Water, water, everywhere: Laurel Highlands is an oasis of falls and cascades.
Imagine wild rivers full of rapids and healthy trout, scenic mountaintops, and miles of singletrack through hardwood forests. Imagine that place lies just 45 minutes from the city suburbs. Now, imagine that city is Pittsburgh.
What you are imagining in your mind’s eye is actually the Laurel Highlands area of southwestern Pennsylvania. The Laurel Highlands is centered around Laurel Hill and Chestnut Ridge of the Allegheny Mountains, topping out at 3,213 feet at the summit of Mount Davis, the state’s highest. In the winter, outdoor enthusiasts flock to Seven Springs Resort and its award-winning terrain parks, making it one of the most visited ski resorts in the Mid-Atlantic. The summer identity of the Laurel Highlands has long been defined by the wild Youghiogheny River, known as the Yough (pronounced “Yock”) to locals, that runs through its heart, but that is slowly beginning to change. Although the Youghiogheny is still a major draw to the area, people are beginning to realize the potential for much more, according to former U.S. National Whitewater team member Eric Martin, owner of Wilderness Voyageurs, an outfitter in Ohiopyle.
“This is the epicenter for whitewater. The fishing and mountain biking are the things we are not super well known for, but people are beginning to figure it out,” he said.
Martin’s parents started Wilderness Voyageurs in the 1960s, when commercial rafting was in its infancy. Now the area sees over 100,000 river runners a summer, with most of those coming from nearby metropolises.
“Laurel Highlands is incredibly rural, dotted with small little towns and farms, essentially. We’re relatively undiscovered. The Laurel Highlands is right in the middle of everything; Cleveland, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. are all three hours away.”
Whether it’s hiking in Ohiopyle State Park and Forbes State Forest or cycling the gentle grades of the Great Allegheny Passage, there is something for everyone.
“You’ve got the river. You’ve got the Great Allegheny Passage, the rail to trail which goes from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, going right through the center of Ohiopyle State Park,” Martin said. “We also have 40 miles of mountain bike trails. The mountain biking is sort of the hidden gem here that folks are starting to clue in on.”
Martin recommends the Tebolt Trail inside the Quebec Run Wild Area just south of Ohiopyle as a hidden gem of the Laurel Highlands. Trails crisscross the area, but Martin says that lung-busting climbs are the norm.
“There is a fair amount of uphill. The river literally runs right through the middle of the park, so you’ve got a giant river gorge,” says Martin. It’s a 1,700-foot climb, to the top of the park, one of the longest climbs in the state. “But then there are some trails up on top of the mountain where you don’t have to do any monster climbs, but they are trying to limit it,” Martin adds.
While hiking and mountain biking are gaining a foothold in the Laurel Highlands, the king of the outdoors is still the Youghiogheny and its pristine whitewater.
“The Youghiogheny runs right through the middle of Ohiopyle and is the take-out for one section and the put in for another section of the river,” said Martin. “The Lower Yough is Class III and you can run that every day of the year. The Class V we run is the upper Yough, just over the boarder in Maryland. As far as kayakers go, there is plenty of Class V creeking right here within 10 or 15 miles.”
One particular feature of the Youghiogheny puts the river on the map; a matter of convenience even a non-paddler can appreciate.
“The Loop is a mile and half stretch of the Lower Youghiogheny. The river does a giant bend, so you can paddle a mile and a half of Class III whitewater, and then walk less than 600 yards back to your car,” Martin says.
With all that water coming through, the area is also becoming a destination for fly fishermen searching for large trout. Pennsylvania is known worldwide for its smaller spring creeks and mayfly hatches, but the Youghiogheny holds its own as a trout fishery and has almost fully recovered from a 1993 acid spill.
“The Yough is a dam release river coming out of the Youghiogheny Dam, so the maximum water temperature is 65 degrees in the middle of the summer,” explains Martin. “It’s a tailwater, bottom release, so it’s a good habitat for trout. There are nine miles of the Yough that is considered trophy trout waters.”