State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Nature Getaways: Luxury in the Wild

by on November 02, 2017 3:53 PM

The Nature Inn isn’t employing subterfuge with “nature” in its name. This facility isn’t merely some cookie-cutter hotel plopped on the north shore of Bald Eagle lake just for the sake of having a non-camping option in a state park.

It’s custom-built to exude the qualities that drive the philosophy of wild parks themselves: human connection with nature, preservation, recreation. It is LEED Gold certified, which is not typically something a building can achieve through retrofitting. It has to start from the planning and design stage, and selection of the site.

Water is partially heated through solar tubes on the roof. The roof itself bounces away hot air to stay cool in the summer. Half of the storm water is collected in huge metal drums and stored to flush the toilets. The other half is supposed to be used to water plants, but they’re all native species so they don’t really need it anyway.

The interior wood is sourced from within 100 miles. The outdoor deck furniture, among the few imported items from outside the area, is composed of recycled aluminum.

There’s more, but it feels like the paper used to print the entire list of eco-friendly construction methods would kind of be against the idea of the small footprint.

Those factors, while impressive, still aren’t what makes The Nature Inn unique. It is the only full-service lodging in a state park in Pennsylvania. With the cost of a room, a guest also has access to all the activities at Bald Eagle State Park. They’ll even front you a fishing pole or cross-country skis if you don’t have them.

Charlie Brooks is the president of Walden Hospitality. He successfully bid The Nature Inn project and serves as its general manager. The inn opened in September 2010.

“This is absolutely a flagship property for the state,” Brooks says. “It's the first of its kind.”

The amenities of human habitation are present but not incongruous with the spirit of the larger park. The patio area — with grills and tables, chairs and other human comforts — quickly gives way to the wild undergrowth. The Butterfly Trail runs just to the south, and the wild growth beyond soon gives way to the water’s edge.

It’s “glamping,” for sure, but the inn’s managers know not everyone is always looking to get down in the dirt on every trip, or at least it’s not always where one wants to return after a day in the woods or on the water.

Originally, this was supposed to attract a new crop of visitors to state parks who don’t want to camp, says Cody Wolf, assistant general manager. There is some of that in the demographic profile of guests, but it’s also a diverse mix, from people in the State College area looking for a quiet weekend retreat, to football fans, to elderly people who can’t camp anymore, or parents of youngsters who aren’t ready to camp.

“When I got here, one of the demographic hopes of the state was that they would bring new users into the state park system,” Wolf says. “People who were not inclined to camp and who were looking for a more upscale experience. And we absolutely have some of that, but I think to everyone a bit of a surprise was how much of a demographic we have of people that have been lifelong users of a state park system.”

Those people are at retirement age now, and have some more time and disposable income.

“They are tremendously appreciative for having this available for them," he says.

Brooks says the inn is also dependent on Penn State for the large numbers of conferences and meetings the university brings there.

Wolf gets to live year-round the outdoor lifestyle that guests enjoy for the length of their stay. He might greet you with a smile behind his long beard, wearing a Patagonia hat and hiking pants and shirt, but he is also keenly aware of The Nature Inn’s online digital presence.

The Trip Advisor reviews are stunning: 398 five-star reviews out of a total of 428. There’s only one three-star rating, where the person complained about the bathroom fixtures. Oh well. It seems like the other 427 didn’t have a problem.

It’s a triumphant showing for a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources project that drew criticism and opposition. Both Wolf and Brooks say the interest exists for another hotel project in a state forest, but add they don’t know how long such a project could take. Wolf, who has been at the site for 2½ years, says he meets people who 10 years ago were working to make The Nature Inn a reality.

So the inn remains unique for the commonwealth.

Outside of Pennsylvania, it’s not uncommon to see even more lavish lodgings at state parks. Maumee Bay in Oregon, Ohio, even has a golf course. So does Shawnee State Park in Friendship, Ohio.

“It’s a nice amenity but it’s not an eco-friendly amenity,” Brooks says.

At Fall Creek Falls in Spencer, Tenn., there are not only the links, but an Olympic-sized pool, tennis courts, multiple playgrounds, basketball courts, and shuffleboard courts.

Brooks has worked for most of his career in National Parks concessions at a lot of different such locations. He says he’s much more comfortable here in a smaller lodge with a laid-back atmosphere.

“I dress like I fish every day because I do,” Wolf says.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to book a stay in order to get a taste of what Brooks and his chef are cooking up. He says since it is a DCNR property, there was a handshake agreement with local eateries not to serve the public except on holidays.

Wolf says they’ve hosted a number of great weddings. Since it’s secluded and all rooms must be booked with wedding-related guests, he says people really let loose and have a good time.

Services typically take place outside, overlooking the lake in the patio area. Here they can fit about 90 guests for the reception. If the party gets any larger, the staff will also set up a tent in the parking lot.

The Nature Inn gives guests numerous food options, including even a late-night pizza bar — clearly the idea of someone intimate with the late-night carb hunger of a wedding reveler.

The DJ will set up on the balcony overlooking the multi-story entranceway, and the entire area becomes a big dance floor.

There’s a variety of room options for guests. There are some suited to sleep just one or two, and there are other larger suites that can accommodate entire families. Winter prices range from $120 per night for a single room on a weekend stay to $245 for a large suite. Summer prices are slightly higher.
Each room keeps with the conservation philosophy: everyone can keep track of how much energy they’re using.

That patio area, with its large counter space and massive grills, gets used all year long. Even in winter people will request the grills be prepped for use.

Many people probably assume Bald Eagle State Park gets wintered up, and that it’s a dead zone with nothing to offer guests. But Wolf says ice fishing is massively popular. When they get a good stretch of cold weather, guests will come and brave the chill to drill in the ice and set a pole. It’s also a popular time for winter sports like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

But the winter demographic Wolf says they see most is the empty-nesters looking for peace in the woods.

“It is just super quiet,” he says. “The park gets no traffic.”

There are a plenty of outdoor-related choices for people to enjoy in central Pennsylvania. There are a number of cabins for rent, bed-and-breakfasts to enjoy, and campsites for the old-fashioned vacationers.

But it’s hard to talk unique, full-service outdoor recreation without thinking of the storied fly-fishing club along Spruce Creek.

Now run under the banner of HomeWaters, the club has in the past decade enlarged its lodging while continuing to provide some of the best fishing in the United States.

Those waters are renowned for attracting more than one U.S. president, professional athletes, and fly fanatics looking to take a crack at the legendary limestone creek.

It’s a different feeling from The Nature Inn. It’s not in a public park. Its outdoor recreation is much narrower. But these two locations are unique experiences for the outdoorsman.

Mike Harpster, who handles membership and business development at HomeWaters, ranks the performance and passion of the staff as the element that keeps the club in its high status.

They’re a tight-knit group, he says, and not just with each other. He says the members and recurring customers come to know the staff personally, and the staff works to treat the guests as family.

The main farmhouse at 5531 Riverside Drive is cozy, with an old-world sort of familial aura. The check-in area and tackle shop are tucked into the first floor, with the communal dining area and kitchens above. It’s here the guests are invited to eat a home-cooked meal from an on-site chef before retiring to one of the several lodges.

It’s not hard to find comfort in any of the buildings, no matter your traveling status. For the single guest, another converted farmhouse is divided into rooms with a shared kitchen. In the larger lodges, which can accompany perhaps a dozen people, comfort abounds with spacious outdoor decks, high-ceilinged living rooms, and full kitchens.

Rooms start at $125 per night, up to $800 per night in the large family lodge.

“What is special is we're small,” Harpster says. “We're kind of that boutique size. It gives you a very intimate high-end setting.”

Once out the door in the morning with a belly full of warm breakfast, an angler can expect to be taken by a guide to supreme fishing spots.

It’s part geology and part human care that keeps the fishing good, Harpster says. Limestone creeks provide the best fishing, and they take the care of the stream very seriously with privately-managed properties. After all, the stream defines the club.

“You can build a building anywhere. You don't have the natural setting in many places that we have here at the confluence of Spruce Creek and the little Juniata River.”

The springs keep the stream fed with temperate water for the fish. They’re cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

“The limestone portion of it is important because it's a soft rock that dissolves calcium carbonate into the water as the spring bubbles out through it,” Harpster says. “That makes them very alkaline. It makes it very conducive to the amino acids and bacteria that the small invertebrates, the bugs in the stream, live off of, which is what the trout eat.”

Though it’s a private club, outsiders can book trips as long as it’s not in the spring or fall busy seasons. So for 8½ months of the year, the lodge is open to all.

Harpster says during the club’s early days the mantra was: “It’s about the fishing” — that as long as anglers had a comfortable bed, there wasn’t a need for much else.

Now, HomeWaters is supplying the whole package with a big dollop of comfort.

Harpster says HomeWaters backs up the great fishing with excellent guides, and the comfortable housing with excellent staff.

“The people that work here enjoy what they do,” Harpster says


Disclaimer: Copyright © 2018 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.