Laurel Ridge State Park is the greenway that protects the legendary Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail from the busy world around it. It's a long, narrow strip of land running (in a patchy way) along the summit of Laurel Mountain for about 70 miles. Unlike most state parks in PA, it doesn't have much in the way of amenities, but it does have eight campgrounds and shelter sites for backpackers and anyone who wants a "pack-it-in-pack-it-out" camping experience. Check here for a map of the park with trailheads for people who just want to hike in as far as a campground without doing the whole trail. I highly recommend hiking in from the northern end of the trail near Johnstown to the first camping area along the trail. You have to reserve a rustic campsite beforehand; just follow this link. On the two occasions I camped in this park, it was only $12 per night. The camping areas are supposed to have firewood and water, but the wood is often punky, and the water needs to be treated. This trail is especially popular in October and on long weekends, so if you're coming to the woods for solitude or silence, avoid those times. This is a beautiful park with several dramatic overlooks out over valleys to the east. I've hear a barred owl at night both times I camped here.
Moraine is a great park, but camping here is limited. As I understand it, this park was created so that Pittsburghers would have a place to go sailing--so camping has never been its primary draw. But it's a scenic park that has a beautiful, meandering lake with lots of coves and estuaries. There are bike trails and hiking trails all throughout, plus a bike rental shop, and two swimming beaches. The North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) has an Adirondack shelter and small tenting area within the park that's reserved for backpackers. But what's to say you're not just a one-day backpacker, doing a small portion of the trail, who needs a place to spend the night? You could hike into the backpacking campground known as the Link Road Overnight Shelter and set up your tent. It would have to be primitive camping; there are no facilities of any kind. The only other way to camp at Moraine is to reserve one of the two rustic group tenting areas--which are actually very pleasant despite the absence of showers. In order to see if your group qualifies to use the group tenting area, go to this website.
Bear Run Campground is not a state-run campground, so it doesn't come attached to a large parcel of woodlands with trails to explore. Even the nearby Moraine State Park isn't exactly an outdoors-man's paradise. Depending on what you want from a camping trip, this could be the place for you. I tend to think of camping as an escape from suburban life. I go to be in the forest, surrounded by trees, and streams, and silence. If that sounds like you, then Bear Run is not your spot. It's where people who love action go to camp. It's got everything: a large store with gifts and supplies, a swimming pool, horseback riding, games, a laundromat, even the occasional class or two. And it's all squeezed in very tightly together. The campsites are all side-by-side. There's a lot of car traffic and kids on bicycles, too. To me, this place sort of feels like a Pittsburgh neighborhood with trailers instead of row houses. If you're an extroverted camper who loves to meet his or her neighbors and play horseshoes and corn hole all day, you'll probably like this place. It's just not me. Having said all of that, the place is well-run, and the management is friendly and helpful.
Kooser is a nice little park set amid large tracts of public lands. There's a pretty lake where people fish and picnic, though the swimming beach is probably not going to reopen. The cabins are beautiful and nearly always booked--despite the fact that they sit awfully close to a noisy state highway. There's only one hiking trail within the park's 250 acres. But it's a decent trail with sharp elevation gain. The campground is popular, so you have to book early for Memorial Day of Labor Day. But as a tent-camper, I didn't find Kooser to be ideal. The whole campground has been recently restructured to allow for more big rig camping. Most sites sit in the full sun, and they have electrical hookups for air conditioning and the bane of the forest: radios! There are really only three little tenting sites in a wooded area of the campground, a little higher up the hillside. But the place is well-maintained. The showers are nice. There's a great playground for kids. So if you've got a trailer and a pack of kids, this is your place. If not, consider a night of backcountry camping in the nearby Forbes State Forest.
Twin Lakes is a beautiful spot, tucked away in a stream valley in the Allegheny National Forest. It's mainly locals who come here, since few outsiders know about it. If you come in the spring or fall, you're likely to have the whole recreation area to yourself, though the swimming beach can get crowded in summer. Originally, there were supposed to be two small lakes--more like ponds--on this site. But money for the second pond was redirected elsewhere--to construct the swimming area at the Lolita Campground instead. And so, the little body of water called "Twin Lake" sits solitary and with a misleading name. The campground is quiet and pleasant, with large, sunny sites for trailers in the lower loop and shaded tent sites in the upper loop. Unfortunately, nearby gas drilling has made the drinking water unsafe, and so the National Forest Service first closed the upper loop, and now for the 2018 "camping year" it has closed the entire campground. The ANF website promises that this is temporary, and the campground will reopen. In every way, Twin Lakes is a lovely location, with dark, towering hemlock trees, rustic old CCC architecture, and a serene little lake completely encircled by a walking trail. Black bears have long been habituated to humans at Twin Lakes! Keep your food and toiletries in the car. To my knowledge, no one has ever been attacked by a bear here. The wild and overrun Twin Lakes Trail is a linear backpacking route that starts here and heads westward toward the North Country National Scenic Trail. But unfortunately, the Twin Lakes Trail ends up getting lost in those dismal parts of the forest that have been completely trashed by gas drillers. I hope this campground reopens. I have fond memories of bringing my kids here when they were little, flying kites, picking berries, swimming in the frigid spring water! PS: If you've got a tall trailer, be sure to check the Twin Lakes page on the ANF website; there's a way in, but it's not all that easy to find.
Blue Knob State Park might be my favorite place to camp in Western PA. It sits on the flanks of the second highest peak in the state. The hiking here is really spectacular with lots of scenery, overlooks, and side trails that extend many miles out into state forest lands which are adjacent to the park. The campground is small and fills up pretty fast, so check out an online map and book in advance. Clouds blowing east from the Midwest tend to break on the mountains here at Blue Knob, so short little bursts of rainfall are frequent, and they don't always show up on weather apps. Come prepared for short rain showers, chilly air even in the summer, and great views.
Raccoon Creek is half an hour from Pittsburgh, and it's a big park with lots to discover. In addition to 7,000+ acres of woods, Raccoon has pretty much anything a camper could want: good scenery; a nice little lake with a beach and concession stand (in summer); more than 20 miles of trails; a backpacking loop with primitive camping and Adirondack shelters; picnic areas; cabins; fishing; hunting in the late fall; a canoe rental shop… The campground is enormous and has all different kinds of campsites--sunny, wooded, solitary, tightly packed, dog-friendly, dog-free. It's even got a few dismal little sites that are open year-round, except that the road to them may be snowed over in winter. Make sure you check out the online map and reserve a good campsite in advance, because a lot of them are crowded too close together. Raccoon is great, a fun, woodsy place. It gets really crowded and doesn't exactly have the wilderness feel that I like. Hiking here is more like "taking a walk in the woods," which is better than no walk in the woods. Raccoon is the # 1 "go-to" for Pittsburghers who don't pre-book at Ohiopyle or some wilder place in time for Memorial Day or Labor Day weekend.
This is a nice little park that used to have a lake…until it was undermined (literally) and destroyed by the nearby coal company. The trails are pleasant, especially the one leading to the old Chess Cemetery. The PADCNR works hard to make this park into an attraction despite the fact that it no longer has its lake as a focal point. This means that they maintain a cold water swimming pool in the summer. And they keep the campground open year-round, which makes it a rarity. If you want to go camping in January, this might be the only conventional campground in PA where you can do that. The campground is pleasant, if a little…spooky. None of the spots are very secluded, but that's okay because you'll probably be the only camper here. Like much of the park, it's bordered by a public road, which means that there's some traffic--usually loud pickups and frack trucks. I've only ever camped here in the fall, when Greene County is at its most beautiful, and I've always had the campground (and most of the park) entirely to myself. There are two tiny cabins as well as sites for tents or campers. Ryerson is worth a visit. Not sure why the state can't make the coal company pay for its destruction of the lake.
Shawnee State Park is about 2.5 hours east of Pittsburgh, and it has pretty much everything: swimming, fishing, boating, camping, and fairly decent hiking. It's close to some really great hiking--just outside the park--and that's how I ended up there. I was trekking on the very wild Mid-State Trail, nearby, when I opted for a night at the conventional campground in Shawnee. No regrets. I usually avoid car-camping because I don't want to listen to other people's classic rock in the woods. But this place was great. I came midweek, so I had the campground mostly to myself. The showers are hot and clean. The lake is beautiful with a nice swimming beach. The area around the park has all the scenic and historic attractions of central PA: covered bridges, big stone farmhouses, quaint towns. My only complaint is that the PA Turnpike screams a little too close by. Also, the sites are pretty close together, so be sure to look at a campground map beforehand to reserve one of the more isolated ones.