Welcome to Pennsylvania's Happy Place
Penn State University is well-known, but the valleys surrounding the state’s flagship college are waiting to be explored. Happy Valley, so-named in the 1930s since the area was not hit hard by the Great Depression (and not due to the football team’s traditional excellence), includes Nittany Valley to the northeast, Penns Valley to the east and Bald Eagle Valley, Moshannon Valley and Halfmoon Valley to the north and west. And it’s in the center of everything (it’s even called Centre County) without being in the middle of nowhere. (For driving reference, it's a little over 3 hours west from Philadelphia and 2.5 hours east of Pittsburgh, easily accessible by I-80 and Route 322.)
With so much land to explore, it’s easy to not only socially distance, but to escape the digital world for a bit and get back to nature. Here are some of our favorite ways to find your own happy place in Pennsylvania's Happy Valley.
Nature lovers will be happy here indeed, as the area is surrounded by more than 550,000 acres of public lands. You could go for a run or mountain bike on hundreds of miles of trails in Rothrock, Sproul or Bald Eagle State Forests, search for wildlife like cottontail rabbits and turkeys in Bald Eagle State Park and go ice fishing or camping in the forests and wetlands of Black Moshannon State Park. Not to be missed is hiking Mount Nittany, named after a Native American warrior princess who was so beloved, that, as legend has it, her burial mound turned into the mountain overnight.
If you’re looking to go sky high, thrill-seekers might like hot air ballooning at sunrise or sunset over the scenic expanse of State College; typically flights are one hour and can travel 15 miles in distance.
If you’re looking to go underground, Penn’s Cave and Wildlife Park is the only all-water cavern in the country (and listed on the National Register of Historic Places) with a wildlife tour; visitors float through the illuminated cave on a 50-minute flat-bottom boat ride.
Other outdoor adventures include the new Harvest Fields Community Trails (where you can gain confidence in your mountain biking skills) and strolling through the gardens at The Arboretum at Penn State. Anglers can be found luring in green drake hatch in Penns Creek and wild trout in Spring Creek.
Take in the history
Not only is Happy Valley rich in farmland — we'll get to those fresh goodies in a bit — but it’s also rich in American history. If you plan on taking a long Memorial Day holiday weekend, you have Happy Valley to thank. The tradition of Memorial Day started here back in October 1864 during the Civil War. Two teenage girls, Emma Hunter and Sophie Keller, were placing flowers on the grave of Emma’s father, a Union Army surgeon. They met an older woman who was also placing flowers on the grave of her son, a soldier killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. The women made plans to meet again the following year. This grew into an annual tradition called “Decoration Day”, and eventually in 1971, the official national holiday.
The town of Bellefonte played a major role in the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people escape to the Northeast, the Midwest and Canada. A Quaker family occupied the Linn House, now the Bellefonte Art Museum, for a decade before the Civil War and they helped shelter people trying to escape. Visitors to the museum can see the secret room and the hidden tunnel that connects to a closet through two glass partitions.
Along with a number of old Victorian homes to look at (some of which were former residences of governors and are now B&Bs), there are also many antique shops in the area. Choose from small dealer-owned antique shops and gallery style antique co-ops.
Eat & drink
The Happy Valley Takeout Trail is a great way to support local businesses and get a taste of the local flavor. Here’s how it works: You pick up a free passport from one of the 50+ Happy Valley restaurants that are participating, collect 10 stamps from different restaurants, drop it off at the Centre County Visitor Center and you’ll be entered to win a prize package. Four drawings will be held in 2021, with the first being April 30.
Another yummy trail to try, especially if you like craft brewing, is the Central Pennsylvania Tasting Trail, which includes four wineries, two cideries, two distilleries and three microbreweries. Sip on the award-winning Vidal Ice, winner of the 2019 Pennsylvania Governor's Cup, at Seven Mountains Wine Cellars or sample the nugget and citrus hops in the Green Weenie IPA at Otto's Pub & Brewery.
Penn State alums swear by the Grilled Stickies from Ye Olde College Diner; though the restaurant is closed, you can get the stickies in many local markets. This sweet treat is essentially a baked cinnamon bun that is then grilled and served piping hot. (When served with ice cream, it’s called the Mount Nittany.) Speaking of ice cream, get a scoop or two from Penn State Berkey Creamery, which has been around since 1865. Not only is the ice cream delicious, but it’s also educational; for six days a year, industry pros flock to Penn State from around the world to learn the science behind creating perfect ice cream. Baskin-Robbins, Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs representatives, among others, have all attended the course.
Don’t worry about feeling guilty for trying all this rich food. Since the land is so bountiful here, there are several farmers’ markets each week year-round (outdoor and indoor), so you can eat your fresh veggies as well.
Explore small towns & hidden gems
Happy Valley not only encompasses State College, with its bustling university energy, and historic towns like Bellefonte and Boalsburg, but also quaint towns like Philipsburg, Aaronsburg and Millheim. There are many Amish-run shops and farm stands in the latter two towns. You can visit an Amish cheese shop on a working Amish farm, Goot Essa (meaning "good food" in Pennsylvania Dutch), which provides cheese to hundreds of East Coast restaurants and upscale food shops.
You wouldn't expect to find a lock of Napoleon’s hair, Christopher Columbus' sea chest or 15th-century weapons at a private museum in a small Pennsylvania town, but the Columbus Chapel & Boal Mansion Museum in Boalsburg has all those things and more, plus a unique backstory. The mansion's builder settled here in the 19th century with his French wife, a direct descendant of Columbus. She inherited the Columbus family castle in Spain, and they had the contents shipped across the Atlantic to Happy Valley. These family heirlooms, plus others collected through the prominent family's connections, help fill the mansion and its accompanying stone structure with fascinating items.