It’s not a stretch to call Groundhog Day Pennsylvania’s most bizarre tradition. Every year, thousands of people trek from across the world (yes, the world) to a small town in the middle of Pennsylvania to watch an oversized rodent crawl out from a hole while surrounded by people who are so obsessed with him, they call themselves his “inner circle.”
But it’s also not a stretch to say that every Pennsylvanian should visit Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day at least once.
Every year on Feb. 2, a small wooded area called Gobbler’s Knob at the top of a hill outside the small town of Punxsutawney becomes flooded with some 25,000 people ranging from families to drunk college kids to the weirdest people you’ve ever met.
They’re there to watch Punxsutawney Phil ascend from a hole early in the morning in what’s typically some of the shittiest weather of the year. According to folklore, if Phil sees his shadow, AKA it’s sunny out, he’ll get spooked, climb back into his burrow, and signal six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see it, spring is right around the corner.
The entire tradition that takes place in a small, sleepy town, makes little sense. But people in Punxsutawney revel in the annual attention and take it more seriously than anything else all year ‘round. And some who attend on a yearly basis look forward to Groundhog Day more than Christmas.
I went to Punxsutawney two years ago for a couple days on assignment (I am literally an expert on Groundhog Day,) and I think this video pretty well sums up what Gobbler’s Knob is like early in the morning on Feb. 2.
Here are eight things to know about the weirdest Pennsylvania tradition ever:
1. There’s really something for everyone
If you’re even moderately considering driving nearly five hours to get to Groundhog Day, know that you’ll surely be able to find something to do. Gobbler’s Knob is split into two sections: One is for families and general wholesome vibes and the other is for people who are drunk on Keystone Light and are chanting for a groundhog.
Technically, you can’t openly drink at Gobbler’s Knob. But wink wink.
2. It starts in the wee hours of the morning
Because Phil usually ascends from his hole at about 7:25 a.m., the festivities up at Gobbler’s Knob start well before then, with people pouring into the area at 3 a.m. right when it opens up (it’s free.) Some of the people there that early are die-hard Groundhog Day fans who want a front row spot to see the action. Others are just there because they’ve been drinking all night and don’t want to go to sleep before Phil’s big moment.
By 3 a.m., programming at the Knob begins with an emcee and the Inner Circle, along with a number of scheduled performances and ways to keep the (usually very cold) crowd engaged.
3. Phil has friends
Punsutawney’s Phil’s Inner Circle are those guys that surround the rodent while wearing top hats and suits. There’s about a dozen of them, and they’re all longtime residents of Punxsutawney who have an affinity for Punxsutawney Phil. A groundhog. They do things like help plan events, run the Groundhog Day museum that’s in town and make appearances with Phil. They also handle the expert rodent himself on the big day, and are straight-up experts on everything groundhog.
Here’s the funny part about it: These guys aren’t paid. Not a dime. They actually spend a good deal of their own money putting on events and being special friends of Phil’s.
4. You can’t actually drive to where this all happens
Unless you’ve got the state disability tag on your car, you’re not allowed to drive up to and park at Gobbler’s Knob. Everyone else has to either take a $5 bus from the town of Punxsutawney or walk uphill for a mile and a half to actually get there. Depending on the weather, I’d recommend considering leaving the bar at 2 a.m. and taking the walk up to the Knob to sober up a little so you can be let into the venue at 3 a.m.
Pro tip: Don’t expect much. It’s a grassy, muddy area with a small stage, some port-a-potties, some fences and it’s all surrounded by trees. Have fun!
5. Phil is really, really old
I mean, according to his Inner Circle. Phil is apparently 129 years old and he gets his old age from drinking a magical potion that extends his life. In all honesty, most groundhogs don’t live more than 12 or 13 years. Don’t tell the kids.
6. Punxsutawney Phil isn’t his full name
His full name is a mouthful: Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary. And each of the Inner Circle members have their own given names too, ranging from the “Rainmaker” to the “Fair Weatherman.” The reason why is unclear.
7. Don’t expect to stay in town on a whim
If you’re just now deciding you want to stay overnight in Punxy, you’re going to be SOL because there is literally one hotel in the town itself and one right outside it. But you should be able to find something if you check hotels that are a bit farther out from the town itself. Next year, if you want to stay in Punxsutawney, book at least nine months in advance. Seriously.
For this year, there are a few options on AirBnb that are in Punxsutawney that are going for $200 a night or more. But AirBnb is giving us the “17 other people are looking at this place for these dates” signal, so move quickly. There are also AirBnb options in Indiana, about a half an hour away. Hottest AirBnb deal goes to this humble tent in the middle of a forest for $25 a night outside Punxsutawney.
8. You’ll have a blast at all the events
For the most part, the people of Punxsutawney love Groundhog Day and all the events that surround it. They plan events ranging from tours to dueling piano competitions to a Groundhog Ball.
By the end of my time in Punxsutawney two years ago, my cheeks hurt because I had smiled so much all weekend from meeting a range of people. Groundhog Day is a completely insane time that makes absolutely no sense. But it’s also a blast and, like I said, something every Pennsylvanian should do once.
Or you can just watch the webcast.