Skip to main content

Day trip: Mt. Gretna is a leafy playground with roots in the Chautauqua movement

Mt. Gretna - Summer is a perfect time to visit the quaint, wooded Lebanon County borough known as Mt. Gretna, and every year thousands of visitors flock to the area for a respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

With a population of less than 300, Mt. Gretna is one of the smallest boroughs in Pennsylvania, but attracts upwards of 150,000 tourists during the summer months. Its picturesque surroundings are perfect for a summer stroll amid the colorful wooded homes, many which contain oversized wrap-around porches, perfect for catching a breeze and enjoying the latest page turner.

Roots in Chautauqua

One of the buildings that first-time visitors find most intriguing is The Hall of Philosophy. The tall, stately structure, inspired by classic Greek architecture, holds a clue to the ideology behind the founding of Mt. Gretna when, in the late 1800s, an educational movement, known as Chautauqua spread across the United States. The movement started on Lake Chautauqua in New York as an outdoor educational experience for Sunday school teachers and grew in popularity until automobiles and movie theaters captured the public’s attention. Kathy Snavely, summer program committee chair, said that in North America there are only 19 remaining members of the Chautauqua Trail and that programs are still based on the four pillars of Chautauqua, which include art, education, religion and recreation. Those interested in learning more about the history of the area can view artifacts from a bygone era at the Mt. Gretna Historical Society, located within walking distance of the Hall of Philosophy at 206 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Dinner and a show

Theater fans won’t want to miss the open air theater situated at the top of a hill at Carnegie and Pennsylvania avenues. Dating to 1927, it’s known as one of the oldest summer theaters in the United States. Barbara Trainin Blank, a freelance writer who lived in the region for almost 25 years, said that the theater is unique not only for its open-air design, but for the talent it attracts. The last show Trainin Blank saw before leaving the area was a performance of “Kiss Me Kate.” “It was really wonderful and my daughter and I still talk about it,” she said.

The Timbers Restaurant and Dinner Theatre, located at 350 Timbers Road, has also been entertaining theatergoers for decades. The family owned and operated establishment offers guests the option of choosing buffet or ala cart dining before performances. Owner Kathleen Roberts escorts her team to New York every February to audition first-class performers, eventually winnowing down the field to a few who are talented enough to make the cut.

Getting out

Biking, hiking and swimming are also popular in the area. Steve Wolgemuth, Founder and CEO of YDOP, an internet marketing company located in Lancaster, said he visits often. “I walk in Mount Gretna almost every day.  Hiking up to the Governor Dick Observation Tower and back takes 42 minutes, is just over two miles, and burns 476 calories. I find that this walk refreshes my mind and spirit. I feel like I have my own National Park-quality experience, and is just five minutes from my home. In the past 10 years, I've come to realize just how important this treasure is for so many hikers, bikers, and families looking for a wholesome outing.”

After walking, visitors can cool off at the Mt. Gretna Lake and Beach, which is open through Labor Day. Alyssa Matangos, who works at Spooky Nook Sports in Manheim, said that Mt. Gretna has always been a special place for her and she has fond memories of time spent there with family and friends. “We would lay on the sand and pretend we were at the beach, jumping into the lake every so often to cool off,” she said, adding that she is continuing the tradition. “We take our summer campers to Gretna for the day.”

Coming up

On Saturday, August 6, Gretna Music will be hosting the 32nd annual Mt. Gretna Tour of Homes and Gardens. Guests will get a glimpse inside eight homes, three gardens and three historic buildings on the self-guided tour. Patrons will also have the opportunity to tour the Mt. Gretna School of Art Studio. A trolley will transport guests to a lakeside home as well.

Tickets cost $20 in advance and can be purchased at Stauffers Markets, Brownstone Real Estate in Lebanon County and the Gretna Emporium. On the day of the tour, tickets can be purchased for $25 outside the Mt. Gretna Post Office on Princeton Avenue and in front of the Mt. Gretna Playhouse. Tickets are $5 for children 12 and under and proceeds benefit Gretna Music.

Each year, on the third Saturday in August, the streets of Gretna spill over with art lovers from near and far who come for the Mt. Gretna Outdoor Art Show. This is the 42nd season of the popular juried exhibition, which includes hundreds of exhibitors who work in a variety of mediums. Tickets are $12 per person for individuals 12 and under. To learn more, visit

These are just a few reasons why Mt. Gretna is so popular during the summer and why so many return year after year to make and share memories. To learn more, visit the website at