Hidden away in the mountains of central Pennsylvania is a family-owned amusement park that has been beloved by visitors for almost a hundred years. Located in a wooded glen, its gravel pathways wind you past heart-stopping roller coasters, mouthwatering snacks and treats, an old-school bandstand, and kiddie rides whose first patrons became grandparents decades ago. Tinny music rings out from the venerable carousel as outside riders lean to snag rings from a stationary metal arm. Screams from the thrill rides – and maybe a few from the Haunted Mansion – are muffled by the trees that shade your afternoon.
Knoebels Amusement Resort is a perfect family vacation spot, but few people outside of central Pennsylvania are even aware of its existence. Even living where I do in Philadelphia’s western suburbs, there are plenty of people who have never even heard of this hidden gem that sits only a hundred miles away.
In an effort to remedy this travesty, today I want to share a little bit about this place that was such a special part of my childhood, and that I’m now delighted to be able to share with my own children
Knoebels Amusement Resort, also known as Knoebels Grove or just plain Knoebels, is located outside of the tiny town of Elysburg, Pennsylvania. Pronounced “Kuh-NO-bels,” it sits in Columbia and Northumberland counties roughly equidistant from Harrisburg, Scranton, and Allentown.
Driving there for the first time, it wouldn’t be outlandish to wonder if you’re being punked. You pass through towns barely big enough to be called such, and wind along single-lane roads through green mountains. Despite the billboards assuring you that Knoebels is ahead, I could definitely forgive you for feeling skeptical that there’s really a full-fledged amusement park hiding up here.
But then, suddenly, you start to glimpse flashes of color between the trees. Was that a coaster track? Yes! And there’s a big metal swirly slide, and a fenced-in pavilion for what might have been bumper cars. A minute more brings you to a huge open field, where you join the hundreds of other cars parked in the grass. A short walk – or even quicker shuttle ride – has you through the gates.
And now you learn one of the best things about Knoebels.
It is absolutely free to enter.
Yes, I said free. There are no parking attendants charging you to park in the huge, grassy lots, and you can walk right through the gate without having to fork over any hard-earned cash for the privilege. The park is completely pay-as-you-go, making it great for folks on a budget or families with members not willing or able to do much riding themselves. (Any parent of young kids knows the pain of paying a steep admission fee only to have your children be the only ones actually riding the rides.) At Knoebels, everyone pays for the exact type and amount of fun they want to have.
And there’s plenty of fun to be had! Knoebels is the largest free-admission amusement park in the United States and boasts dozens of attractions ranging from steel track roller coasters and log flumes to bumper cars and a ferris wheel. Its Haunted Mansion is one of the most respected dark rides in the country, and the Grand Carousel dates from 1913 and features hand-carved horses. There is a whole section of the park devoted to kiddie rides and even a full 18-hole mini golf course!
Online or once you enter the park, you can purchase booklets of tickets or a “Ride All Day” pass (available only on weekdays). Each ride costs a certain dollar amount in tickets, and you can also use tickets for some games and snacks, as well. The tickets are in $0.50 and $1 increments, so the mental math involved at each ride is minimal. Plus, they never expire.
Despite its size, Knoebels never feels overwhelming in the way some large amusement parks can. Perhaps that’s largely due to the wooded setting, which makes it feel smaller and more intimate.
Knoebels’s location in a wooded glen, with a creek running through and ample shade, also goes a long way in helping the park stay cool during the summer. I won’t say it doesn’t get hot, but the heat is much less oppressive at Knoebels than at many parks where you’re walking on blacktop in the blistering sun for hours on end.
It’s also just a lot prettier.
A visit to Knoebels feels like you’ve stepped back into a simpler time. The park dates to 1926, and while the Knoebel family has added plenty of new attractions over the years to keep the younger set excited, many of the rides and buildings have been on the property for generations. The result is a charming mix of old and new, a place where grandparents can have just as much fun as their teenaged grandkids.
One of the places where that charm is most on display is the Grand Carousel, a century-old merry-go-round that features an on-ride game where you reach for metal rings as the carousel spins. Catch the brass ring, and you win a free ride! (Just make sure to queue up in the “Outside Riders” line to get your chance.)
Full disclosure time: I am actually not generally a fan of amusement parks, mostly because I am not a fan of thrill rides. The idea of hopping on a roller coaster fills me with dread, and I would rather do almost anything than be flung in the air, rocketed around a loop, or dropped from a height.
Braver persons than I – and by that I mean pretty much every other member of my family and acquaintance – can vouch for how much fun there is to be had on Knoebels’s more exciting attractions. The Phoenix is a classic wooden roller coaster and one of the park’s most iconic rides. Steel-tracked Impulse brings maximum thrills as the park’s newest coaster, and the drops from the Giant Flume and Skloosh! will have you screaming (and later soaked). There truly is something for everyone.
My most recent visit to Knoebels was in the summer of 2021, when I took E and S for the first time. E had an absolute blast on all the kiddie rides, and, in a move that will not surprise those who have followed us for a while, also made sure to get his eighteen holes in on the mini golf course.
Although S was still too small for most of the rides, she was able to tag along on one of the mildest and most nostalgic rides at the park, the Pioneer Train. While the 1.5-mile journey under the Twister and through the woods won’t set any hearts racing, it was breezy and cool and just the right speed for little ones.
All in all, it was so gratifying to watch my kids enjoying a place that had meant so much to me growing up. I loved being back at Knoebels Amusement Resort and can’t wait to return year after year as the kids get older. I also hope that this post inspires you to take a trip to this family-friendly hidden gem, especially if you’re within easy driving distance! You certainly won’t regret it.
Other Things to Do at Knoebels
In addition to the rides, games, and food of the main park area, there are many other attractions on the property making it worth more than a day’s stay. One of the most popular is the Crystal Pool, a huge swimming and waterslide spot that dates to the earliest days of the park. Back then, people came from miles around to swim in Knoebels’s mountain stream-fed swimming hole. Now, you can spend the day soaking up the sun, rocketing down slides, splashing around in the kiddie play area, and scarfing down snacks at the swimming hole’s more modern successor.
Other attractions include:
- Multiple museums, such as a mining museum, a museum of the history of the park, and – my personal favorite as a kid – a carousel museum with pieces and figures dating from the 19th century;
- An old-school bandshell with free entertainment throughout the day (Taylor Swift performed here before she was famous – just saying!);
- A 15-minute chairlift ride that takes you to the top of a mountain and back for stunning views;
- Free pavilion space for groups (reservations necessary);
- An 18-hole golf course; and
- Two campgrounds for tents, RV’s, or cabin rentals.
Tips for Visiting Knoebels Amusement Resort
- Like any amusement park, Knoebels is most crowded on weekends and holidays. Try to visit on a weekday, if possible. This will also allow you to buy a Ride All Day pass, which offers the most bang for your buck. There is a $5 discount if you purchase online for a specific date.
- The park website has a lot of great information about each ride at Knoebels, including how much each one costs, height requirements, and a “Kozmo’s Ratings” scale for factors like speed an intensity. Each ride also has an option to click right to where it is on a park map, making it incredibly easy to form a budget and plan for the day.
- Even though there’s a lot of shade, you’ll still want to make sure you dress for warm weather and bring sunscreen.
- Admittedly, while the park doesn’t feel overwhelming, it can be easy to get a little turned around because you don’t have big landmarks like giant rollercoasters visible in the distance to orient you. They’re there around the park perimeter, but they’re often hidden by foliage. The creek serves as a good orienting landmark, and grabbing a park map is also a wise idea.
- There aren’t many hotels near Knoebels, so if you’re not planning to stay on property, I suggest basing yourself in towns like Lewisburg, Selinsgrove, or Bloomsburg.
- The park features nursing rooms, changing rooms, and stroller rental for parents of young children.
- If you are active or retired military, make sure to check out Knoebels’s military appreciation offers.
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