Last week, Kathy and I took our young granddaughter to the beach. We all enjoyed the sun and the cool water’s refreshment from summer’s heat. But to enjoy this idyll, we did not endure long hours in the car, gridlocked traffic, or a high-price hotel. Our beach excursion was a day-trip to Laurel Hill State Park, about 25 miles northeast in the heart of the Laurel Highlands. There, we paid no fee to park, picnic or play. Nor did it cost us to enjoy the appealing view of forested crests, commanding the skyline above the beach. The clean and frequently patrolled state park, we all agreed, offered a day of high-quality, low-cost family recreation — well, our granddaughter didn’t agree to that. She simply had fun.

Our close-to-home outing brought to mind the importance of Public Lands Day, coming up soon next month (Sept. 28, always the fourth Saturday in September), and the unique contribution of Pennsylvania’s state parks to every citizen’s outdoor opportunity, active lifestyle, and personal health.

Pennsylvania has 122 state parks, sprinkled equitably across all corners of the commonwealth. Here in the Laurel Highlands, we enjoy one of the densest clusters of state parks in that system. Ohiopyle, Laurel Hill, Kooser, Laurel Ridge, Laurel Mountain, Laurel Summit, and Linn Run state parks all cluster along the ridges, likely within simultaneous sight of the eagles that nowadays soar the region.

I’ve always felt a certain admiration for the philosophy that guides the development and management of Pennsylvania’s state parks. While many states—West Virginia is a nearby example — focus on elaborate amenities, like resort hotels and golf courses, in their state parks, Pennsylvania’s parks have always highlighted some significant natural or historic feature. Trails and campgrounds in our parks provide access and accommodations, but instead of intense development, the accent is on low-impact, low-cost, interaction with that special place — like my family’s brief beach romp beside a mountain lake. It should be noted, though, that Pennsylvania state parks have modernized restrooms and related facilities in recent years, in response to comments from users. I would challenge anyone, by the way, to find cleaner, more appealing public restrooms than guests encounter at Laurel Hill State Park.

The range of educational experiences offered to state park visitors has also grown in recent years.

The array of natural and historic features preserved in Pennsylvania state parks is impressive. Ohiopyle’s feature attraction, for example, is the Youghiogheny River, its gorge through Laurel and Chestnut ridges — the deepest gorge in Pennsylvania — and the internationally famed whitewater boating results from that geologic conflict between water and rock. Ohiopyle also serves as a cradle for much of the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail, which draws people here from around the world.

This column lauded short drives, but well worth the 4-hour ride north is another gorge flanked by state parks. Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon, near Wellsboro in Tioga County, can be viewed from its east or west rims from Leonard Harrison or Colton Point state parks, respectively. Pine Creek carved the canyon as it coursed across the state’s northern plateau.

A little west of the Grand Canyon is a state park that accents a unique — and widely diminishing — natural feature. Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County claims, perhaps, the darkest night sky east of the Mississippi River. Casual star-gazers and accomplished astronomers flock to Cherry Springs for its untainted views of the Milky Way, planets and constellations, free from “light pollution” that plagues most skies today.

One-hundred-fifty miles due north of here, Erie Bluffs and Presque Isle state parks provide visitors opportunities to enjoy Pennsylvania’s brush with the Great Lakes. Presque Isle is densely packed with beaches, bike and hiking trails, while Erie Bluffs is more about the lakeshore’s unique ecology.

An hour nearer, Cook Forest State Park preserves an 8,000-acre expanse of old-growth hemlock and white pine forest, woods that recall what Pennsylvania was like before its virgin forests were felled.

These are only a few high-profile examples. Pennsylvania state parks embrace an amazing range of other rivers, lakes, mountains, and historic sites.

Pennsylvania’s earliest state parks were more about history than nature. Valley Forge State Park, commemorating General Washington and his Continental Army’s miserable winter encampment along the Schuylkill River in 1777-1778, was the first, established in 1893. Fort Necessity, site of Washington’s 1754 surrender, and spark to the French and Indian War, was also once a state park. Both Valley Forge and Fort Necessity are now federally administered National Park sites.

Our state park system saw its greatest growth during the 1960s and 1970s, under the leadership of Dr. Maurice K. Goddard, Secretary of the Dept. of Forests and Waters (Now the Bureau of State Parks within the Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources). Dr. Goddard envisioned a state park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvania resident, and he accomplished that goal. I’m proud to say I met Dr. Goddard once near the end of his career, when I worked for a time in the state park system.

While many states charge daily admission to their state parks, Pennsylvania’s remain free to the public’s enjoyment. Explore one of your varied and interesting state parks soon.

Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

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