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Destination: Pennsylvania : The Allegheny Alternative : In a state where most people think only of Philadelphia or Amish Country, the scenic forests of northwestern Pennsylvania are their own best advertisement

August 21, 1994|JAMES T. YENCKEL J.T.Y...BD: WASHINGTON POST

RIDGWAY, Pa. — A crimson sun, barely topping the forested ridges of the Allegheny Mountains of northwestern Pennsylvania, slipped slowly into twilight, and the only sound was a breeze teasing the branches of the trees. In the waning light, a small crowd of spectators stood on a steep hillside hoping to catch a glimpse of the herd of wild elk that inhabit this remote corner of the state. With the luck that frequently rewards persevering sightseers, they weren't disappointed.

In a most theatrical way, the herd suddenly crested a nearby hilltop and paused briefly to survey the surroundings. And then, led by a large buck with a massive rack of antlers, it stampeded down a long, grass-covered slope, darting this way and that in full view of cameras and binoculars.

In no more than a minute or two, the show was over. Almost as one, the elk suddenly veered away from us toward a lush meadow in the valley far below, and there they came to a stop. Nibbling at the grass, they soon ambled out of sight as darkness fell.

Seeing wildlife in action in its natural habitat is always stirring, and my evening's outing was a reminder that there is still lots of wilderness and wildlife not far from the big cities.

One such spot centers on the Allegheny National Forest, a 512,000-acre expanse of mountainous woodlands that encompasses the Allegheny Reservoir,a slender, 27-mile-long man-made lake behind Kinzua Dam. Miles of hiking trails--including 87 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail--and countless fishing streams trace the cool green forest, and the beach-fringed reservoir is a pleasant place for swimming, boating and other water sports. Bordering the forest are several large state parks (in both Pennsylvania and New York), each of them providing more outdoor fun and quite lovely mountain and river valley vistas. By local account, the fall foliage blazes in brilliant reds, oranges and yellows from about mid-September to late October.

*

I made my way to the region for a few days late last summer, although I had been intrigued for a long time by the huge green splash on the state map representing the Allegheny, Pennsylvania's only national forest. My trip proved to be a quiet, pleasantly relaxing and very inexpensive getaway.

Because I planned to spend only a few days, I hadn't equipped myself for camping or for long-distance hikes--the attraction for many visitors. Instead, I stayed in a very comfortable, $45-a-night bed and breakfastinn, the Faircroft, in the little town of Ridgway on the edge of the forest.

By day, I roamed the forest and its neighboring parks by car and by foot, enjoying a series of short hikes, a couple of which led to especially scenic viewpoints.

Despite the many areas of real beauty in these mountains, it must be noted that there is a certain hardscrabble look to the region, particularly in its scattering of small manufacturing towns and hamlets--several of which look as if they have scarcely changed in decades.

A small folksy town with an ornate old courthouse on Main Street, Ridgway sits at the southeastern edge of the Allegheny National Forest. I made it my jumping-off point for two full-day excursions into the woodlands, exploring the northern area of the forest and its environs on one day and the southern half on the next.

Allegheny hardwoods--such as black cherry, yellow poplar and white ash--are the most valuable and prevalent species of trees in the forest, I learned from literature distributed at the U.S. Forest Service's District Ranger Station in Ridgway, just a mile or two up the road from my inn. The black cherry timber in particular is prized by European furniture makers for use in quality crafts work, and Louisville Slugger baseball bats are cut from the local white ash. Lumber trucks crowding the main roads through the forest are a continuing reminder of the local logging industry.

The ranger station also is a good source for forest maps and recreational information, and I gathered up a handful of hiking and sightseeing leaflets to plan my first day. Dotted throughout the forest are more than 20 woodland recreation areas, many of them built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and here I found some of the most scenic spots in the region. Most offer camping facilities, hiking trails and fishing streams, and at a handful there is good swimming in a stream, pond or lake.

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