I awake to the pinging sound of rain on the metal roof of The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park. It makes me happy. Besides the fact that it is a lovely sound, I know it is running along the downspout, is being collected and will flush my toilet tomorrow. Every inch of rainfall that falls on this twelve room inn adds up to 2,400 gallons of water or 1,500 toilet flushes and that is impressive. Any rain that falls on the backside of the building waters a rain garden with native plants.
When the Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) created the Nature Inn, they wanted to employ green building techniques and practice environmental stewardship. This controversial and unique inn in our state park system created quite a buzz when it opened a few years ago and I decided to pay it a visit with my friend to see what it was like for ourselves, as well as discover all Bald Eagle State Park has to offer.
I can hear the rain running down the downspout because my windows are not closed with the central air turned on. There are no climate-controlled air flow systems in The Nature Inn insulating me from the natural world outside my door. Instead, windows are designed to open and allow the delicious breeze coming off the lake, as well as utilizing a ceiling fan. It never gets very hot here by Bald Eagle Mountain even in the throngs of summer.
The Nature Inn is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building. It’s administrator- the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has a point system for acquiring certification. Architects, planners, visionaries, have a palette to choose from. Doing certain things during construction, ie. using certain construction materials, accumulates points. The process to verify and gain the LEED label verification is rigorous and strict.
Creating and building The Nature Inn had a three-fold purpose, Manager, Charlie Brooks tells me. First off, it is to connect visitors to the natural world- perhaps folks who were not inclined to roughing it. Bald Eagle State Park was chosen for the inn’s location because this park is centrally located in the state so organizations and groups can easily utilize it for conferences. It is a gateway to the Pennsylvania Wilds area which is a tourism draw in itself. The park has exceptional natural attractions, and to make the most of them, the park concessionaires rent boats and also bicycles.
In the summer months, visitors can enjoy the sand and turf beach on the 1,730-acre, eight mile long, Foster Joseph Sayers Reservoir. Bald Eagle Mountain flanks its backside, creating a very picturesque “swimming hole.” Swim season extends from Memorial Day to Labor Day and swimming is at your own risk.
You can rent a boat or bring your own and keep it there for the season (or all year in storage) as there are hundreds of slips available for rented on a seasonal basis. Warm water fishing is excellent here at Sayers Reservoir and common species include crappie, yellow perch, tiger muskellunge, channel catfish and largemouth and smallmouth bass.
There are over fourteen miles of constructed hiking trails in the park, with the delightful and easy 1.5 mile Butterfly Trail leading right from the inn. This mowed grassy trail was created for the conservation of butterflies, and we encounter many different species as we walk. The trail loops around Frog Pond and through a mix of habitat: grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and young trees- all planted to support butterflies throughout their life cycle. An interpretive area provides information and examples of butterfly habitat components. In September, you should be fortunate to see migrating monarchs, sipping nectar from the abundant brilliant goldenrod.
In the winter months, ranger-led programs introduces visitors to the wintery side of the park on X-country ski and snow shoe excursions. Only pre-registration is required for these free programs. The park even provides the equipment, free of charge. There is ice skating allowed on the lake (after safe thickness has been determined), ice fishing, and five acres of a hillside have been cleared to create a fantastic 1,320-foot sledding run.
In the fall, a special weekend leads guests to the elk range in Benezette, in time for the rutting season. Visitors can wildlife watch, listen to the bugling elk, enjoy meals at Benezette Hotel (elk burgers!) all for a very reasonable cost.
Birding is the second goal of the inn and the lake and surrounding area has proved to be a very popular birding area, particularly bald eagles. Birding is the fastest growing outdoor recreational activity in the country. Each room at the inn is supplied with a pair of Celestron binoculars and a bird book. The inn’s decks have high quality optic spotting scopes available for viewing (also for non-saying inn guests). The inn’s library contains an extensive selection of field guides and nature/conservation books.
Another goal is to teach visitors about green building and environmental stewardship practices. Charlie claims last August alone, 5,000 curious visitors passed through the inn, over and above those who rent rooms. Charlie or a member of his staff is available to give tours or answer any questions.
During the creation of the inn, Charlie explains that no new roads were built into the inn and seventy-three per cent of post construction waste was recycled instead of sending to a landfill. Water for the inn is heated using solar gain and the entire building is heated and cooled geo-thermally. The reception counter tops are made from molded sunflower hulls, patio furniture of 100% recycled aluminum (doesn’t get hot in the summer), floor tiles made from recycled glass, and counter tops of recycled window glass. Paper products used by the inn contain 20% post-consumer waste; cleaning supplies are eco-friendly; refillable containers for soaps and shampoos eliminate container waste; even the soap chips are collected, sanitized and sent to the program, “Clean the World,” who distributes them to at risk-populations like Haiti.
The inn is operating at a much higher occupancy than originally projected, and the controversy over its creation has all but ceased. The Nature Inn has proven itself. If luxury while enjoying the outdoors is important to you, you can really feel good about staying at The Nature Inn, demonstrating how it is possible to live more sustainably.
If you don’t want to spring for an overnight stay in the inn, visitors certainly have the option of camping in one of the park’s yurts. These round, canvas and wooden Mongolian tents feature wooden decks, electric heat, a cooking stove, refrigerator, beds for six and a table and chairs. Or, you can rent a rustic cottage or camp in one of the 97 modern campsites, as well as primitive walk-in sites for those who crave solitude.
But no matter where you choose to spend the night at Bald Eagle State Park, it is worth coming up to the inn for a closer look just for the beautiful and artistic touches found throughout the interior of the inn: from the stained glass bald eagle window in the peak of the truss made by a local Pennsylvania Wilds artist; to the simple, yet elegant Mission style furniture, made by local prisoners at Rock View Prison; to the wildlife prints by Pennsylvania artist Ned Smith as well as Audubon bird prints. Beauty is everywhere at The Nature Inn and Bald Eagle State Park, outside and in.
(a version of this story just appeared in Pennsylvania Magazine)