Poconos’ beauty draws tourists to an outdoor comfort zone

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//October 23, 2020

Poconos’ beauty draws tourists to an outdoor comfort zone

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//October 23, 2020

If brilliant maples and buttery yellow quaking aspen are any indication, Mother Nature’s fall show is oblivious to Covid-19.

And while pick-your-own pumpkins, hayrides and corn mazes may be in shorter supply this season because of pandemic restrictions, conditions are ripe for fall foliage season and a leisurely drive north to the Poconos. 

Christopher Barrett said conditions were perfect this summer for spectacular fall foliage color viewing, the best since his tenure began in 2017 as president and CEO of Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau Inc. in Stroudsburg. 

“People are discovering and rediscovering the Poconos, and this year’s fall leaf season…is exceptionally brilliant,” Barrett said.

Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau Inc. in Stroudsburg serves Carbon, Monroe, Pike and Wayne counties, and the territory encompasses about 2,400 square miles.

Barrett said roughly 29 million people visit the region for recreation and entertainment on a four-season basis. Since the March shutdown, visitors have been flocking to the Poconos outdoor nature and beauty spots, as well as enjoying biking, hiking, nature walks and water sports. 

Short term stays are up, curb side pick-up from local restaurants remains popular, and Barrett said many visitors are enjoying the views while spending time with family.

So far, this season’s foliage visits are up, too, due to spectacular color displays and a continued thirst to get outdoors and enjoy “safe, close to home” getaways. 

Beltzville State Park
One side effect of the coronavirus can be found in the number of people this fall choosing to spend time with their family outdoors, such as at Beltzville State Park in Carbon County. PHOTO/PROVIDED

Visits overall, especially to local and state parks and sites throughout the year, have remained strong. 

Thanks to weekly leaf predictor updates, posted on the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website, visitors and residents can pinpoint a location to visit before leaving home and enjoy a colorful autumn day in the country.

Barrett said vineyards and distillers have made successful transitions including social distancing to extend their seasons by bringing product tastings outdoors.

Farm markets adapt

And while the outdoors has been a welcome haven because it is easier to maintain safe social distance from others, some farming and agriculture sectors that depend on high volumes for events and weekend visits have experienced challenges due to the pandemic. Kathleen Fields of Flint Hill Farm Educational Center in Upper Saucon Township, Lehigh County, said she’s not having an open house this year, because of the pandemic. 

“We are running the pumpkin patch, and we’ll be taking groups out as families, and we’re still doing birthday parties,” Fields said. 

She avoids double booking on parties and appointments to ensure appropriate social distancing for visitors. “Pods” or small groups of those who have a social relationship may also book time to visit. “They come out, and stay in their own groups,” Fields said.

The center relies on seasonal visitors, and Fields said the farm has been open this year.

With virtual schools the norm, Fields said families are looking for more opportunities to do things outside with their children, and her location helps meet those needs.

With large festivals, county fairs and even the Pennsylvania Farm Show cancelling, or switching to virtual experiences for 2021, it may be harder to find area fall activities. The farm show will be held as a virtual event from January 9-17, its website said.

Area farmers’ markets such as the Emmaus Farmers’ Market continue to operate, but have implemented social distancing and require patrons to wear masks. 

Easton Farmers’ Market moved from its downtown Centre Square location to the Scott Park on Larry Holmes Drive to allow more space for vendors and spread out visitors. 

Both markets encourage patrons to order goods ahead for pickup from vendors on weekly market days. Both market websites have instructions for pre-ordering.

“Across [Pennsylvania] farm markets have continued to thrive and have been resilient and innovative in tweaking their business models to protect customers and staff from person-to-person spread of the virus, said Shannon Powers, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture press secretary in Harrisburg.

In addition to weekend events and market sales, farmers who primarily supplied restaurants or school districts have been hurt as orders have sharply reduced, or stopped entirely.

According to an April report in lancasterfarming.com, while some egg and milk producers lost sales, others saw income spike as consumers raced to local farms to buy meat and produce to stock up in the wake of food shortage scares.

Powers said many pick-your-own operations are still open, though it is best to call ahead for hours as well as any restrictions or precautions individual operators are requiring.

Bonnie Schubert is co-owner of Hummerhaven  Farmstead, a family-owned and operated business in Greenwood Township, Juniata County, and a member of the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association. Overnight guest stays are a mainstay of the farm’s season, she said, and this year was bad.

“Our farm only offers overnight stays and we did not take guests at all this season because of coronavirus. We did not open at all,” Schubert said.

She said the decision impacted her business tremendously and the seasonal income is vital to buying feed and caring for livestock on the property over the winter. 

Part of the 127-acre property’s appeal to guests is the wildlife, nature walks and natural eco systems. They may also take part during the stay in livestock care, Schubert said.

At Hummerhaven Farmstead animal products such as milk and eggs from heritage livestock breeds are for the family’s use and not sold to the public, so those goods are not a source of cash revenue.

Schubert is optimistic Hummerhaven Farmstead can reopen to guests next year.

“That’s our plan: to get through the winter and reopen next April,” she said.