Once upon a time, a drive in the country saw kids hop into a rumble seat for a bumpy excursion over barely passable roads that skirted farms, woods and streams, far from the concrete canyons of Philadelphia. Today, the roads are paved and the countryside is broken up by housing developments and shopping centers. And sorry, no rumble seat, but country drives are still possible. Here’s where to steer. – Jay Lloyd
ROUTE 29 RAMBLE
End: Green Lane Park
Fit out the car with a bicycle rack and head off early on a Monday morning. Driving north from Collegeville on Route 29, you’ll be hugging the banks of the scenic Perkiomen Creek. The first stop here is Perkiomenville, and Monday is the one day of the week when the sprawling Perkiomenville Auction and Flea Market opens for seekers of collectable bits of Americana. You’ll find everything from wagon yokes and mule team harnesses to costume jewelry and home canned peaches. If you’re looking for a live chicken or rabbit, this is also the place.
When you’re done shopping, head north or south to access any segment of the Perkiomen Trail, over 19 miles of pathway along the creek for hiking and biking. Get on near Spring Mountain or at Green Lane Park. Explore the creek, have a picnic, drop a fishing line. At Green Lane, you’ll also find barbecue grills and nature trails with stunning vistas.
For a restaurant stop, Rockwell’s at Green Lane is a local favorite.
Return to Collegeville for dinner, a snack or drink at any one of the many restaurants that have made the town and nearby townships a dining Mecca.
ROUTE 73 ROMP
Start: Skippack Village
End: Lake Ontelaunee
Straddling Route 73, Skippack Village has become a destination in itself. It combines a clutch of trend-setting restaurants that run the gamut from sushi to salami and both boutique and antique shops.
It’s easy to spend a day here, but then you’d miss the weekend wonder of Zern’s Farmers Market and Auction. It’s a drive in the country to Gilbertsville, where Zern’s is entering its 90th year as a gigantic livestock auction, flea market, farmers market and hodge-podge of unique stalls. They sell everything from nuts and bolts to cookware and fishing lures. And as they say, “If you can’t get it at Zern’s, you can’t get it!”
Continuing through the countryside on 73 into Berks County, a rambler will soon come to Lake Ontelaunee near Shoemakersville. This nearly 1,100 acre Oasis was created as an extension of the Reading water supply. But it soon became a recreation area, ideal for hiking the perimeter, fishing or just enjoying a lakeside picnic. Finish the day with a leisurely drive back to Skippack to sip and sup.
ROUTE 30 JAUNT
Who would have thought that Downingtown, PA would be at the center of national brew pub buzz? But since it became home to Victory Brewing, that’s about what’s happened. You might reserve the stop for the return journey, when enjoying the hand crafted beers and pub foodie favorites draw the evening crowds.
Downingtown is also the gateway to Pennsylvania Dutch country. A westward drive from here puts you right in the heart of Lancaster County, where Amish buggies share the road with motor cars, and mule teams are harvesting and ploughing the fields. The highway bustles with antique shops, and the mystique of Amish farms lures a Sunday driver off the main road and back to country ones that skirt vast farms with colorful barns and silos.
Returning to route 30, look for the village of Strasburg by taking another short jog off the main highway. It is home to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania and the Strasburg Railroad, one of the region’s premier attractions. Ride the train through pristine countryside that offers stunning views while passing right through a series of Amish farms. Have lunch on the train, and then tour the museum before continuing on to route 30 shopping outlets and entertainment hubs, popular with the kids. Then it’s back to Downingtown for a welcome dinner stop at Victory Brewing.
ROUTE ONE MEANDER
Start: Kennett Square, PA
End: Havre de Grace, MD
Before there was Interstate 95—with its crowded lanes and roaring traffic—there was Route 1, a truly countrified drive that took weekend roadsters from Philadelphia to the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. Route 1 is still the I- 95 alternate, and it offers stops and sights that you won’t find speeding by on the interstate.
A good starting place is the Kennett Square area. It’s Brandywine Valley country that embraces major attractions including Longwood Gardens, one of the nation’s most imaginative horticultural sites. Then there’s the Brandywine River Museum and its world famous collection of Wyeth art.
Kennett Square itself is a walk-able little town with a variety of weekend street fairs and festivals along with a scattering of commendable restaurants. Pressing south one route 1, you’ll cross a bridge over the Susquehanna River. It’s not just any bridge, but the massive Conowingo Dam, a structural marvel created for a large hydroelectric plant situated where the Susquehanna flows into the Chesapeake Bay. There is a convenient visitors center with parking. The 4,000 acre reservoir created by the dam has become a prime spot for bird watching, and bald eagles are a familiar sight. Fishing from banks or boats is permitted.
Afterward, turn off Route 1 and continue south on Route 222 through the village of Port Deposit, one of the northernmost spots to be explored by Captain John Smith. Stop to browse some of the small shops. Then it’s on to Havre de Grace after crossing the Susquehanna over the Route 40 bridge. Here you’ll find an intriguing town, studded with restaurants and waterside views for a relaxing lunch and toddy before calling it a day and heading home.
A few thoughts on country drives:
Even if you’re using a GPS, carry a set of maps. They’ll put your drive in context, give you a better idea of where you are and open up some off-road possibilities that electronics won’t tell you about.
Don’t be bashful about stopping and asking for tips on interesting farms, sights, events and restaurants that may not be apparent.
Have a full gas tank, because filling stations are further apart in the country. And don’t worry about getting lost. Remember the saying, “All roads lead to home.”