Peace in the Poconos

Adventures in Picturesque Pennsylvania

If you’re taking a nature walk in Pennsylvania’s beautiful Pocono Mountains, you want the naturalist John Serrao as your host. Not only is he the author of Reptiles and Amphibians of the Poconos and knows everything that crawls on or grows from the forest floor, but he also knows his way around black bears, having been chased by one. "I almost fell on one of her cubs," says Serrao, the naturalist at Skytop Lodge. "When she saw me she got very frightened and ran after me, but she stopped after a while."

The Poconos are only an hour and a half drive from New York City, but you’d never know it. They encompass 2,400 square miles of wooded mountains, high-elevation bogs and pine barrens, replete with winding rivers and spectacular waterfalls. There are the aforementioned bears, plentiful river otters and bald eagles. The original inhabitants were Delaware, Iroquois and Shawnees, but beginning in the early nineteenth century white settlers arrived in droves, attracted by plentiful coal reserves (guess why it’s called "Carbon County"?) and recreational opportunities. The first boarding hotel in Delaware Water Gap was built in 1829, and it’s still a thriving resort town today.

The Poconos have not suffered as much from cheap jet travel to Florida and the Caribbean as has neighboring New York’s Catskills. With newcomers attracted by whitewater rafting on the Delaware River, skiing and snowboarding, lots of golfing, hiking and mountain biking (not to mention outlet shopping), the Poconos today are the setting for the state’s biggest real estate boom, with new housing developments springing up all over and threatening to destroy the region’s rustic charms.

The View From Skytop

In the early days, the Poconos were part of many a "rest cure," and pioneering naturopaths built retreats. Dr. Earl H. Mayne, one of Skytop Lodge’s founders, was one such medico, and his vision for the resort in 1928 included nature walks (with hand-carved sticks!) on 30 miles of trails, boating on the lake and lots of vigorous sports spread across 5,500 acres. Novelist Faith Baldwin immortalized her visit in 1932 this way: "Here are friendly mountains, round-breasted, smiling in the clear, rosy light of dawn."

Skytop today is much like it was then. The round-breasted mountains are capped by 200-year-old forests, and the woodsy, paneled lodge still sports its original elevators. Gentlemen still dress for dinner, afternoon tea is served at 4 p.m., and children attend the outdoorsy Camp in the Clouds (founded in the 1930s).

And nature walks are still a highlight. We encountered a rare raven, met a red-bellied snake, tasted some sassafras twigs (the original source of root beer), and had close encounters with salamanders (a favorite of the kids on the trip). My daughter, Maya, 8, turned over a rock and found a dusky salamander with her eggs. "That’s one of the rarest sights in nature," said Serrao, making her day.

Who’s Jim Thorpe?

Once saddled with the unlovely name Mauch Chunk, the onetime mining community changed its name to Jim Thorpe after the famous Native American Olympian (who never lived there). Retaining its Victorian charm, Jim Thorpe transformed itself into a resort town, a jumping-off point for Lehigh River kayakers and one of the world’s best mountain biking destinations. We stayed at the 100-year-old Hotel Jonas, a former stagecoach stop, toured the local coal baron’s mansion, and visited the old Carbon County jail, where pioneering organizers of the Molly Maguires were hanged. A tourist attraction for nature lovers with a sense of history is U.S. Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot’s former home in Milford.

Skytop pampers its nature-loving guests, but the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) in nearby Dingmans Ferry offers something more akin to an authentic camping experience, with mess hall meals and cabin accommodations. PEEC is the former Honeymoon Haven, so look out for heart-shaped tubs. Like Skytop, PEEC offers wonderful nature hikes (including night treks) and the chance to see an operating beaver dam. There are extensive environmental education programs, including workshops for teachers.

It’s not far from PEEC to the Delaware River, and the center’s naturalist, Pat Scheuer, took us on a three-hour Kittatinny Canoes float from Milford to Dingmans Ferry, during which we encountered blue herons, cormorants, kingfishers and merganser ducks, not to mention bright red cardinal flowers. Even in light drizzle it was a magical time and the kids didn’t complain about the soggy sandwiches.