How Well Do You Know Your Vacation Spot?

Unblemished natural beauty. Dam tours. And a mysterious lake monster. Lancastrians may (or may not) experience these at Raystown Lake, which has become one of our favorite vacation destinations.

The dock area at Raystown Lake.

In the summer of 2023, more than 24,000 vacationing Lancastrians made their way to Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the project controlling the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River, which created the lake.

In September 2023, I stood atop the 225-foot-tall spillway on the northernmost point of the lake. Large enough at its precipice to accommodate a line of tractor trailers, the sloping wall of concrete is surrounded by greenlake water and edged by sedimentary rocks. The 28-mile-long lake is at my back. Below are two 40-ton, 45-feet-tall by 45-feet-wide metal gates. One thousand cubic feet of water per second would spill through to the valley below if these gates were to open only one foot. This is the failsafe for the earthwork dam itself, which stands 40 feet above me and a quarter mile away.

Down We Go!

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a dam in 1968, and the lake was officially opened for recreational use on June 6, 1974. “You are some of the first folks in 10 years to come out onto the dam and into the spillway,” says Corps ranger Scott Graham, as a small group of writers from around Pennsylvania descend to the first level. The engine room is filled with a constant buzz and will allow the dam to stay functional and self-reliant without outside power for over a month – in case of emergency. This is the point of no return for those who might have trouble going down and back up 101 stairs. There is no elevator. Messages from those who visited here for the dam’s 40th anniversary in 2014 are scrawled with colorful marker on the concrete walls.

Corps rangers include, left to right, Quinn Ritter, Scott Graham, Jenna Conner and Evann McLucas.

The deeper we go, we encounter more evidence of the lake’s pressure behind us. Water, now slowly and almost invisibly, seeps in from every possible point – hinges on doorways, fittings on large pipes, and even through the inaccessible porousness of the concrete. “Seeps,” not leaks, says Scott. On the lower level a trough filled with water sits between the floor and the wall. At 40 feet below the lake’s surface Scott describes the engineering of the dam and how it maintains water level, which positively affects local fish and wildlife and recreational activities above. “The water in here is supposed to be here, you are welcome to touch it,” Scott adds, as I bend down and dip my fingers in to the first knuckle. It is cold and clear.

Organized by the Huntingdon County Visitors Bureau for the 50th anniversary, public tours like this one sold out almost immediately. Interest in visiting the dam far outweighed the availability of rangers to provide tours.

Getting A View

While getting an inside tour may be a tough ticket, viewing the lake, dam and ridgeline is easy, free and beautiful. Raystown Lake was dedicated and opened for recreation by Vice President Gerald Ford, who called the dam and lake a tremendous asset not only to Central Pennsylvania, but to the entire nation. For the event, the Corps built the Pagoda at Raystown Dam, which provides stunning views of the lake. A viewing area is also located below the spillway.

The pavilion offers stunning views of the lake.

The best overhead view of the dam is from Ridenour Overlook, which is only a short drive from the dam itself. A series of hiking trails with views lead visitors through the wilderness around the lake. Waterfront nuptials take place at Wedding Pointe at the Lake Raystown Resort. More camping and outdoor activities are located further up the lake at Seven Points Recreation Area.

A view from the surface of the lake presents unspoiled natural beauty. Raystown Lake is unique because its shoreline is filled with natural flora and fauna. There are no houses or other private structures (the Corps purchased the property rights all the way to the ridgeline).

The First Effects

The folks at Raystown Lake Region recognize and empathize with those who lived on the land before it became a lake. Nomadic hunter-gatherers first inhabited the land, followed by the Susquehannock people. At a panel discussion during my tour, guest speakers Clair Grove, whose 210-acre family farm is now underneath the lake, and Robert Klugiewicz, who was the director of Huntingdon County Business and Industry during construction, reflected on the impact.

The view from Ridenour Overlook.

“I came out of the Air Force in 1955 and I took over the family farm. We had a mill, dairy cows and a maple business my father started in 1914. It was sort of a letdown when I heard they were gonna bury my maple trees. I wasn’t the only one. I can remember when this was a wheat field,” recalled Clair, pointing out of the window of the Raystown Lake Visitor Center.

Robert spearheaded the effort to have the vice president attend the dedication. The project, while removing family homes and livelihoods, would create future growth in an area then suffering with 67% unemployment. “It was great vision by community leaders to see how this project would entice visitors and jobs to the area,” says Robert. 

In his July 6, 1974, remarks, Ford noted, “I think we should also recognize the sacrifices made by hundreds of persons who gave up their cottages, homes and farms so that the project could become a reality. Monetary awards could never repay those who relinquished lands and homes of a lifetime. They gave much.”

Raystown Ray And Friends

The business community has joined in the anniversary celebration. Local stores are marking the occasion by decorating windows, some depicting the loveable “lake monster” known as Raystown Ray. Local winemaker ReKlaimed Vines released their Raystown Red with a label depicting Ray relaxing in the lake. The Huntingdon County Arts Council is hosting a special exhibit with a 50th anniversary theme. Commemorative merchandise is available at local gift shops. And the area’s premier coffee roaster, Standing Stone Coffee Company, has released a 50th Anniversary Blend with a percentage of sales going to the Friends of Raystown Lake.

It is a momentous year to be “at the lake,” whether it is a first time visit or the annual family outing.

For more information, visit raystown.org.

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