The back way into the hamlet of Ohiopyle, smack dab in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, is a winding, twisting wriggle of a road. Not unlike the river that runs through it, the whitewater mecca known as the Youghiogheny. (Say it with us: “yock-a-haney.”) We pull into town just in time to check into our comfy rustic motel, check out the river conditions and sign up for a guided group tour of the rapids.
We join a gaggle of happy, self-proclaimed “dorks,” medical lab techies from a national health organization enjoying a rare company outing. In their tight life jackets and yellow helmets they stand open-mouthed and blinking in the bright sun. “We don’t get out of the lab much,” laughs a young intern, who grabs a paddle with us in the “sweep boat.”
The sweep is the boat that covers the rear of our little armada, and our captain is a dreadlocked, sure-paddled river guide they call “Sherpa.” He tells us when to paddle forward, when to take a stroke or two backward and how to avoid the boulders that rush toward us with all the speed of a mountain river.
One rock gets in the way of the boat in front of us, tossing a couple lab dorks into the drink. Sherpa helps sweep ‘em into our boat and everyone’s excited, wet and laughing. “It’s your whitewater baptism,” he proclaims and the river-soaked lab techies grin with pride.
A tour along the lower Youghiogheny lasts the afternoon, with deer and fox and the occasional black bear watching from the wooded Laurel Ridge. Our cruise is a series of peaceful drifts interrupted by stomach-churning drops into boiling holes that appear in the river between rocks the size of Buicks. It’s a combination of Huck Finn lazy and roller coaster crazy. We stop only for lunch, when we make damp sandwiches and eat them with a gusto that comes when adrenaline is your morning appetizer.
We pull the boats into shore around happy hour, carry ‘em on our heads to a waiting trailer and hop an old school bus back to Ohiopyle. One of the other river guides, a bearded rogue named Corey, tells bad jokes and we groan all the way to our motel shower.
We wonder whether the potent cocktail of excitement and exhaustion makes the wings and beer taste so good at the bar around the corner. But it turns out the buffalo wings at the Falls City Pub really are about the juiciest we’ve ever dipped in bleu cheese. A spicy nightcap to a thrilling day.
We wake up to black coffee, a big breakfast and a look at the map. Then we head out that wriggle road to get a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the architectural masterpiece inspired by its own whitewater. These Laurel Highlands have a lot of gems in the woods. We hope we’ll find you looking for ‘em, around the bends and backroads.
When you hit the road, here's where to stop. (For a map with photos of all these places and more, go to www.visitpa.com/shunpiker.)
Wilderness Voyageurs Rafting
Our witty and trusty river guide Sherpa was part of the best crew a novice rafter could ask for. Nobody knows the boils and bends (and rocks) of the Youghiogheny better. Check out a variety of river tours at www.wilderness-voyageurs.com, or call 800.272.4141.
Yough Plaza Motel
Check into a comfy room or a family efficiency, with two bedrooms and a full kitchen. The rustic wood siding and huge shade trees give this family-run motel a happy mountain atmosphere. Walk to everything in the heart of Ohiopyle. Reservations at www.wwaraft.com or 800.992.7238.
Falls River Pub
The juicy classic wings and a pint of cold draft beer are perfect after an afternoon on the river. An easy walk from the motel across the simmering Youghiogheny. Tell the friendly bartender, Margo, we sent you.
“The Falls” Market & Inn
A classic general store – everything from needle-nose pliers to camping gear to velvet paintings to fresh bananas – with an old fashioned lunch counter with the best breakfast in town. Ask for the home-fries “mess,” which they really call by a word we can’t print here. Which is maybe why it’s not on the menu either. But it’s river-city good. Talk to Leo or Sarah Smith if you want a room to rent, too. Downtown Ohiopyle. 724.329.4973
Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece of “organic architecture.” One of the most beautiful homes in the world seems to grow right out of the mountain stream that runs beneath it. Tour reservations at www.fallingwater.org. Rt. 381, 4 miles north of Ohiopyle. Photo by Harold Corini courtesy of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
Where else can you go spelunking and play mini-golf underground? Explore 430 acres underground with nearly 3 miles of crooked passages and catacombs. And play cavern putt-putt, too. Oh, don’t be surprised; bats are par for the course.
On Cavern Park Road in Farmington. www.laurelcaverns
Milroy Farms Maple Products
Gary Blocher is the patriarch of this fifth-generation sugar camp. He’ll be happy to show you how his family taps the trees, boils the sap and makes some sweet-tooth maple candy. Syrup in several shades of deep amber. And wait till you try the heavenly maple cream on an English muffin. Milroy Farms: 1724 River Road, Salisbury, Pa. 814.662.4125
The Inn at Georgian Place
Get out of the riverboat and into a four-star wine list and four-poster bed. This historic mansion is a gourmand’s treat for lunch, dinner and/or overnight. (Remember we told you about Margo from the Falls City Pub? Her dad runs this place. Tell him she sent you up from Ohiopyle.) Just off Route 219 north of Somerset. Reservations: www.theinnatgeorgianplace.com.
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