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A gem in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands
Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house Fallingwater is just one of the region’s attractions
As tour guide Paul Davis led us and other visitors down a path squeezed between gigantic tulip, maple, and oak trees he warned us not to be surprised by what was ahead. Despite his admonition, our first glimpse of Fallingwater was surprising.
For years we’d seen iconic photos of this famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home. All showed a stream that appeared to run through and under the home before tumbling over a boulder. That’s not what we saw as we approached the home.
We followed the route visitors use to access the house built for the Kaufmann family. “The view is different from common photos,” Paul remarked as we walked over a small bridge spanning Bear Run. It was the start of an hourlong ramble through this remarkable Pennsylvania house. We entered and visited socializing areas, bedrooms, the kitchen and bathrooms and ended up at a similarly styled guesthouse built uphill from Fallingwater.
Wright famously designed buildings to fit into the landscape, and Fallingwater is, perhaps, the best-known example. Made partly of local sandstone, its horizontal lines seem to blend into the hillside. Bear Run, a small stream that tumbles over a rocky bottom, actually flows to the side of the main house but under one of several cantilevered porticos off each bedroom. Access to views of the woods and stream were only steps away from bedrooms.
Although Fallingwater is best known as an example of Wright’s design, we found the terrain it was built in equally fascinating. Edgar Jonas Kaufmann and his wife, Liliane Kaufmann, owned a prominent Pittsburgh furniture store and hired Wright to do the design. Construction began in April 1936, a time when many were losing their homes during the depression. To ensure that the stream would remain pure, they purchased its entire watershed and protected it from disturbance. Trees were left uncut to curtail erosion and are truly magnificent. The trees are now enormous and the natural area is a preserve that welcomes hikers.
If you go
What: Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house
Where: 1491 Mill Run Rd., Mill Run, Pennsylvania
When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed Wednesdays
Cost: $12 to $87, depending on tour; fallingwater.org
Laurel Highlands Region: golaurelhighlands.com
The Great Allegheny Passage: https://gaptrail.org/
The Ultimate Western Pennsylvania Waterfall Road Trip: www.onlyinyourstate.com/pennsylvania/western-waterfalls-road-trip-pa/
After our tour we followed a short trail and emerged at a magical spot where a bride and groom were having a photo shoot. Below us Bear Run rippled downward beneath Fallingwater’s portico. It was the classic view of this iconic house that we’d seen in many photos.
Fallingwater is about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh on the southern edge of the Laurel Highlands area of southwest Pennsylvania. It is owned by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and welcomes visitors throughout the year. Tours are popular so buying them online before a visit is wise.
Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands
Fallingwater is adjacent to an enormous Pennsylvania state park with the odd name Ohiopyle. Yup, it’s in Pennsylvania, the Keystone state, not Ohio. Its 20,633 acres of mostly dense woods span the Youghiogheny River. We bought dinner in the tiny town of Ohiopyle that’s nestled in the park and then set up our tent in Kentuck Campground. Sitting quietly in the gathering darkness we marveled at towering tulip trees near our tent. Common in Eastern forests the tree’s natural range doesn’t reach Iowa. They grow to immense size with trunks arrow straight.
Ohiopyle State Park offers outstanding white-water rafting, hiking on 79 miles of trails, and bicycling on an extensive network of paved routes. After dinner we walked across the Youghiogheny on a bike trail and enjoyed watching families cycle past us as smiling rafters pulled out of the river below and upstream from the bridge.
The state park and Fallingwater are within Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands Region. Named for the mountain laurel, a tall understory shrub that is the state flower, the area covers about 3,000 square miles in three thinly populated, rural, and heavily timbered counties. Eric Knopsnyder of Go Laurel Highlands said, “Mountain laurels bloom from late May into June and rhododendrons bloom a little later.” Highways wind around or over steep hillsides, making travel slow, but always scenic.
Within the region are many trails and parks. Notable among the trails are the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail and the 333-mile Great Allegheny Passage known for bicycling, hiking and snowshoeing and of all things, trainspotting. From Pittsburgh, the trail cuts southeast across ridges and along valleys into Maryland to Washington, D.C. It follows in part the C&O Canal Towpath. For those who prefer motoring, several waterfall trails present enchanting views and refreshing streams.
We were surprised to learn that southwest Pennsylvania boasts national parks celebrating key events in American history. Two interpreted American tragedies. Our first stop was at the Flight 93 Memorial, a fairly large new National Park site that interprets and honors the brave passengers who, on September 11, 2001, disrupted the plans of hijackers by crashing into the ground in this rural area. Hundreds of visitors filed through the exhibit area and gazed out on the meadow below where the plane crashed. The mood was somber.
Our second stop at a nearby National Park site commemorated the May 31, 1889, Johnstown Flood. On that rainy day a dam above town broke sending a wall of water rushing downstream to destroy buildings and kill 2,209 people. The death toll was far higher than the Flight 93 crash, but because the tragedy was so far back in time, visitors’ mood was more contemplative than somber. After the visit we felt fortunate that we don’t live below a dam and reservoir.
We will pick up three other nearby National Park sites our next time through the area. These include the Allegheny Railroad Portage National Historic Site, Friendship Hill, the home of Albert Gallatin who helped facilitate the Louisiana Purchase, and Fort Necessity, a battle site from the French and Indian War.
The Laurel Highlands area is mountainous with windy slow roads, but it’s easy to access and traverse. Interstate 70 is the Pennsylvania Turnpike and runs through the Laurel Highlands. So does the Lincoln Highway, U.S. 30, and the old National Road, which is now U.S. 40. It is just north of the Maryland state line and Interstate 68. Visiting the Laurel Highlands would be only a short detour for any Iowan driving to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, D.C. Pittsburgh is close and packed with cultural attractions, restaurants and lodging places.
Southwest Pennsylvania teems with history, scenery, bicycle and hiking trails, and large forests filled with big trees. We’ve been there several times but still have much history and scenery to experience, so we’ll return again.