Pennsylvania is a great travel destination. You can’t beat its geography (mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, canyons, caverns) or its location (New York, the Jersey shore, Boston, Baltimore and DC all within a few hours drive). It gets a full dose of every season and historically speaking, it has one of the most colored and storied histories.
My major gripe with Pennsylvania tourism is that it all too often is focused on three distinct areas: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lancaster. Now I’m a fan of all three of these locales and feel like their celebration is deserved. I just think that other parts of the state tend to get overlooked, in particular my beloved home land of Northeast PA (or NEPA as I’ll refer to it from here on out).
NEPA is blissfully undeveloped which adds to its charm. The scenery is gorgeous and It’s got character in spades. On top of that is an easy and very affordable destination. Unfortunately many people only know it as the fictional location of The Office which has given it something of a rep as a region of simple people with simple problems. The spoofing of Joe Biden by Jason Sudeikis on SNL during the last election probably didn’t help. If you’re not aware what I’m referring to he mentioned that if you were at the 5th ring of hell you were still 45 minutes outside of Scranton.
Now I realize that I left out another major part of PA that people go and visit, a part that partially encompasses NEPA: the Poconos. I did this on purpose as going to The Poconos (to me at least) equivocates relaxing for the weekend at a resort, hanging out at your cottage on the lake or going skiing. All of these things are great and especially showcase how beautiful Pennsylvania is, but this kind of getaway is not unique to PA. One could argue that you could experience the same type of relaxation at a house in the Adirondacks or weekend in the Berkshires.
I strongly feel that more people should visit NEPA and venture out of their gated vacation communities and amenity filled hotels. There’s plenty of experiences that are intrinsically Northeastern Pennsylvanian, things that can’t be done elsewhere. It’s like the Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh or running the Rocky steps in Philly or visiting the farmers market in Intercourse.
So, without further ado, here are my top five things to experience in NEPA.
1) Scranton Parade Day -If you haven’t been to the Scranton St. Patrick’s Day parade yet, you’re really missing out. Taking place every second Saturday in March, It’s arguably the third largest in the country (after New York and Boston and reportedly tied with Savannah) and lasts about two hours. The best part of the celebration isn’t necessarily the parade itself but the crowds that fill the route and the raucous parties that local bars hold before and after (and during the parade). I also think the parade does an impressive job of showing just how secular Northeast PA as a region could be. Travel anywhere up and down the Lackawanna Valley for miles on the day of and you’ll encounter folks decked out in their green foolery, bar specials and traditional Irish music.
2) Come for Picnic Season—If the above post is any indicator then you’re well aware that the residents of Northeast PA enjoy a good party. During the summer months local parishes and volunteer firefighters (mostly) help this cause by throwing weekend long picnics or block parties as a way to raise money. Unlike their relatives, the fair, these NEPA picnics are smaller, more community driven affairs that don’t cover acres of land and don’t draw national acts. Rather, the focus is on locally made food, cheap beer and local cover bands (and if you’re really lucky a local polka band). The picnics are also the best way to sample the ethnic Eastern European cuisine that’s standard in many family homes around the holiday but rarely makes it to local restaurant menus. Try some potato pancakes, homemade pierogi, cabbage and noodles (for those of you into that) or sausage and peppers. Two of the more colorful local picnics are Jessup’s St. Ubaldo’s festival and Jermyn’s Corn and Clam Slam.
3) Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour—In general I tried to stay away from worn out tourist traps so wasn’t planning on having any organized tours on my list. The Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour, located just outside of downtown Scranton in McDade Park is not worn out or a tourist trap and is the best way to literally get inside NEPA’s history. Northeast PA came into her prominence as a lead exporter of Anthracite coal. A large number of residents can count miners as part of their family tree and the effects of this mining still scars the landscape. I grew up jogging on old railroad beds and sledding down coal mountains. The Coal Mining tour and its accompanying museum takes you down into one of the preserved mines and gives you a feel for how grueling and dangerous this work was. I worked at a summer camp during college and so attended this tour consecutive summers in a row but never failed to be impressed by it.
4) Get Outside—NEPA is undeveloped compared to other parts of the state and so offers a wide variety of outdoor activities to choose from. If watersports are your thing then try one of the hundreds of lakes or rafting on the Delaware River either on either the New York or New Jersey border. Lake Wallenpaupack is a popular destination for boating and Elk Mountain offers “Vermont skiing in Pennsylvania.” The aforementioned abandoned railway tracks means miles have trails for hiking, biking or cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter months.
5) Northern Tier Tour —There’s a number of small bars in northern Susquehanna and Wayne counties near where I grew up that also double as small hotels and inns. The northern tier tour is what my uncle has this barcrawl and while we locals find it something fun to do on a Saturday night or Sunday afternoon, it’d be a really cool way for visitors to experience and lodge in an authentic NEPA fashion. I’ve documented the stops on this little “tour” in one of my posts which could be found here. This getaway wouldn’t be completely about barhopping though as Chet’s offers snowshoe and cross country ski rentals, Stonebridge offers horseback riding and Arlo’s is a throwback to the one stop general store as it houses lodging, a gas station, ice cream parlor, tavern, bbq and mini golf course.