In search of Pennsylvania's coldest places in the dog days of summer

#inform-video-player-1 .inform-embed { margin-top: 10px; margin-bottom: 20px; }

#inform-video-player-2 .inform-embed { margin-top: 10px; margin-bottom: 20px; }

Aug. 19—In the midst of a brutal heat wave last month, my family went camping in tents and sleeping bags. We gathered around fire too. We do this for fun.

There’s no middle ground with camping. Few say “it’s fine.” People, like me, love and obsess over it. It’s the one week each year where I tighten the bolts on family bonds. The bad internet connection helps. Some hate camping, and they like letting you know. I’d like to think that’s from one bad experience or a skunk/raccoon phobia. They’re campground mainstays.

Hot, humid weather can really ruin a camping trip, though. There’s not much you can do about it, besides leave or remove the tent’s rain fly to let more hot air in. I languished one sleepless night a few years ago, sweaty and alone in Caledonia State Park, wondering whether to bail on that sweat lodge and sleep in the car. It was worse than the February night I slept through a snowstorm at Ricketts Glen State Park, surrounded by coyotes.

Experts say the best sleeping weather is 65 degrees, and we’re lucky if we go below 75, locally, on some summer nights, hence the ever-present hum of air-conditioning. I rarely camp in local counties for that reason. After fretting over the forecast on my latest trip, I decided to probe further, to ask weather experts and locals across the state where the coolest places in Pennsylvania are during the summer.

“We don’t use air-conditioning here ever, at all,” Pam Ruane, co-owner of the Nine Mile Motel in Potter County, told me.

The obvious choice for ideal sleeping weather is the mountains. They are usually cooler and less humid than areas at sea level. Chestnut Hill is the highest point in Philadelphia, at 442 feet. The elevation at Caledonia is 820 feet. Ulysses, where Ruane’s idyllic motel sits along a creek, is 2,090 feet. Ricketts Glen is 2,198.

“Yes, heading to the mountains is a safe bet,” said Kyle A. Imhoff, the Pennsylvania state climatologist at Penn State.

Surprisingly, though, locations with the coolest temperatures don’t line up perfectly with the state’s highest places. The tallest peaks are in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The coldest places, Imhoff said, are towns in the valleys between high peaks. During a query of the lowest 60-day average minimum temperature during summer in the state — drumroll — he found the area between Smethport and Kane, in McKean County, in northwestern Pennsylvania, to be the coldest.

“The easiest way to get cool during the summer months is to camp or stay in low-lying areas with surrounding higher terrain,” Imhoff said. “At night, the cooler air at higher elevations drains down into the valley.”

That’s what my kids and I experienced last month at Worlds End State Park in Sullivan County. The heat wave that broiled Philadelphia affected the weather up there too. The temperature was in the low 90s most days, with more humidity than usual, and we spent most of our time exploring local swimming holes and waterfalls. At night, however, the cold mountain air washed down into our tents.,

“The winters in Lopez are a cold like no other,” said Donna Lere, a Bucks County resident who vacations there with her husband.

Lopez, population 501, doesn’t have campgrounds or a hotel. There were two AirBnB listings there this week. It does appear to have some serious, hard-to-believe summer cold. A recent post on the “Images from the Icebox of Pa” Facebook group revealed a temperature of 37 degrees on Aug. 13, the day before I drove through. Though I was skeptical, the post was made by meteorologist John Hickey of WNEP in Moosic, Lackawanna County, so I reached out to him.

“I’m sure a lot of people are wondering what the heck is going on up there,” he said.

Hickey said the reading came from a small, trusted weather station from a viewer in Lopez.

“This isn’t some guy standing in a backyard with a thermometer,” Hickey said. “I trust the reading.”

What makes Lopez and towns like Smethport and Kane colder, Hickey said, is that they sit in “bowls,” depressions and valleys high atop mountain ridges.

“It’s already colder up there, and the cold air settles into those bowls at night,” he said.

Dan Lere told me his thermometer read 40 degrees there.

With no camping in Lopez, I wound up at Riverside Acres Campground along the Susquehanna River in Towanda, Bradford County. The river felt like bathwater. Unlike the wind off a vast, cold ocean, bodies of water don’t always make a place cooler, Imhoff told me.

“Lakes and shallow bodies of water tend not to cool off as quickly at night, so they moderate the temperature,” he said.

After a comfortable sleep, I checked my phone’s weather app and saw it was 58 degrees in Towanda at 6 a.m. Lopez was 57 degrees. Google had told me Smethport, 120 miles west on Route 6, is “one of the coldest towns in the contiguous United States.” It was 56 degrees there, so I got on Route 6 and headed west.

Pennsylvania’s Route 6 is arguably the state’s most scenic road, stretching from Ohio to the Delaware River. It’s a sure bet for cooler temperatures, with a host of campgrounds, vistas, and vintage motels. At the Nine Mile Motel, a former logging camp, owners Brian and Pam Ruane said they provide fans for their cottages, but not AC.

“We get a breeze that runs right through this valley,” Brian said.

Many guests, he said, come to Potter County to stargaze. Cherry Springs State Park, about 20 miles south, has gained an international reputation for its stargazing. I spent a chilly night there with my children one August.

“We have one of the darkest patches of sky in the whole country,” he said.

Smethport, matching its reputation, felt colder than every town I’d visited on the road trip. The temperature, according to a plaque behind the courthouse, reached 42 below zero there in 1904, the coldest recorded in Pennsylvania. Below zero isn’t unusual, the town’s police chief, Patrick Warnick, told me.

“I guess we’re used to it here,” he said.

Smethport and Kane sit at the edge of the Allegheny National Forest and its half-million acres, in northwestern Pennsylvania. Imhoff said a forest that large keeps temperatures down by filtering sun, but elevation and valleys below still determine the lowest temperatures. Kane is above 2,000 feet, one of the highest municipalities in Pennsylvania. Smethport is just under 1,500.

Linda Devlin, executive director of the Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau, said she’s aware people come seeking respite from the heat. “Cool nights” is sprinkled through the advertising. One summer, on a work trip to Lake Erie, I camped there, in a walk-in sight on the shore of the Allegheny Reservoir.

“It’s the best campsite in Pennsylvania,” the clerk at the gate assured me.

It was scenic and cool, thankfully, but the holy grail of campsites is subjective and elusive, and a story for next summer, perhaps.

MILFORD, Pa. — Up a winding mountain road two hours from any major city, a small parking lot appears through the fall foliage and it’s as busy as any Wawa. Cars from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York wedge into spots and forge a few new ones.

“Are you leaving?” drivers asked any hiker standing near a car.

Nearly all of them were there on this Friday afternoon in October to see Raymondskill Falls, the tallest waterfall in Pennsylvania, and one of the main attractions in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Encompassing 70,000 acres of mountains, forest, and the Delaware River, the Water Gap is one of the most popular outdoor destinations in the country with more than 4.5 million visitors annually.

What’s missing, fans of the area say, is the distinction of being named a “national park,” the crown jewels featured in documentaries and coffee-table books, often on the checklist of outdoors enthusiasts from all over the world. Groups like the Sierra Club, in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, along with other outdoors enthusiasts, are trying to change that, dropping “national recreation area” for “national park and preserve.”

“You never hear people say, ‘I’m going to go see all the national recreation areas in America,’” said John Donahue, who spent 14 years as park superintendent of the Delaware Water Gap. “This place, basically, already is a national park.”

Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York have no national park, the nearest being Shenandoah, four hours south of Philadelphia. Pennsylvania is home to several national historical parks, including Independence Mall and Valley Forge, which are both prized for their place in history. National parks like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, however, are designated for their natural beauty and resources. There are only nine east of the Mississippi River.

John Kashwick, vice chair of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said turning the Water Gap into a national park is a social justice issue. The Sierra Club has supported the proposal for almost a decade.

“It’s not just scenery,” Kashwick said. “Its proximity to large urban centers like New York and Philadelphia make it accessible to millions. There’s so many people who could be served by this park.”

Donald Miles, vice chair of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, said the move from a recreation area to a national park would, ideally, command a larger budget to address amenities and infrastructure.

“We basically see the same amount of tourists as Yellowstone but without the commensurate budget,” he said.

The Water Gap has an annual budget of $8.2 million from the National Park Service, while Yellowstone National Park’s budget is $27.6 million.


Like Yellowstone, the Water Gap encompasses several states, and both the New Jersey and Pennsylvania chapters of the Sierra Club plan to present proposals to elected officials, Indigenous leaders, business owners, and residents in both states in the coming months. From there, it would require U.S. House and Senate support. This happened in West Virginia in December 2020, when the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve was created. New River is America’s 63rd national park and while the effort had overwhelming support, some locals in West Virginia feared the area simply did not have enough amenities — campgrounds, stores, parking spaces, and bathrooms — to stay in step with the uptick of tourists the name change would bring.

“The national park system of the United States of America is the gold standard in the world of conservation and stewardship,” one West Virginia business owner told the Guardian in May. “I don’t want this to be the place where the brand is diminished.”

The Delaware Water Gap already sees double the number of tourists New River does, but Sean Strub, mayor of Milford, Pike County, said he hasn’t heard any opposition to the possible renaming. Milford, the northern gateway to the Water Gap, already has a hotel, rentals, and restaurants, Strub said.

“The Water Gap is already a deciding factor in all our development plans here,” Strub said. “It’s why people move to Pike County and why they visit. The Water Gap can definitely handle a lot more people, but maybe not a lot more cars.”

John Christie, a Monroe County commissioner, said it’s too soon to say how the rebranding would play out. He does have concerns about the smaller roads that intersect the Water Gap and would hope that budget increases could address them.

“The infrastructure in that area does not support a whole lot of traffic,” he said. “I’d like to hear more, the arguments for both sides of this.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought an influx of tourists to the area, Donahue, the retired park superintendent, said, and that highlighted some parking issues and prompted some trail closures to popular waterfalls, like Raymondskill. He said national park user fees and possible budget increases could help address those issues as a national park. Some national parks require entrance fees.

“It would require more improvement in parking, camping, river access — just more opportunities,” he said.

Like New River, the Water Gap would be a national park with a preserve, which would secure hunting and fishing, two major traditional uses there. Miles said opposition from hunters was a concern when the Sierra Club first floated the idea several years ago.

“Hunters and fishermen will be among the first people we speak to,” he said.

Atop a vista overlooking the river and New Jersey, Donahue, 68, pointed out how precious the Water Gap is, given its location in the Northeast and how it was nearly lost. In the early 1970s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to dam the river, and the resulting reservoir was supposed to supply drinking water to both Philadelphia and New York City. Activists and residents pushed back and the plan was scrapped. The National Park Service took over in 1975.

“There’s places where you can see all three states at once,” he said.

If the national park plan is approved, Donahue said, the change would happen “immediately.”

“This place already functions that way,” he said. “We’d basically just need some new signs.”

When Haley Briner took a day trip recently to a clear Pennsylvania stream that cut through deep, rocky gorges, she posted photos in a Facebook group dedicated to hiking and backpacking.

That’s when the usual questions came pouring in.

“Where is that?”

“Can you please give a location?”

“Location? Beautiful!”

Briner, 22, a Harrisburg native, didn’t keep the bucolic swimming hole a secret: She told everyone she went to Rock Run, north of Williamsport in the McIntyre Wild Area. It’s been described as the “prettiest stream in Pennsylvania,” and at least one person in the Facebook group chided Briner for divulging the name.

“Don’t tell the location!!!!! Its already too crowded,” the member commented.

The debate over geotagging, which simply adds geographic data and location to photos of a scenic overlook, mountain summit, quaint cabin, fishing spot, or even a sunflower field, is worldwide.

Countless media reports have been written about people allegedly “loving nature to death.” Opponents of tagging locations on social media say the practice can lead to overuse, to crowds who leave trash and graffiti and even damage rock structures. Opposition hashtags including #nogeotags and #secretplaces have popped up on social media. Danielle Williams, founder of Melanin Base Camp, a group that aims to increase ethnic minority and LGBT participation in the outdoors, said opponents of tagging are acting as gatekeepers.

“It involves individuals — usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping — asserting their self-proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn’t be allowed into certain outdoor spaces,” Williams wrote in 2019.

Could a coronavirus shutdown of the Appalachian Trail threaten a historic Pennsylvania hotel? “type”:”interstitial_link

Proponents of tagging say it’s only fair that choosing to keep those locations a secret goes against the spirit of the outdoors. Briner said she divulged her swimming hole because it’s not a well-kept secret, and because she thinks everyone has a right to visit.

“Honestly, it’s bittersweet,” she said. “I was 13 when I started hiking and I’ve seen a change over the last two years, with places being littered with graffiti and trash. But at the same time, I wouldn’t know about these spots if someone hadn’t told me.”

Millions of young men toiled in FDR’s ‘tree army’ to help end the Great Depression. Could it work again? “type”:”interstitial_link

In Philadelphia, trash left behind at the popular Devil’s Pool swimming hole along the Wissahickon Creek have prompted complaints from locals. One city councilmember suggested filling in the hole with rocks. In 2018, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics released guidelines for geotagging, which amounted to “think before you do it” and encouraged the ideal of leaving no trace of your visit behind, be it trash, the rocks you stacked atop one another, or even human waste.

Tagging difficult trails, knife-edge approaches to high summits, or waterfalls can get beginners into trouble. Many people have died while trying to take photos outdoors. Last year, the Pennsylvania Game Commission shut down one of the state’s most popular, Instagram-worthy trails — Glen Onoko Falls in Carbon County — because of ongoing injuries on the steep, rugged terrain. Nearly a dozen fatalities have been reported there over the last half-century.

In New Jersey, the Pinelands are both a playground for off-road enthusiasts and ATV riders — some of them riding illegally — and a sensitive and unique ecological home to species found in few other places.

“We think it is great that people share their favorite places and experiences in the Pines, but we have to caution to not share location information of threatened or endangered species,” said Jason Howell of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “It is an unfortunate reality that some of the most at-risk wildlife in the Pine Barrens can be harmed by drawing too many people into certain critical habitats without careful management.”

Are social-distancing ambassadors any match for record Wissahickon crowds? “type”:”interstitial_link

The Keystone Trails Association, a nonprofit aimed at protecting trails and promoting hiking in Pennsylvania, has not taken an official position on geotagging, according to executive director Joe Neville. He said the pandemic, however, has propelled many more people into the outdoors, where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is lower. Neville said the Lancaster County Conservancy has had to restrict usage of some of its trails because of overcrowding and overuse.

“Does geotagging exacerbate these problems? Probably to some extent,” Neville wrote in an email. “However, does it also promote greater participation in outdoor activities? Probably.”

Their legacy in Pennsylvania is built in stone, in walls and cabins, on overlooks far above river valleys and the roads leading up to them. They were young men and teenagers with bleak prospects, staring down the nation’s worst economic crisis. But before they went off to fight fascism in Europe, the Greatest Generation grabbed axes and sledgehammers to join Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “tree army” in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The CCC, started in 1933, was one of the most popular New Deal programs that helped lift the United States out of the Great Depression. It sent 3.5 million men between the ages of 18 and 25 into the wilds, where they earned about $30 a month building roads, flood barriers, and campgrounds. Over the course of nine years, the CCC changed the face of outdoor recreation in this country, ushering in the era of easy-access “car-camping” that exploded after World War II and continues today.

“They did a tremendous amount of work in Pennsylvania, and it’s work that’s endured,” said John Norbeck, deputy secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “They built some of the state’s most iconic parks, like Promised Land and Rickett’s Glen and French Creek. We had about 40 to 50 state parks in Pennsylvania prior to the CCC,, and today we have 121.”

Now, amid a global pandemic that has pushed unemployment numbers to 13.7 percent in Pennsylvania, parallels to the Great Depression are obvious. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this month is looking back to that time, too, by proposing to resurrect the corps and related work programs in rural America. The 21st Century Conservation Corps Act, introduced by Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, aims to support rural economies “by investing in job training and development, rangeland and working lands conservation programs, and the planting of billions of trees.” That bill would include $9 billion to fund training and hiring specifically for “jobs in the woods” nationwide.

“During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps created thousands of jobs while also making investments in our public lands that Americans are still benefiting from nearly a century later,” Merkley told The Inquirer in a statement.

In June, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware introduced a bipartisan bill to expand existing national service programs, including AmeriCorps, the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, and Senior Corps, which enlists people 55 and over who are interested in “improving lives and fostering civic engagement,” among seniors. AmeriCorps, founded in 1993, has a broader scope than the original CCC, in that it works in urban areas and on projects beyond conservation and forestry.

Coons and his supporters are trying to include the proposal in the next round of COVID-19 stimulus funding, believing it would “empower hundreds of thousands of younger Americans to serve their communities.”

Anne Harper, executive director of the Delaware Nature Society, said those workers could be put to use immediately in that state, restoring wetlands and combating rising seas.

Supporters and historians have been calling for the return of the CCC for decades.

“I’ve been trying to get Bernie Sanders to look into it for a few years,” said Jay Alexander, founder of the Civilian Conservation Corps Initiative, which advocates for the program’s revival. “It shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but some officials don’t want to spend the money on any social programs. I don’t think our president cares about national parks.”

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf introduced his version of a statewide CCC in 2016 with the creation of the Outdoor Corps. The “youth” version of Wolf’s own tree army consists of a six-week summer program for those age 15 to 18 and a 10-month stint for members 18 to 25; both work on projects including trail restoration, invasive species management, and tree planting. There are approximately 250 Outdoor Corps workers, each paid an hourly rate, according to the DCNR’s Norbeck, who added that the pandemic has adversely impacted the numbers.

With “over a billions dollars in parks and forestry dams to repair alone,” he said, there’s more than enough work for a new CCC in Pennsylvania’s woods.

“People see a state park and the serenity it provides, but they don’t realize the work that goes into it,” Norbeck said. “It’s like running a little city, with water treatment plants, roads, buildings, fire responsibilities, and law enforcement. Winter can be really tough on our facilities. Roads get washed out, and a massive number of trees come down.”

Alexander, a Florida resident, said he was inspired to research the CCC while working as a summer ranger at Raccoon Creek State Park near Pittsburgh in 1990. Only about 5,000 of the original 3.5 million CCC members are living today, he said. The CCC ended in 1942, when World War II pulled the men far from home.

Pennsylvania was home to 113 CCC camps where young men worked on various projects from road building to reforestation, second only to California. In 2013, during an 80th anniversary celebration at Promised Land State Park in the Pocono Mountains of Pike County, former workers told The Inquirer of their desperation during the Depression years, how their families couldn’t afford to feed them. In the CCC, the young men received three meals a day.

“I’m not sure what would have come of me if not for the CCC,” John Stopka, a Susquehanna County resident, said at the time. “I think it’s one of the best things this country ever instituted.”

Stopka died in 2017.

The last state park to open in Pennsylvania was Erie Bluffs in 2006, and although the DCNR has been purchasing land in Chester County for a possible state park, new campground projects are rare in the U.S. With the outdoors seen as a safer space than indoors during the pandemic, people have been flocking to the state’s trails and campgrounds. Norbeck said visits are up 30% from this time last year.

If a new CCC were able to build more state and national parks, Norbeck said, “they’d be full.” “type”:”text

(c)2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

#inform-video-player-3 .inform-embed { margin-top: 10px; margin-bottom: 20px; }

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *