State College: All's Happy at Penn State

"Game days are pretty insane. This little town doubles in size, with people coming from New York, New Jersey, D.C., in to see games. They seek football, and the drinking," said lifelong local Joe Whitman. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

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The real Pennsylvania -- where you find a mix of mountains, hiking trails, hearty meals, beer and rabid devotion to football -- isn't Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, but rather off the main turnpikes at State College, with its name as basics-oriented as its team's uniforms.

It's where "College GameDay" will set up shop Saturday in advance of the Iowa-Penn State game at Beaver Stadium in fabled Happy Valley.

More for the road

Explore 50 offbeat- and mainstream-themed trips of the "tri-state area" in Lonely Planet's new Trips guide to the Mid-Atlantic, or download the PDF of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey section for $5.40.

Why go?

It's not every town of 40,000 people that has a stadium that fits 110,000 people -- and sells out every home game in autumn. Football reigns in State College, but it's easy to warm up to the notion of spending a little time poking about central Pennsylvania, too.

The best way to enjoy it is by hiking or biking. Nearby Mount Nittany (per the legend, named after the American Indian widow who buried her husband there) is an easy climb with rewarding looks over State College. And there are numerous side roads or mountain trails in the area to enjoy on a two-wheeler. You can also ride (or drive) to nearby historic towns, such as Boalsburg and Bellefonte (with its historic railroad to ride), or drive 90 miles east to a one-of-a-kind Americana-style amusement park known as Knoebels, in Elysburg.

Whatever you do, don't leave without trying the ice cream at the famous Penn State Creamery on campus.

Seeing the game

This Saturday will be a "white out" at Beaver Stadium, with the fans wearing white. Actually, fans here think they invented the "white out." Not so. That honor (and the trademark for "White Out") belongs to the NHL's Winnipeg Jets (now the Phoenix Coyotes), who began the practice in the 1987 playoffs.

Either way, games here are seriously wild. A few years ago, Kirk Herbstreit called it "the best student section in the country; they're crazy." And this week's game, like all others, is sold out. You can buy tickets at StubHub from $120 apiece.

Alumni groups have access to lots around the stadium. Parking lots and fields allow first-come, first-serve parking around the area. Many tailgaters bring in beer and drink from unidentifiable cups; technically, you can't walk around with it.

See the university's GameDay Central page for pregame events, including a helpful StreetFest map that shows where the "Blue Band" (Penn State's marching band) plays before kickoff.

What locals say

  • • "Game days are pretty insane. This little town doubles in size, with people coming from New York, New Jersey, D.C., in to see games. They seek football, and the drinking." --Joe Whitman, lifelong local from The Bicycle Shop

    • • "My favorite Beaver Stadium experience has to be that white out versus Ohio State in 2005. Some games feel like half the fans are asleep, but that one had a level of excitement I've not seen before. You sort of felt like one with everyone." --Jodi Pringle, Penn State Quarterback Club

    Did you know?

    The name "Happy Valley" dates from the Great Depression, when State College wasn't hurt badly by the economic crash. On a less happy note, four times before the BCS era, JoePa -- Penn State's legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, who's been at the helm since 1966 -- led the Nittany Lions to undefeated seasons in 1968, 1969, 1973 and 1994 and didn't claim even a share of the national championship. He did, of course, win national titles in 1982 and 1986.

    Five must-sees in State College

    • • The tent city of "Paternoville" before games (JoePa brings in pizzas sometimes)

      • • Mount Nittany's 4-mile hiking trail

        • • A scoop or two at the Penn State Creamery

          • • Touching the Heisman trophy at the All-Sports Museum

            • • Eating a butter-soaked "sticky" at The Diner -- for breakfast or after a night enjoying the College Avenue bar scene

            Game-day planner

            Start the day with a Nittany Lions classic, eating a $1.25 egg special at The Diner and finishing with a "grilled sticky" (a butter-soaked cinnamon roll). It opens at 7 a.m., so you'll have time to park, eat and get over to see the "College GameDay" scene beginning at 10 a.m. by Beaver Stadium.

            The campus -- and the town -- is consumed by football the day of any game, but watch out on game-day matches with Big Ten opponents. After "College GameDay" winds down, walk by "Paternoville," the collection of a few dozen tents outside Gate A, where students camp out all week to get a good spot in the general admission section. (By Monday this week, 700 were already camped out; this Friday night, witness the bang-on-a-trash-can "drum line" pep rally.)

            Nearby is the Joe Paterno statue -- it's not often you see statues for the living, much less those still at work -- and the All-Sports Museum, where you can breeze past all the PSU varsity sports other than football. Then elbow your way to see (and touch) John Cappelletti's Heisman Trophy from 1973.

            The best of non-football State College looms out of town, where biking options radiate in all directions. Even if you're not an Armstrong, you can handle some easier rides, like the 18.5-mile Circleville Loop -- a country ride north of town. Get a free bike map here, and rent bikes from The Bicycle Shop, near campus.

            After the ride, have a look at the pregame drinking scene along College Avenue, but save time for a dose of Penn State's second-favorite product -- a cone from the famed blue-and-white Penn State Creamery, which has 100 flavors. Afterward, consider signing up for its ice cream short course, something a certain Ben and Jerry duo took for early inspiration.

            The game will be loud. (Penn State's lone loss last year was at Iowa.) After all the fireworks on the field, head across from the campus to College Avenue, where you'll find bars and the popular nightclub Indigo. At the nearby Irish pub Phyrst, you can dare to hit the "We Are Penn State" cow bell. Fair warning: You'll be forced to chug drinks if you mess up the syncopated rhythm. Come to think of it, you'll be chugging drinks either way. Try sobering up later on with another "sticky" at The Diner.

            Sunday chaser

            Ease into Sunday with a packed sandwich and a walk up Mount Nittany, which overlooks town from the northeast. The 4-mile loop takes about three hours and passes a rich mix of trees and flowers. Be sure to stop at the Mike Lynch Overlook to see Beaver Stadium from above.

            In the afternoon, either check out nearby towns Boalsburg and Bellefonte, or drive 90 miles east to Elysburg, home to Knoebels Amusement Park, one of the country's classic amusement parks. You pay by the ride (75 cents to $2.25, for the Phoenix roller coaster), and it's open weekends in September. The easiest way to get there is by taking I-80 to U.S. 54 at Mausdale, but via the Old Turnpike Road (U.S. 45) is more scenic.

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