The Flight 93 Memorial near Somerset PA is a very powerful monument to a very painful moment in American history. In the blink of an eye, a nondescript field and treeline amidst the bucolic rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania was transformed forever. By visiting the site which honors the victims of the acts of terrorism that occurred on September 11th 2001, you not only pay homage to their sacrifice, but you also are reminded of just how precious daily life really is.
The time I spent at the Flight 93 Memorial is not necessarily something I would describe as enjoyable. But that doesn’t mean the trip out and back can’t be fun. Rather than spending a boring hour and a half driving from Pittsburgh to Somerset on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, why not spend two hours making your way across some of Western PA’s scenic countryside?
The Scenic Route from Pittsburgh to the Flight 93 Memorial
There are several different options to choose from when planning the short road trip from Pittsburgh to the Flight 93 Memorial. The most obvious option would be to take Route 30 (Lincoln Highway) from the Homestead area east of downtown all the way to the Memorial. If I am being honest, however, I don’t recommend this option. Though it’s incredible peaceful east of Greensburg, Route 30 is a congested mess of traffic and stoplights until you reach that point.
Instead, the route I recommend – Pennsylvania Route 31 – is one of my favorite back roads in the state.
How to Get from Pittsburgh to Route 31
The trip from downtown Pittsburgh to Route 31 actually starts out very similar to the trip on Route 30: the mess of congestion and stoplights that is Route 51 in the South Hills. On a Saturday morning, it will take you about 20-25 minutes to drive the ten miles from downtown to Pleasant Hills. After that, though, 51 becomes relatively pleasant by comparison. There are plenty of gas stations, convenience stores, and other shopping options to choose from if you need some snacks or supplies for your day – and don’t forget to take a short side trip to the famous Bethel Bakery for some nationally-known cookies!
Once you cross over the Monongahela River and pass by the town of Elizabeth, keep your eyes peeled for the right hand exit onto PA Route 136. It’s only about three miles outside of town, and it is not very well marked. Take the left to get onto 136 East, and keep straight heading straight when it turns into PA Route 31 just east of West Newton.
Route 31 to Somerset
The drive (or motorcycle ride!) on Route 31 East is what my parents would call “smooth sailing” – scenic, peaceful, easy to do, and generally very relaxing. Rolling hills and gentle curves provide enough stimulation to keep you fully engaged, while also providing plenty of panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
Aside from the town of Mt Pleasant and a couple rural villages, the entire trip from West Newton to Somerset traverses uninterrupted vistas of farms and wilderness. Ancient barns and old farmhouses dot the landscape the entire way, giving the impression that you’ve stepped out of Pittsburgh’s concrete jungle and back in time. You’ll even pass through the heart of Western Pennsylvania’s ski country – both Seven Springs and Hidden Valley are close at hand.
A Retro Pit Stop in Somerset
Once you reach Somerset and make the required right and left turns to stay on 31/281 (as the road becomes a one-way street inside town limits), hook a left at the Hospital onto S Center Ave / PA-601. Head straight north through town, and make the left into the parking lot of the silver-sided Summit Diner for the best lunch in town.
Again, you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time – although in this case, straight into a 1950’s car cruise! From the hotrod sitting out front to the brightly colored vinyl booths, everything about the Summit Diner screams retro. And the food is absolutely to die for – I didn’t get any pictures of our meals, because we ate them too quickly!
Somerset to the Flight 93 Memorial
The drive from Somerset to the Flight 93 Memorial is quick and easy. Take a right out of the Diner onto 601, then turn left at the first light onto 281N, which is a short and straight shot to US Route 30. From the intersection with 281, the entrance to the Memorial is just under 4 miles East on Route 30.
The Flight 93 National Memorial: Things to See and Do
The Memorial itself is comprised of three main elements spread out over a large spread of land: The Tower of Voices, The Visitor’s Center Complex, and The Impact Site and Wall of Names.
The Tower of Voices
The Tower of Voices is the first thing you’ll experience after entering the grounds from Route 30. A rather tall cylinder comprised of several concrete pillars, the Tower of Voices is essentially a massive wind chime. Made up of 40 massive metal chimes that blow freely in the breeze, the Tower is intended to bring a sense of beauty and power to the voices of the victims. Sadly, on my most recent visit, many of the chimes were still off in winter storage, and those that were hung were clamped in place.
The Visitors Center Complex
(Please Note: I did not feel comfortable taking photos at the Visitors Center)
The Visitors Center Complex is an imposing concrete structure with a lengthy black tile walkway that follows the flight path of the hijacked plane. Near the parking lot, there’s a small building containing bathrooms and a cafe. Four tall divided concrete walls focus your vision along the flight path and guide you to both the Visitors Center and the elevated overlook beyond. Walk the entire way to the end of the overlook, from which you have a panoramic view of the impact site, the Wall of Names, and 40 memorial groves.
The Visitors Center itself is a small but comprehensive review of the events of that fateful day. The displays provide a brief overview of all of the events of 9/11, with a more thorough look at what transpired within the Boeing jet that serviced Flight 93. There are remnants from the plane and personal items that were found strewn in the field and the stand of hemlocks that bordered it. If you have the emotional strength to listen – which I did not – you can listen to selected portions of the last phone calls that passengers on Flight 93 made to their families and friends.
The Impact Site and Wall of Names
(Please Note: I did not feel comfortable taking photos at the Impact Site)
The first time I visited the Flight 93 Memorial, about a year after it opened back in 2011, there was no Visitors Center. There were only a few roads. The only way to get to the Impact Site was to walk the looping trail around the wetlands and field. That mile or so loop is now fully paved, and you can drive down and park a lot closer. There is still a walk, but now it’s only maybe 25-50 yards tops. You can also take a meandering stroll in the opposite direction away from the Visitors Center, down a short hill to the Impact Site and Wall of Names.
The approach to the Wall of Names includes a long low charcoal-colored marble wall. About 3/4 of the way to the Wall of Names, there is a small shelf cut into the marble where visitors can leave small tokens of memory, honor, or appreciation. There are a few placards with information as well.
The Wall of Names itself is comprised of 40 large slabs of white marble, with a name and a little bit of information about each of the victims. Though there are small gaps between each slab, when viewed along the flight path towards the Impact Site, it is designed to look like one solid piece, signifying the unity of the passengers and crew.
The Impact Site is set behind a large wooden gate. It is now marked by a large granite boulder. There were a few small tokens and flags on the granite, as family members are allowed to walk to the site, but otherwise it’s relatively nondescript. It is powerfully moving all the same, especially when you take a few moments to silently reflect on why the boulder is there.
When to Visit the Flight 93 Memorial
Though the Memorial is open year round, I wouldn’t recommend going in the winter unless you are of the hale and hearty type – winters in the Laurel Highlands can get quite cold and snowy. Alternatively, while summer is relatively mild and quite gorgeous, it’s also the busiest time of year at the Memorial. The park itself is quite open and spacious, but the Visitors Center, Overlook, and Wall of Names area can get quite crowded during busy times.
Late Spring and early Fall – May or September – are the best times to visit. Typically beautiful weather, smaller crowds, and the changing of the seasons all conspire to make those two months incredibly pleasant options for your trip – especially if you’re going to spend the day (or a couple days) exploring the many other things to see and do in the area!
Other Things to do Near the Flight 93 Memorial
While you are outside of the Pittsburgh area, why not make a full day (or weekend) out of exploring the plentiful options of things to see and do in the Laurel Highlands?
- Tour the multiple Frank Lloyd Wright designed homes nearby
- Make the short hike down to Cucumber Falls and the natural water slides
- Bike the Great Allegheny Passage
- Explore early American history at Fort Ligonier, Fort Necessity, and the lesser-known Jumonville Glen, where some historians say the French and Indian War truly got its start… and where George Washington began his rise to fame
- Go whitewater rafting while exploring the many things to see and do in Ohiopyle State Park
- Test your skills at one of the many excellent golf courses in the area
- Wet your whistle at one of the many breweries and wineries
- Hike, fish, bike, and camp at Gallitzin State Forest
- Explore another one of my favorite back roads, US Route 40, the nation’s first federally funded “highway”
- Splurge on a decadent night or two at the majestic Nemacolin Woodlands Resort