Pennsylvania towns and cities have plenty of options for leaf peepers. But the state wants to do more to catch up to New England.
Most people associate fall foliage with Vermont, New Hampshire, maybe even Massachusetts. But if you’re a leaf peeper — the technical term for foliage lovers — you’d be wise to put Pennsylvania on your list.
“Our friends to the north have a number of trees and beautiful foliage,” says Michael Chapaloney, the executive director of VisitPA. “But we have nearly double the number of species of trees, so you’re going to see a greater variety in Pennsylvania.”
That’s not just interstate competitiveness — science agrees. Experts say that Pennsylvania’s location between 40° and 42° latitude provides the intersection of two environments. According to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, forests in southern Pennsylvania are mostly oak and hickory, while the northern areas are hardwood dominated. But the elevation changes throughout the state creates a “melting pot” of many different environments, meaning more variety of trees and colors.
Pennsylvania has all the trees you see in New England, plus trees you’d find down in Maryland and Virginia. If you’re not picky on the region of the state that you visit, fall can start early and end late in Pennsylvania.
Where to get your fall foliage fix
Nowhere is that more true than in the Laurel Highlands, a geographic region that covers Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties, outside Pittsburgh.
“We have Pennsylvania’s highest mountain elevation and the deepest river gorge” says Julie Donovan, vice president of the Laurel Highlands visitors bureau. “Our fall season is extended because the mountain tops change early and the valleys are later. It’s a solid month that you can enjoy fall foliage.”
Fall is their big tourism season, thanks to the foliage, says Donovan. Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house located an hour and a half outside Pittsburgh, sees more than 20,000 visitors every October—their biggest month. And the Great Allegheny Passage, a bike trail from Pittsburgh to DC, is most popular during foliage season.
“It’s a really spectacular bike ride in the fall,” says Donovan. “People who want to bike the whole thing stay in trail towns along the way, where there are restaurants, lodging and outfitters to support them.”
Further north, the borough of Clarion hosts the Autumn Leaf Festival every fall. The nine-day festival draws more than 500,000 visitors to the town. It’s the biggest event of the year, and serves as an economic engine for the town.
Across the state, the Scranton area is capitalizing on the interest of leaf peepers as well. The Steamtown National Historic Site gives fall foliage train tours that take visitors through Scranton and the surrounding areas to get the best views.
Scranton’s foliage offerings are so appealing, they’re even attracting celebrities … sort of. Dan Yeager, the actor who played Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, will be leading foliage train tours and hosting Halloween-themed events in Scranton at the end of the month. Yeager has no connection to Scranton but is a huge train buff and was, I guess, looking for Halloween plans.
Shaking the money tree
Chapaloney says that the appeal of fall foliage is that it’s free family fun. But in New England, leaf peepers mean big bucks. In 2014, the six state region expected $3 billion in tourism income from fall foliage. In Vermont, Columbus Day weekend is the busiest of the year for tourism.
Chapaloney chalks that up to “a long history of good advertising.” Pennsylvania is starting to catch up with their new #FallInPa Instagram campaign and other fall-centric advertising. Chapaloney couldn’t provide a seasonal breakdown of tourism income for the state.
But when it comes to fall foliage dollars, they’d like to see more. The state is working with communities in the prime leaf peeping zones, like the Laurel Highlands and Pennsylvania Wilds, to market fall offerings.
Chapaloney stresses that it’s not just leaves that draw people to Pennsylvania.
“It’s also the harvest season, so there are apple festivals and pumpkin picking, and Halloween events,” says Chapaloney.
He knows that the views are terrific and provide a stunning backdrop to many of Pennsylvania’s best tourist attractions. But with the diversity of fall offerings in the state, Chapaloney says that Pennsylvania doesn’t need to be in competition with [those pompous leaf-pushers] in New England.
As he says, “There would be a lot going on in Pennsylvania in the fall, with or without the leaves.”