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weekending with the kids: the nature inn at bald eagle state park, howard, pa.
The Pennsylvania Wilds are spread among 12 counties in the northern tier of the Keystone State. In the south-central section of the Wilds is Bald Eagle State Park, and The Nature Inn sits in the center of the park. The LEED Gold-certified property is a play of wood and glass and is perched on a rise overlooking a meandering lake that wraps around the property. A veranda along the back of the inn has several high-powered binoculars trained on a pair of bald eagles that reside across the lake and, on our visit, they are feathering their nest for the arrival of chicks, the mama eagle expecting to lay her eggs any day. Our 11-year-old son, Steven, can’t get enough of the eagles, a fairly foreign sight in his urban existence.
Innkeeper Charlie Brooks is keen to show off his property to guests and to acquaint them with the virtues of sustainable architecture. Site selection was taken into account during the inn’s planning phase so that no new roads would have to be built, and topography was also considered in order to avoid excavation. Beneath a small parking lot alongside the property are 24 geothermal wells more than 300 feet deep that serve as a clean engine for the building’s heating and cooling system. The building is oriented on an east-west axis and presents south in order to garner additional sun heat, and more warmth comes from highly-reflective steel sheathing the roof. A collection of 80 slim geothermal tubes perched on a roof overhang serve to generate additional renewable energy while doubling as an unintended art piece. Four 600-gallon, galvanized steel rain barrels are pleasing to the eye while doing much to ensure an efficient water supply, and the wood used for the structure is Pennsylvania white oak harvested within 200 miles of the site.
Inside, a stained glass mural of a soaring bald eagle dominates a lobby area whose registration counter is composed of thousands of crushed sunflower seeds encased in a protective glaze, and where flooring is composed of 50% recycled glass. Sixteen guest rooms are done in a neutral palette and beds are napped in soft white microfiber sheets, a pile of cosseting covers awaiting guests. Each room has been given an avian name in this birder’s paradise and we land in Teal. An Audubon print of our mascot, the green-winged teal, is the only art on the walls but when the view from our deck is a slice of heaven, we need no more.
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Parker Dam State Park in Penfield, Pa. is a winter sports paradise, which is why we pay a visit over Groundhog Day weekend. Punxsutawney Phil, or “Punxsy” to the locals, is scheduled to see his shadow, or not, less than an hour away and if it’s going to be a short winter, we want to get our snow fun in now. The park has seven miles of groomed cross-country ski trails which can also be traversed on snowshoes, and it’s the snowmobile crowd that’s likely to be doing wheelies among the trees. A summer lake morphs into a frozen winter pond used by skaters during the day and hockey players at night (under the lights), and ice fisherman are also quick to use their gear. We opt for a snowy hike along the mile-long Trail of New Giants and are rewarded with a fantastical view of the park and lake at the summit. Back at the bottom, park employees are readying a new sugar shack for maple sugaring weekends that take place in March. Hard to imagine this place getting any sweeter.
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A full hot breakfast is included in the room rate at The Nature Inn, and it arrives in many different ways. We’re the only guests at the inn on our first night, a Thursday, so we check off selections on a breakfast card we receive on check in. Friday morning, we repair to the dining room, its cathedral ceiling and tall stone fireplace adding a touch of grandeur to the earthy-sensible space. We’ve all requested the yogurt parfait and it arrives in a tulip glass, a medley of yogurt and fresh berries topped with crunchy granola and a slick of blue agave syrup. The parfait is so good I wish for another but, instead, continue on to my plate of over easy eggs with breakfast potatoes and bacon that’s exactly as I’ve requested, crispy. Husband Fen’s breakfast sausages are as plump as a ballpark hot dog and Steven devours French toast with (Pennsylvania?) maple syrup. The following morning, we pore over a variety of breakfast foods including cheesy scrambled eggs, country ham, scones and danish and enjoy it with four other families in an alcove overlooking the lake. On Sunday morning, guests from every room pour into the dining room for a buffet featuring the inn’s greatest hits, or everything we’ve seen the previous two days plus new breakfast breads, fresh fruit cups and an egg scramble plump with meats and cheeses. Birders, hikers or those simply looking to hunker down amid the snow-scape that is The Nature Inn will be amply sated, ready for whatever the day brings.
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There is no shortage of outdoor recreation opportunities in the Pennsylvania Wilds, regardless of season. Our winter visit is filled with possibilities but, on day two, we stay close to home in order to explore our inn. Our first stop is the library on the second floor, which is lorded over by a long oak table surrounded by sturdy high-backed chairs. Two cushioned Adirondack chairs are off to one side while bookshelves filled with interesting reading line opposite sides of the room. A floor-to-ceiling window looks down onto the lobby and across to the bald eagle mural. Fen pulls out his laptop, I read the fourth book of the “Harry Potter” series for the second time, and Steven grabs a picture book on Pennsylvania birds. Two hours later, we look for Nick Thomas, resident naturalist at Bald Eagle State Park. While May may be the best month for birding in the park, Nick hands us each a pair of binoculars and we quickly spot assorted sparrows frequenting the feeders behind the park’s visitors center. We also learn that the mama eagle across the lake has laid her eggs today, Groundhog Day.
A walk in the woods with Nick brings us face-to-face with a swamp white oak that’s 250 years old and one of the five largest of its kind in Pennsylvania. Fen and I snap the requisite pictures as Nick continues to dazzle with his knowledge of the park and its many trees, plants and wildlife, easily identifying tracks in the snow as belonging to bobcats, rabbit and deer. It’s a magical experience for us city slickers and we see why Nick’s First Friday nature discovery programs are a hit throughout the year. Late in the day, we huddle in a corner of the inn’s first floor fashioned as an impromptu living room, a couch and wing chairs snug by tables piled with books and board games. Steven has been eyeing Bird-opoly since our arrival and the time has come to play this avian counterpart to Monopoly. Two hours later, we repair to our room to watch “Groundhog Day” and Fen and I are surprised at how well Bill Murray’s gags hold up a quarter century later since Steven is in stitches.
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The Elk Country Visitors Center in Benezette, Pa. is also housed in a LEED Gold-certified building with cathedral ceilings and a large stone fireplace. Opened in 2010, it is operated by the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, which leases 243 acres from the state to help maintain the elk population. These large and imposing animals, members of the deer family, once numbered over 100,000 in Pennsylvania alone but hunting, along with a loss of habitat due to development, caused them to disappear. Thanks to a conscious effort at re-population, there are now close to 1,000 elk in the state. Fall is considered prime elk viewing season as the males engage in the rut, or a top dog ritual in which the combatants literally lock horns (antlers) for supremacy of the herd. When the boys aren’t fighting, they’re singing, also known as bugling. The Center tells this story via a series of interactive exhibits that are framed by plate glass windows affording a view to the elk-populated woods. We hop into our car and drive along small mountain roads encased in snow in search of elk. Within five minutes, we spot two large males, or bulls, and two females, known as cows.
“This is so awesome!” enthuses Steven. “I’ve seen two bald eagles and four elk this weekend. What more can I ask for?”
That’s life in the Pennsylvania Wilds.
The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park, 201 Warbler Way, Howard, Pa. 16841 (814) 625-2879 www.natureinnatbaldeagle.com Doubles feature two queen beds and start at $129; suites with kitchenette from $179. A full hot breakfast is included in the room rate. Bald Eagle State Park encompasses 5,900 acres in Centre County, Pa. and offers a host of winter recreational activities including sledding/tobogganing, cross-country skiing and ice skating www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/baldeagle/index.htm Parker Dam State Park is a 968-acre state park located in the Moshannon State Forest in Clearfield County, Pa. An extensive trail system lends itself to winter activities including hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/parkerdam/index.htm. The Elk Country Visitors Center sits on 243 acres atop Winslow Hill in Benezette, Pa. and is open daily save for select major holidays. http://elkcountryvisitorcenter.com/drupal/ Dining options in the Pennsylvania Wilds include Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Pa., which hosts the “World’s Largest Hamburger Challenge” as featured on The Food Network http://dennysbeerbarrelpub.com/, and The Gamble Mill in Bellefonte, Pa., where dishes including a Belgian-style mussels bowl and steak frites are serves amid the warmth of a 220-year-old brick and timbered grist mill http://www.gamblemill.com/. Haywood’s on the Green is a popular sports bar in Mill Hall, Pa. serving burgers and sandwiches named after Pennsylvania sports greats including Roberto Clemente and Terry Bradshaw http://www.haywoodsbarandgrill.com/OnTheGreen/.
Elaine Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and eleven-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.