This trip was hosted by Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau, located in northwest Pennsylvania.
Visiting Allegheny National Forest (ANF) isn’t just about putting on your hiking boots and heading into the wilderness. It’s about visiting a beautifully rural region with plenty of outdoor activities, for light adventurers and hardcore enthusiasts alike. But it’s also full of unexpected history that goes back to the booming industrial era in our country.
When we were planning our summer road trip, we knew we wanted to hit some of the lesser known spots in northern Pennsylvania, including the Kinzua Sky Walk. But instead of doing a “fly by” (much like people do when they pass the “flyover states” when heading coast to coast), we decided to slow down for two days to enjoy everything the region had to offer: unspoiled scenery, small towns, and a slower way of life.
Here’s how we took advantage of that.
What We Did
Pro tip: This is a rural area and cell phone signals are spotty. I recommend using a satellite GPS or storing your destinations in your phone so that they can be accessed offline.
Kayaking on the Allegheny Reservoir
We knew we wanted to do some kayaking on our trip and the ANF was the perfect place to do that. We headed to Willow Bay Recreation Area, located 15 miles west of Bradford, PA and just south of the New York State line. If we were campers, this would be a lovely place to do it.
To access the kayak rentals, we drove through a wooded area that housed travel trailers and tents right along the south shore of Willow Bay. We met two rangers that had just set up the equipment for us when they realized there were three of us and only two kayaks.
My husband valiantly offered to stay behind but I didn’t let him off that easily. We co-piloted a canoe while my son took the kayak. As we suited up, the rangers started heading out. When I asked them if there was anything we needed to know (where to go, when to be back, etc.), they looked at me as said, “Yeah, don’t drown!” Good advice.
We had a leisurely paddle through the bay and into the main reservoir (go left for Pennsylvania, go right for New York) before heading back and readying ourselves for the next adventure.
Kinzua Bridge State Park
I hate to play favorites but Kinzua Bridge State Park was definitely one of my favorite spots on this trip. Located in Mt. Jewett, the history is just as fascinating as the view.
Originally built in 1882, Kinzua Bridge was once the tallest railroad bridge in the world. After many changes to the railroad, the bridge was closed and slated for restoration in 2002. In 2003, a tornado swept through the area dismantling half of the bridge. The other half remains and has been turned into the Kinzua Sky Walk, a pedestrian bridge that opened in 2011.
On the Kinzua Sky Walk, you’ll have a chance to walk to the end and, if you dare, walk over the glass panels that give you a view of the valley below. They’ve opted to leave the remnants of the other half of the bridge as a reminder of the forces of nature at work.
The park has a spacious parking lot and beautiful visitors center detailing the history of the bridge. And it’s got one of the best gift shops – I bought both artwork and a t-shirt there!
On our way out of the park, we made a quick stop at a home selling local maple syrup. We met the owner who showed us the trees they tapped and explained the process in detail. Then we played with her dog. This is what I love about rural communities!
She also explained that she was the head of the Kane-Knox Biking Trail committee – a group of volunteers working tirelessly to create new trails out of old rails. Her efforts did not go unnoticed as we headed to our next destination.
Biking the Kane-Knox Trail
Our next stop was at Lantz Corners Getaway, a motel catering to explorers in the areas. They outfitted us with bikes and helmets and sent us on our way to the Kane-Knox Trail. That was the easy part. Finding the trailhead was the challenging part!
After we crossed Route 6, rode into Sheetz, and cycled into FleetPride, I stopped and simply asked where the trailhead was. Literally behind FleetPride. It just has a very small sign. Hopefully this helps you find it!
It’s not a loop. It’s a one way trail that will take you to Kinzua Bridge State Park and beyond. We rode most of the way to Mt. Jewett and then decided we had worked up an appetite and headed back.
After kayaking, hiking, and biking, we were ready for some indoor action the following day.
The Zippo/Case Museum was another reason I wanted to head to Bradford, PA, which served as the headquarters for all of our activities. I love quirky Americana museums and that’s what I got.
Zippo is the name of the patented windproof lighter that was designed George G. Blaisdell in 1932. Based on a very awkward Austrian design, he refined it and made history with this unmistakable lighter. And that lighter was first (and STILL) made in Bradford, Pennsylvania.
The museum shows the history of the lighter and its role in changing American times. It also gives you a window into the Zippo Repair Clinic where lighters from all over the world are repaired as a result of their lifetime guarantee.
So where does the Case name come in? In 1993 Zippo acquired W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Company, a company that was founded in 1889 and also prospered in Bradford when they moved their headquarters there in 1905.
Today, you can visit the museum paying homage to both knives and lighters and shop for these high quality items in their large gift shop. I don’t know what it says about my parenting but we all got lighters and knives on this trip (even my 16 year old!).
What We Ate
After our visit to the museum, we headed out of McKean County but not before taking along a few homemade European pastries from John Williams European Pastry Shop. Although it offers full breakfast, we were there for the pastries only. And the locals in line behind me reassured me that I was making all the right choices.
For a small rural town, we actually found plenty of places to eat that were just amazing!
Our favorite for both food and ambiance was probably Beefeaters, which doesn’t sound like a place that would welcome many vegetarians. No worries – there’s always a good grilled cheese to be found! I, on the other hand, discovered an amazing regional specialty called “Beef on Weck.” Officially, it’s Roast Beef on Kummelweck – it’s like a French dip served on a salted bun.
Topping off the experience is the fact that Beefeaters is located in one of the most historic buildings in downtown Bradford, the former Carnegie Public Library. Funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the building served as the town library from 1901 to 1991. Today, you can enjoy fine food in a historic setting.
We were on our own for many meals so that meant reading online reviews (like you might be doing now) and taking a gamble. We opted for the newly opened Taco Inc in downtown Bradford for dinner one night. We love good Mexican food but this was over the top! Extremely fresh food coupled with great service made this a place we would recommend to anyone.
The Spinach and Chicken Enchiladas were the best I’ve ever had and that’s not just the margarita talking, although I did have two of them. I asked for a “Skinny Margarita” (hey – I’ve got to save calories where I can) and our server made it himself with fresh squeezed juice. Absolutely amazing!
As we were leaving the area, I picked a unexpected lunch spot for us in the little town of Smethport. We didn’t have time to do much besides drive through but I liked the looks (and history) of the Smethport Drive In. You won’t find much about this place online (I think I found it on Google Maps) but if you like small town drive ins, the cars and trucks waiting for their food gives a good indication that it’s worth a stop.
Cheeseburgers and grilled cheeses were on our menu but I’d love to go back and try their multiple flavors of soft serve!
Where We Stayed
If you like to get back to nature, there are plenty of opportunities in the Allegheny National Forest area. And if you like your plumbing a little more advanced, there’s a place for you too! We spent two nights in the Bradford area with two very different accommodations.
Our first night was in the woods courtesy of Willow Creek Cabin Rentals. With a quick greeting from the owner and her canine assistant Stella, she lead us to one of the newer cabins for the night. Upon settling in with our gear, we built a fire and enjoyed an evening under the stars.
Upon waking in the morning, my family still asleep, I stepped outside the front door in my nightgown and went for a nature walk with not another living thing in sight (except for the birds and a little salamander!).
For our second night, we stayed at the Bradford Inn Best Western Plus in downtown Bradford which put us within walking distance of shops and restaurants.
What We Missed
This was a “sandwich destination” for us. We were coming from somewhere and going to somewhere, so we were on a bit of a timeline. With that said, we just didn’t have enough time to do some things I would have loved to have done.
Hiking! We did not get to do any real hiking but not for lack of opportunity. Our plan was to do a short evening hike on Rimrock Trail, taking us to Rimrock Overlook for sunset. We also planned to visit Marilla Reservoir and hike Marilla Bridge Trail. ANF has tons of hiking trails and it’s a great excuse to go back.
More biking! Although we had a pretty good biking run, the Kane-Knox Trail extends pretty far and I would have loved to have ridden back up to Kinzua. Next time, we’ll know to bring our own bikes with us!
Although the area is full of nature, it’s also the birthplace of a lot of industry, one of which is oil! The Penn Brad Oil Museum showcases the history of oil in the region which you’ll still find being pumped from the group. If you like museums, there are plenty serving up the history and heritage of the region.
And finally, although we made it to Smethport for some burgers, we didn’t get a chance to explore one of their main attractions, the Smethport’s Mansion District, best seen by a walking tour.
As you can tell, there’s never enough time to see everything, even when you’re amidst small towns. This region is full of abundant natural beauty, cleverly designed parks, and surprising history. It’s a part of Pennsylvania I hope to visit again!