Riding the Rail-Trails in Pennsylvania

by Dennis Hickethier

According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 24,923 miles of abandoned railroad beds in the United States have been converted into 2,294 multi-use biking, walking, and jogging trails. Some are also used for cross-country skiing. The trails were built on railroad beds that generally have low grades and travel through forest and countryside, which makes them scenic and easy to use. 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. You can find links to these trails on our Healthy Adams Bicycle/Pedestrian, Inc. (HABPI) website, or by  selecting “Bicycling” and then “Trails and Parks” from the top menu.

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 U.S. 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 are one of its attractions. This short article cannot do justice to the trail, as there are several books and websites about riding this trail. 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 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 two 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, about 21 miles south, to New Freedom, 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 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 once at an Italian restaurant. It was a sluggish ride back.

The Cumberland Valley Rail Trail is the closest to Gettysburg if you go to the Shippensburg trailhead in town at mile 0 or the township park at mile 1. I prefer to drive to the trailhead at 23 McFarland St. 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 800-1,400 feet deep and a mile wide. The trail can be very close to Pine Creek, with expansive open views outside the gorge. As the website states, it is “62 miles of Pure Enjoyment,” and one reason is that you are next to Pine Creek most of the way. The trail goes through Leonard Harrison State Park, Colton State Park, Tioga State Forest, and Tiadaghton State Forest. Since the trail is maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, it is in great shape, as are the restrooms along the route. Since my wife and I usually ride 20-25 miles daily, 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 explains the Rail-Trails in Pennsylvania. You can also do an online search for “incredible Pennsylvania biking trails” to learn about more trails in Pennsylvania.

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.