Every parent in Western Pennsylvania knows about pumpkin patches, hayrides and corn mazes. And they are a lot of fun – until you've enough waiting in line and negotiating pumpkin size limits and dodging more free candy. So I went digging for alternatives. Turns out there are lots of fresh and frightful ways to make October memories in Pittsburgh. And they are all outside! Here’s my list:
1. Not so-scary haunted tours. Point State Park’s gallant past as a key military fort is just part of the story – learn about the mysterious and dark side of its history on a walking tour Friday, Oct. 23, Sunday, Oct. 25 and Friday Oct. 30, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. I was assured this is a family-friendly tour and more history than fright. Be sure to register because space is limited.
Raccoon State Park will lead a Halloween Night Hike, also on Friday, Oct. 23, 7 to 8:30 p.m., starting at the Wildlife Reserve Interpretive Center. This one is designed for the kids – a chance to learn about and observe the park’s nocturnal wildlife, with the promise of candy at the end. The later hour means it will be dark, which always make ghost stories scarier. Flashlight recommended.
2. Urban Gargoyle Hunt. No need to visit Notre Dame Cathedral, or even the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Grotesques, gargoyles, lions and other fanciful creatures haunt the buildings of Downtown Pittsburgh and Station Square. Families can hunt them down with the help of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s Downtown Dragons interactive website. Downtown Dragon offers guided walking tours to students, but the virtual tour gives you what you need to go on the hunt alone. If all 25 stops are too big a big bite for one day, pick and choose from locations around town.
3. Ghosts in the graveyard? Nope, just peace and quiet. There can be a certain “ick” factor to entering a cemetery for fun. But get past that, and you’ll find a quiet green space. Use your imagination, and it can be a trip through the dramas of local history. Recently, my family stopped at Evans City Cemetery, where scenes from the classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead” were filmed. We also found markers dated back to the 1880s.
Next on our list is Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville, which has been hosting Pittsburgh’s dead on 200 acres since 1845 – that’s a lot of lifetimes. It looks like a castle from the street; within are stunning monuments and stands of mature trees. Before you go, download maps and grave locations for local notables.
4. Who-o-o-o is up for a little owl banding? The teeny saw whet owl is awfully cute, but staring into its yellow eyes might give you a Halloween spook. Or at least a good look at nature. Do just that at a Project Owlnetowl banding event at Sewickley Heights Borough Park. Naturalists with the Fern Hollow Nature Center and the National Aviary in Pittsburghwill catch saw-whet owls and band them with identification to study owl migration. Owl banding takes place weather permitting on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Oct. 17 through Dec. 1, starting about a half hour before dark and continuing until around midnight. Plan for an evening outdoors: headlamp or flashlight, snacks and warm drinks are suggested. Visitors may come and go as they please – perfect for families!
5. Go a little batty. While this isn’t technically outdoors, the bat exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is a great way to get chummy with Halloween’s winged mascot, the bat. Bats are hugely important to the environment, and I know this. But my hair still stands on end as I enter the zoo’s dark bat den. It’s conveniently located near Kids Kingdom, so you can shake off the willies while your kids play on the slides. For a chance to peak at a bat in the wild, or at least where many bats will spend the coming winter, take a walking tour at Laurel Caverns Park in Hopwood, PA. Claiming to be the largest hibernaculum in Pennsylvania, the caves close November 1 so that hibernating bats are not disturbed.
6. Fun for the littlest ones, with more chances to wear that cute costume! Hike It Baby Pittsburgh, a family hiking group that organizes tot-friendly walks in parks around the region, will meet for several festive hikes. My favs: The Spooktacular Glowstick Walk, Friday, Oct. 23, 6:45-7:45 p.m. at Mary Roberts Rinehart Nature Park in Sewickley; The WILD Rumpus! Hike on Saturday Oct. 24, 10 a.m. to noon at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve; and the Costume Hike on Tranquil Trail on Saturday, Oct. 31, 10 a.m. to noon at Frick Park. Hike It Baby also is planning a Pumpkin Patch Hike and to meet up for the Clean Air Dash. Click the links for more information, updates and to sign a waiver.