Art and nature meet in the Laurel Highlands

The picturesque backdrop of the Laurel Highlands, a southwestern stretch of Pennsylvania in the Allegheny Mountains, has attracted a rich and thriving arts scene.

Ohiopyle State Park
Ohiopyle State Park / Photo courtesy of steheap/Adobe Stock

Spanning Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties, the Laurel Highlands, located in the Allegheny Mountains, are home to rich and diverse landscapes that make it a no-brainer destination for outdoorsy types, thrill-seekers and even those just looking for a little tranquility outside the hustle and bustle of the everyday. But the Highlands’ picturesque backdrop has also attracted a rich and thriving arts scene, with a bounty of shops (not-to-be-missed Second Chapter Books in Ligonier, Bedford Banjo Shop), boutiques (The Finishing Touch in Ligonier, Pepperberries in Uniontown), museums (Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Ligonier Valley, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art) and theaters (The Geyer Performing Arts Center in Scottdale, Arcadia Theater in Windber) in the countless towns that make up the region. It’s roughly a 3 1/2-hour drive from Northern Virginia, so you can focus a day trip on one specific destination in the Highlands—we have eight suggestions below—and you’ll have no problem finding even more to do in the neighboring towns.

Architecture

The Laurel Highlands are famously home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s most instantly recognizable design, Fallingwater. But it’s not the only Wright house in the region. There’s also the Duncan House in Polymath Park near Acme and Kentuck Knob near Chalk Hill. Fallingwater, designed and built in the 1930s as a private second home for the owners of the department store Kaufmann’s, is considered Wright’s pinnacle work for the way it seamlessly blends into its rich surroundings, including its position atop a Bear Run waterfall. Tours are available daily except Wednesdays, but if you’ve already visited Wright’s magnum opus, the Duncan House and Kentuck Knob also offer Wright’s signature organic aesthetic. Kentuck Knob, one of the last homes designed by Wright in the ’50s, is built into the hillside of its namesake landscape. The Duncan House was originally built in Illinois but was dismantled, preserved and relocated to Polymath Park in 2007. The Duncan House is the only Wright home that’s open for overnight visitors, and while you’re there, you can visit two other homes at Polymath that were designed by Wright’s protege, Peter Berndtson.

Nature

There’s a reason why the Laurel Highlands were fertile ground for Wright’s designs. The Allegheny Mountains in this stretch of Pennsylvania offer diverse landscapes that make them a destination for hiking, biking and the like. The Great Allegheny Passage spans from D.C. to Pittsburgh, and it’s a relatively level path that’s ideal for walking and biking. There are several Laurel Highlands entry points to the trail in Connellsville, Meyersdale, Confluence (which is not far from Fallingwater), Rockwood, West Newton and Ohiopyle. For those looking to immerse themselves in the Laurel Highlands’ natural beauty, Ohiopyle is a good place to connect with the passage, as Ohiopyle State Park offers even more outdoor recreation, particularly for those looking for more of a challenge. Visitors to the park can participate in whitewater rafting, kayaking and canoeing on the Youghiogheny River, zip-lining at the Ohiopyle Zipline Adventure Park and hiking and biking on the park’s many trails that connect to Cucumber Falls, expansive overlooks and the lush vegetation of the Ferncliff Peninsula.

Cucumber Falls
Cucumber Falls / Photo courtesy of Benjamin Sullivan/Adobe Stock

History

There is a lot of history to be experienced in the Laurel Highlands. Fort Necessity National Battlefield in Farmington was the location of one of George Washington’s key battles in the French and Indian War, and Bushy Run Battlefield in Jeannette is the location of a significant British victory in Pontiac’s Rebellion following the French and Indian War. However, more recent history is documented at the Flight 93 National Memorial. The memorial is located in a field in Stoystown, the site of the Flight 93 plane crash on Sept. 11, 2001. Along with the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Flight 93 was intended to be one of four terrorist attacks on 9/11, but the passengers on the flight were able to stop the hijackers from making it to their intended target in D.C. The memorial remembers the 40 passengers who died in the crash.

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