Why Pennsylvania's Happy Valley is a Winter Wonderland
Hibernating is for the bears, not the people of Happy Valley, Pa. Just because the temperatures drop, this region surrounding Penn State University doesn’t stop offering plenty of indoor and outdoor activities for visitors.
Smack dab in the center of the Keystone State, Happy Valley is easily accessible by I-80 and Route 322. It’s about 3 hours northwest from Philadelphia and 2.5 hours northeast of Pittsburgh.
Whether you’re looking for some outdoor adventure, some indoor libation, a bit of arts and culture or the chance to cheer on a sports team, Happy Valley is ready to welcome you.
Officially called Centre County, but colloquially known as Happy Valley, this area 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. With more than 750,000 acres of public lands to explore, you’re going to want to stay the night.
Dive right in and stay in one of the 16 rooms at The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle, a lakeside location within the 5,900-acre Bald Eagle State Park. Voted as one of the best eco-friendly lodges in the nation in 2021 by USA Today, this LEED Gold hotel has sustainable practices like rainwater harvesting and solar-thermal hot water. Sit on your own private balcony (or stay warm behind your room windows) and watch the sunrise over the mountains or spot the year-round sparrows, finches and cardinals that might be poking around shrubby areas before hitting the trails in the park (more on that later).
Happy Valley not only encompasses State College, with its bustling university energy, but also quaint towns like Philipsburg, Aaronsburg and Millheim and historic towns like Boalsburg and Bellefonte. This last town is where you’ll find the well-reviewed Bellefonte B&B, a Georgian Revival home built in 1899, as well as The Inn at Gamble Mill. The mill dates back to 1786, but the rooms are modern and the property also has a restaurant and an upscale cocktail bar.
No matter the time of day, be sure to head over to Jo Hays Vista for a stunning view of the land. Located in Rothrock State Forest, this scenic overlook is also great for seeing the stars at night.
Hit the slopes at Tussey Mountain Ski Area, a 50-acre playground in Boalsburg where you can go skiing (even at night), snowboarding and snowtubing on its seven trails. It is typically open from December through middle-to-late March. Warm up and grab a snack inside the Lodge at Tussey Mountain.
Hiking Mount Nittany is rite of passage for Penn State students, but anyone is welcome to the nearly 9 miles of trail available. In the winter, expect to see even better valley views thanks to the leafless trees. On the ground, keep your eyes peeled for deer, fox, turkey and bear tracks.
At aforementioned Bald Eagle State Park, head to Skyline Drive near Pavilion #5 for the physical manifestation of your childhood winter fantasies — sledding on five acres of cleared hillside, culminating in a 1,320-foot run. In addition, there are about seven miles of ungroomed trails available for cross-country skiing in the park.
About 630 acres of the 1,730-acre F.J. Sayers Lake at the park is available for ice fishing during the winter. Ice skating is also permitted, but bring a friend and be careful as ice thickness is not monitored. (For an alternate option, an ice-skating rink in Tallyrand Park in downtown Bellefonte is expected to open this winter.)
If you’re in the area for New Year’s Eve, be sure to head to First Night State College for the festivities that include a holiday market; workshops for arts, crafts, music and dance; ice sculptures and a 5K run. Plan ahead and get a $10 button for general admission or buy your button once on-site.
As temperatures dip above ground, there's one Happy Valley attraction that remains a steady 52 degrees year-round 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); visitors float through the illuminated cave on a 50-minute flat-bottom boat ride.
Eat, drink and be merry
The Central PA Tasting Trail is a great way to support local businesses and get a taste of the local (boozy) flavor. The trail 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 Citra hops in the Green Weenie IPA at Otto’s Pub & Brewery.
Penn State alums swear by the Grilled Stickies once sold at Ye Olde College Diner; though the restaurant has closed its doors, you can still get the stickies at 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 — preferably a pint from Penn State's Berkey Creamery — it’s called the Mount Nittany.)
Speaking of State College landmarks, Allen Street Grill is a downtown must for cocktails and dining. The grill has been around for more than 30 years and is part of the Hotel State College & Co., which encompasses a number of local institutions whose roots harken back to the late 1800s. Try the Sardinian meatball soup or the braised lamb shank and stick around for the dark chocolate torte.
Another Penn State downtown tradition is The Tavern Restaurant. Located in a spot that dates back to the 1890s, it recently completed a facelift that includes a second-floor bar, an outdoor terrace and a speakeasy. Entrees here include Wagyu steak options, osso bucco and Tuscan shrimp scampi.
If you’re looking for a quick bite to eat, stop by Social Food + Drink, which opened in downtown State College earlier this year. The restaurant is part of the Scholar State College, Tapestry by Hilton Hotel and the menu includes wings, flatbreads, burgers and salads.
For a nightcap, head to Phyrst, a basement bar on Beaver Avenue popular with students and alums alike. It offers a casual atmosphere with pool tables and live music 365 days a year.
The largest art museum between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia can be found in Happy Valley. The Palmer Museum of Art on the Penn State University Park campus is free and open to the public. There are rotating exhibits in addition to permanent collections such as American painting and sculpture from the late 18th to the early 20th century and contemporary studio glass and ceramics from around the world.
Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County can be found inside the Linn House, built in 1810 and listed on the National Historic Registry. Its mission is to showcase and sell works by local artists. Upcoming exhibits include “African Designs: Creating Wearable Art (Dec. 27-Feb. 27) and “The Sound of Paper (Above and Below)” (Jan. 31-Feb. 27).
For more arts and culture of the musical variety, spend an evening with the Pennsylvania Chamber Orchestra. Pennsylvania’s all-professional chamber orchestra has a concert scheduled for Jan. 30 at the Penn State Recital Hall. If pop music is more your scene, score tickets to the Billie Eilish gig at Bryce Jordan Center on Feb. 10.
The massive Beaver Stadium may be quiet, but fortunately for Happy Valley visitors, football is not the only game in town. Penn State has one of the largest athletics programs in the country — with nationally ranked wrestling, women’s ice hockey, men’s gymnastics, men’s volleyball, men’s and women’s fencing teams. The wrestling team (8 national titles since 2011) and fencing program (13 national titles since 1990) are especially dominant. In addition to concerts, the 15,000-seat Bryce Jordan Center also hosts Penn State men’s and women’s basketball games in the highly-competitive Big Ten conference. No matter the winter weekend, there’s likely a home game somewhere on campus. Add in a visit to the Penn State All-Sports Museum to take in all the history and tradition for every sport.