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Discovering Audubon

Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands are rich in history for bird watchers and nature lovers

Created date

July 8th, 2016
When birding in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, look for indigo bunting in low-lying brush.

When birding in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, look for indigo bunting in low-lying brush.

We pass a flock of wild turkeys as we wind through the rolling hills of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands. A tom turkey struts, and his tail feathers fan into a showy half circle of fall color. 

The dilapidated old buildings of Rt. 40 tell little of what awaits us just a few miles ahead. But the landscape shares a glimpse into the distant past—a glimpse into John James Audubon’s adventure west from the Susquehanna River to the Ohio in 1808, scouting for fowl and sketching what would become the archetype of wildlife illustration, Birds of America.

As we arrive at our destination, the image of a round, whimsical bird fittingly welcomes us to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. Fatbird, the resort’s logo, captures the spirit of this decades-old getaway. 

Woodland retreat

Bronze sculptures line the drive, almost camouflaged by the autumn leaves. As we round the bend, an impressive French chateau looms ahead. 

Completely renovated for a grand opening in January 2015, the lobby, tea room, and guest suites of Nemacolin’s Chateau Lafayette honor its original luxurious style but now feature a brighter, warmer color scheme and modern yet classic furnishings. Even the landscaping in the Lafayette Gardens received an upgrade. 

The original Lodge at Nemacolin offers charming, more affordable rooms. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, a stay in Falling Rock is unforgettable. Inspired by the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Falling Rock offers AAA Five-Diamond, Forbes Five-Star accommodations with exclusive amenities and packages like the Serenity Room upgrade.

If you’ve got a crowd, book one of the resort’s townhouses or single family homes—both are ideal for family getaways with grandchildren. They’ll love visiting the on-site zoo, home to brown bears, wolves, buffalo, zebra, and a white tiger and lion, among other animals. 

Page through history

While many come for the resort’s luxurious accommodations, others come to play the Pete Dye-designed, 18-hole golf course (with a second opening in 2017). Some come for the outdoor activities, like fly fishing, snow skiing, and horseback riding, and the Adventure Center. And it’s hard not to take time for rejuvenation in the Woodlands Spa or Holistic Healing Center. The resort even added a casino in 2013.

While you’ll enjoy many of those amenities during your stay, you’ll want to reserve time to view Nemacolin’s Abbeville Edition Birds of America, which features 700 life-sized portraits.

While less than 120 original double-elephant Havell Edition sets exist today, during the early 1980s, the National Audubon Society commissioned Abbeville Press to print 350 Abbeville sets. Nemacolin Woodlands owns a complete, four-volume set worth about $15,000 available for laypeople to page through—with white gloves, of course. 

Part of the $45 million Hardy Family Art Collection that includes more than 1,000 paintings, objects, and sculptures nestled throughout the property, each of the four leather-bound books weighs about 200 pounds and measures over 3 feet by 2 feet. To view it, you must make an appointment. 

“Typically, we have about one request per week to view the books,” says Art Curator Melanie Werner. “Guests truly enjoy the opportunity to view Birds of America, and several visitors have returned specifically to view the books. With the expansion of the art tour program here at Nemacolin, we’re planning to better feature the books for guests to enjoy.”

Bird watcher’s paradise

What makes Nemacolin truly special for any bird watcher or naturalist is the opportunity to not only view Audubon’s life-size work but also to explore his early stomping grounds.

Nemacolin’s 2,000 acres contain wooded rolling hills, ponds, and brushy areas ideal for spotting a wide variety of Eastern songbirds, waterfowl, and birds of prey.

Venture outside the resort to nearby Ohiopyle State Park, just ten minutes away. The 20,500 acres of mature forests and 14 miles of Youghiogheny River offer waterfalls and rapids, hiking trails, and a world of warblers. 

The tiny, brightly colored songbirds spend most of their time in the canopy. Get an eye-level view from Ferncliff High Bridge, which crosses the Youghiogheny River Gorge. Park at the Ferncliff parking lot. At the trailhead, go right on the Great Allegheny Passage trail, and walk five minutes along the trail until you reach the bridge. 

Wherever your birding adventure takes you, watch for wood thrush, red-eyed vireo, blackburnian warbler, pileated woodpecker, ovenbird, scarlet tanager, indigo bunting, common yellowthroat, gray catbird, ruffed grouse, blue-winged warbler, or American goldfinch. You may even catch a glimpse of a great-blue heron, red-tailed hawk, or wild turkey.

No matter what you happen to see, remember what Audubon said, “The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang the best.”