Attending the Groundhog Day Celebration in Punxsutawney Pa.
Story and photos by Matt Bayman
The excitement at Gobbler's Knob is intense. It's not even five o'clock in the morning, below zero and my children and I are in a clearing in the middle of a pine forest surrounded by thousands of warmly dressed, cheering people. We've all come to Punxsutawney, Pa. to experience the annual Groundhog Day Celebration on Feb. 2 and Gobbler's Knob is center stage.
Unlike the movie, "Groundhog Day," starring Bill Murray, which shows Gobbler's Knob located in the middle of a quaint little town, the park is actually located on the outskirts of Punxsutawney in the hilly countryside. (The movie was filmed in Woodstock, Illinois). During the annual celebration, no cars are allowed at Gobbler’s Knob. To get there, school buses from the town and surrounding area are turned into event buses, transporting the many thousands of people to the park starting at 3 a.m.
At 7:30 a.m., just after the most famous groundhog prognosticator in the world, Punxsutawney Phil, makes his prediction, the buses return visitors to town to continue the fun.
In between these two times at Gobbler’s Knob, there are fireworks, massive bonfires, pyrotechnic displays, hot chocolate and hot dogs, live music, dancing, group singing, people dressed in fancy and fun costumes, and chanting-battles between those who want an early spring and those who would prefer a longer winter. It's no surprise that the “spring people” always outnumber the winter folk, but they do exist.
On the outskirts of all of this is a media circus. News outlets from around the world set up on the perimeter of Gobbler’s Knob, all trying to get the best shot of Phil when he’s pulled from his lair and displayed before the cheering crowd. Their satellite towers rise as high as the pine trees and their bright lights provide a small bit of heat for those standing nearby, not to mention light in the darkness.
Seeking some wintertime adventure in 2019, and since we are all huge fans of the Bill Murray film, my children and I had traveled to within two hours of Punxsutawney on the day before Groundhog Day to attend the early morning celebration.
Because of the popularity of the event, a hotel two hours away was the closest option we could find and/or afford. This meant that, in order to reach Gobbler’s Knob in time to see Phil, we had to wake up at 2:30 a.m., put on several layers of clothing (with more in the waiting) and drive through the Allegheny Mountains on a cold, winter night. Once we arrived in town, along with thousands of other people, we would need to find a bus to get to our destination.
This all turned out to be surprisingly easy to accomplish, and the celebration something that everyone should experience at least once in their lives.
2019 was the 133rd Annual Groundhog Day Celebration in Punxsutawney. With this many years of experience, the town leaders seem to have everything pretty well figured out, including how to get people to and from Gobbler’s Knob with relative ease.
After experiencing some minor traffic when reaching the outskirts of Punxsutawney, my children and I arrived at the local high school at about 4:30 a.m. The high school is one of several places in the community where visitors can park free of charge and then pay $5 for adults (free for children 12 and under) to reach Gobbler’s Knob, and then return. (Note: There’s also a 1.3-mile hiking/biking trail that leads to Gobbler’s Knob from town. It’s free to use).
From the time we parked our car to the time we reached Gobbler’s Knob, it took less than a half-hour. Although the festivities had been in full swing for several hours, this meant that we arrived with plenty of time to explore before the big announcement.
Gobbler’s Knob is like an outdoor amphitheater, with no seats and a stage area at the bottom of a gently inclined hill. Straw is laid down in thick layers to keep any mud at bay.
While the Groundhog Day Celebration takes place over three days, the highlight of the entire event, and what most people come to see, including my children and me, is the Groundhog Day Prognostication at Gobbler’s Knob. Before and after this, all activities take place in town, including an outdoor festival that features bands, crafts, food, carnival games and more. This all takes place no matter how much snow is on the ground or how cold it is, although heated tents improve things a bit.
Walking around Gobbler’s Knob during the morning celebration, it is clear that there are people here from all walks of life. And they love Groundhog Day!
At one of several bonfires used to help keep onlookers warm, my children and I meet a woman named Gamon from the Philippines. She is celebrating her 50th birthday and has traveled 25 hours by air to attend. We find out that she started planning her visit five years ago and that she purchased the event’s famous Bucket List Ticket, which includes access to the Groundhog Grub Food Tour, wine tastings, free admission to the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center (where Phil’s year-round burrow is located), and a variety of special dinners, shows and banquets, among other perks.
Next to Gamon is a group of college students dressed in Pittsburgh Steelers pajamas and straw hats. They discuss staying up all night to arrive at 3 a.m. and wonder when they’ll sleep next.
As we make our way through the crowd, we cross paths with at least a dozen people dressed as Father and Mother Winter, and several more are in makeshift and elaborate groundhog costumes. All the while, a host of entertainment graces the stage, rousing the crowd to sing, dance and shout.
Just before 7:25 a.m., the Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle of dignitaries, all dressed in top hats and tuxedos, flood the stage and prepare the crowd for the big moment. A speech is then given and Phil is pulled from his lair. This is followed by the lead dignitary reading the official prognostication and hoisting Phil in the air for all to admire or loath.
In the past decade, Phil has predicted a longer winter seven times. Two other times in the decade, as well as during our visit, he predicted an early spring. The crowd was ecstatic.
Once back in town, my children and I follow the crowds to Barclay Square, which is a park in the middle of the town of 6,000 people. From this location, visitors can quickly reach many other attractions. This includes the weather center, a number of statues of Phil that dot the downtown, and a host of restaurants and shops. Dining highlights include Punxy Phil’s Family Restaurant and the Ramblin’ Rose Café.
The festival area has a limited number of brave craft and food vendors, a few games for children to play and, just like the movie, ice sculptures and ice sculpting demonstrations.
There are many other events that take place throughout the three-day celebration, most of them indoors. But to truly enjoy the experience, cold temperatures must be endured.
After an early morning start, and an action-packed day in the elements, my children and I decided to head back to the car and begin our trip home. We had experienced the peak of the celebration at Gobbler’s Knob and a majority of the festivities in town and were ready for the warm car ride home.
An Affordable Experience
While people spend thousands of dollars to reach and attend the annual Groundhog Day Celebration, as Gamon no doubt had, those of us living in the Miami Valley can do it for much less.
For starters, Punxsutawney is located less than five-and-a-half hours from most of the Miami Valley (about 350 miles). That’s only a few tanks of gas.
By staying at hotels away from Punxsutawney (the ones in town are usually booked out years in advance anyway), guests can save on lodging. The festival itself has few costs involved, which means the whole thing can be done for a couple hundred dollars.
And, to top it off, this part of Pennsylvania has plenty more to do in the winter.
For instance, on our particular trip, since we had several days to enjoy, and because we knew we couldn’t stay the night near Punxsutawney, we started our adventure by driving to Seven Springs Ski Resort in southwest Pennsylvania and went snow tubing for the day. Seven Springs happens to be less than two hours from Punxsutawney (85 miles) and is located just off of Interstate 70. It has dozens of nice, yet affordable hotel options in the area, most of which go for under $70 per night and include all of the best amenities.
After a day of snow tubing, we got in bed early, watched “Groundhog Day” on television (it was playing non-stop on cable) and tried to get as much sleep as we could before the alarm sounded and we headed to Punxsutawney.
In the end, although the cold weather and wintertime travel was certainly challenging, visiting the Groundhog Day Celebration lived up to its expectations and is something my children and I will never forget.
Everything you need to know to plan a future visit to the Groundhog Day Celebration can be found at groundhog.org.