Think Altoona, and railroads immediately come to mind.
But the county seat of Blair County, located nearly three hours from Washington, D.C., is more than just a center of Pennsylvania’s railroad heritage.
To be sure, Altoona and the surrounding area is proud of its history — from the struggle for independence to the modern marvels of the railroad age. At the same time, the region is home to several hidden gems that make for an enticing long weekend for families looking to get away.
Water parks, interactive museums, reconstructed forts, and a quiet countryside with Amish marketplaces make Blair County a perfect family destination.
“We have true value and variety,” said Jennifer Fleck, who promotes the area.
A case in point is DelGrosso’s Amusement Park, where visitors can pay by the ride for dozens of kid-friendly rides. An attached water park has plenty of amenities for families, at a price that won’t break the bank.
The amusement park got its start in the early 1900s as a picnic grove, and was taken over by the DelGrosso family in the 1940s. The family was well known in the Altoona area for its renowned pasta sauce, so it was natural to offer fantastic Italian food at the park.
The park and food company remain family-owned. And, the pizza, pasta, and steak sandwiches served at the park kitchen are restaurant-quality. On Wednesday nights, Blair County natives know to go to DelGrosso’s Spaghetti Wednesdays for tasty food at a bargain price.
“We are one of the best-kept secrets in Pennsylvania,” said Carl Crider Jr., park president. “Everything at our park revolves around food.”
DelGrosso’s may not have the big-ticket rides of other amusement parks, but it makes up for it in value and family-friendliness. The attraction recently completed a significant expansion of its water park, offering a lazy river, wave pool, and two giant water slides.
“The water park has really put us on the map,” Crider said. “You have to drive two hours to find another water park.”
Visitors to Blair County can also find value — and come to better appreciate the scenic beauty of central Pennsylvania — with a drive in the Sinking Valley.
Much of Blair County is defined by steep ridges and deep valleys filled with productive farmland. Throughout the Sinking Valley, Amish and Mennonite families have settled and developed family farms. It’s not uncommon for locals to spend their Saturday mornings shopping roadside markets for the best of in-season produce and home-baked goods.
“County drives and visiting these Saturday markets are very popular,” Fleck said.
The markets are a meeting place, with English and Pennsylvania Dutch spoken by farmers and visitors alike. Stores are set up in sheds and pole barns that are lit by only kerosene lamps and natural light. Shoppers get the authentic experience of buying Amish-grown produce, which includes everything from asparagus to zucchini. Visitors can find fresh food spring through fall.
Like much of central Pennsylvania, Blair County is a study in contrasts. It has quiet back roads, but also all urban amenities that visitors need. And while Sinking Valley has held on to its agrarian roots, Altoona has held on to its key place in the history of railroads.
Not far outside the city, the Horseshoe Curve still plays an active role in running freight and passengers between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. The curve is an engineering marvel of railroad design.
The mountains of Blair County are far too steep and sheer to build a railroad over them. Instead, railroad engineers squeezed railroad tracks — in a horseshoe-shaped bend — between a river and sheer mountains. While the tracks and topography can be viewed from the road, it’s best to see a train snake its way through the curve from a viewing platform halfway up the mountain.
For a modest entrance fee, visitors can walk through the Railroaders Memorial Museum that explains how the curve was constructed and the key role it played in history. The curve was a Nazi target during World War II because of the volume of railroad traffic it carried.
Visitors can ride an inclined plane to a viewing platform with picnic tables and a few rail cars. On a pleasant afternoon, families can spend a few hours there with a picnic lunch, enjoying the views and waiting for the next train to come through. Docents at the Horseshoe Curve know the railroad schedules and can tell visitors when the next train is expected.
The Railroaders Memorial Museum shows the impact the Pennsylvania Railroad had on Altoona and the larger world. The neighborhoods around Altoona were shaped and built with the railroads in mind, and much of the museum is dedicated to telling that story, and highlighting what life was like during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. In addition, the Railroaders Memorial Museum shows how railroads shaped modern life — even developing standardized time.
“Railroads put Altoona on the map,” Fleck said, “and the railroad and our amusement parks continue to be a big draw for families.”
Before you go
Blair Co. Tourism: explorealtoona.com