Little-known park offers much-liked amusements

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Elysburg, Pa. -- Grab the car keys. Pack the kids. Here's fun you can afford.

It's Knoebels Grove, an amusement park that draws nearly a million folks each season. Yet, you may never have heard of it.

That's not really so surprising, since the place is just about smack-dab in the middle of nowhere (actually, the middle of Pennsylvania is more like it, about 160 miles northwest of Philadelphia).

It's an unlikely location for an amusement park -- one with a roller coaster that enthusiasts have ranked fifth-best in the nation -- sandwiched as it is between the East Branch of the Susquehanna River on the north and the fringe of the anthracite coal region on the south.

Still, this rural setting is a large part of Knoebels Grove's appeal to its clientele -- largely middle-class families, with more than a few farm boys and locals thrown in for good measure.

And they don't call this place a grove for nothing. Unlike most modern amusement parks that were built on cleared land, Knoebels (pronounced kuh-NO-bulz) gives the impression that nary an old oak was downed to make room for the rides.

But part of the park's appeal is what it doesn't have: There are no fees for parking, generally no long waits for the most popular rides, no piped-in Muzak, no billboard with a long list of Don'ts to spoil your good time, and few, if any, unruly teen-agers.

Like many others, I had never heard of Knoebels Grove -- until first my dentist and then a couple of colleagues told me about the place. After their rave reviews, I grabbed the car keys, packed the children (my daughter and her friend) and headed for fun we could afford on a recent weekend.

Now I've strolled Walt Disney World's Main Street U.S.A., so I know the feeling of fake -- surrounded by enough restored cuteness to make you feel sick to your stomach without the aid of a looping roller coaster. But this place is for real.

There's a stream (not a man-made waterway) that cuts through the park, sweetening the air and necessitating a series of covered wooden bridges. There are ancient oaks and elms and gravel paths and good food and reasonable rides -- you can even bring your dog.

On opening day, July 4, 1926, Knoebels was just a swimming pool, a carousel and a restaurant. Today, there's a giant crystal pool with filtered mountain-stream water as well as four water slides, and I'll bet you could safely tell your children to wander off and meet up with you later.

Sally, my 13-year-old daughter, has been to Disney World five times, Busch Gardens once, Canada, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. Julia, also 13, is not a roller-coaster enthusiast. She has, however, been to "almost all the islands in the Caribbean."

If the weather had been better, we might have camped here overnight amid the tall pines. There are tent sites with platforms to cushion your body from the rocks, RV sites with all the right hookups, hot showers, tile baths, a camp store and, with the right planning, you can rent a log cabin or -- get this, Wild West fans -- a tepee that sleeps six.

Inexpensive motels

We chose the pedestrian route, checking into one of the many inexpensive ($40, children sleep free) motels off Interstate 80, a scant 13 miles from Knoebels. Then we embarked with near-seriousness to answer the question: Are we too jaded, too sophisticated (at 40-plus, am I too old?) to have fun here?

Knoebels recently instituted an all-ride, all-day ticket (max is $16.75) during the week. On weekends, it's pay-as-you-go, which was a bargain for us. We spent a total of about $17 and, in five hours, went on 10 rides apiece. We were satiated.

On the advice of my advisers among the Knoebels cognoscenti, we started our visit with a ride on one of the park's three mini-railroads. We selected the Pioneer Railway (60 cents), a train pulled by an 1865 diesel engine. It's a ride to nowhere, because instead of riding through the park, the train meanders at a walloping 8 mph through the nearby woods. The 1.5-mile path loops around a small clearing, where ears of hog corn have been stuck on strips of wood to attract deer, and passes a black ash bearing a sign proclaiming it the Black Ash Champion for 1990. "Still is the tallest and the widest, far as we know," the conductor says.

After the ride, we are tempted to eat. The Oasis is serving meatloaf, barbecued chicken, or roast pork with potato or stuffing, two vegetables, plus roll and butter for $5.25. But our stomachs face other challenges first: the 16-car Ferris wheel, the Hi-Speed Thrill Coaster, the Whirlwind (new this year -- the park's only upside-down event -- "the only one of its kind in the U.S.A.; subjects rider to forces three times as great as the Earth's gravitational pull"). And the park's prize: the Phoenix, a giant rTC vintage wooden roller coaster.

Inside Track, a magazine for amusement-park enthusiasts, rates the Phoenix the fifth-best roller coaster in the country. It was called the Rocket at its first home in San Antonio, Texas. But in 1985, the endangered ride was rescued, moved and restored at Knoebels. The first incline is staggering.

But there's more -- much more. Knoebel's Bumper Cars (70 cents) are the "Best Bumper Cars in America," according to Tim O'Brien, author of the "Amusement Park Guide"; my two testers concur.

We pass the Wharf: crab cutlets, chicken Parmesan sandwiches, steaks, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza (in a poll, readers of Inside Track magazine named it "the best park pizza in America" six years in a row), nachos with extra cheese, onion rings, pink lemonade and some terrific white birch beer. ("It's birch beer that's white," the girl at the counter explains simply.)

Peg Knoebel, who died in 1990, was a carousel nut. So the park boasts a kiddie and a Grand Carousel, plus a (free) carousel museum starring Knoebel's collection of ancient prancing horses, zebras and camels. The Grand Carousel, hand-carved in 1912 and bought by Knoebels in 1941, is one of the largest surviving merry-go-rounds in the country. We rode twice -- once on the up-and-down horses with real horsehair tails and, later, hanging astride the stationary horses so we could reach for the brass ring. Sally won on her third try.

Birthday pavilion

From the carousel you can see the birthday-party picnic pavilion, where parents who plan ahead can arrange parties under a roof shaped like a giant pink cake adorned with roses and topped with candles. There are scads of other picnic pavilions that can be reserved elsewhere in the park. (Leave the liquor at home.)

Can we eat yet? There are french fries with vinegar, shrimp rolls, burritos, grilled chicken, tuna hoagies, pita pockets and taco salad. Then there are candy apples, caramel apples and apple juice served from a booth shaped like a giant Winesap with windows. Did I overlook the Belgian waffles with ice cream, the snow cones and six flavors of cotton candy?

Nice touches abound throughout Knoebels Grove: park benches aplenty, a changing table in each ladies room, plus a pink-and-blue baby booth with an electric bottle warmer and some chairs for nursing.

There's the usual entertainment: country music, magic shows, song-and-dance routines by the not-so-talented locals. And the unusual: a free anthracite coal-mining museum. See the 10-ton lump of coal; see the Lost Logger turn tree trunks to dust with his mighty chain saw.

Ready for more rides?

Our vote for the blue-ribbon best goes to the Haunted Mansion. Who could have guessed a laid-back family park a stone's throw from nowheresville would have such first-class frights? "Better than Disney World," the girls proclaimed.

A metal car padded with red leather traverses a maze of dark, darker, pitch-black rooms, separated by slamming wooden doors, pierced by truly scary sounds. Julia made me promise not to reveal the "big surprise" at the end of the ride. It's probably enough to say that at the close of the day, when we had just a few tickets left, we rode this one more time.

Additional attractions

Knoebels Grove isn't the only attraction in this part of Pennsylvania. The area is full of pastoral beauty, and a driving tour of the region reveals it as a treasure trove of covered bridges -- one of the richest concentrations of such structures in the country. You can get a map showing the location of the bridges from the Columbia-Montour Counties Tourist Promotion Agency in Bloomsburg.

Each autumn, near the height of foliage season, there's a covered-bridge festival, headquartered at Knoebels Grove, with arts and crafts, music and entertainment, food, games and hayrides. This year's festival will be held the weekend of Oct. 9 and 10.

In nearby Ashland, you can tour a coal mine and ride a steam train at the Pioneer Coal Mine Tunnel. For more in-depth knowledge of the rich history of coal mining in the region, stop in at the state-run Museum of Anthracite Mining, just up the road from the tunnel.

These and other area attractions can round out a weekend visit to Knoebels Grove, the greatest little amusement park you may never have heard of -- until now.

IF YOU GO . . .

Getting there: Knoebels Grove is 160 miles from Philadelphia on Route 487 between Elysburg and Catawissa. Take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike north to Interstate 80 West. Continue on I-80 west to Exit 35; then; it's 13 miles south on Route 487.

The park: Knoebels Grove, (717) 672-2572, is open daily through Labor Day from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (It is also open the two weekends after Labor Day.) Rides range in price from 30 cents to $1.20. Swimming is $3.50. One-price plans, covering all rides except the haunted house, are available Monday through Friday only: For children under 4 feet tall, the cost is $10.50 ($12.75 including the Phoenix); for children over 4 feet tall and adults, $13.75 ($16.75 with the Phoenix).

Camping rates: $16 per night for tent sites; $48 per night for log cabins; $32 per night for tepees. Be sure to call ahead for reservations: (717) 672-9555.

Other attractions: The coal-mine tour in nearby Ashland at the Pioneer Coal Mine Tunnel costs $5 for adults, $2.75 for those under 12. The steam train ride costs $2.25 for adults, $1.25 for children under 12. The tunnel and train are open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. Call (717 875-3850.

The Museum of Anthracite Mining in Ashland costs $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for seniors, $1.50 for those 6 to 17, and is free for those under 6. Summer hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Call (717) 875-4708.

Information: For a map of the area's covered bridges and information on events and attractions in the area, write to the Columbia-Montour Counties Tourist Promotion Agency, 121 Paper Mill Road, Bloomsburg, Pa. 17815.

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