Despite its small size and charming exposition, Harrisburg is one of the most historic and important cities in Pennsylvania.
The seemingly unassuming city has a small population, but under the surface, Harrisburg has a lot waiting to be discovered – and not just within its boundaries, but in the wider region of Dutch Pennsylvania that surrounds it.
Harrisburg has long played an integral role within the state, in part due to its central location and its role as a transport hub going west.
That means that for visitors today, the city is the perfect base from which to explore not only the rest of the state but many of the most iconic east coast cities.
The likes of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, Baltimore, and even New York are just a few hours away; in most cases, much less, allowing you to explore these bustling cities in the day before returning to the quiet peace of Harrisburg by night time.
Even closer, you can find some exceptional state parks, great hiking opportunities, and many small, historic towns and cities that have played integral roles in the region – including the infamous Gettysburg, the site of one of the most pivotal battles in the American Civil War.
There’s a lot do, so here are the best day trips from Harrisburg Pa.
1. Fort Hunter Mansion and State Park
Fort Hunter Mansion and State Park is found just past the northern suburbs of Harrisburg and makes for an easy day trip away from the city.
The historic mansion that you see today was constructed in 1814, on the scenic banks of the local river, and can claim to be one of the oldest buildings in the state.
Before the stone mansion was built, this was an important crossroads heading west. A fort was positioned here from the mid 18th century as European settlers began to move inland from the east coast.
It’s a wonderful piece of local history and you can find many events held here throughout the year, or it’s lovely to simply wander through on its own accord.
2. Wildwood Park
Also found on the northern edge of Harrisburg and making for an easy escape from the city is the beautiful Wildwood Park. This is a local favorite, being one of the closest green spaces to the city center, and it makes for a wonderful day trip.
The park itself surrounds the expansive Wildwood Lake. There are some great opportunities to follow the extensive walking trails that follow the water’s edge and spread out into the surrounding hills and woodland.
Wildwood Park is a real hit with birdwatchers, while the Nature Center offers a great insight into the other local wildlife and flora that’s found within this lovely protected area.
Just an hour’s drive away from Harrisburg is the small city of Lancaster. The city can claim to be one of the oldest settlements in not only the state of Pennsylvania but anywhere inland from the east coast.
Lancaster can trace its origins back to the arrival of settlers in the area in the late 17th century. It was officially established in 1742 before serving as the state capital for many years until this was switched to Harrisburg.
In Lancaster, you can spend the day exploring the many historic sites, including heritage buildings, some great local history museums, and Wheatland – the home of James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian who served as President of the United States.
Drive west from Harrisburg city center and in half an hour you will reach the small city of Carlisle, a place which is equally as historic as any of the other nearby cities in Pennsylvania.
Carlisle was founded back in the 1750’s and has long been associated with the US Army; it’s home to one of their oldest training institutions.
There’s an interesting Army heritage museum located in the city, where you can learn more about the role that Carlisle has played in American military history.
Hershey is one of the most popular destinations in Pennsylvania; being just a few miles away from Harrisburg, it makes for the perfect day trip.
Hershey is home to one of the most well-known chocolate brands in the world – Hershey’s Chocolate. This is still the company’s home base and you can visit Hershey’s Chocolate World to learn more about their story, see how chocolate is made, and, of course, try more than a few bars of their best chocolate too.
Also located in the town is Hersheypark – a huge theme park that’s also dedicated to Hershey’s Chocolate, where you can find candy themed rides and rollercoasters.
6. Penn’s Cave
Penn’s Cave is located in Spring Mills, a two-hour journey north of Harrisburg.
This is one of the most fascinating yet unusual caves to be found anywhere in the country, as the cave is half submerged underwater.
The only way in or out is via boat. It’s a wonderful experience to travel through the narrow opening that then expands into a huge, subterranean spectacle.
7. Pine Creek Gorge
Also located around two hours north of Harrisburg is Pine Creek Gorge, a natural marvel that’s colloquially known as ‘The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania’.
When you see the sweeping vistas and deep chasm for the first time, you will quickly understand why the gorge has picked up this name; the 47 mile canyon cuts through the surrounding hills to form dramatic cliffs and precipitous drops.
It’s a spectacular place with many great hiking opportunities through the surrounding wilderness and some truly exceptional viewpoints.
8. Colonel Denning State Park
An hour’s drive east of the city brings you to the magnificent Colonel Denning State Park, a place of natural beauty that’s found in the Cumberland Valley.
Although this is one of the smaller protected areas in the region, it’s by no means lacking in outdoor opportunities; visitors can enjoy 18 miles of marked trails and the majestic double Gap Lake.
If you fancy, you can even stay overnight at the nearby campsites – although it’s close enough to Harrisburg to make this an easy day trip.
9. Michaux State Forest
Michaux State Forest is located in the same region as Colonel Denning State Park and is an easily accessible area of wilderness close to Harrisburg.
This state forest is much larger and encompasses a huge area of pristine woodland and outdoor beauty.
This was, in fact, one of the first state forests to be founded in the United States, as over-logging in the region led to concerns that Pennsylvania would lose all of its woodlands if nothing was done to stop it.
At Michaux State Forest, you can hike, mountain bike, ride off-road ATVs, and even swim in a few lakes – when the water is warm enough in summer that is.
10. Gettysburg National Military Park
Harrisburg and the surrounding regions played an important role during the American Civil War that tore the country apart in the 1860’s.
The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the turning points in the conflict and it was played out just an hour’s drive to the south of the city.
The Military Park protects the battlefield and offers visitors a chance to realize how the battle was actually fought out between Confederate and Union soldiers.
In the adjacent town of Gettysburg, you can visit the Gettysburg National Cemetery to pay your respects. You can find out more about the battle and its importance at the Gettysburg Heritage Center and the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center.
Pittsburgh is a good three-hour drive to the west of Harrisburg, but the long journey is worth it to experience the second largest city in Pennsylvania and a burgeoning center of arts and culture in the state.
Known as ‘The City of Bridges’, Pittsburgh is built on the intersections of wide rivers and couldn’t be in a more perfect location.
There are great museums and galleries, including the Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museums that are located across the city.
Philadelphia is the largest and most well-known city in Pennsylvania.
Just two hours to the east and sitting on the banks of the Delaware River, this is a place that has played an important role in American history.
Here you can find the Liberty Bell, you can see where the American Declaration of Independence was signed, explore Independence Hall, visit the country’s first library, and much, much more.
For history lovers, it’s a must-do day trip from Harrisburg.
Baltimore is the largest city that’s found in the nearby state of Maryland and makes for a great cross-border excursion from Pennsylvania.
The city is found on the coast and has long been an important port in the area. You can explore the many fascinating local museums and learn more about this vibrant city.
14. Washington DC
Washington DC is the nation’s capital and it’s a city that’s always worth making a day trip to.
Just two hours to the south of Harrisburg, you can spend the day exploring the leafy, wide boulevards of the capital and seeing all of the city’s most iconic sights – from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial.
15. New York
New York, New York. One of the country’s most famous and most visited cities is just a few hours from Harrisburg. Although you could spend weeks exploring New York, it also makes for a great day trip.
Explore the sights, visit Central Park, and climb the Empire State Building, but get home to Harrisburg to spend a quiet night away from all the action of New York.