According to some cultural beliefs, rain on your wedding day symbolizes good luck in the marriage. I ask myself if the same could be true for a road trip. After all, it’s pouring when my 8-year-old daughter, Kinley, and I pull out of the driveway for a few days in the great outdoors of northwestern Pennsylvania and western New York.
I finally get my answer two hours into the journey when the setting sun drops below the dark rain clouds, shining like a fireball through the misty air.
A rainbow arcs in front of the car and the figurative pot of gold is a sign that reads, “Welcome to Pennsylvania Wilds,” at the opposite end of the highest road bridge in Pennsylvania, which soars 270 feet above the Allegheny River on Interstate 80.
The rain stops just as we arrive at the Clarion River Lodge at the edge of Cook Forest State Park. The property reopened after a hiatus with 20 freshly updated rooms — each one decorated with antiques owner Victor Milko collected during the four years he spent renovating the place. There’s also a casual restaurant, plus a cozy pub with seating on all sides to encourage friendly banter.
The next morning, we head out for a hike and spot a couple paddling past the lodge’s sliver of waterfront on the misty Clarion River, which is lined with purple-hued wildflowers. The Pale Whale, located five miles downstream in Cooksburg, rents canoes, kayaks, rafts and inner tubes for float trips on the nationally designated Wild and Scenic River, where you might see a black bear at the water’s edge, a bald eagle swooping down to capture its prey or deer grazing in a forest clearing.
Two miles past the Pale Whale, we take a short hike along the Longfellow Trail on a bed of fallen pine needles through the Cook Forest’s towering Forest Cathedral, an impressive stand of old-growth forest, which includes the tallest tree in Pennsylvania — a 171-foot-tall white pine.
The rest of the day is spent zig-zagging our way north in the car through the heart of the Allegheny National Forest on our way toward the town of Bradford, a former oil boomtown near the New York state line.
The most direct route should take a little more than an hour, but we take the scenic route, stopping on a whim to watch fly fishermen catch trout, ogle the views along the Longhouse Scenic Byway and chase waterfalls near Kinzua Dam.
When it begins to rain, we stop for an early dinner at Docksider’s Cafe at the Kinzua Wolf Run Marina. Eventually, the sun starts to shine again, just in time to watch a stunning sunset unfold at Rimrock Overlook, before making our way to Willow Creek Cabins for the night.
The next morning, Kinley discovers a rope swing that hurls her over the hillside, while I bend down to get a look at the bright-orange newt crawling around the roots of the tree from which the swing dangles. I wish I would have planned more downtime to enjoy the small pleasures of vacation life like these.
A short time later, we’re paddling across the sparkling water of the Willow Bay Recreation Area, where you can rent canoes and kayaks. The highlight is watching the resident osprey soar over the bay, then hurtle itself toward the water to catch a fish in its sharp talons.
On the way to Bradford for lunch, we stop at the Marilla Bridges Trail, a short 1-mile hike around a reservoir sheltered by towering evergreen trees. It’s a great place for a picnic, but we have plans to eat at John Williams European Pastry Shop, which serves breakfast all day.
The house-made glazed cinnamon streusel French toast has enough sugar to keep us going strong for the rest of the day, which includes an excursion to Kinzua Bridge State Park, one of the most popular attractions in the region.
The Kinzua Bridge was once the longest and tallest in the world. Part of it was destroyed by a tornado in 2003, but the still-standing section has been turned into a Sky Walk that leads out over the valley with views of the mangled steel trusses below.
By early evening, we finally cross the New York state line, where the unbroken forest continues. Allegany State Park spans 65,000 more acres, making it the largest state park in the state.
We skirt the park and make the 20-minute drive north to Ellicottville, New York. Known as the “Aspen of the East,” the ski town attracts outdoor enthusiasts who play hard all day then chill out in the village, which packs bed and breakfasts, shopping, dining and entertainment into one square mile.