I’m in NEPA this weekend for a good friends’ wedding. I’m pumped for the wedding (the reception is in Scranton) but also exicted to be visiting NEPA during one of my favorite times of the year.
Since it’s where I’m currently based, a large majority of my posts deal with the southeastern portion of PA, and I realized I have to give NEPA more love. It’s a unique area, in that aside from the Lackawanna Valley, it’s still very undeveloped and unfranchised.
The kids I teach in Lancaster always stress that they are from a rural area, and I guess in the scope of things, Lancaster has that sort of charm. Ho I’ll point out to you what I point out to them: rurality is not defined as the number of silos and cornfields dotting the landscape. It’s actual definition includes the amount of people in a given area. Parts of NEPA are extremely rural. For example, I’m sitting in my parents dining room typing this with a view of at a mile of uninterrupted forest behind me. Scranton is the closest place we have for a mall or Walmart (a 20 minute drive) and it’s not uncommon to have to drive the same length to visit friends in my own school district.
While NEPA definitely does summers it’s own way (picnics are one thing that jumps to mind), I’d say it’s in the fall and winter that it really shines. NEPA is inherently built for colder weather: its mountanoius, it’s woodsy, and the outdoor activities it best fosters: hiking, cross country skiing, ATVing, and snowmobiling either need snow to thrive or are much better when you aren’t stiffled by the heat.
Most of the time, when people visit NEPA its either Scranton or The Poconos. I was born and bred just north of both of these places, in an area that typically sees little to no tourism. That doesn’t mean it’s without its charms.
This takes us to what’s been dubbed “The Northern Tier Tour.” The Northern Tier Tour is a group of country bars situated, you guessed it, north of where I live. They aren’t in any town, and if you choose to patronize these watering holes for the night, you’re stuck “up north.” They are in the boondocks, the sticks; pick your descriptor.
These bars are unique not only for their rural locale, but because many of them are still “inn’s” that you can rent a room at. Some of the rooms are semi sketchy, $30 a night affairs, while others have nicely appointed cabins and apartments that one can spend some time at. I take it for granted because I grew up in the midst of it, but it really is a throwback to an older time, where rest, relaxation, lodging, and spirits could be found underneath one roof.
The “Northern Tier Tour” was created (by my uncle, but don’t quote me on that) because feasibly one should be able to visit all of these establishments during one bar crawl.
Then there’s the people watching. It’s almost indescribable. They definitely get some “local color”; lacking teeth, a lot of denim, multiple tatoos, and severe cases of patriotism (usually apparent in the patches on their denim or in their tattoos). This makes for excellent people watching. The crowds are a strange dichotomy, because at the same time you’ll fiud people like you and me, who just so chose to house themselves in this region (actually is my family and me).
Then, there comes the NEPA tourist. They do exist. In the fall, it’s mostly hunters. Fall and spring are obviously the “down seasons.” In fact, I think in spring you’re liable to only find year round residents. In winter, you get skiers and snowmobilers, coming up to take advantage of Elk Mountain, and the multiple trails that dot NEPA’s landscape (you also get the few and far between cross country skiers). In the summer these bars get frequented by people renting cottages at the multiple lakes, and my favorite crew: the camp counselors.
NEPA, specifically Susquehanna and Wayne counties, has a ton of sleepaway camps. Don’t ask me why (too lazy to look it up), but these camps are largely staffed by twenty something US college students, and slightly older foreign workers. On any summer night you make walk into, say Arlo’s and find co-eds from Ireland, the UK, Brazil, etc. While the camps are partly staffed by Americans, they seem mostly European in nature. I can attest after my trip to Ireland this summer, that Europeans love the techno/club experience, and the bars know their clientele. The results are mindblowing. What is normally a nice, blue collar watering hole with little more than a jukebox, pool tables, and posters of what small game is in season at the time (not lying), and where you tend to feel overdressed if you so much as wear a collar will transform to a Eurotrash dance party, with ear bleeding bass, dresses that could feasibly be categorized as shirts, and 20 minute waits out the door. Two fourths of July ago, I waited in one such line at the Orson Inn for twenty minutes. Google Earth the Orson, and my point will be made.
It’s unbelievable and amazing and always one of the highlights of my summer.
So, why should you embark on the Norther Tier Tour?
For one, the reasons I mentioned above. It’s an experience, and it’s hilarious.
It’s also a great way to get away with a group of friends and really spend time with one another. Often times when my friends and I get together, especially friends I don’t see often, I end up having more fun pregaming or getting ready to go out, than I do once we hit the town. The reason? You’re hanging out with people in close quarters, talking, not in a bar where you have to scream to be heard and have too many distractions.
When my friends and I go to these bars, it’s all about grabbing a table, getting everyone around it and enjoying each other’s company, and catching up. You don’t have to worry about dressing up or impressing anyone. It’s you, your crew, very cheap drinks, and maybe some pizza and wings.
In the fall and winter, there’s a plethora of outdoor related activities to keep you busy during the daytime. Elk Mountain, PA’s steepest ski slope, is a twenty minute ride from most of these places. If skiing isn’t your thing, try snow shoeing, cross country skiing, hiking, or snowmobiling. The countryside is chock full of trails and at some of the bars you can rent your own equipment.
Below are the the stops on the northern Tier and some info about them. At the end of this post, I’ll post some things to do in NEPA (besides drink, b/c obviously).
3497 BELMONT TURNPIKE
ORSON, PA 18449
(Notice that the Orson has no website)
The Orson is one of my favorite places, not just because of it’s Eurotrash-summer transformations. It’s a great example of not judging a book by it’s cover. While it looks like a very we-only-serve-locals type place on the outside, the Orson’s roomy with big tables, and a diverse crowd. Located in the almost nonexistent town of Orson Corners, it might get the best crowds of anywhere on this list. It’s located in prime camp land for the summer, and also very close to several trailheads, making it popular with ATVers and the snowmobile crowd.
The Orson also has my favorite wings, of anyplace ever. They’re big, they’re hot, and they’re buttery. I crave them often down here in Lancaster. The prices at the Orson also can’t be beat: 2 dollar drafts, and $6.00 pitchers. Much as I rave about the food and prices, they aren’t winning awards anytime soon for their service.
Now, the Orson allegedly has rooms, but I can’t confirm or deny this. My suggestion: stay somewhere else, but come for food and drinks.
306 Sugar Hill Rd.
Union Dale PA 18470
Stonebridge is the classiest and most ski-lodge of all the bars listed here. It’ll cost you a pretty penny to lodge and dine at Stonebridge, but with a cozy bar complete with requisite fireplace, access to a pool, jacuzzi, and gym, and gorgeous views of Elk Mountain lit-up at night, it may be worth it.
My favorite times to go to Stonebridge are during the warmer weather when they have Thursday and Sunday “Parties on the Patio”; live musical entertainment outdoors. It’s also a great blizzard bar.
Stonebridge gets a solid early/after dinner crowd, but isn’t a party bar per so. If you want to get hectic, Chet’s and Orson are your best bets.
1778 East Mountain Road,
Union Dale, PA 18470
What could I say about Chets? I could say that this past Sunday after Elk Mountain’s Fall Fest I spent way too much time and money there.
Chet’s is located down an obscure dirt road that seems like it’s a million miles away from my house (I used to have to use my GPS to find my way to and from Chet’s), but in reality is just a 5 minute ride from Elk Mountain.
Chet’s sometimes has a rep for being a little rough and tumble, but it’s not that bad. They get decent crowds for how out of the way they are, and quite a few musical acts. However, if I wasn’t a native and coming to stay at one of these locales: I’d pick Chets. They have several cabins you can rent. It’s $60.00 for one queen and a bath, and $275.00 for ten people to rent an entire cabin. Furthermore, you can rent cross country skies from Chets. I’d like to go snowshoeing up there this winter.
700 CROSSTOWN HIGHWAY
POYNTELLE PA 18542
Poyntelle is a little bit out of the way of the rest of these establishments, but worth mentioning because they offer rooms…for $25.00 a night! I was at Poyntelle one time during a camp infestation in the summer and as we were entering they asked if we wanted a room. I’d imagine the rooms at Poyntelle had no bathroom and smell like regret.
Union Dale, PA
The Candlelight is another bar/inn in very close proximity to Elk Mountain. Rooms here are $70.00 a night. The Candlelight has excellent food: great steak, great shrimp appetizers, burgers, and if they have the creamsicle cheesecake, you can’t pass it out. I also think the Candlelight has the best shuffleboard table around.
*Note: There are no convenient stores, gas stations (except for Arlo’s), pharmacies, etc once your in the country. Plan accordingly.
WHA T ELSE TO DO?
There’s plenty to do on/near the northern tier tour if you need a respite from the bar hopping. Elk Mountain, is something of an unofficial center of these bars, and the main reason most people venture up to this area.
In the winter, obviously Elk is good for skiing, but in the fall it’s a great place for hiking and mountain biking. Northeast PA is full of trails. Check out the Rails to Trails (and organization that turns old mining railbeds into usable paths) website to see where you could go. As mentioned earlier, NEPA is very rural, so it’s best to bring your bike. I did pretty extensive research and couldn’t find any close bicycle rentals.
One interesting option if you don’t wish to bring your own bike is to bike inn to inn. Bike inn to inn costs $375, and provides you with bicycles, accommodations at three inns, all your meals, and a shuttle for your luggage. The three stops are The Inn at Starlight Lake, Fern Hall (a golf course and B&B), and Stonebridge.
The snow brings opportunities for skiing (both downhill and cross country), snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. While the whole equipment issue might arise, you can rent cross country skiis at Chet’s and The Inn at Starlight Lake.
*If you must venture into civilization (I urge you not too, it’ll ruin the experience), here are my Scranton recommendations.