10 short trips from Pittsburgh for the long summer

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Forget the plane tickets, pricey hotels and hours upon hours cooped up in the car with children belting refrains of "Are we there yet?" And with environmental catastrophes from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the volcanic ash in Iceland, there's no need to travel far from home for a summer escape when fun is only a one-tank car trip away.

Of course there are the usual hot spots, such as Kennywood or Amish Country. There's also some offbeat old favorites with a new twist, such as A Christmas Story House and Museum in Cleveland, where actor Ian Petrella -- aka Randy from the 1983 film "A Christmas Story" -- will be on hand to visit with tourists during July and August.

Here's a sampling of some other short excursions sure to delight everyone from toy collectors and historians to sports buffs and nature enthusiasts.

1: "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt" exhibit at the Franklin Institute (Philadelphia).

Get to know this iconic queen at this world premiere exhibit featuring more than 150 artifacts and multimedia displays. Everything from coins and tiny gold pieces to colossal black granite statues recovered off the Mediterranean coast will help visitors unlock some of the mysteries surrounding Cleopatra and her reign as the last Pharaoh prior to Roman rule. The artifacts have been collected in two ongoing expeditions, including one led by French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, who has uncovered Cleopatra's royal palace and two ancient cities that had been lost beneath the sea for centuries after earthquakes and tidal waves.

The Franklin Institute isn't the only place getting into the Cleopatra spirit. Eleven hotels are offering a one-night Cleopatra VIP hotel package, which includes two VIP, untimed tickets to the exhibit and hotel accommodations for two starting at $119. AAA is offering a two-night Cleopatra package starting at $145 at three hotels. Several restaurants and museums are serving up themed menu items or sponsoring events to coincide with the exhibit, which opened Saturday and will remain at the Franklin Institute through Jan. 2.

For information on admission prices and Cleopatra-themed hotel packages and events, go to visitphilly.com/cleopatra and visitphilly.com/aaa. Learn more about the Franklin Institute by visiting www2.fi.edu/ or calling 1-215-448-1200.

2: Cook Forest State Park (Cooksburg, Forest County)

This designated national natural landmark offers thousands of acres ideal for fishing, hiking, canoeing or simply admiring the virgin white pines and other trees for which the park is known. Beartown Rocks, in the Clear Creek park area, features an assortment of rock and tree arrangements -- some which were created by glaciers and rival houses in size. Those wanting to spend a little more time with Mother Nature can reserve a spot at one of the park's campgrounds or cabins.

Cook Forest State Park is open to visitors year-round, but history lovers may want to come during the park's French and Indian War encampment Saturday through next Sunday. The annual event will include about 150 re-enactors, guest speakers, battles with cannons, blacksmithing, sheep shearing and more. The park also will hold a Wine Fest in the Forest event at the Kalyumet campground on Aug. 22. Wine and chocolate connoisseurs are invited to spend a day sampling candies, wines and cheeses.

(www.cookforest.com; 1-814-744-8407)

3: Mercyhurst College's "Dinosaurs" exhibit at Presque Isle State Park (Erie)

Ever wondered what a nest of dinosaur eggs looks like? How about roughly 100 pounds of fossilized dino poo? These are some of the artifacts on display through late September at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, near the entrance of Presque Isle. Visitors can get an up-close look at a Tsintaosaurus, life-sized Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus Rex skulls and a variety of plant and ocean life specimens.

The exhibit welcomes all ages and takes about 30 minutes to tour. The rest of the day can be spent exploring other displays at the environmental center or checking out the beaches and wildlife around Presque Isle.

"Dinosaurs" is free and open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (www.dcnr.state.pa.us/trecpi/index.html; 1-814-833-7424)

4: Pro Football Hall of Fame (Canton, Ohio)

For football fanatics, the Pro Football Hall of Fame just might be heaven on Earth. This attraction is chock-full of sports memorabilia, interactive displays and replicas of all Super Bowl rings. A number of hands-on exhibits invite visitors to test their football knowledge with trivia games or watch highlights from past Super Bowls.

On Saturday, the Hall of Fame will sponsor a "Day Out With Dad" event where children ages 5 to 14 and their fathers can tour the museum, participate in activities at the Hall of Fame field and enjoy lunch compliments of Chick-Fil-A. On Father's Day, June 20, dads will be admitted to the museum for free and receive a 10 percent discount to the museum store.

Later in the summer, the Hall of Fame will hold its enshrinement festival. The annual event kicks off July 29 with fireworks and a concert and wraps up Aug. 8 with the Hall of Fame game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Dallas Cowboys.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Labor Day. Admission is $20 for adults, $16 for seniors over 62 and $14 for children ages 6 to 14. Children under 6 are free. (www.profootballhof.com; 1-330-456-8207)

5: Savage River Lodge (Frostburg, Md.)

The great outdoors meets luxury living at Savage River Lodge, an 18-cabin lodging destination tucked away on more than 700 acres in Savage River State Park. Cabins are non-smoking and range from singles ($185-$205) to doubles ($220 to $240). Additional fees per extra adult or children. Some cabins even welcome pets, as long as they are registered with the front desk in advance.

When not taking a stroll through the woods or gazing at the park's birds and other wildlife, guests can enjoy an in-cabin massage or a meal at the lodge's gourmet restaurant, featuring a wine list with more than 165 selections. In-cabin dining also is available.

For the first time, Savage River Lodge will hold a 5K walkathon July 17 to raise money for a new animal adoption center in the area. Walkers can register in advance or at the door. All participants must pledge a minimum of $50.

Cabins can be reserved online at www.savageriverlodge.com or by calling 1-301-689-3200.

6: Marx Toy Museum (Moundsville, W.Va.)

During the 1950s and 1960s, Marx Co. reigned as king of the toy world, cranking out classics such as Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots and the original Big Wheel at its factories in Glen Dale, W.Va., and Erie and Girard, Pa. Today its legacy is memorialized at the Marx Toy Museum, which boasts one of the largest displays of Marx toys in the country.

Playsets, figurines and action figures are just some of the gems from baby boomers' toy boxes on display. The museum also boasts a western room and a prototype room filled with one-of-a-kind toys never sold in stores.

But the museum isn't just for baby boomers. Children often leave the museum as excited as adults, said owner Francis Turner. After touring the museum, which typically takes at least an hour, visitors can unwind with a refreshment and watch old Marx toy commercials in the 1950s-themed soda shop room, which doubles as a gift shop.

The Marx Toy Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8.50 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and $5 for students. Children under 6 are admitted free. (www.marxtoymuseum.com/index.htm; 1-304-845-6022)

7: The Alleghenies in Central Pennsylvania for RailFest 2010 and 50th anniversary of East Broad Top Railroad (Altoona in Blair County and Rockhill Furnace in Huntingdon County)

If you're a train buff, Pennsylvania's rich railroad heritage can be observed at several events. Organizers are looking at holding the annual RailFest on Oct. 1-3 at the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum (1300 Ninth Ave.), but plans are not set. There will be rail excursions around the world-famous Horseshoe Curve, model train show and other special events. For details, www.railroadcity.com or 1-814-946-0834.

The narrow gauge East Broad Top Railroad in Rockhill Furnace celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer. Although it has 130 years of history, the half-century marks when trips were resurrected by the Kovalchick family of Indiana, Pa., providing rides to tourists and railfans behind its coal-fired locomotives. "Nowhere in North America does such a complete and original historic site exist," declared Smithsonian Institution rail expert William Withuhn a few years ago.

Rides start at Orbisonia Station in Rockhill Furnace on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as July Fourth and Labor Day holidays, and a special Community Appreciation Day will be held Aug. 14 (the actual 50th anniversary). For details on schedules/fares and special events: www.ebtrr.com or call 1-814-447-3011.

8: New River Gorge (Glen Jean, W.Va.)

The New River, one of the oldest rivers in North America, and the more than 70,000 acres of parkland surrounding it are rich with activities for a variety of tastes. There's biking, hiking and white-water rafting for the more adventurous and fishing, walking trails and lots of breathtaking views for those seeking a more relaxing outdoor experience. Visitor centers offer hands-on activities for kids and more information about the park for adults.

New River Gorge permits primitive camping at five sites throughout the park. Campsites are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis. Food, lodging and full-service campgrounds are available in communities surrounding the park. (www.nps.gov/neri/index.htm; 1-304-465-0508)

9: Dittrick Medical History Center (Cleveland)

People may not typically associate doctors offices and X-ray machines with their summer vacation, but they may change their tune after a trip to the Dittrick Medical History Center at Case Western Reserve University. Guests can get a glimpse into the evolution of medicine by touring doctors offices from the 19th century and the 1930s and a pharmacy from the 19th century. Photos and hand-held devices used by physicians in the 19th century also are on display. Another highlight is the history of contraception exhibit.

The museum is appropriate for middle school-age visitors through adults. Visitors should set aside at least an hour to tour the museum, which is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free.

(www.cwru.edu/artsci/dittrick/site2/museum; 1-216-368-3648)

10: Hale Farm and Village (Bath, Ohio)

Get a taste of what life was like during the mid-1800s at Hale Farm and Village, a living history museum complete with actors in period costumes and farm animals. Visitors will learn about 19th-century America through blacksmithing, spinning, weaving and candle- and basket-making demonstrations.

Hale Farm and Village is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through August. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 3 to 12. (www.wrhs.org/index.php/hale; 1-330-666-3711)

Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com .


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