By Dave Zuchowski Photos by Bill Rockwell
Visually, Holiday Lights on the Lake certainly glitters and glows on an impressive scale. Now in its 24th year, the annual event that lights up the grounds at Lakemont Park in Altoona, PA boasts 183 displays of sparkling lights formed into holiday figures scattered over 51 acres.
Starting at the entrance near the Altoona Curve’s baseball stadium, visitors can drive their car, van or bus along the winding maze of displays that include a giant Christmas wreath and a light tunnel. On either side of the road, colored lights form familiar Christmas figures – everything from a pair of turtle doves and a whimsical Santa speeding along on a motorcycle to themed creations that recall the 12 days of Christmas.
My personal favorite is a long stand of trees that line up on either side of the road, each one adorned with its own distinct color of red, gold or green
Rather than just static, immobile displays that just seem to sit there passively, these lights move and jive to theme music pumped into the grounds and over radio station 88.5 FM.
Somewhere along the roughly 45-minute drive, you might be tempted to get out of the car for a photo shoot, but keep in mind that visitors are required to remain in their vehicles at all times due to the number of cables and lines that make the whole spectacle come to life. According to general manager Melanie Shildt, it takes a total of 4 fulltime and 7 part time workers to get the displays up and running. “And It takes them 60 plus days to set everything up,” she added.
There’s even more fun after you exit the route and follow the signs to Santa’s Gift Shop, where the youngsters can have their photo taken with jolly old St. Nick, seated in a gigantic red sleigh, through Dec. 23. Masks and social distancing are required inside the shop, which features everything from refreshments to hand crafted ornaments and holiday themed items.
For model train fans, an adjacent room holds an extensive display constructed by members of a local train museum. There, visitors will be able to see over 800-feet of track, O gauge, S gauge and HO layouts and seventeen different operating trains Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each layout is themed differently to showcase an amusement park, winter scenes, summer scenes, a race car track theme, a small town scene and more.
Holiday Lights on the Lake, at 700 Park Avenue in Altoona, is open daily from 6 to 10 p.m. through Jan. 3, 2021. The cost per car is $13 no matter the number of passengers inside. Phone 800-434-8006.
For Something Sweet
Those with a taste for Clark Bars and Mallo Cups might want to stop at the Boyer Candy Company outlet store at 821 17th Street in Altoona.
Not only are the confections sold in various packaged styles and shapes, there’s a sizeable inventory of gift items like stadium blankets, T-shirts, nostalgic candy boxes, coffee mugs and baseball caps, all adorned with the Mallo cup logo. To make things even sweeter, if you’ve been saving up your Mallo Cup play money that comes with every cup, you can exchange them for the gift items of choice. Phone 814-944-9401. Boyercandies.com
For a Scenic Vista and Some Cardio
Overlooking nearby Hollidaysburg, Chimney Rocks is known for its captivating chimney-like rock pillars at the top of a high ridge. A level pathway follows the base of the wall of stone to a dramatic overlook where, during the Christmas season, a 20-foot tall star shines over the town below.
In clement weather, the site offers outdoor concerts and a picnic area. For a challenging bit of exercise, try the steep trail of stone and clay that leads to the Chief’s seat, a rock pad at the top of the pillars. http://www.hollidaysburgpa.org/depts/Parks/Pages/ChimneyRocksPark.aspx
An Unexpected Find
I never anticipated coming across a relic of the Revolutionary War so far West, but Fort Roberdeau dates back to 1778 when it was built to protect the nearby lead mine, crucial for the American war effort. Named for General Daniel Roberdeau, who built the fort with bastions in each corner and horizontal logs due to the shallow topsoil under laid by hardened rock, the fort was occupied only until 1780 and was never attacked by hostile forces.
Rebuilt in 1975-76 as a Bicentennial project, the stockade encloses several log buildings to represent officers’ quarters, a storehouse, barracks, a blacksmith shop and lead smelter. The grounds are open from 8 a.m. to dusk for recreational activity, but entry into the fort and stockade is $5.with tickets available in the visitors center, a restored barn. Open May 1 through October 31, the fort is located at 383 Fort Roberdeau Rd. in Tyrone Township just outside Altoona. Phone 814-946-0048. http://fortroberdeau.org/
For Relaxation and Possible Therapeutic Benefits
A week before my Altoona visit I discovered the concept of salt rooms on Youtube.com. The video promised help with all sorts of health issues like sinus infections, chronic bronchitis, COPD, even ear infections, eczema, psoriasis and snoring. As one with chronic allergies, I thought I’d try the experience that has you sit in a room lined with Himalayan salt blocks for 45 minutes while you breath in micron-sized particles of pure grade salt dispersed in the air by a halo generator.
After Googling salt room, I discovered that Altoona has, not one, but two such enterprises. One titled Just Breathe opened this past June by owner Tracy Dutko, Ph.D., LPC. With 20 years experience in the mental health field, Dutko has tried to create a holistic approach to wellness with salt room therapy element in her professional portfolio.
Curious to see how I’d respond, I entered the attractive, spotlessly clean lobby area, then made my way to the darkened room where I trod over gravel size nuggets of salt, then plopped down on a comfortable lawn chair completely clothed except for shoes.
Left alone in the dim room brightened with a golden glow by the backlit salt wall, I shut my eyes and breathed in the scentless air listening to soft mood music. After nearly dozing off, my 45 minute experience came to a close. At the end, I came out of the room very relaxed but unable to see an immediate change to my respiratory condition. The following day, I did notice a slight loosening in my lungs, but I’m certain that follow up visits would be in order to realize any possible symptomatic improvement.
In addition to the salt room, Just Breathe offers a salt cabinet treatment, massage services and a float pod, designed to benefit a menu of health issues. Located at 1216 Pleasant Valley Blvd. in Altoona, Just Breathe can be reached at 814-943-SALT for more information.
An Engineering Marvel
For its day, the Horseshoe Curve was quite an engineering achievement. Completed in 1854, the 2,375-foot curve gives passing trains a reasonable grade on which to climb or descend the mountain. Chief Engineer, John Edgar Thompson, filled in the two obstructing ravines without heavy equipment using only manual labor at a cost of $2.495,000.
Designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 2004, the curve has long been a tourist attraction with an observation platform in use as early as 1879. The nearly $6 million renovation of 1990 included a new visitors center with related rail exhibits and a funicular to the observation platform. Train watching is one of the major activities as rail fans can sometimes see as many as three trains making their way over the curve at a time.
Due to the coronavirus, the funicular is currently not working, but access to the observation platform is still available via a 194 step staircase. Admission is $8 The curve is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday – Sunday. Phone 814-941-7743. www.railroadcity.org.
For a Place to Stay
The Courtyard by Marriott, 2 Convention Center Drive in Altoona, is comfortable, attractive, clean and conveniently located. Amenities include free WiFi, a fitness center and mountain views from rooms with balconies. Phone 814-312-1800.
For a Place to Dine
The U S Hotel Tavern is the only restaurant in Blair County housed in a historical property. Oozing charm and the coziness of a bygone era, the tavern, located at 401 S. Juniata St. in Hollidaysburg, serves an innovative menu of delicious options. Phone 814-695-2624. www.ushoteltavern.com.
For more information on the Altoona area, phone 800-842-5866 or www.explorealtoona.com.