BERKS COUNTY, Pa.
The trouble with fall foliage trips is that when the leaves turn, the crowds turn out. Finding a place that thousands of others haven't found before is a greater challenge each year. Allow me to introduce Berks County, Pa.
Berks County, a square of mostly suburban and rural hills and twisting country roads, right off of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, about 60 miles west of Philadelphia, is ideal for autumn colors. It also provides generous sides of history, shopping, country epicurean delights, and a wide variety of outdoor venues that offer autumn travelers front row seats to fall's spectacular color show.
Oak and maple, hickory and ash, sycamore and many others combine in the annual parade of brilliant reds and oranges, shiny yellows, and the slow-turning final greens to form a fall palette.
One of the pure joys of Berks County is driving the narrow country roads, where traffic and pesky speeders are not problems. Besides the outdoor venues, visitors may enjoy the seasonal splendor while driving from one attraction to another.
The Berks Heritage Center is a tree-filled park with fascinating small museums on the tree-lined banks of the Tulpehocken Creek. We entered the grounds through Wertz's Red Bridge, a 204-foot-long covered wooden bridge that dates from 1867. The parklands are a sloping feast of shaded picnic grove, trails, bike paths and two small museums.
The Gruber Wagon Works is a preserved rural factory where the Gruber family made work sleds, hayflats, and other specialty wagons from 1882 until 1972. The two-story structure boasts a collection of handmade tools, restored wagons, and water-powered equipment from the original factory.
The C. Howard Hiester Canal Center shows the importance of manmade canals, and the boats that sailed on them, to the development of the area in the early and mid 1800s.
Hawk Mountain is a wilderness area full of trees and raptors. We donned hiking shoes and wandered the trail-filled bird sanctuary, enjoying the stunning colors and crisp autumn breezes, crunching through fallen leaves, and watching for hawks, eagles and falcons during their autumn migration. We used the handy identifier guide that helps even novice birders identify the raptors visitors might spot.
Erected in 1771, Hopewell Furnace and other iron plantations of pre-Revolutionary times laid the foundation for America's iron and steel industry. In addition to explaining how iron was made, an 11-minute film prepares visitors for a self-guided tour through the historic community. A bonus in September and October is the opportunity to pick apples at nearby French Creek State Park.
The Daniel Boone Homestead, in the Oley Valley, gives leafers a flatter venue to observe color as far as the eye can see. Boone lived at the homestead until he was 16. The 579-acre plantation contains the Boone house and six other 18th century structures. We found the guided tour a marvel of fascinating minutiae and the grounds a relaxing site for our lunchtime lakeside picnic — another chance to enjoy the colors.
In the infancy of the automobile age, many areas of the United States had car manufacturers. Berks County's vintages are on view in the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles. This old carriage factory has been restored as part of an exhibit of local automotive history, with gas, steam, electric and horse-drawn vehicles, some manufactured on the premises.
The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, near the Reading Airport, features a small hangar and larger outdoor space crammed with about 70 historical planes from every era of aviation. It boasts one of two remaining channel wing flyers in the world, along with a P-61, Douglas R4D, a Vickers Viscount and a Sikorsky HH-52A rescue helicopter.
Beyond leaf viewing, the city of Reading has turned an abandoned manufacturing facility into an arts center, the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts. This five-story, blocklong structure, where goggles were once made, is filled with artists' studios (34 and counting), classrooms, galleries, glass-blowing factory, movie theater and ceramics and jewelry studios.
Other quirky Berks County attractions include the Pagoda atop leafy Mount Penn — a five-story replica of a Filipino pagoda, complete with an authentic Japanese pagoda bell. Built in the early 1900s by a quarry owner (he copied it from a postcard), the structure now serves as a lookout, museum and gift shop. Hours are erratic, so call first.
Perhaps the quirkiest place we visited was Roadside America, a huge indoor model village, open since 1953, that evokes enough nostalgia and corn to be charming. The detail is amazing, as is the continuing movement, everything from trains and automobiles to a gristmill that grinds flour.
Leaf gazing doesn't have to end when the day does. We found a couple of options that provide leafy autumn shows right outside the bedroom windows.
Southeastern Pennsylvania is an unlikely spot for a ski resort, but Bear Creek, just on the edge of Berks County, delivers. This tree-enclosed resort, complete with several restaurants and a spa, shimmers in the pre-snow fall weather. The rooms, many with fireplaces, are stylish and spacious with comfortable beds.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Stirling Guest Hotel, a lovingly and lavishly restored 1892 mansion on a wooded estate in the middle of Reading, with fall colors from every window. The Stirling boasts 15 suites on three floors, each true to the house's style. The suites are a comfortable mix of the traditional and new. The hotel offers a cooked-to-order breakfast each morning.
We found uncrowded Berks County to be an absolute autumn delight with its spectacular foliage, heady dose of the arts, history, hiking trails, quirky museums, bird-watching and a burgeoning restaurant scene.
Maria Smith is a freelance writer based in Dallas.