5 Great Places to Learn Outdoors in Pennsylvania and Ohio

Photo above of the McKivigan children exploring the Allegheny National Forest, courtesy of Meg St-Esprit.

Pittsburgh, with its rolling terrain and network of rivers and streams, ranks high among American cities for its access to green spaces. In fact, 92% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. places like Frick Park, Riverview Park and the 3,000 acres North Parkas well as the many riverside trails and coves you can exploreto give city ​​dwellers and suburbanites so many options for outdoor learning and recreation.

Beyond the city, it only gets better. Our region offers incredible experiences, from hiking trails and waterfalls to natural wonders.

During the 2020-21 school year, we homeschooled our four children – Eli (10), Ezra and Naomi (8) and Naarah (3) – and we often used the great outdoors as classroom. Here are some of our favorite places to learn outdoors and close enough to Pittsburgh for a day trip or a short overnight stay:

Outdoor learning makes kids hungry. This photo of tea time in Beaver Creek is courtesy of Meg St-Esprit.

1. Beaver Creek State Park, East Liverpool, Ohio

My children and I spent two memorable days in a Go away RV near Beaver Creek State Park. We were completely amazed by the terrain and the animal life we ​​saw. It’s a short drive from Pittsburgh (about 90 minutes). Among our learning adventures: We spent three days checking out a killdeer nest. If you’ve never seen these unique birds, they nest speckled eggs right on the ground. When someone gets too close, it pretends to be hurt and runs away from the nest to distract predators. We watched them carefully, keeping our distance so the parents wouldn’t be too scared. We also visited the Pioneer Village in the National Park, which features an Erie Canal lock and a collection of log buildings. The park has a nature education centeras well as.

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Explore and learn at McConnells Mill. Photo courtesy of Meg. St-Esprit.

2. McConnells Mill State Park, Pennsylvania from Portersville

One of our first “big trips” once the pandemic shutdown was lifted was to scramble along the rocks of McConnells Mill. The giant “scars” in the earth left by the Moraine Glacier were pure catnip for kids who had been inside too long. But be sure to obey the signage as Slippery Rock Creek is very dangerous and fast moving – not a place to swim. There are plenty of outdoor learning opportunities, including a real historic flour mill which is occasionally open for tours (but be sure to check beforehand). We visited the factory before COVID, but not during the pandemic. There are so many natural areas to explore that it wasn’t even necessary. A great learning tip at McConnells Mill: keep a close eye on the fossils, as we spotted several shells and ferns imprinted on the ancient rocks. (We also found graffiti on the covered bridge that said “Poopy” which my kids loved.)

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Outdoor learning fun in the Allegheny National Forest. Photo courtesy of Meg St.-Esprit.

3. Allegheny National Forest, Marienville, Pennsylvania

Marienville is not there exact the location of this forest, because the forest is really massive. It is the only state forest in the entire state. While I spent my childhood camping here in a shared family cabin, my family and I have really taken the last two years to explore this area. We visited Heart’s Content, which is one of the oldest forests in the Northeastern United States. (It is currently closed for the winter, but check here to find out when it’s open later this spring.) My kids tried to emulate their favorite YouTube stars with this video of our hike. Next to the state forest there is an artificial reservoir, Tionesta Lake, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers. From an outdoor learning perspective, the dam alone was fascinating to my kids, as it is part of the water control system that (mostly) prevents flooding of the Allegheny River and Pittsburgh. Our best time on this lake, however, was walking across it, frozen, while strangers taught us how to ice fish. It felt like we were watching “Inside Out” that day, as our children’s minds formed a central memory and placed it in a place of honor in their little brains.

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Outdoor learning and relaxation at Laurel Highlands. Photo by Meg St-Esprit.

4. Laurel Highlands, Ligonier, Pennsylvania

We just can’t stay away from the Laurel Highlands to learn while having fun and being outdoors. It’s only about an hour away and we haven’t exhausted all the things to do yet. We stayed at jelly park at Mill Run for five consecutive summers, and we’ve been on day trips to all sorts of different events throughout the year. On a boat trip on the Youghiogheny (which we did on a calmer section of the river, just across the border in Friendsville, MD at precision rafting), our 3 year old slept for the entire two hours. She didn’t mind missing the boat ride, though. As a pandemic baby, she was mostly enthralled with the school bus ride to the start of the trip, as she had never been on a school bus. any type forward.

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Outdoor learning fun for all ages at Keystone State Park. Photo by Meg St-Esprit.

5. Keystone State Park, Derry, Pennsylvania

My kids and I usually live at Avalon Pool all summer. But when the pandemic closed most public pools and gave others exhaustive wait times, we discovered Keystone State Park. Less than an hour from our Bellevue home, it’s idyllic and laid back. My kids dug in the sand for hours together, ate a picnic we packed, and generally fell asleep on the way home. A plus: the bathrooms and the cloakroom are magnificent, to clean and surrounded by picnic tables and a playground. There are cabins and campgrounds for rent, but we are just going there for the day.

Getting out – to learn outdoors or simply to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine – has been so vital over the past couple of years. There are so many traumatic things about the pandemic that I fear will shape my children forever. My twins walked out of kindergarten one day and never went back, my youngest can’t even remember a world without a mask, and my eldest remembers a pre-pandemic world so well he cries often his loss.

I wish things had gone differently over the past two years, but one thing I don’t regret is spending as much time in the woods as possible. I hope that when my children grow up and think back to those times, the memories of masks and broken friendships won’t be as strong as the memories of muddy piles of clothes, splashing around with their siblings, and standing in wonder, in the middle of a frozen lake knowing the water under the ice flowed from our feet all the way to Point State Park.

The Kidsburgh team hopes this guide to nearby destinations will help your family enjoy the great outdoors in our region, this year and long after the pandemic is just a memory.


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