Saturday, March 20, 2021

In Your Backyard October 2020- Benezette Elk
October is my favorite month of the year, when the leaves begin to change, pumpkin spice seems to become the favorite condiment and the weather has a crisp cool to the air in the evening but there is still a possibility for an 80° afternoon. It has always been a time to load in the car for a leaf ride and for a great road trip this month I want to point you in the eastern direction of Benezette, Pa.
The trip over is amazing and there are multiple ways to get there. For a scenic ride through the Allegheny Mountains head through Warren County and down towards St Marys (this route takes 3 hours and 45 mins to complete) for a more direct route you can travel I 79 to I 80 and it will shave off an hour. I go down via the scenic route and come back in the evening the quicker route.
Many people may not know this but elk are native to Pennsylvania and used to roam freely in herds. However in the mid 1800s that all changed due to a lack of hunting regulations and habitat loss. In 1913 elk were reintroduced to the area by the Pa Game commission and through their efforts as well as the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Keystone Elk Country Alliance and other private organizations the elk herd is now nearly 1,400 animals strong.
One of the very best times to see the elk is during the rut, which happens in September and October every year. The rut is the time of year that the big bull elk fight each other for the right to have a harem. A harem is a group of female elk (also known as cows) and the bulls will fight for the right to mate. This is the time of year you will see sparring and hear the bugling and antler crashing sounds throughout the valleys. The elk are most active in the early dawn and dusk so about two hours before dark is when you are most likely to see them. If you can not make the trip this fall, mark your calendar for the spring and you will likely see the calves romping and playing in the meadows.
The very first time I went to Benezette was a solo trip and I ended up leaving our area in the late afternoon. I did not know what to really expect so I didn’t give a whole lot of time for the excursion. I saw my first elk as it ran across the road in front of the compact car in front of me. It was a female and she just kind of sauntered across the road, luckily the car had stopped to allow her to cross, and just when they were getting ready to start moving a very large bull elk ran full bore after her and I watched him jump over the hood of the small car. It was impressive to see the size comparison of the vehicle and the animal.
There is a beautiful visitor center with a fantastic movie that is worth every penny of the $5 they charge to view it. The center also has a great display of the history of the herd as well as a gift store to purchase a variety of items including elk jerky and summer sausage. While you are there pick up an elk viewing map (I had zero cell service in the area so don’t rely on google maps).
For a great dinner option check out the Benezette Hotel for an elk burger, or Elk Life for an ice cream or fresh mini donut treat. Make sure you have binoculars or a spotting scope for the best viewing options and pick your spot to watch before 7 pm or so and be ready for a show. Now be aware that the elk do not always get the memo that they are supposed to be at the viewing areas. I absolutely had my closest experiences seeing them just on the side of the road. In fact on the return trip the area I chose to place my GoPro on the dash just in case and was able to capture the moment the extremely large bull crossed right in my path.
My best advice, is to leave in the early morning and get there in time to see all the cool things the area has to offer but to also leave enough time to not be rushed and pick your viewing location. Watch carefully as you drive, and remember that the elk may wander but they are not lost.

As seen in the Meadville Tribune October 5, 2020

In Your Backyard July 2020 - McConnells Mills State Park
With Labor Day weekend, comes the unofficial end of summer. The school buses once again are on the highways and for many school aged children, back to school is in full swing. This has been a trying time for many parents, and maybe a weekend road trip is just the ticket for some great family memories.
Just south of us right off I-79 in Lawrence County is McConnells Mill State Park. This often overlooked area is 2500+ acres that surrounds portions of Slippery Rock Creek. To find the park, jump on 79 south and take the exit for 422 W (Butler/ New Castle exit) and go until you intersect Route 19. The entrance is only about a half mile past there on the left on McConnells Mill Rd but the signs are easy to overlook so be watching carefully.
There is so much to do in the park itself in just about any season so put it on your list for a return visit to see the fall foliage or the spring flowers. One of my favorite spots for photos is the old gristmill and covered bridge area. There are places to get a great vantage point to have both of them in the picture.
The Mill itself was built and then rebuilt in the late 1800s and is currently open to visit inside on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (Covid 19 restrictions are in place and they do limit to 10 people at a time with proper mask wearing required. They also close from noon to 1pm for lunch and to clean.) Even if the mill is not open however the surrounding area is a great place to walk and explore. Make sure to keep your eyes on little ones because Slippery Rock creek is a swift moving and “Slippery” creek and it is easy to fall in if you are too close or not paying attention. The original rock that gave the creek its name is also located within the park near Armstrong Bridge. There is a natural oil seep near a large sandstone that makes it very “Slippery” and was apparently used to cross the creek by Native Americans back in the day. It was so slick that it gave the creek its name, and also the nearby town of Slippery Rock.
The covered bridge crossing the creek near the mill is one of only two covered bridges in the county and is a registered National Historic Landmark. You can drive your vehicle over the bridge just watch oncoming traffic since it is a one lane crossing.
Nearby Slippery Rock Gorge Natural Area is also a National Landmark and has a great view from Cleland Rock. Be sure that you grab a State Park map at one of the many locations (including one at an information center across the road from the gristmill) The park itself is kind of broken up into parcels so you will need the map to find your way to the different locations.
One location that you have to make the effort to find is Hells Hollow. A 10 or so foot waterfall located near an old limekiln. The walk to the waterfall is only about a half mile give or take from the parking area and a wooden stairway will get you to the falls. It is a must see if you take the trip down and worth the short walk to find.
Possibly my favorite part of the park is the actual drive itself. As you meander on a narrow winding road through the trees and rocks you just can not help but admire the beauty. When I say rock, I don’t mean what we are used to in this area. I mean rocks so large that you actually drive under portions of them and there are pull offs available so that you are able to get out and take photos.
The area is an amazing natural beauty that provides something for everyone on the trip with places for hiking, picnics, fishing, and a playground.
So take my advice and plan a trip. Pack your lunch, grab the kids, get a map and go wander until you find out you are not lost.

As seen in the Meadville Tribune September 14, 2020

In Your Backyard August 2020 - Seldom Seen and Canton Avenue
As summer sadly starts to enter the last official month before the uncertainty of the new school year for many students it is a great time for a family road trip. Many things have changed for our area due to restrictions, and many of the normal August activities have either been postponed or cancelled leaving some people feeling a bit depressed. So for this adventure, I thought I would send you someplace you can have a sense of accomplishment. How about being able to climb the steepest officially recorded street in the United States? If you are like me, I always figured that our steepest streets were in San Francisco, California because they are always featured in movies and on TV. But in fact the steepest street in the US is actually to our south in Pittsburgh Pa. Canton Avenue is only 630 feet long but it boosts a whooping 37 percent grade for 21 feet of the street. The most commonly recognized steepest street in the world is in New Zealand and is 34 percent grade, however it is a longer stretch of roadway.
To find Canton Ave is easy enough with a quick google map search and there is no number necessary. There are only one or two places to pull off the side of Coast Avenue which intersects Canton Ave at the bottom of the hill. The street is one way and you are able to drive up it. I can tell you from experience that this is an exciting drive and worth doing once in your life. At the time I had a Jeep Commander which I have taken off road and over some pretty steep sand dunes, but nothing really prepared me for this hill. I started the climb and for the first time ever I felt the need to lean forward (like this would somehow keep my Jeep from tumbling backwards down the hill) it was a bit of a white knuckle experience for sure, but somewhat exhilarating at the same time. Once you reach the top and look down the gravity of just how steep the street is really sets in. From the top you can make a loop and come back down Coast Avenue to drive the hill again if you dare. What I ended up doing was parking and walking it for some great photo opportunities. Make sure you grab a picture of the sign at the bottom to prove you were there and maybe even get a selfie or two for your social media.
While you are in the Beechview neighborhood of Pittsburgh you may as well visit another local treasure that you might have to search for a little bit. Seldom Seen Greenway is exactly as the name suggests, it is seldom seen. It is a bit confusing to get to the parking lot and the best address is close to 930 Saw Mill Run Blvd Pittsburgh Pa. (don’t get discouraged I drove past the parking lot twice before I figured out how to enter it.) To help you spot the parking lot there is a rather large rounded building located near the entrance to the park.
Once you have parked head down the path towards the railroad tunnel and along the way check out the the creek with some pretty cool rock formations. As you enter the tunnel be sure to look up and admire some of the brick work. They sure do not make these tunnels like this anymore and the obvious pride in workmanship is nice to see especially in a tunnel that was just to cross a small stream. As you proceed you will find an old railway bridge that you can climb if you are careful for a birds eye view as well as a chance to admire some local graffiti artists. Some of these are showcasing some great artistic talent and may make for a great photo. The park itself is only about a 100 acres and there is a trail that you can walk. I stopped walking once the trail crossed the stream, but with the proper shoes you could continue on. I really have no idea where exactly it goes, but I am just guessing it does not loop but rather you walk the same trail back.
I guess this article is sort of my tribute to the year 2020, the uphill climb to normalcy and the seldom seen friends. I look forward to the days coming soon when I can once again wander without being lost.

In Your Backyard July 2020 - Lake Erie Bluff

Most people who live in Northwestern Pennsylvania are familiar with Presque Isle State Park. Offering many the fresh water beaches we have come to know and love, scenic drives, biking, hiking, fishing, kayaking, and many developed areas designed for tourism. What you may not be aware of is one of Pennsylvania’s newest State Parks which is also located along the scenic shores of Lake Erie.
Lake Erie Bluff State Park became a state park just recently in 2004, it is the largest parcel of land along the Lake Erie shoreline that is not developed and offers quite a bit to those who do not want the hustle and bustle of some of the more popular parks and tourist locations. Gorgeous views from the 90 foot bluffs overlooking the lake are a treat for photographers and nature lovers alike. You would swear you can almost see Canada but at the very least you are likely to be able to view a large ship carrying cargo through from the east coast.
Located near Lake City, Pa the address for the main parking area is located at 11122 West Lake Road, Lake City, PA 16423 right off Route 5 about 12 miles or so from Erie. The Park is just shy of 600 acres and sports 1 mile of shoreline. There are several easy walking trails along the plateau of the bluff with a few very good photo opportunities. The trails are marked with paint on the trees, so watch for it.
Maps of the trails and more park information can be found at the Pa Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website . My personal favorite is to take Transition Trail straight back to Bluffs Edge Trail or Lookout Trail for a great view. From there you can go west to Timber Trail which is a great walk through the forest to the West Overlook Trail (another scenic area for photos) and then eventually you will loop back to the parking lot. There is a bit over 5 miles of trails in the park and this route will take well over half of them, but it is a fairly level walk and a leisurely chance for a bird lover in the group to possibly spot one of documented 80 species of birds found in the park including Bald Eagles.
I normally go to the east however and walk along the Bluff Edge Trail which starts to drop in elevation and joins to the Fisherman’s Footpath (if you go to the right you actually end up at the other parking lot, so be aware of this as you may get turned around). The Fisherman’s Footpath winds down the bluff and comes out on the shoreline where there is an excellent opportunity to find sea glass and wave polished rocks. It also as the name states gives access to fish the shoreline in possibly a less crowded area than Presque Isle due to the walking. The area prohibits swimming, but there is still plenty of places to dip your toes as you stroll. Since you started on the bluff, which is 90 feet above you, be sure to leave with enough time to get back to the vehicle prior to dark and also be sure on the way back up you take the marked trail to the right this time or you will pop out at the Elk Creek access point and have quite a hike to backtrack to the main parking lot. I can tell you from experience that it is a very long walk.
Be sure to bring drinking water with you as there are no facilities at this Park, it is designed to be wild and stay wild. Also remember to pack out what garbage you may take in as the saying goes, “Take only Photos and Leave only Footprints”
While you are visiting the area, take the opportunity to stop for a frozen treat at a mom and pop dairy isle or check out a gift store. Remember to bring your face masks though if you do stop as we are still required to wear them in indoor public places or within 6 feet of non family members.
Not all who wander are lost, some are just looking for the correct trail to get back to their car.

In Your Backyard - Fort Ligonier January 2021
If you are like me, then the Pennsylvania State travel restrictions have put a damper on several trips that I may have planned. It is honestly quite the bummer in fact since it seems so many people now have “free” time on their hands due to reduced hours or a lay off but they can not actually do anything with it. I purposely stayed awake on New Years Eve this year to make sure that 2020 actually did end, but it seems that 2021 is having a whole lot of carry over. So now we must find our silver linings and here is a bit of good news, according to their web page one museum in Pa is getting ready to open back up for the hopefully the season starting January 8th.
Fort Ligonier located at 200 South Market St Ligonier, Pa 15658 is about two and a half hours away but well worth the drive. This is a fee museum costing $12 per adult, $10 for students ages 17-21, $6 for children ages 6-16, children 5 and under are free and Seniors ages 62+ as well as active military, veterans and law enforcement are $10. The admission covers all the art galleries, the museum and the grounds which you are able to explore.
I have to admit that the very first time I went to a Fort and Museum I was really disappointed with what was on site to see. I felt the trip there was a full 20 minutes of my life that I will never get back. I am not joking about this, the “necessity” to see the place quickly lost its luster. So I was a bit leery about going to another fort museum because at the cost I really did not have high hopes. I was gladly mistaken.
The reconstruction of the fort itself was undertaken in such a way that you actually felt as if you stepped back in time. I enjoy a fair bit of history and I will admit that I lack in the French and Indian War era so it was quite the education. The grounds host an artillery train, a powder magazine and a hospital to explore as well as a reconstruction of General John Forbes hut. The tour itself is self guided and you can wander as you wish.
The museum is amazing and the collection of artifacts and artwork is quite something for such a small area. Learn the role of a young George Washington as well as how Fort Ligonier was vital for the siege and overtaking of Fort Duquesne which allowed for Fort Pitt to be constructed and therefor gave birth to the city of Pittsburgh itself.
The kids will love the cannons and the swords, the adults will love the history and the paintings and everyone will love the gift shop. I found myself reading each plaque not because I spent money to go to the museum, but because I became actually interested in the displays. It was a pleasant surprise and a completely different experience from my prior fort excursion.
If you have a camera I suggest bringing it along for taking some great photos of the grounds, not to mention the scenery on the drive over. If you get a chance to explore the local area there are some great little shops and places for a quick snack.
If the drive or the cost is not in the current budget, then maybe a trip up to Waterford, Pa to Fort Le Boeuf is more in order. Its history is intertwined with Fort Ligonier being from the same era and the admission is free but donations are gladly accepted.
Both places are only open on the weekends, and I would definitely check online for their respective webpages to make sure they are open during the current restrictions which seem to change almost daily. But remember as we go through the next few months to not get discouraged because this too shall pass and we may once again be able to wander at will and not lose our way.

As seen in the Meadville Tribune Jan 11, 2021

In Your Backyard - Franklin Courthouse Christmas Tree
As 2020 comes to a close many are breathing a sigh of relief. It has been a trying year and it does not seem to be quite yet over as many families are realizing that some of their holiday traditions may have to be adapted to keep at risk loved ones safe. As zoom calls and FaceTime begin to be the new norm it can be very disappointing for the kids who are too young to understand. Now is a great time to go back an pull a page from yours or your parents childhood. I have fond memories of salt dough ornaments which if you are unfamiliar with them try a quick Google search for a recipe. It will make for a fun afternoon and some great memories. Did you know you can roast chestnuts in a microwave? Just one piece of advice on this, make sure you cut the “x” in the side of the chestnut ALL the way through the skin or they don’t exactly roast, they sound more like a howitzer going off. (And yes, this also comes from personal experience but it did make for a very funny story later) Don’t forget about gingerbread houses and if you are not a baking person there are numerous ones you can purchase and even theme towards the kids favorite character or video game. With a 7 year old helping they do not turn out looking like the box but it will definitely be something they remember.
Possibly my favorite childhood memories of the holiday season were the car rides. Sitting in the back seat scanning for decorations on the houses while singing Christmas carols at the top of my lungs. I never knew all the words, but that did not matter to me. It was like a treasure hunt for lights and it was super exciting when a house was decorated to the hilt on my side of the car and not my sister’s. It was almost like I had the privilege of showing them to her. I still point out lights to my kids as we drive this time of year and my youngest is now 19. It takes something a bit more extraordinary now for them to look away from their cellphones and at least give me more then a “hmph”. If you fall into this category of the parental stage, or you just want to amaze the young ones, then hop in the car, hit the Christmas playlist and take a drive over the river and through the woods to Franklin Pa.
The Christmas Tree Extravaganza 2020 will not disappoint. I stumbled on this by accident this year and all I could say was “wow”! The entire main drag of the city looks like a Christmas village and Fountain Park and the Court House are both worth parking and walking to see. I was told the absolutely enormous Christmas tree was brought in on a semi truck and hoisted into place by a crane. Now we are not talking Rockefeller Center here but since Franklin does not have 100+ story buildings it may as well be equally impressive. (Remember it is all relative) I have seen my share of Christmas displays from Macy’s windows to Christmas Town USA in Mcadenville NC each is special and different in its own way and also not just down the road.
So this year pile on the lap blankets, ditch the Keurig for some old fashioned stovetop hot chocolate (you remember that right? The one you used to have to skim when it sat for a little bit but was like liquid gold in your mug) and head out in your 120 horse power sleigh down route 322 to Franklin Pa. It is not a long trip and it is sure to get a non “bah humbug” reaction from even the grumpiest teenager. The city also had a house decorating contest so be sure to maybe meander through town while you are there to see some of the private residences that went all out for the season. As you wander you will probably not get lost within the city limits but do keep an eye out for the one way streets.
As seen in the Meadville Tribune Dec 14, 2020

In Your Backyard June 2020 - Lake Erie Pier

Stay home, stay safe, wash your hands. That is what we have been hearing now since the middle of March. I don’t think anyone ever imagined we would be at home with our lovely children quite that long. If you are suffering a bit of cabin fever, believe me you are not alone. I do not think I will ever hear the Happy Birthday song again without a bit of a cringe even if I am not washing my hands.
My 2020 planner has a lot of rescheduled items and has now primarily become a log of the stay at home orders. (Some days read like the “Sad Cat Diaries”) To add insult to injury, Mother Nature cannot seem to decide which season we actually are in. All this quality home time with the family has led to many people plugging into social media, streaming videos and gaming systems. But I see a light at the end of the tunnel and it is time to give the homebound family what they probably need the most, SPACE and a Digital Detox.
So grab a few snacks left over from your quarantine stash, put away the electronics and take a road trip. I felt staying away from the chaos that is erupting in our larger cities was the best course of action so I am sending you to a great hidden gem along the shores of Lake Erie.
Painsville Township Park is located at 1025 Hardy Rd in Painsville Twp, Ohio. The 37 acre park hosts a play ground, picnic tables, space to enjoy the outdoors and an absolutely cool 200 foot pier that juts out into Lake Erie. Yep, you read that right, a pier. It is ADA accessible and has benches and even some covered areas. It was completed in October of 2017 and is a wonderful place to sit and watch the waves, fish or take photos of incredible sunsets.
I was so very happy to find this little known treasure on so close to us. More information can be found at
If the pier itself does not entice you to make the excursion then travel just a bit farther to Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park. Although the lifeguards and concession stands are not in operation currently due to the Covid 19 restrictions, you are able to access the beach and boardwalk for building a sand castle or taking a stroll. Swimming is currently at your own risk so be aware of any little ones. Bring water and drinks with you because the drinking fountains are currently shut off. But a bit of good news, it appears the restrooms are in fact open. The Park is located at 301 Huntington Beach Drive in Fairport Harbor Ohio.
The area boosts not just one, but two lighthouses. The Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Lighthouse is not open to the public, but if you bring a pair of comfortable shoes you can walk the break wall to reach the base of the structure. The Fairport Harbor Historical Society Marine Museum and Lighthouse is the first museum of its kind on the Great Lakes as well as the United States. Reportedly haunted by a grey ghost cat, the lighthouse has been featured on the Discovery Channels “Weird, True and Freaky” TV show. Virus changes are in effect but they anticipate tour requests to be accepted starting June 15th. For more up to date information about the lighthouse tour and museum as well as pricing and contact info please visit
Remember to bring your camera with you to capture the sights and memories you will likely make on your trip. Don’t forget to also bring your face mask and your hand sanitizer as many places you may need to stop for fuel or snacks will have restrictions. But in the words of some of my older family members “It is time to get out and blow the stink off”. You can travel to these locations on the scenic byway or perhaps you can go cross country near some of the covered bridges. However you choose to go, just remember, a true road trip is a wander and not all who wander are lost.

In Your Backyard October 2020- Benezette Elk

October is my favorite month of the year, when the leaves begin to change, pumpkin spice seems to become the favorite condiment and the weat...