Seeking out Pennsylvania’s coldest places in dog days of summer


In the midst of a brutal heatwave last month, my family went camping in tents and sleeping bags. We gathered around fire too. We do this for fun.

There’s no middle ground with camping. Few say “it’s fine.” People, like me, love and obsess over it. It’s the one week each year where I tighten the bolts on family bonds. The bad internet connection helps. Some hate camping, and they like letting you know. I’d like to think that’s from one bad experience or a skunk/raccoon phobia. They’re campground mainstays.

Hot, humid weather can really ruin a camping trip, though. There’s not much you can do about it, besides leave or remove the tent’s rain fly to let more hot air in. I languished one sleepless night a few years ago, sweaty and alone in Caledonia State Park, wondering whether to bail on that sweat lodge and sleep in the car. It was worse than the February night I slept through a snowstorm at Ricketts Glen State Park, surrounded by coyotes.

Experts say the best sleeping weather is 65 degrees, and we’re lucky if we go below 75, locally, on some summer nights, hence the ever-present hum of air conditioning. I rarely camp in local counties for that reason. After fretting over the forecast on my latest trip, I decided to probe further, to ask weather experts and locals across the state where the coolest places in Pennsylvania are during the summer.

“We don’t use air conditioning here ever, at all,” Pam Ruane, co-owner of the Nine Mile Motel in Potter County, told me.

The obvious choice for ideal sleeping weather is the mountains. They are usually cooler and less humid than areas at sea level. Chestnut Hill is the highest point in Philadelphia, at 442 feet. The elevation at Caledonia is 820 feet. Ulysses, where Ruane’s idyllic motel sits along a creek, is 2,090 feet. Ricketts Glen is 2,198.

“Yes, heading to the mountains is a safe bet,” said Kyle A. Imhoff, the Pennsylvania state climatologist at Penn State.

Surprisingly, though, locations with the coolest temperatures don’t line up perfectly with the state’s highest places. The tallest peaks are in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The coldest places, Imhoff said, are towns in the valleys between high peaks. During a query of the lowest 60-day average minimum temperature during summer in the state — drumroll — he found the area between Smethport and Kane, in McKean County, Northwestern Pennsylvania, to be the coldest.

“The easiest way to get cool during the summer months is to camp or stay in low-lying areas with surrounding higher terrain,” Imhoff said. “At night, the cooler air at higher elevations drains down into the valley.”

That’s what my kids and I experienced last month at Worlds End State Park in Sullivan County The heat wave that broiled Philadelphia affected the weather up there too. The temperature was in the low 90s most days, with more humidity than usual, and we spent most of our time exploring local swimming holes and waterfalls. At night, however, the cold mountain air washed down into our tents.

Ricketts Glen, a popular campground with a ton of amenities, is 30 miles east of Worlds End. They’re both on my list of favorite campgrounds in Pennsylvania. The tiny town of Lopez, north of the campgrounds, is the self-described “icebox of Pennsylvania.”

“The winters in Lopez are a cold like no other,” said Donna Lere, a Bucks County resident who vacations there with her husband.

Lopez, population 501, doesn’t have campgrounds or a hotel. There were two AirBnB listings there this week. It does appear to have some serious, hard-to-believe summer cold. A recent post on the “Images from the Icebox of Pa” Facebook group revealed a temperature of 37 degrees on Aug. 13, the day before I drove through. Though skeptical, the post was made by meteorologist John Hickey of WNEP in Moosic, Lackawanna County, so I reached out to him.

“I’m sure a lot of people are wondering what the heck is going on up there,” he said.

Hickey said the reading came from a small, trusted weather station from a viewer in Lopez.

“This isn’t some guy standing in a backyard with a thermometer,” Hickey said. “I trust the reading.”

What makes Lopez and towns like Smethport and Kane colder, Hickey said, is that they sit in “bowls,” depressions and valleys high atop mountain ridges.

“It’s already colder up there, and the cold air settles into those bowls at night,” he said.

Dan Lere told me his thermometer read 40 degrees there.

With no camping in Lopez, I wound up at Riverside Acres Campground along the Susquehanna River in Towanda, Bradford County. The river felt like bathwater. Unlike the wind off a vast, cold ocean, bodies of water don’t always make a place cooler, Imhoff told me.

“Lakes and shallow bodies of water tend not to cool off as quickly at night so they moderate the temperature,” he said.

After a comfortable sleep, my phone’s weather app told me it was 58 degrees in Towanda at 6 a.m. Lopez was 57 degrees. Google had told me Smethport, 120 miles west on Route 6, is “one of the coldest towns in the contiguous United States.” It was 56 degrees there, so I got on Route 6 and headed west.

Pennsylvania’s Route 6 is arguably the state’s most scenic road, stretching from Ohio to the Delaware River. It’s a sure bet for cooler temperatures, with a host of campgrounds, vistas, and vintage motels. At the Nine Mile Motel, a former logging camp, owners Brian and Pam Ruane said they provide fans for their cottages, but not AC.

“We get a breeze that runs right through this valley,” Brian said.

Many guests, he said, come to Potter County to stargaze. Cherry Springs State Park, about 20 miles south, has gained an international reputation for its stargazing. I spent a chilly night there with my children one August.

“We have one of the darkest patches of sky in the whole country,” he said.

Smethport, matching its reputation, felt colder than every town I’d visited on the road trip. The temperature, according to a plaque behind the courthouse, reached -42 there in 1904, the coldest recorded in Pennsylvania. Below zero isn’t unusual, the town’s police chief, Patrick Warnick, told me.

“I guess we’re used to it here,” he said.

Smethport and Kane sit at the edge of the Allegheny National Forest and its half-million acres, in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Imhoff said a forest that large keeps temperatures down by filtering sun, but elevation and valleys below still determine the lowest temperatures. Kane is above 2,000 feet, one of the highest municipalities in Pennsylvania. Smethport is just under 1,500.

Linda Devlin, executive director of the Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau, said she’s aware people come there seeking respite from the heat. “Cool nights” is sprinkled through the advertising. One summer, on a work trip to Lake Erie, I camped there, in a walk-in sight on the shore of the Allegheny Reservoir.

“It’s the best campsite in Pennsylvania,” the clerk at the gate assured me.

It was scenic and cool, thankfully, but the holy grail of campsites is subjective and elusive, and a story for next summer, perhaps.


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