The Pocono Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania, like their New York cousins the Catskills situated along the same Allegheny plateau, have been a longtime regional resort destination. With year round activities, from summertime lake boating to spectacular autumn leaf peeping, downhill skiing in the winter to wildflower hikes in the spring, there is no shortage of reasons to visit the Poconos.
Once you decide to go, though, you may be looking for cool tourist traps to see while driving, or some way to spend a few hours if you find yourself cooped up in a cabin. I’ve been driving around this area for years and along the way I’ve found some roadside attractions that truly rock.
While none of these activities should be your sole reason to visit northeast PA, they are all worthwhile attractions when you’re already there. Each one is under an hour’s drive from the town of Jim Thorpe, “Gateway to the Poconos.”
While technically located in the Pennsylvania Dutch part of the state, Crystal Cave in Kutztown, PA is close enough to the vicinity of your Pocono vacation and just kitschy enough to be of any interest that it warrants the short road trip into the countryside. You may have to tide yourself over during the drive, though, with some local shoofly pie or a funny cake purchased from a roadside farm stand.Discovered in 1871 and open to the paying public since ‘72, Crystal Cave is the oldest operating cave attraction in the state. When you arrive, you’ll be welcomed to the site by a large sign hand-painted on the historic inn, now converted to the gift shop. After buying your tickets for the tour inside the shop and watching an informative video in another house at the top of the hill, your teenage guide will take you into the depths of the cave and point out the unique geological formations that have been bringing people into these underground depths for nearly 150 years. There are apt names for some of the more weirdly shaped stalactites, including the “giant ear of corn,” and the inspiring “cathedral ceiling.” You also get to see how the cave earned its name: the first discoverers thought they’d struck it rich with diamonds, but soon found out those sparkles were just fancy rocks. There are some local legends and history lessons thrown in, but the best part is when they turn off the lights and demonstrate how blinding cave darkness really gets. Hopefully you won’t have a scared, crying child and an oblivious parent who turns on his cell phone to quiet the kid down for the two minutes that it’s supposed to be pitch black. Do I sound resentful? Oh well. I am. Bring your jacket, because the Crystal Cave in Kutztown, PA is a constant 54 degrees no matter what time of year you go. The place is closed from December through February – so sorry, skiers.
Columcille Megalith Park
Columcille is a weird place that Sarah and I happened upon while driving back to Jersey along route 80 and trying to find something to do off the beaten path. I’ll be upfront: I’d be disappointed if I went very far out of my way to come here. With that said, if you find yourself near the area of Bangor, PA, or else you’re really into a hippie new age communion with giant, balancing rocks, Columcille is pretty cool.
We had the opportunity to meet one of the park volunteers who helps create the buildings and structures, all made from rocks found on the property. Wary at first that he might try to proselytize or indoctrinate us into some kind of a rock cult, we were soon put at ease as he gave us background on the visionaries who started the place back in the 70’s. He encouraged us to explore and to “make our journey” along the trails, and was only slightly kidding when he suggested we listen to what the rocks were trying to tell us.
At the end of the day, it was a really quiet place, designed to encourage spiritual reflection and thoughtful contemplation, and brimming with some really impressive boulder art. There are Stonehenge like megaliths, which are precariously stacked columns of rock shaped like gateways to the spiritual realm. There is also a beautiful chapel that’s always open despite the park being closed after dusk, and a tower that is in a constant state of growing higher, both made entirely of local stones. Our favorite parts were the simple nature trails that lead to sacred men’s and women’s sites, each with appropriately shaped rocks, where Sarah and I both had good sit and thinks.
It was easy to spend an hour or two walking around here, and I’d recommend it as a place to get away for a bit from an otherwise hectic, runabout vacation.
Hickory Run State Park
When I told Sarah we were going to a boulder field in Penn Forest, PA, she wasn’t as excited as I’d thought she’d be. She didn’t seem to see the attraction in going to a field of rocks. Her lack of enthusiasm, however, was merely because of my failing to accurately describe what we were about to see. Upon arrival, all appropriate impressions were made.
This place is literally a field of boulders. Not a field with boulders in it, as Sarah had imagined, but a field of boulders. It is literally awesome, as in, it inspires awe. Over a quarter mile long and twelve feet deep with just rocks on top of rocks, the boulder field is a unique natural phenomenon that exists as a result of hundreds of thousands of years of frozen weather. During the last ice age, when this part of the country experienced annual winter glacial freezes and summer thaws, water would seep into the Pocono Mountains and then freeze again, breaking off giant chunks of rock which tumbled into the valley below. There they remain today, waiting for park visitors to take in the views. It’s a really scenic way to spend a few hours, especially in the fall when the trees have exploded in color around the rim of the field.
You can hike a few miles through the woods to get to the boulder field, or just drive right up to it like we did. Either way, wear boots. Some of the rocks are loose, and you’ll be glad to have the support if you take a tumble. Even if you didn’t twist an ankle, the boots are better protection against the bites of any poisonous snakes sunning themselves atop the rocks than sneakers or flip-flops would be.
In the end…
So there you have it: Pocono roadside attractions that rock. Get it? As it turns out, there is a theme to a lot of the local stops in northeastern PA. Anyway, I know there are plenty of webpages and blogs out there about the Poconos that list the major attractions in the area, so I wanted to write something a little different about the sites that might have otherwise been off folks’ radars. Enjoy!
Let me know in the comments if you’ve found something else to do that “rocks” in the Poconos.