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Laurel Highlands, PA.: White Water and Fallingwater

By Christine H. O'Toole
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 9, 1999; Page E05

WHAT/WHERE: Ohiopyle and the Youghiogheny--if Scrabble allowed proper nouns, this Pennsylvania state park and river gorge would use up all your vowels. But forget indoor games where the Youghiogheny River cuts through the Laurel Highlands (40 miles northwest of Cumberland, Md.), offering you and your crew gorgeous views, whitewater rafting and easy float trips, and a gem of a 28-mile bike trail on the bank of the Yough (pronounced Yock). About a five-hour drive from D.C. off the National Road (U.S. 40), its bike trail is the only level roadway through the park's mountainous 19,000 acres. As a pristine family getaway for paddling, pedaling, trout fishing or ogling Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, it's a revelation.

SURF-REPLACEMENT RATING: **** If your kids are out of the backpack, they're ready to explore the Yough with you. Part of the charm of the beach for kids is its predictability: the waves, the video arcade, the pesky cousins. But these mountains will surprise them differently each day: steering a kayak, biking 10 miles (easily), exploring Pennsylvania's largest cave (the word "spelunking" sent my sons into hysterics until they found out what it meant. I expect it as a Scrabble contender any time now). And in the middle of nearby Bear Run, a limestone-shouldered, pale green stream, sits Fallingwater, the cantilevered Wright masterpiece and national historic landmark. Still youthful at 63, this house is unlike anything back home.

BEING THERE: We first rafted the Yough in one of those black rubber inner-tubes-on-steroids: reasonably comfortable for four, but kayaks, canoes, duckies and all manner of other craft can navigate the nine-mile course between Confluence and Ohiopyle just as easily. Guided tours include a supervisor and a lunch; unguided, we managed the riffles of the Class I rapids with ease. Since you go with the flow, as they say, even desultory paddling got us back to Ohiopyle by midafternoon. We rewarded ourselves with a dip at the natural water slides (just past the famous Falls in Ohiopyle) where you can ride the stream down cool, dark boulders and plunge into deep rocky pools. Band-Aids were inevitable.

Our friend Larry Walsh, who's been rafting here for almost 30 years, calls the Yough a very forgiving river, warning that the only tricky part of the white-water portion (called the Lower Yough) is Dimple Rock. That's where Bear Run, home of Fallingwater (724-329-8501), crashes into the stream.

Austere concrete and stone, the former summer home of Pittsburgh's Kaufmann family is a terrific monument to the American architecture legend, kept in shrinelike condition (including an ongoing structural reinforcement project) by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Our tour guide pointed out the only purely decorative touches in the house: a glowing piece of Tiffany glass in each room. It was interesting to compare Fallingwater's pared-down style with that of Kentuck Knob (724-329-1901), another Wright-designed home on a hilltop four miles away. Now open to the public, the privately-owned Knob is furnished with photos, teddy bears and contemporary art that mute the artistic statement of the property. Comfy, but not quite Wright.

Like the river, the bike trail attracts its biggest crowds on weekends. The cool, flat and shady ride, with the river tumbling below, brings a smile to every biker that passes. It took us an easy hour or two to reach Confluence, where the Youghiogheny meets the Casselman River and Laurel Hill Creek.

Confluence is a serene little town about 20 blocks square; no motels, no nightlife. We celebrated our anniversary at the River's Edge, a pink clapboard restaurant and B&B, which commands a sunset view like a watercolor. While our sons skipped stones into the river (until an irate fisherman in waders chased them), we sat in shorts and T-shirts, untroubled by mosquitoes. Then we realized those soft black apparitions swooping through the open porch were tiny bats, on patrol to keep the bugs away.

A rainy day at the beach can seem tragic; here, it was the perfect time to go underground at Laurel Caverns (724-438-3003). A 20-minute trip up U.S. 40 from Ohiopyle, this 430-acre underground park starts out cheesy, with a dull souvenir stand, but we liked our easy 2 1/2 mile, 52-degree hike. No Band-Aids required.

LODGING/BUDGET: A week at the Lodge at Chalk Hill (1-800-833-4283), with a big willow pond fronting U.S. 40, costs the same as the two-bedroom mobile room at the Point Guest Rooms in Confluence (814-395-3082): about $440. The state park has new cabins for camping (no running water) at $145 a week (724-329-8591). Ohiopyle's river outfitters, clustered together on the main drag, all have great safety records, good equipment and bikes for rent: Laurel Highlands River Tours (1-800-472-3846); Mountain Streams (1-800-RAFT-NOW); White Water Adventures (1-800-WWA-RAFT); and Wilderness Voyageurs (1-800-272-4141). Figure $225 for the family for guided white-water tours (no kids under 12), $62 for unguided rafting on the calm Middle Yough. Reservations for Fallingwater are essential. Tip: A Monday-to-Friday getaway is ideal to beat crowds and get discounts of about 25 percent on all of the above. Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau: 724-238-5661, www.laurel

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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