Riding the Rail Trails in PA

by Dennis Hickethier

According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, there are 24,923 miles of abandoned railroad beds in the United States that have been converted into 2,294 multi-use trails for biking, walking, and jogging. Some are also used for cross-country skiing. Since the trails are built on railroad beds, they usually have low grades, making them easy to use. Since they usually travel through forests and countryside, they are often scenic and attractive. Pennsylvania has 194 trails covering over 2,136 miles! This article will briefly describe some of the most interesting and closest and encourage you to get out and experience one!

One of the best-known trails in our area is the Great Allegheny Passage, known fondly as the “GAP.” It is the fourth longest rail-trail in the US at 150 miles and includes 20.5 miles in Maryland. It is on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) “Hall of Fame” list. It runs from Cumberland, MD to Pittsburgh, through Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands. Most of the HABPI board members have ridden some or all of this trail and riding sections of the trail is one of its attractions. This short article cannot do justice to the trail, but there are several books and websites exclusively about it. Part of the fun is researching the trail and planning your adventure. My wife and I usually start above Cumberland, Maryland, which is Mile 0. We drive a couple miles up the steep hill from Cumberland to the Frostburg Trail Access parking area, across from 10109 New Hope Road NW. From there we head toward Pittsburgh, traveling up through the Big Savage Tunnel and up to the Eastern Continental Divide. Then we travel downhill as far as we want, before turning around. At mile 20.5, the trail enters Pennsylvania and there are some great views. If we want to stop for the day after our ride, we can drive 2 hours back to Gettysburg, but since we are in the area, we often drive to a hotel or Bed and Breakfast for the night and ride another trail section the next day. Many people take a few days leave and ride the entire trail in about four days. The possibilities are nearly endless. 

Closer to Gettysburg is the York Heritage Rail Trail County Park, another RTC “Hall of Fame” trail. It goes from York, south about 21 miles to New Freedom, PA where it connects to the Torrey C. Brown Trail that goes 20 miles south to Hunt Valley, MD. My wife and I prefer to park at Hanover Junction, which has the old train station, and ride 11 miles south to New Freedom where there are several choices for eating and a rest, before returning to our vehicle. If you ride to York, there are even more choices for eating but don’t overdo it like we did one time at an Italian restaurant. It was a sluggish ride back.

The Cumberland Valley Rail Trail is the closest one to Gettysburg, if you go to the Shippensburg trailhead in town at Mile 0, or the township park at Mile 1. I actually prefer to drive to the trailhead at 23 McFarland Street in Newville and ride back to Shippensburg where there are more choices to eat and rest.

The Pine Creek Rail Trail in the Little Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania should be included in your list of ride adventures although it takes nearly three hours to drive to the southern trail end in Jersey Shore, PA. The northern end is near Wellsboro, where I like to spend a night or two in the wonderful town. The gorge where the trail travels can be 800-1400 feet deep and a mile wide. Outside the gorge, the trail can be very close to Pine Creek with wide open views. As the website states, it is “62 miles of pure enjoyment” and one reason is that you are alongside Pine Creek most of the way. The trail goes through Leonard Harrison State Park and Colton State Park, Tioga State Forest, and Tiadaghton State Forest. Since the trail is maintained by the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, it is in great shape, as are the rest rooms along the trail. Since my wife and I usually ride 20-25 miles a day, we do the trail in three sections, going up and back for each section.  

There is too much to say about these trails and others in this article, so please visit our website and follow the links for more details, including the link to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which offers a book listing and explaining the Rail-Trails in Pennsylvania. We will publish another article about trails in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C.

Dennis Hickethier has been a member of HABPI since it was created in 2005 as a non-profit organization. He has lived in Adams County since 1992 and considers himself a slow, but steady, recreational bike rider, enjoying our beautiful landscape.