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The 7 Best Pennsylvania parks for families

Elizabeth Weiss McGolerick is a freelance writer and editor who contributes regularly to SheKnows, MintLife, AOL, iVillage and other sites. In her articles, Elizabeth covers a variety of subjects including relationships, pregnancy, paren...

Park fun

Pennsylvania is known for its lush, green, wooded areas and forests teeming with wildlife. Dozens of designated state parks and forests are spread throughout the commonwealth and were established in an effort to preserve and uphold the natural beauty of Pennsylvania. Whether visitors wish to explore on their own or take part in scheduled activities, the destinations highlighted below offer plenty of opportunities for families that want to go green and get a little closer to nature.

Family at Park

1. Valley Forge National Historic Park

During the brutal winter of 1777-1778, the Continental Army was encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The home that General George Washington rented during his wartime stay is still there and visitors to what is now called Valley Forge National Historic Park can visit this historic building. The park itself commemorates the generation that lived through the Revolutionary War and the sacrifices they had to make. The outdoor activities on the 3,500 acres of Valley Forge National Historic Park include biking, bird watching (over 200 species), boating, fishing, hiking, nature walks. For the 1.3 million visitors who enjoy the recreation that this park has to offer, tours, events and programs are available seasonally and annually for all ages and families.

Route 252, Valley Forge, PA 19481. Hours: Park grounds open daily year-round, 6 a.m. – 10 p.m.; visitor center open daily, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission: free.

2. Erie National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1959, the Erie National Wildlife Refuge in Guys Mills, Pennsylvania, is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, the only network of federal lands that are specifically dedicated to wildlife conservation. But this land is far from off-limits. The Erie National Wildlife Refuge manages 8,800 acres of terrain so visitors can get their fill of walking, hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, fishing, bird watching and even hunting. There are three distinct habitats within the refuge – forests, fields and water's edge – and they support over 45 different species of mammals. Trails abound, winding through glacial and alluvial sediments, woods, wildflowers, fields and beaver ponds. This is nature at its finest.

11296 Wood Duck Ln., Guys Mills, PA 16327. Hours: Daily, half an hour before sunrise to sunset; refuge headquarters/visitor station, 8 a.m. – 4: 30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Admission: free.

3. Gallitzin State Forest

Located in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, Gallitzin State Forest consists of two separate areas of state forest land stretched over four counties, which amasses a total of 15,336 acres. Outdoor enthusiasts will find this extensive area prime real estate. The forest contains some of the best hunting grounds, finest fishing streams and opportunities for general recreation, including picnic areas. Numerous scenic trails within the forest are open for mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding. Campers who choose to stay in the campgrounds for more than one night will require a camping permit, but the one-nighters are free to sleep under the stars for an evening.

155 Hillcrest Dr., Ebensburg, PA 15931. Hours: Always open. Admission: free.

4. Blue Knob State Park

Over 6,000 acres of woodland make up Blue Knob State Park in Imler, Pennsylvania. With a high elevation and annual snowfall average of about 12 feet, Blue Knob is a popular attraction for visitors who are interested in winter sports like snowmobiling, downhill skiing and cross-country skiing. The park is heavily forested and offers numerous scenic overlooks of the surrounding areas – in fact, Blue Knob State Park is home to the second-highest point in Pennsylvania above sea level. Miles of trails will satisfy the hikers, bikers and walkers looking for solitude, while the more social nature-lovers may enjoy setting up camp in one of the dozens of overnight camping areas. The park also offers a picnic area and swimming pool, and is a favorite destination for hunters, fishermen and wildlife watchers.

124 Park Rd., Imler, PA 16655. Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset. Admission: free.

5. Big Pocono State Park

Big Pocono State Park in Tannersville, Pennsylvania, is located on the rugged terrain of Camelback Mountain. From this summit, visitors can see of a large portion of eastern Pennsylvania and parts of New York and New Jersey. A 1.4-mile, paved scenic drive circles the mountaintop, offering a magnificent view in all directions. Over 1,300 acres of slopes and drops on the mountain make for challenging but rewarding hiking, horseback riding and biking throughout the park. Hunting and trapping are permitted. Near the top of Camelback Mountain sits Cameltop restaurant (open Memorial Day through Columbus Day), which offers refreshments to park visitors. It can be reached by park road or by ascending on the ski area chair lift.

Camelback Road, Tannersville, PA 18372. Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset; closes the day after the end of deer season in December and reopens as conditions permit in the spring. Admission: free.

6. Boyce Park

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania's Boyce Park is a busy local park teeming with activity year-round. The park was named after William D. Boyce, the founder of the Boy Scouts, who was born in the area. All the names of the picnic groves and shelters are associated with the Boy Scouts. Boyce Park is the only location for downhill skiing in the area, offering ski lifts, snow tubing, snowboarding, sledding and a lodge with all the amenities. Other major features include a wave pool as well as a large recreational complex, tennis and basketball courts, ballfields and soccer fields, a nature center, archery range, picnic areas and nature trails.

675 Old Frankstown Rd., Pittsburgh, PA 15239. Hours: Open daily. Admission: free.

7. The Rachel Carson Homestead

Influential environmentalist and author of the famous Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was born in the town of Springdale in southwestern Pennsylvania. In 1975, The Rachel Carson Homestead was formed to preserve and restore this National Register historic site. Today, the homestead offers educational programs to advance Carson's environmental ethic. Visitors to the childhood home of this marine biologist and fierce defender of the natural world can tour the house itself, see the view of the Allegheny River that Carson saw as she grew and meander through the surrounding gardens and grounds. There is a gift shop and bookstore on-site, offering souvenirs, items related to environmental issues and nature topics, and books for children and adults.

613 Marion Avenue, Box 46, Springdale, PA 15144. Hours: Open by appointment year-round for tours of the historic house, gardens and grounds. Admission: Adults, $5; seniors and children over 5, $3; under 5 free; discounted group tours.

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