from the Mansion toward Mount Jewett to get to Kinzua Bridge State Park (not to be confused with the Kinzua Dam). Here you'll find the new Kinzua Sky Walk, a pedestrian walkway built from an engineering wonder of the modern world.
Designed by Adolphus Bonzano and completed in 1882, the structure was the longest railroad viaduct in the world, standing 301 feet above Kinzua Creek. The construction was completed by 125 men in just 94 days.
Originally made of wrought iron, the structure used Bonzano's "Phoenix Column," an innovative design that enabled tall structures to resist vibration and buckling.
In 1900, steel columns replaced iron. The historic landmark stood until 2003, when in the midst of a $12 million repair project, a freak tornado ripped down 11 of the 20 towers, taking the hearts of locals with it.
However, from a disaster the beautiful sky walk was born.
The structure is glorious (and not for acrophobes). High above the gorge, visitors can view miles of forest. Below the observation deck are the remains of the toppled bridge and ravaged trees, a reminder of Mother Nature's raw power.
If you survive the sky walk and want to see trees a little closer up, the General Kane Trail -- named for Gen. Thomas Leiper Kane, Civil War veteran and builder of the bridge -- is also in this park.
Nearby: Stop at Mount Jewett's Kaffe Sol on West Main Street to pick up Swedish rye. Swedes settled in this area to work the lumber industry. Across the street is the four-story Mount Jewett Heritage Mural done by Kong Ho, a world-famous muralist.
Longhouse National Scenic Byway and Kinzua Dam: Through Mount Jewett follow Route 6 to Kane, where you take Route 321 into the beautiful Allegheny National Forest. Longhouse National Scenic Byway (left off 321) heads to the Allegheny Reservoir.
At the end you'll hit Route 59. Go left to Kinzua Point for a spectacular view of the reservoir and foliage. Drive three more miles to get to the Kinzua Dam, built in 1965.
You can walk partway out on the dam. Trails lead down to the water spillway. It's a beautiful view, especially when there are fly fishermen casting away.
Drive a different way home. Take Route 59 to Route 6 in Warren, to Route 62. The Dairy Delite (Routes 59 and 6) is a fine place to grab an ice cream cone for the ride home through the rural countryside.
On the way: Along Route 321 is Bob's Trading Post. In Kane is the Flickerwood Winery (www.flickerwood.com) and the ArtWorks Depot (www.alleghenyartworks.org).