There are few things I love more than a great tradition. We’ve burned out the old year at bonfires in Iceland, and we have welcomed the new year during Hatsumōde, the first temple visit, in Japan. We’ve sang Sweet Caroline at Red Sox games in Boston, and we’ve swayed to the Good Old Song after touchdowns at University of Virginia games in Charlottesville. And twice on cold, February mornings, we have watched a rodent predict the weather on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.In 2008, long before we began capturing our travels through articles on Road Unraveled, we made the drive from Washington, DC to Punxsutawney to experience Groundhog Day at the epicenter of the excitement. While we now refer to it as our first Road Unraveled road trip, at the time it was nothing more than a chance to see the annual event live and in person instead of in a hurried clip on a local news network. Shivering in the frigid temperatures and standing as close to the bonfire as we could without igniting our jackets, we promised we would never subject ourselves to the brutally cold tradition again. Time has a way of softening our memories, though, and after more than a decade we decided to relive that first adventure—this time with warmer socks, more layers, and a better plan for experiencing the Weather Capital of the World.
Spending Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney is much more than the moment when we learn if winter will persist or if spring will rescue us sooner rather than later. It’s a glimpse into small town America, a chance to experience a lasting tradition, and an opportunity to connect with some truly wonderful people. If you have ever wondered if you should plan a trip to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day, here’s what you can expect from the experience as well as a few tips for planning your trip.
A Brief History of Groundhog Day
Although Groundhog Day is most popular in the USA and Canada, its origins are rooted in Germany. February 2nd is also Candlemas, a Christian holy day that commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In Germany, Candlemas is also known as Badger Day; if a badger emerged on February 2nd and saw its shadow in the sunlight, four more weeks of winter would follow. When the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated to the USA they brought this tradition with them, and it slowly rooted itself in fledgling American culture—first in Morgantown, West Virginia, and later in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper first mentioned it in 1886. The following year, a group made a more official trek to a large, tree-lined field known as Gobbler’s Knob to seek a Groundhog meteorological expertise. Since then, crowds have gathered each year to descend on Gobbler’s Knob in the hours before sunrise.Today, there are a number of formalities associated with Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, including the structure of the annual event and how the groundhog—known as Punxsutawney Phil—relays his prediction to the thousands of people who gather before him. Phil relies on a small group of volunteers known as the Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle for support during the festivities. The Inner Circle is easy to spot: they wear top hats and tuxedos as they escort their famous citizen through Gobbler’s Knob. Only one person, the president of the Inner Circle, can directly communicate with Phil; speaking in “Groundhogese,” Phil makes his weather prediction by directing the president to a scroll containing the text he wants shared on his behalf.
When it comes to Phil himself, he boasts an impressive resume. Active since 1887, his official name is Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather-Prophet Extraordinary. The secret to his exceptional longevity is said to be a special “groundhog punch” that he drinks annually; it is said each sip extends his life by seven years. If you’re wondering whether his annual predictions are accurate, rest assured he has correctly predicted the weather every single year. While officially he has been correct approximately 36% of the time, the Inner Circle is quick to assume responsibility for any incorrect predictions, noting they may incorrectly interpret his words from time to time (we have no doubt Groundhogese is a tough language to master!).
More Information: Groundhog.org
More Information: 11 Punxsutawney Phil Facts for Groundhog Day (MentalFloss.com)
Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney: What to Do Around TownIf your knowledge of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney is limited to your annual viewing of the famous Bill Murray movie, you may be surprised by just how different—and more immersive—the experience is. Groundhog Day was not filmed in Punxsutawney, nor does it feature the town or depict the essence of the annual celebration. Even if you won’t find yourself stuck in a time loop or waking up to the same song every morning, there is plenty to see and do beyond Gobbler’s Knob.
► Check Out the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center
Punxsutawney has a few great museums that can help you fill the hours before and after your trek to Gobbler’s Knob. The Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center provides a great education on the science and tradition of weather forecasting through some nicely curated interactive exhibits. Admission is 7 USD, and there is plenty to do and learn for visitors of all ages.
► Visit Phil’s Burrow
When Phil isn’t at Gobbler’s Knob to make his annual prediction, you can find him at home in his burrow at the Punxsutawney Library. We peeked through the glass wall on February 1st to see him stretched out, peacefully slumbering as hundreds of people jockeyed for position to snap his photo. We were excited to see the most famous meteorologist up close before taking his spot on the national stage the next morning. You won’t need to enter the library to see him; his burrow is on display from the outside.
► Visit the Phantastic Phil StatuesPunxsutawney Phil is celebrated throughout town in the form of six-foot tall statues of his likeness painted to reflect the greater community. Take a couple of hours to seek out the more than 30 Phantastic Phils around town; while you’ll need a car to reach some, including those at the local schools, many of them are located within the downtown area. Look for Phillage, the very first of the series and the only one to wear a top hat, and the Wizard of Weather outside of the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center. We also loved Freedom Phil, who takes a page out of the Statue of Liberty’s book with his crown and stance, and Oh The Places Phil Will Go, who was designed by the high school’s art club. Maps are available if you want to find them all; we had notes to seek out a few, but we also enjoyed the surprise of stumbling upon them as we explored the town.
► Explore Punxsutawney’s Downtown
Punxsutawney comes alive during the annual Groundhog Day festivities, and you can spend a full afternoon walking through the town. In Barclay Square, just beyond Phil’s Burrow, dozens of local vendors offered food, drink, and souvenirs for purchase. From local distilleries and artisan hot chocolates to funnel cakes and hot sausages, there were plenty of options for visitors looking for a quick bite to eat or drink. Beyond the square, souvenir shops stocked with plastic top hats, hoodies, and magnets attracted huge crowds, and bars serving Punxsutawney Philsner were filled to the brim. Mahoning Street is lined with plenty of restaurants, so finding something for lunch or dinner is easy—even if the lines will require some patience.
► Venture Beyond Downtown
Although Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney should include plenty of time downtown, you may find some breathing room away from the main streets. We started our visit with lunch at Laska’s Pizza, just far enough from downtown that it was busy but not crowded. Most business was local that day, with a line of people streaming in to pick up takeout orders. Our pizza buckled under the weight of the sauce and toppings, a great choice to keep us satiated before exploring the town. We also stopped into Shadow Vineyards and Winery, just three miles from downtown Punxsutawney, for a tasting. While Shadow Vineyards offered satellite tastings in the middle of town for the masses of visitors, we found the winery location to be busy without bordering on crowded, and we had a great visit in a more relaxing setting. We especially enjoyed Whistlepig Mist, a sweet white blend with a groundhog on the label.
The Gobbler’s Knob Experience on Groundhog Day
Celebrating Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney involves crowds, cold, and lots and lots of waiting—and more than 40,000 people joined us to embrace it all during our recent trek to Gobbler’s Knob.
There are two ways to travel to Gobbler’s Knob: you can walk, or you can take the bus. Walking is not for the faint of heart; the festivities take place close to two miles outside of town, and the uphill hike in the February snow, ice, and mud is not ideal. Most people select the second option, the bus, which was also our preferred method of transportation.The party at Gobbler’s Knob starts at 3 AM, but we arrived at the Punxsutawney Walmart parking lot just after 4 AM in hopes of catching a bus by 5 AM. Our timing estimates ended up being spot-on; it took just under an hour for us to find a parking spot (the hardest part of our morning!), purchase bus tickets (5 USD per person), and join a second line to board one of 80 school buses running a one-way route up the hill. It was clear but cold as a steady stream of people shuffled toward the waiting buses, a crisp but manageable 28 degrees Fahrenheit that is almost balmy for Pennsylvania during the winter.
It took less than 10 minutes for the bus to deposit us in front of the famous Welcome to Gobbler’s Knob sign, where we took a photo almost identical to the one we took during our first visit in 2008. Inside the gates, the crowds dispersed, scurrying in all directions to seek snacks, warmth, or entertainment. By the time we arrived the festivities were in full swing. Hundreds of people circled a large bonfire on the outskirts of the Knob, and the lines for the heated welcome tent and the souvenir shop extended well past their doorways. Thanks to some smart decisions with our wardrobe choices we skipped those stops, pausing briefly for a photo with a member of the Inner Circle before making our way closer to the main stage.
With tens of thousands of people in attendance, the Groundhog Club plans a lively, fast-paced program designed to both outright entertain and keep attendees from focusing too much on the temperature. We cheered for the two finalists of the Groundhog Day talent show, a singer from Wilkes-Barre who proclaimed it was “freezing, but a good kind of freezing” and an 11-year-old girl who wowed everyone into a stunned silence with her rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.” We listened to the United States Naval Academy’s Clean Shave barbershop quartet and several guitarists, and we witnessed a dozen dancers perform “Punxsutawney Style” to the tune of Psy’s 2012 hit “Gangnam Style.” Once you hear it, you’ll never think of the original song the same way again. We’re sorry in advance.
Punxy groundhog style!At 6:30 AM, less than an hour before sunrise and Punxsutawney Phil’s big prediction, the stage and the surrounding lights went completely dark; moments later, the sky lit up as a magnificent pre-dawn fireworks display exploded above our heads. Set to a few classic Star Wars songs, the fireworks were bigger and brighter than some of those we have seen on the National Mall in Washington, DC on the 4th of July. As the reds, greens, and whites faded away, we noticed the darkness giving way to blue on the horizon as dawn began to replace the night.
In the 30 minutes before Phil’s prediction, Gobbler’s Knob began to shiver with the anticipation of the moment so many people had gathered to see. The Inner Circle arrived and made their way through the crowd, and Phil himself was escorted in by his handlers and the volunteers who care for him year-round. After a round of introductions where the Inner Circle greeted the cheering crowd, the president of the Groundhog Club provided us with a brief overview of how he would communicate with Phil, interpret his prediction, and share it with the rest of us. On stage, Phil sat before two scrolls—one with a winter prediction, the other calling for an early spring—and indicated which scroll the president should read. As a light snow began to fall on Gobbler’s Knob, the president announced that Phil was thrilled to see a record crowd before him, and cheers erupted as we learned Phil predicted an early spring for us.
Just like that, the moment was over, and 40,000 of Phil’s faithful followers scattered to wait in line for the buses to take us back to town. It takes quite a while for 80 buses to escort so many people back to their cars, but we waited in line for just more than 30 minutes before getting a seat in the welcome warmth. By the time we retrieved our car, dusted the snow off the windshield, and joined the line of cars heading away from town, it was hard to believe Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney had already come and gone. All that was left was the drive home—and, of course, to wait and see if the Inner Circle correctly interpreted Phil’s prediction this year.
Tips for Spending Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney
Are you thinking of visiting Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day? We hope these tips help to make your visit as fun and easy as possible!
► Dress WarmlyGroundhog Day in Punxsutawney can be cold, or it can be downright freezing, so the clothing choices you make will make a huge difference. Wear a thermal base layer (we wore the base layers we purchased for our trip to Antarctica), and choose a warm pair of pants, a sweater or sweatshirt, and a heavy parka to keep yourself as comfortable as possible. While we wore jeans over our base layer and were warm enough, many people chose ski pants instead. A hat, scarf, and mittens are also important additions.
► Don’t Forget Your Feet
Gobbler’s Knob can get muddy if it has been snowy in the days leading up to Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, so make sure your feet will stay warm and dry by wearing waterproof boots or shoes and thick socks—two pairs of socks is an even better idea. I also tossed a pair of single use handwarmers into my boots, which kept my feet warmer than in previous years.
► Arrive Early
We parked at the Walmart parking lot, a designated bus stop location, and it was almost entirely full when we arrived at 4 AM. Although we eventually found a spot on the opposite side of the parking lot (close to the Dollar Tree) an earlier arrival would have made things easier for us. We talked to some people who arrived before 3 AM to secure a spot and even a group who slept in their car in the parking lot, and while you may not need to go to that extreme it’s a good idea to plan ahead and avoid the frustration of looking for a single spot in a crowded lot.
► Prepare for LinesGroundhog Day in Punxsutawney is a time-honored tradition, and you’ll be in good company if you plan to experience it for yourself. We constantly encountered lines throughout the weekend—for the bus, for food, for souvenirs, and even to cross the street. You’ll need to be a bit patient, but you may also find the lines are an enjoyable part of the experience. We met some incredibly interesting, kind, and friendly people from all over the USA while waiting in lines, and bonding over our shared interest in a Groundhog weather prediction led us to enjoying our downtime just as much as the day’s festivities.
► Take Cash
Bus tickets, refreshments, souvenirs, and other purchases at Gobbler’s Knob are most easily paid for in cash, so stop at an ATM on your way into town.
► Don’t Abandon Your Spot at Gobbler’s Knob
As tens of thousands of people descended on Gobbler’s Knob to await Phil’s prediction, the area around the main stage quickly became overwhelmed with people jockeying for a good spot. Consider making your way to the stage by 5:30 AM (even if it means leaving the warmth of the bonfire!) to get close enough to see some of the stage. Once you have a spot near the action, don’t leave it—not for cocoa, not for a bathroom break, not for anything. In addition to the complications of making your way to the outskirts of the crowds, finding your way back to your spot will be impossible.
► Plan for After the PredictionOnce Phil had announced an early spring, almost everyone was eager to rush back to the buses for the ride back to downtown Punxsutawney. Knowing the lines will be long, consider using that time to explore more of Gobbler’s Knob in the daylight hours. You’ll be able to get closer to the main stage, spend some time by the bonfire, or even see Phil up close once his annual media interviews conclude. If waiting for the bus sounds frustrating, the walk back to town is downhill from the Knob, so take a more leisurely stroll if you are feeling up to some exercise.
► Consider the Weather and the Day of the Week
We celebrated Groundhog Day 2020 on a Sunday morning in what is considered good, warm weather (28°F) for the event—and we were not the only ones who made the most of the favorable conditions. When February 2nd is on a Saturday or a Sunday, the crowds will swell as people make the most of attending without using vacation time. If the weather is dry, clear, and “warm,” those numbers will further increase. That means planning for longer lines or building in an earlier arrival will be even more important.
Map of Things to Do in Punxsutawney
If you are planning a trip to experience Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, check out this map we created featuring some of the attractions, restaurants, and sights we enjoyed during our visit. We hope this helps make things a little easier as you plan your own adventure!
Where to Stay on Groundhog Day
There are not a lot of hotel options in Punxsutawney, so many people who spend Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney will stay in a neighboring town with a greater selection of guest rooms. We found a good rate at the Ramada by Wyndham in Indiana, Pennsylvania about 30 miles south of Punxsutawney (and just more than a half hour away by car). The hotel was perfect for our quick visit, and because almost everyone who stayed there that night was planning to wake up early to attend the celebration in Punxsutawney it was exceptionally quiet when we went to sleep at 8 PM. For us, it was also a great choice because the hotel was on our way home, which meant we could stop in briefly to change our clothes and formally check out before driving back to DC.
More Information: Ramada by Wyndham (Booking.com)
As a bonus, just across the street from the Ramada we discovered a great spot called Levity Brewing. Although it was packed with groundhog fans on February 1, we were excited to find a place with craft beer and tasty pub food so close to the hotel. Don’t miss the Dark Soul bourbon barrel stout, one of my favorite beers of all time; the nachos with beer cheese were also a perfect choice (we were still full the next morning and throughout the Groundhog Day festivities).
More Information: LevityBrewing.com
Hotels book far in advance for Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, so make your plans early. We found the Ramada on Booking.com, which also offered a fully refundable rate in case our plans changed between when we booked (11 months earlier!) and Groundhog Day. Take a look at the deals on Booking.com if you are planning a trip to Punxsutawney to see if there is a great hotel choice for you as well!
Enjoy Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney!
There’s a certain amount of absurdity that comes with making a trek to a small town to watch a rodent predict the weather. Still, as we stood in the bus line swapping stories with a fun group from outside of Philadelphia, we realized the absurdity is part of the magic of Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day. It’s a combination of more than a century’s worth of tradition and local lore, the magic of fireworks illuminating the sky at dawn, and the thrill of learning one small animal’s thoughts on when the warmth of spring might chase away the winter’s chill. It’s standing shoulder to shoulder with people who recognize it’s just the slightest bit crazy to wake up at 2 AM—or perhaps stay up all night—to watch people sing and dance in tribute to an all-knowing groundhog. It’s a chance to be part of a different type of community, to learn about what elevated Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney to the top of their bucket lists. In many ways, these types of traditions most effectively bring us together, and although you’ll eventually forget about the cold temperatures and recover from a short night’s sleep, you may discover that the memories made celebrating Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney become some of your favorites.
If you have the chance to experience Groundhog Day in the place where it all began, don’t miss out—you’ll be amazed at how much fun you can have waiting for Phil to address his fans!
Looking for more interesting places to visit in the USA? Check out a few more of our favorite off-the-beaten-path spots!