How to Best Enjoy Fall in The Forest
Don't pack up the tent just yet. While campsites are crowded in the summer, the autumn months put a new spin on the popular hobby — and offer more room to breathe.
Situated between vast expanses of protected land and recreation areas, Pittsburgh is a prime location for outdoor lovers.
From the Laurel Highlands region of the Appalachian mountains to the dozens of state parks and national forest land in Pennsylvania to the nation’s newest national park in West Virginia, it’s no surprise that many Pittsburgers cut their teeth on a mountain pie and have been camping ever since.
Even for those who did not grow up camping, interest in the activity is on the rise. In a recent report by Dyrt, a popular camping app, campgrounds reported it was five times more difficult to book a campsite in 2022 than in previous years. They also found that 15 million Americans camped for the first time ever over the last two years.
The surge in camping was initially believed to be a brief trend during the pandemic, but the outdoor recreation industry continues to boom. This can mean popular campgrounds book quickly — making last-minute camping trips nearly impossible during the summer months.
Campers and the camper-curious shouldn’t discount the fall season for camping adventures. There’s more lodging available, fewer crowds and just as much value to be found in the outdoor experience. While it may be too chilly in Western Pennsylvania for a dip in a lake or campground pool, the fall months offer so much for outdoor adventurers — including some of the best fall foliage in the United States; in 2022, the Laurel Highlands region was ranked 7th in the country for viewing fall foliage by USA Today.
In this region, fall camping means a chance to observe changes to flora and fauna first-hand. At state and national parks, rangers run free programs every day to educate visitors on the natural world.
Monarch butterflies that hatched over summer months prepare to migrate to Mexico each fall; education programs at local state parks allow visitors to catch and tag butterflies alongside the park rangers. Even the youngest children can carefully place a numbered sticker on the fragile wings with a bit of help. Campers receive an update if their butterfly survives the journey south.
Fall is also a great time to observe bird migrations in this region. Several species of hawks begin their migration in late August and can be seen soaring along ridgelines throughout the fall months. Their impressive wingspan over bright fall foliage is an unforgettable sight. Other birds of prey also begin to migrate in the fall, including kestrels, peregrine falcons and merlins. Smaller songbirds are on the move in the fall as well, and waterfowl flock back to Pennsylvania lakes and streams to spend the winter. Apps from Audubon and other organizations help campers identify the species they spot.
Cooler temps bring mating season for deer and elk, meaning animals are more active — and therefore more visible. While the only remaining elk herds in Pennsylvania reside in and around the Allegheny National Forest to the northeast, white-tail deer are common in all natural areas in this region.
Bears are also active in the fall as they fill their bellies for winter hibernation. During September and October, bears eat and drink nonstop — campers are more likely to see a bear during the fall than at any other time of year. Remember to observe animals, even small ones, from a distance. Not only can human interference upset the ecosystem, some animals become aggressive when disturbed.
Tent camping is one of the most affordable travel options and can be an enjoyable experience — with the right gear. Tent sites in Pennsylvania’s state parks begin at just $16 per night, although investing in the right camping gear for cold weather can make it a pricier venture than in summer months.
Camping does not have to involve a tent, though. Even the most enthusiastic tent camper might choose a cabin, yurt or RV. There are many options around Pittsburgh that provide solitude in the woods with the comfort of running water and an indoor bathroom. Rustic campsites are often also not ADA accessible and can be difficult for travelers with disabilities to navigate, but government-owned and privately owned campgrounds are required to provide some accessible cabins.
Camping is also all about the food. Even for lodging with a full kitchen, lean into the simple and hearty meals that camping memories are made of. Hot dogs and kielbasa over the fire, mountain pies bursting with apple filling and s’mores are essential. Foil packet meals full of vegetables and freshly caught fish can be baked over the coals of a campfire for a truly authentic backwoods meal. Rural communities also often have local eateries that provide home cooking to rival any city restaurant. A tiny diner in a one-stoplight town with a packed parking lot? Stop there for lunch.
The main feature that makes a trip a “camping trip” is the proximity to nature, not the type of roof overhead. A quiet cabin in a state park or a treehouse overhanging a creek provide much of the same benefits as tent camping — fewer people around, fewer distractions and more space to unplug and unwind.
Information for this article was provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Go Laurel Highlands and West Virginia Tourism. For more information on camping and fall activities in these regions, please reach out directly.