Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania, a 2 ½ drive down the Thruway from Rochester, is often thought of as a summertime destination, which is understandable, considering it has eleven, yes eleven, beaches on Lake Erie. However, Presque Isle is actually open year-round and the fun doesn’t stop once the last beach umbrella has been folded. Why not take a drive this fall and explore this beautiful 7 mile long, 3,200 acre peninsula.
One of the main reasons to go to Presque Isle in the off-season is to discover the natural wonders of the park. It has been named a National Natural Landmark due to its numerous wildlife habitats. Some animal species found here are endangered, threatened, or rare. The most unique area of the park is the Gull Point Natural Area, which is closed to the public from April to November to preserve its fragile ecosystem. Rare and migrating shorebirds use this area to rest and many threatened and endangered plant species grow here.
Presque Isle is listed as Pennsylvania Important Bird Area #1 and it has been rated one of the best places to bird watch by Birders World Magazine. About 320 species of birds have been spotted in the park. In late summer, Purple Martins roost by the thousands near beach #11 and in the cattails near the water treatment plant. September is one of the peak months to see migrating shorebirds and warblers, while late November and December is when waterfowl migration takes place.
Learn more about Presque Isle at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, which is located at the entrance to the park. My family recently visited this 65,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility, which has exhibits about the area history, ecosystems, wildlife, and bird migration. My kids especially liked climbing to the top of the 75 foot glass enclosed observation tower, which overlooks Lake Erie and Presque Isle State Park.
After viewing the exhibits, my family ate at the center’s Sunset Café, which has some of the best food, including wraps, paninis, salads, and homemade soup, that I’ve ever tasted at any museum. The center’s Nature Shop has a variety of nature-themed books, along with works by local artists.
One of the best ways to see Presque Isle is by boat. The Lady Kate, a narrated 90 minute tour which follows the Presque Isle shoreline, offers views of three lighthouses, the Erie skyline, and the Gull Point Nature Preserve. The boat operates weekends until the end of September (800-988-5780).
If you prefer to pilot your own vessel, rent a canoe, kayak, small motor boat or pontoon boat from the Presque Isle Canoe and Boat Livery, which is opened weekends until mid-October. (814-838-3938)
Hike and Bike
Presque Isle has 11 miles of hiking trails, as well as a 13.5 mile multipurpose trail for bicycling, in-line skating, hiking, and jogging. The popular Yellow Bike Rentals (814-835-8900), open until the end of September, rents traditional bicycles, as well as 4-wheeled surreys, tricycles, roller blades, and even paddle boats.
If you want something a bit more leisurely, you can always stroll down one of the eleven beaches. Kids will also want to check the playgrounds that are scattered throughout the park.
Lighthouses and a monument
If you enjoy looking at lighthouses as much as I do, you’ll want to check out the two lighthouses within Presque Isle State Park, as well as a third lighthouse on shore near downtown Erie. The circa 1872 Presque Isle Lighthouse features a 57 foot tower that overlooks Lake Erie. While the interior is not open to the public, you can view this lighthouse from the beach.
On the Erie Harbor side of Presque Isle, the North Pier Light has been guiding ships into the Erie Harbor Channel since 1858. Visitors can walk along the pier out to the light. The Erie Land Lighthouse can be seen on the opposite side of the channel.
Another Presque Isle landmark is the Perry Monument, built in 1926 to honor Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who fought in the battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. This battle was actually fought on the west end of Lake Erie, near Sandusky, Ohio. However, Perry and his men returned to Presque Isle Bay to repair their ships and to get medical treatment.
If you go
Pennsylvania State Parks www.visitpaparks.com
Visit Erie (tourism information) www.visiterie.com
Presque Isle Boat Tours www.piboattours.com
Presque Isle Partnership www.discoverpi.com
Tom Ridge Environmental Center www.trecpi.org
Take NY State Thruway to I-90W. Follow I-90 to PA I-79N to the 2nd W. 12th St. exit. Take the exit and follow 12th St. west to Hwy 832 ( Peninsula Drive). Make a right and follow Peninsula Dr.into the park.