Leaf Peeping Opportunities Abound in Western PAAug 29, 2019 10:02AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
The covered bridge at Somerset Historical Center in the Laurel Highlands
Though some folks make their way to New England to see the splendors of fall colors, locals will be happy to know that western Pennsylvania has its own equally majestic sites to please the pickiest leaf-peepers.
Depending on the weather, the height of the fall foliage season changes slightly from year to year, but it typically runs from late September to early November, with the peak occurring in mid-October.
Rachael Mahony, an environmental education specialist at Forbes State Forest with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources’ Bureau of Forestry, said that weather conditions in the months preceding fall provide an accurate depiction of how brilliant the fall leaves will be, as well as when the season will peak.
“Moisture is a huge factor. If we receive an excessive amount of rain all summer like last year, it will cause the fall colors to be delayed. Similarly, if there is a late spring or a summer drought, that could also delay the onset of the foliage color,” she said. “If we end up having a warm fall with cold, crisp nights, that is the recipe for providing us with the most beautiful fall foliage.”
As a general rule, areas of higher elevation, such as the Laurel Highlands, will peak earlier than lower elevation areas like Pittsburgh.
Mahony said that the reason we have such brilliant fall colors in our area is the existence of so many species of deciduous trees. Unlike coniferous (evergreen) trees which are found in the west, deciduous trees refer to those that seasonally shed their leaves.
Some trees that leaf-peepers spot in western Pennsylvania include red maples, sugar maples, oak trees, beech trees, black birch trees and yellow birch trees, and black gum trees. Together, these trees provide a cornucopia of ravishing reds, brilliant browns, and ostentatious oranges.
The Best Leaf-peeping Spots
The Laurel Highlands has two fall scenic driving tours: a 125-mile drive on the Northern Loop, which is considered to be the quintessential road trip for serious leaf peepers, and a 70-mile drive on the Southern Loop.
Besides driving, another way to see the leaves is by biking on a rail trail or a mountain biking trail in the Laurel Highlands, perhaps at Ohiopyle. While you’re in the neighborhood, check out Fallingwater for great views as well.
For a panoramic vista, check out Mt. Davis, the highest peak in Pennsylvania, located in Forbes State Forest in Somerset County. Other trails in the forest worth the hike include Wolf Rocks, Beam Rock 4 and Pine Knob Trail.
You don’t have to go too far so see the changing of the leaves, however. Some of Pittsburgh’s city parks have an abundance of trails in which to take in spectacular foliage views. Check out Panther Hollow Trail in Schenley Park or walk the Riverview Loop Trail in Riverview Park. Other breathtaking vistas can be found at Watt’s Overlook at Harrison Hills Park or at Grandview Park in Mt. Washington. You can also bike along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail for additional glimpses of autumn splendor.
Further north, both Moraine State Park and McConnell’s Mill State Park in Butler County have hiking and biking trails that meander through woodsy forests that are picture perfect in the fall.
While you’re in Butler County, you might also want to check out the 16-mile driving trail on Route 108 that meanders from New Castle to Slippery Rock; at the height of the season, the leaves reveal themselves in spectacular shades of reds, oranges and browns. Other spots in Butler County to see the colors of autumn are Preston Park in Butler Township, Todd Nature Reserve, and the Jennings Environmental Education Center.
Why Not Add in a Festival?
Many families enjoy combining a scenic fall foliage drive with fall festivals, and there are plenty to be found. If you’re going to be in the Laurel Highlands, for example, you can check out Autumnfest Weekends at Seven Springs Mountain Resort which includes an Oktoberfest every Saturday and Sunday between Sept. 28 and Oct. 20.
Bedford’s Fall Foliage Festival, a 55-year tradition held in downtown Bedford, runs the weekends of Oct. 5 and Oct. 12. If you want to add in an overnight, make sure to book a room now as this is an extremely popular event.
If you’d like to see the leaves from the water, Moraine State Park offers fall foliage Nautical Nature boat tours each weekend in September and October. Visit
https://morainepreservationfund.org/nautical-nature-tickets for more information. The Gateway Clipper Fleet also offers a five-hour fall foliage tour on the three rivers; visit www.gatewayclipper.com for details. The cruises generally run in mid-October.
To stay up-to-date on the ideal dates to experience the fall foliage season, the PA DCNR maintains weekly fall foliage reports as well as maps, which can be viewed at www.dcnr.pa.gov/Conservation/ForestsAndTrees/FallFoliageReports/Pages/default.aspx.
According to DCNR’s website, “Pennsylvania has a longer and more varied fall foliage season than any other state in the nation—or anywhere in the world.”
Take that, New England.