Swimming, water skiing, walking, running, hiking, biking, boating, kayaking, segways, skating, canoeing, windsurfing, birdwatching, fishing, picnicking, or just laying on a sandy beach, Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania has something for everyone. Recently voted the #1 Freshwater Beach in the Country by USA Today and 10Best, it is one of Pennsylvania’s top vacation destinations. More than four million people visit Presque Isle State Park each year. Designated a National Natural Landmark, Presque Isle is French for “almost an island” which accurately describes the peninsula attached by a small strip of land and surrounded by the waters of Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay.
Considered a recurving sand split by geologists, Presque Isle was formed more than 11,000 years ago. Over time, the coastline has “floated” as the forces of wind and water have carried sand from the neck of the peninsula eastward depositing it at Gull Point, causing that area to grow. Throughout the years Presque Isle has been a true island at times. Since 1819 the main section of Presque Isle has been isolated at least four times when storm waves covered the land. One gap remained open for 32 years. As waves from the west wash up on the beaches, sand and pebbles carried with them are left on the shore when the waves recede. As the sand is deposited, Presque Isle grows eastward. Gull Point has been growing for most of the 1900s and continues to do so today.
With 15 marked hiking trails to follow, each one is diverse and identified by length, the time it will take to reach the end of the trail and what hikers can expect to find in that area. Trail lengths range from .13 of a mile to 1.78 miles. Described by Birder’s World magazine as a “hot spot” for birding, Presque Isle State Park is home to over 325 bird species and a favorite spot for bird migration. Presque Isle is part of the Great Lakes Seaway Trail which is a 518-mile scenic driving route that follows the shores of Lake Erie, the Niagara River, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River in New York and Pennsylvania.
The 13.5-mile paved multi-purpose trail is perfect for walking, running, biking or skating. Near Waterworks Beach, Presque Isle Touring Company/Yellow Bike Rental has bicycles, tandems, tricycles, quads and surreys (2 and 4-person bikes with a cloth canopy for sun protection) available for rent. This trail leads to the Perry Monument. During the War of 1812 Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry led nine ships from the Presque Isle area to battle at Put-in-Bay near Sandusky, Ohio. They subsequently returned to the area and the hulls of two ships, the Lawrence and the Niagara, were sunk near Presque Isle to protect them from the weather. They were later raised and the Niagara rebuilt. A replica of the U.S. Brig Niagara claims Erie as its home port when it is not traveling the Great Lakes as an ambassador of history or acting as a sailing school vessel. Docked near the Erie Maritime Museum in Erie when she is in port, boarding and touring the Niagara is part of the Maritime Museum tour. The Perry Monument on Crystal Point was built in 1926 to commemorate this significant battle. We chose to take a surrey bike ride to the monument and were rewarded with shelter as we pulled off to the side of the trail and waited for a quick rain shower to pass. Segway tours are also available during the summer season.
There are 13 designated swimming areas stretched out over 7 miles with picnic areas nearby. The sandy beaches are open daily with knowledgeable and informative lifeguards on duty from 10 am to 7:30 pm from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. Beach 11 is the park’s most sheltered beach and most serene. Its shallow water is a safe option for visitors with young children and it affords the best view of the Erie skyline. On the other hand, Beach 6 is a draw for young people with its concession stands and volleyball courts. It is also often the most crowded beach. During our visit we witnessed a beautiful sunset from Beach 10. Lagoons in the park and portions of Lake Erie can be explored by pontoon boats, kayaks and narrated boat tours. Pontoon boat tours depart from the dock near the East Boat Livery daily. Evening tours are available twice a week. Although there is no charge, day tours are first come, first served, and evening tours require reservations. The Lady Kate offers a 90-minute boat tour which departs from the Perry Monument area and reservations are encouraged.
For lighthouse enthusiasts, the Erie area is home to three lighthouses. Two are located at Presque Isle State Park. The Presque Isle Lighthouse was built in 1872. A neighboring kiosk exhibit traces its history. This facility is open for tours Memorial Day through Labor Day from 10 am to 4 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, and there is a fee. The North Pier Light was rebuilt in 1858 after the original wooden beacon was destroyed the previous year. This cast-iron light greets water travelers at the east end of the north pier channel connecting Presque Isle Bay to the waters of Lake Erie. Erie’s third lighthouse, The Land Lighthouse, is located high on the bluff at the foot of Lighthouse Street in the city of Erie. Originally built in 1867, it was restored by the Erie-Western PA Authority in 2004 and now exhibits its original historic beauty.
When the weather begins to cool, nature hikes take on a new appearance with the beautiful fall foliage in the park. As the lake freezes and the snow flies, Presque Isle is home to ice skating, ice fishing, ice kite surfing, ice sailing and cross-country skiing. During the winter months you will see ice dunes formed by the combination of lake ice, wave surge and freezing spray. A walk along the beach will more than likely reveal animal footprints in the snow.
The gateway to Presque Isle State Park is the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, named after the former head of Homeland Security and Pennsylvania Governor, Erie native Tom Ridge. The 65,000 square foot “green” facility is referred to as “TREC” and is an educational center dedicated to teaching visitors about the unique 3,200 acres that make up Presque Isle State Park. It houses interactive educational exhibits, a Presque Isle orientation film, a 75-foot glass enclosed observation tower, visitor information area, nature shop/gallery, and the Sunset café, as well as a 4-story high, 45-feet wide “Big Green Screen” theater. Admission is free to the public and the facility is open year round. The Tom Ridge Environmental Center is perfect for families and individuals to have fun and learn a thing or two about Presque Isle.
Another landmark of the area is Waldameer Park and Water World which you will pass on your way into Presque Isle State Park. Waldameer is a family fun center with the unique qualities of a water park and amusement park combined into one. Rated the 10th Best Water Park in the United States by Tripadvisor, one admission charge enables you to visit the water park and the amusement park. So whether you are a water park enthusiast or an amusement park lover, there is something for everyone and all ages. At our recent visit we learned that Waldameer is in the process of several expansion programs, the first of which is a Kids Slide ‘N Spray Zone scheduled to be completed during the 2016 season.
A major highlight of the area is the Tall Ships Erie Festival scheduled for Thursday, September 8 through Sunday, September 11, 2016. This year ten tall ships will appear at the festival. You will see the resident Niagara, the official Flagship of the Commonwealth, as well as visiting ships El Galeon, Pride of Baltimore II, Appledore IV, When and If, Mist of Avalon, Pathfinder, Playfair, Denis Sullivan, and JAKAB.
There will be on-board tours and sail-aways, live music and entertainment, children’s activities, food vendors and a beer garden. Sure to appeal to all ages will be the World’s Largest Rubber Duck. At more than six stories high, 64 feet wide, 74 feet long, and weighing 11 tons, it takes four hours to inflate the duck. Claiming “The world is her bathtub” the Rubber Duck serves as an inspiration for all to enjoy the world’s waterfronts and conserve our natural resources.
During our visit we stayed at the Clarion Lake Erie Hotel & Bel-Aire Conference Center which had neat, clean rooms and an abundant breakfast buffet including hot foods. Rich with history, beautiful sights and numerous activities for all ages, a visit to Presque Isle State Park and the Erie, Pennsylvania area is a totally relaxing experience. As for us, we intend to make this journey an annual event. For more information about Presque Isle State Park, see their website at presqueisle.org. To learn more about the Tall Ships Erie Festival and related activities, check their website at tallshipserie.org. The website VisitErie.com contains information about things to see and do in the Erie, Pennsylvania area.
Presque Isle State Park