We had been driving for a looooong time, possibly forever, or at least it felt that way. My two youngest daughters and I were on a road trip from North Dakota to New York (and back). It had been quite a while since I first started looking for something interesting to do, and I was starting to get desperate.
Something! Anything! Please!
And then it happened. I spotted a sign for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. My inner child squealed.
“Bria, do you know who Punxsutawney Phil is?” I asked my six-year-old.
Somewhere far in the back seat, her 15-year-old sister groaned. I turned on my right blinker and smiled as I exited onto a twisting, tree-lined road.
The charming little western Pennsylvania community of Punxsutawney, with a population of around 6,000, is the home of none other than Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who makes an appearance each February 2 and has Americans scrambling to find out if spring will arrive early.
Legend has it that when the groundhog emerges from its burrow on this date and sees its shadow (due to clear weather), it will hightail it back into its den and winter will continue for another six weeks. If the sky is cloudy and the groundhog doesn’t see its shadow, spring will arrive early.
According to the Punxsutawney Historical Society website, the groundhog legend pre-dates the first white settlers in the area. The Delaware Indians passed down their own version of the story, in which the Oijik (brought down to locals as “woodchuck” came to be known as the “grandfather” to the local people.
There may not be any basis in science, but some things in life can just be fun, right?
Though the February event is nothing new, Groundhog Day rose to cult popularity with the 1993 Bill Murray movie of the same name, with crowds swelling to upward of 30,000 in hopes of seeing the famous weather-predicting rodent.
Our first stop was the Chamber of Commerce’s official souvenir shop, located on West Mahoning Street. We highly recommend this as your first stop, because not only were we able to learn more about the local area, we also scored a super fun activity – the Phantasic Phils map and stickers.
(We also picked up a stuffed Phil, which features throughout our photos.)
It was a drizzly day, but that didn’t stop us from spending the next six hours on groundhog spotting duty!
The Phantastic Phils is a collection of 32 groundhog statues, each 6 foot tall with a different theme, including the Wizard of Weather, Fireman Phil, Freedom Phil, and others. It is a great way to explore the area, with statues dotted throughout the community, designed and painted by local and national artists. The scavenger hunt that is this outdoor public art project of the Punxsutawney Area Chamber of Commerce was the perfect activity for a pair of kids who had been cooped up in a car for far too long.
Visitors can see how many they can spot on their own, but we quite enjoyed having the map to follow along with. You can pick up the 11×17 laminated map and corresponding stickers at the souvenir shop, or find it here.
Following the Phantastic Phils brings you to all of the area highlights, as well. We saw the live groundhog Phil in his year-round home – Phil’s Burrow – outside the public library, and also trekked up to Gobbler’s Nob, the location of the annual weather-predicting ceremony. It was pretty unbelievable to imagine thousands of people there. They must be incredibly organized!
Want to learn more?
The town’s website is filled with information about Phil, the history of the legend, and groundhogs. There is even a section with lesson plans for teachers and homeschoolers! We were super excited to check this out once we reached our hotel.
By the way, there are other things to do in Punxsutawney, like the Weather Discovery Center (we missed out on this one because they are closed Wednesdays), the Shadow Vineyard, and more. Check out the local tourism website to get a feel for activities your family might take an interest in.
If you are traveling through Pennsylvania, we definitely recommend this fun pitstop along the way! And if you’re really brave, check it out in February to experience the historic Groundhog Day event for yourself.