Pennsylvania Scenic Drives: Historic National Road

Highlights of Historic National Road

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater is one of the draws of Historic National Road.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater is one of the draws of Historic National Road.

The scenic qualities of Pennsylvania's Historic National Road can be described as a rich tapestry that changes with the seasons. Obvious reference can be made to the beauty of the budding leaves in the vast mountain woodlands, the lush green look of the trees and fields in summer, or the vibrant colors of autumn. Some of the real beauty, however, arrives with winter, with the starkness of the woods and barren trees.

One of the most amazing sights along the road occurs just after you climb the Summit Mountain traveling west from Farmington and Chalk Hill at the Historic Summit Inn. Just over the crest of that "hill," your eyes fall onto a vast, endless valley, with rolling hills and a lushness that makes you believe you have found the promised land. This breathtaking view beckons you to imagine the sense of jubilation pioneers must have felt after struggling to cross the Appalachians, realizing that the mountains were behind them as they began their final, steep descent down the western side.

Part of a multistate byway, the Historic National Road also runs through Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia. Once a buffalo trace through southwestern Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands, the National Road became the nation's first interstate route.

This tour begins in picturesque Fallingwater and ends at the lovely Pennsylvania Trolley Museum.

Fallingwater: One of the most celebrated buildings of the 20th century, architect Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater perches dramatically above a small waterfall on Bear Run. Completed in 1937 as a vacation retreat for the wealthy Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh, it aptly illustrates Wright's concept of "organic architecture"; that is, it was built to fit into the surrounding landscape of rocky, tree-shaded hillsides. Escorted tours reveal some of Wright's idiosyncrasies; he was short in height, so ceilings are low -- he designed to his own personal scale.

Kentuck Knob: Near Fallingwater, another wealthy family hired Wright. More modest in scope, their home sits high on a hillside hidden by trees as you drive onto the encircling 80-acre estate. From the outside, the house fits unobtrusively into its woodland setting, lacking the dazzle of Fallingwater. But the visual rewards, the magical spaces, are inside. The living room appears large, a look enhanced by a long wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. The ceiling is of polished wood, which reflects the light. In the evening, the glow is said to be very romantic. Though the house is luxurious, it boasts only a carport, not a garage. Wright, it seems, hated the clutter that a garage often generates.

Ohiopyle State Park: Just outside Fallingwater, Ohiopyle State Park and the village of Ohiopyle form a center for whitewater rafting and float trips. Several licensed outfitters offer trips of varying degrees of difficulty from gentle floats to daring, white-knuckle challenges. The outings take place on the Youghiogheny River -- the "Yock" -- which winds through the heavily forested state park.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield: Fort Necessity is the site of George Washington's only military surrender. Though the rebuilt fort is only a modest ring of stakes thrusting from the earth, it marks an important lesson for Washington that surely must have aided him two decades later in the American Revolution.

Braddock's Grave: A simple stone marker at Fort Necessity National Battlefield indicates the presumed gravesite of British General Edward Braddock. At the time of his death, he was commander of all British forces in North America. In 1755, a year after Washington's surrender to the French, Braddock led a snail's pace march against the French, who were instigating American Indian attacks on settlers from Britain's American colonies. Failing to heed Washington's advice on wilderness tactics, Braddock was fatally wounded. His army of 1,400 suffered 900 casualties.

Pennsylvania Trolley Museum: Preserving some 45 trolleys dating from the 1880s, the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington recreates the trolley era on the early 20th century. Visitors can learn about the evolution of transportation and ride the museum's carefully restored trolleys on a four-mile track into the past.

Take your time and enjoy the Historic National Road, where the story of the road is told at information centers, explained at interpretive centers and lived at many interpretive sites.

Find more useful information related to Pennsylvania's Historic National Road:

  • Hopwood, Washington: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Historic National Road.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Pennsylvania? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.