BIKING ON CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA’S RAILS TO TRAILS
Article By: Stephen Brunner, Volunteer Instructor, with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Penn State
It’s easy to take for granted the striking wilderness and countryside beauty common in the Spring Creek Watershed and throughout Central PA. During the Industrial Revolution, however, the feel of the region was quite different. Resource extraction was dominant: extensive logging denuded the mountainous areas, ore mines such as in the Scotia Barrens and numerous iron furnaces and factories on the streambanks grossly altered waterways. Canals were dug along the creeks and railroads were built (sometimes over top of the canal towpaths) to connect the growing population, agricultural, coal, ore and industrial output to the bigger urban areas.
Today, due to nearly a century of conservation efforts, the forests have grown back, creeks and waterways such as Spring, Spruce and Pine creeks are now nationally renowned for fly fishing. Many of the former industries and supporting villages are occasionally visible historical ruins and most of the railroads are long since gone. Still remaining though, are quite a few canal and railroad rights of way. These basically flat paths, often following the rivers and creeks, now form a perfect backbone for the many biking Rails to Trails within roughly a two-hour radius from Spring Creek.
Examples of some of these nearby trails include the Lower Trail (rhymes with “flower”) which follows the former towpath of the Pennsylvania Canal along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River, the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail between Mifflinburg and Lewisburg, the Pine Creek Rail Trail which follows the Pine Creek gorge (the northern reach of which is sometimes referred to as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon), and the Ghost Town Trail, (the closest trail head is in Ebensburg) which traverses an old rail line, which connects the ruins of a number of late 1800s industrial and mining villages.
Beyond natural beauty, serenity and glimpses of wildlife, common, bicyclist-friendly characteristics of these maintained trails include a grade, which typically is no more than 1-2 percent, restroom facilities and picnic areas, and either paved or hard packed gravel surfaces which are suitable for most bikes. Another rail trail plus is that except for occasional well marked grade crossings over roads and parking areas, the rides are generally car free. From a nature perspective, rides vary dramatically depending on the season. For example, in the early spring before the leaves come out, the views are very different from summer and fall.
If you would like to start exploring these biking trails, two very useful guidebooks are available to begin your planning. From an overall viewpoint, look to the Rails-Trails: Pennsylvania guidebook by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, and for the 62-mile Pine Creek Rail Trail, The Pine Creek Rail-Trail Guidebook, by Linda Stager, which provides well researched detail about each segment of the trail. Both are readily available in bookstores; see the citations below for more detail.
As I started exploring Rail Trails in the region, I found a number of useful active Facebook group pages focused on the various trails. These group pages are filled with valuable user- postings on practical matters such as current trail surface conditions (for example it can be sunny springtime in Happy Valley, but the snow melt from the mountains surrounding many trails can create soggy trails which bike tires can easily damage), fallen trees blocking a trail (and then when they are removed), and trail maintenance activities. Additionally mentioned are topics such as where cell phone service might be available, where to find a place to stay if one would like to stay during a multiday ride, places to eat (and have a beer after a ride!), and the summertime opening hours of ice cream stands in villages along the trails. Examples of
these Facebook group pages include: Rails to Trails, Lower Trail, Buffalo Valley Rail Trail, Pine Creek Rail Trail, and from a statewide perspective Pennsylvania Rails to Trails. Some are public groups, others are private and will ask you to register.
Steve Brunner moved to the State College area in 2019 after retiring from an international banking career spanning 39 years and 65 countries. He enjoys exploring the many Rails to Trails routes in Central PA and leads a bicycling special interest group and classes as a volunteer instructor for the Penn State OLLI program.
Citations and for further reading:
Linda Stager, The Pine Creek Rail-Guidebook – A Bicycle Ride Through History, Publisher: Linda Stager, 2015
Rail-To-Trails Conservancy, Rail-Trails: Pennsylvania - The Definitive Guide to the State’s Top Multiuse Trails, Publisher: Wilderness Press, 2019,2021
Facebook Group Pages for further reference:
Buffalo Valley Rail Trail, n.d., facebook.com group: Buffalo Valley Rail Trail
Pine Creek Rail Trail, n.d., facebook.com group: Pine Creek Rail Trail
Pennsylvania Rails to Trails, n.d., facebook.com group: Pennsylvania Rails to Trails
Rails to Trails, Lower Trail, n.d., facebook.com group: Rails to Trails, Lower Trail