Tag Archives: rail trails

New York’s Empire State Trail Comes Together: Biking the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in Hudson Valley

Biking over the Rosendale Trestle, 150 feet above the Rondout Creek, on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, part of the New York Empire State Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The ambitious New York Empire State Trail is taking shape, linking and connecting and improving existing trails for a 750-mile network that will enable bikers, hikers, recreational users go from New York City to the Canadian border, and from Buffalo to Albany. And it seems like it is on track for completion by the end of the year, when it would become the longest multi-use state trail in the nation.

We headed out to one of the trails, Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, newly incorporated in the Empire State Trail, with signage and improvements (new trestles, bridges, widened paths, improved drainage), from New Paltz, which itself is a hub for some marvelous multi-use trails that collectively form the Hudson Valley Greenway Trail (www.ny.gov/empire-state-trail/routes-empire-state-trail).

It was pure delight. The linear trail through forests, beside and over creeks, passed dramatic rock formations, is 22 miles long (so 44 miles, out and back). Because of time limitations (and the fact the trail has some closures north of the Rosendale Trestle, midweek, for improvements that are expected to be completed in October, check the site), we only went seven miles north of the parking lot at Sojourner Truth Park in New Paltz, but can’t wait to return to do the rest, another 7 miles north to Kingston, and 7 miles south to Gardiner. The northern half of the trail, from New Paltz to Kingston, has been incorporated into the Empire State Trail, with new signs and improvements.

Biking the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Shortly after the Wallkill Valley branch of the New York Railroad closed in the 1980s, the Wallkill Valley Land Trust purchased the12-mile stretch of the corridor between New Paltz, south to Gardiner, leading to the opening of the first stretch of trail in 1993. Today, the trail stretches a total of 24 miles and runs along its namesake river from Gardiner to Kingston.  In 2009, the northern section was purchased, extending the linear park 11.5 miles north from Rosendale through Ulster to Kingston, incorporating the dramatic Rosendale trestle, a 940-foot bridge across the Rondout Creek that provides one of the most thrilling parts of the ride. This portion of the trail, from New Paltz to Kingston, has been designated as part of the statewide Empire State Trail, which, when complete next year, will stretch 750 miles, running from New York City to Canada and from Albany to Buffalo. (info at Wallkillvalleylt.org,  845-255-2761).

The sights are marvelous, and the trail very pleasant.

We find our way from the New York Thruway to the Sojourner Truth Park along the river (where you can rent kayaks),  park the car and set off, north.

We soon come to a repurposed train station, now the Rail Trail Cafe, right on the trail.

About a mile north of the village, the trail crosses the Wallkill River on the Springtown Truss Bridge, featured in the movie “A Quiet Place” with magnificent views.  

Biking over the Springtown Truss Bridge over the Wallkill River, featured in the movie “A Quiet Place” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail passes besides orchards, organic farms, lakes, streams and the Wallkill River.

 In Rosendale, the most memorable feature of the trail can be found, the Rosendale Trestle. This 940-foot-long continuous truss bridge carries the trail 150-feet high over the Readout Creek, and spans both route 213 and the former Delaware and Hudson Canal.

Gorgeous scenery off the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We ride a little further north beyond the Rosendale Trestle, and come to the Binnewater Historic District where local quarries produced Rosendale cement. (I subsequently learn The Rosendale Cement Works near Limewater employed 5,000 workers and produced 4,000,000 barrels of cement a year at the peak of its activity at the turn of the century. Rosendale cement was used in the Brooklyn Bridge, the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. Treasury Building, as well as in many other structures around the country. The decline of the cementworks in this area is what accounts for the rail line being abandoned, and subsequently repurposed for the recreational trail. You can still see mines used to extract the cement,)

Interesting rock formations on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in the Binnewater Historic District where local quarries produced Rosendale cement © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here, though, we see magnificent rock formations – what looks like a cave from which it feels as if air conditioning were flowing and we sit on a boulder to have a snack before turning back.

 Notes about the trail say that were we able to continue biking north, we would come to great views of Third Lake, Fourth Lake, and Fifth Lake before passing under Interstate 87 alongside Hickory Bush Road. The northernmost stretch of the trail runs through a scenic forested area before reaching its terminus at a parking area off of New York State Route 32 just south of Kingston. However, the City of Kingston and Ulster County are exploring options for extending the trail into the city. Meanwhile, the Empire State Trail is adding roadway enhancements to run the trail along roadways into the city, where it can connect with other projects currently underway, including the Kingston Point Rail Trail and the Ulster County Midtown Linear Park which runs out towards the O&W Rail Trail.

Riding back, we come to the Café in the Woods, set up for musical performances, where you can purchase food from what looks like a gypsy caravan, and an outdoor kitchen with a wood-burning stove.

Here is where we see Happy Trails Bike Rental (917-443-3600; call in advance) set up right on the trail, (you should call in advance to make sure he’s around). (There are a couple of bike rental shops in the area).

Café in the Woods on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s late afternoon by the time we ride back south to the Sojourner Truth Park, but if we had time, we would have wanted to complete the trail the further 7 miles to Gardiner.

The southern end of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail is at Denniston Road in the Ulster County town of Gardiner. True to the corridor’s original use as a rail line, the trail is generally flat. However, especially at this southern end, the trail is unpaved and best suited in the summer for hikers or for bicycles with wider tires.  (www.traillink.com/trail-itinerary/wallkill-valley-rail-trail)

New Paltz Hub for Trails

New Paltz has become a regional hub for trails, with the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail running as the spine through the village. To the east, carrying the Empire State Trail up from New York City, is the Hudson Valley Rail Trail (which I have done in the past and found fantastic). This trail connects with the Walkway Over The Hudson’s western end in Highland – which has become one of New York State’s most popular attractions –  and as a part of the Empire State Trail’s investment, was recently extended from its previous terminus in the town of Lloyd all the way through to New Paltz where it connects with the Wallkill. Running west from New Paltz, a newly opened River-to-Ridge Trail  amidst the magnificent scenery of the Shawangunk Mountains.

Biking the new River to Ridge Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the next weekend, we return to bike the River-to-Ridge Trail (www.openspaceinstitute.org/places/river-to-ridge-trail) which was created by the Open Space Institute in partnership with Mohonk Preserve (www.mohonkpreserve.org) with support of the Butler Conservation Fund and only opened in 2018. This is a surprisingly hilly, gravel trail, about six miles long, that runs from the Wallkill River up through newly protected lands adjacent to fields, to 90 miles of carriage road trails on the grounds of the Mohonk PreserveMohonk Mountain House, and Minnewaska State Park Preserve.

Developed and managed by the Open Space Institute, the trail is a scenic and recreational off-road loop. It meanders through farm fields and over gently rolling hills, connecting New Paltz directly to the Shawangunk Ridge and 90 miles of recreational carriage roads and trails at the Mohonk Preserve and the Minnewaska State Park Preserve (https://parks.ny.gov/parks/127); the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail; and the Empire State Trail.

Just off the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail and up the road from the River to Ridge Trail is Coppersea Distillery © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There’s a bike rental set-up right by the parking lot on Springtown Road. Just up from the parking lot, on Springtown Road, we found you can visit Coppersea Distilling, where you can go for whiskey tasting, which turns out to be a stone’s throw from where we had biked the Wallkill Valley trail (239 Springtown Road, New Paltz, 845-444-1044, coppersea.com).

We also go for cider tasting, fruit picking, and have pizza, prepared in a wood-burning stove, enjoyed at an outdoor table (with strict COVID-19 protocols), rounding out a sensational day.

Empire State Trail

About 400 miles of the Empire State Trail network had already existed – the absolutely fantastic Erie Canalway, 326 miles from Buffalo to Albany (which we have done on the annual 8-day, 400-mile Parks & Trails NY Cycle the Erie supported biking/camping trip, ptny.org), during which you see unfurled before you 400-years of American history. Improvements to connect the Canalway have also been made.

Most notable is the work done to connect the trails on the north-south routes, from New York City (where you can ride the fabulous Hudson River Park), all the way up to Canada. This involved some 60 different construction projects, all engaging local stakeholders.

When the full 750 miles of continuous route is finished, The Empire State Trail will be the longest multi-use state trail in the nation. (see https://www.ny.gov/programs/empire-state-trail)

When the New York Empire State Trail is completed, it will be possible to bike from Hudson River Park in Manhattan, up to the Canada border © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The sections include:

Hudson Valley Greenway Trail

The Hudson River Valley Greenway segments start in New York City and run north to the Capital District:

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

  • Hudson River Park
  • On-Road connection from Upper Manhattan to Van Cortlandt Park
  • South County Trailway
  • North County Trailway
  • Putnam Trailway
  • Beacon Rail Trail
  • Dutchess Rail Trail
  • Walkway Over the Hudson

UPPER HUDSON VALLEY

  • Hudson Valley Rail Trail
  • Wallkill Valley Rail Trail
  • Kingston Point Rail Trail and Promenade
  • On-Road North of Kingston to the City of Hudson
  • Albany-Hudson Electric Trail (AHET Trail)
  • Corning Preserve Trail
  • Mohawk Hudson Bike Hike Trail

Champlain Valley Trail

The Empire State Trail within the Champlain Valley goes from the Capital District to Whitehall, Wherever feasible, it is off-road along Champlain Canal towpaths. The 120- mile section from Whitehall to the Canada border at Rouses Point is on-road route primarily intended for bicyclists.

CHAMPLAIN VALLEY 

  • Champlain Canalway Trail
  • On-Road from Mechanicville to Stillwater
  • Path through Hudson Crossing Park
  • On-Road to Fort Edward
  • Champlain Canalway Trail
  • On-Road from Fort Ann to Plattsburgh
  • Terry Gordon Bike Path
  • Saranac River Trail
  • On-Road from Plattsburgh to Rouses Point / Canadian Border

Erie Canalway Trail

The Empire State Trail within the Erie Canalway include proposed new trail sections and link Buffalo to the Capital District.

WESTERN ERIE CANALWAY TRAIL

  • Buffalo Connection
  • Pendleton Connection
  • On-Road connection in Lyons
  • Shared Use Path from Lyons to Clyde
  • On-Road connection in Clyde
  • Shared Use Path from Clyde over Erie Canal
  • On-Road connection to Savannah
  • Savannah shared use path
  • On-Road connection to Port Byron trailhead
  • Honeywell Trail to Loop the Lake Trail
  • Onondaga Creekwalk 
  • On-Road Water Street Connection in Syracuse
  • Erie Boulevard

EASTERN ERIE CANALWAY TRAIL

  • Old Erie Canal State Park
  • Rome Connection
  • Utica – Schuyler
  • Ft. Herkimer Church – Lock 18
  • Lock 18 – Little Falls
  • Schuyler – Ilion
  • Ilion – Mohawk
  • Pattersonville Trail
  • Rotterdam Junction Connection

More information from Parks & Trails NY (ptny.org). (Next Cycle the Erie scheduled July 11-18, 2021).

Also, Rails to Trails Conservancy (railstotrails.org), Great American Rail-Trail, which would link up 3,700-miles of multi-use trails from Washington DC on the east coast to Washington State on the west coast (www.railstotrails.org/greatamericanrailtrail/vision).

______________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Driveable Adventures: Bike Tours Are Ideal Vacation Choice This Season

Biking the history-rich, scenic Delaware & Lehigh Trail (the D&L). Pocono Biking has a four-day, 142 mile guided inn-to-inn tour © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bike tours offer one of the best vacation alternatives in these times when people want to be outdoors in open spaces, and enjoy stunning landscapes, discover heritage and history and have that opportunity for shared experiences that travel uniquely provide. There is still time this season to take advantage of guided, self-guided and private bike tours from companies including Pocono Biking, Wilderness Voyageurs and Discovery Bicycle Tours.

Pocono Biking has space on departures this season on a supported four-day bike tour that takes you 142 miles of the Delaware & Lehigh rail trail, also known as D&L Trail.

I did this ride, anchored by the charming town of Jim Thorpe and the famous historic landmark at Washington Crossing, on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn, though with camping instead of inn-to-inn along this scenic and history-rich trail (railstotrails.org). The RTC trip also was operated by Pocono Biking, a powerhouse outdoors- adventure company in the area well known for its rafting adventures on the Lehigh River in the Lehigh Valley.

The trip, traveling through 57,600 acres (90 miles) of state park, is designed so you get to enjoy three of Pennsylvania’s award winning quaint small towns: Jim Thorpe, Bethlehem and New Hope. Essentially, we follow the route of Anthracite Coal, from mine to market, which thrust America into the Industrial Revolution. Along the way, we see the geography, the resources, and the technological innovations that made this possible, and how they affected the society, the culture, and the economy of the fledgling nation. The trail, part of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, is so historically significant that it is a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate.

Buttermilk Falls, along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, is a highlight of Day One’s ride through Lehigh Gorge State Park © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 1 – 36 miles: The adventure starts in the wilderness of the Lehigh Gorge State Park, riding passed waterfalls and spotting wildlife (deer!), taking advantage of the newly connected D&L Rail Trail into the charming town of Jim Thorpe.  The first night is spent amid mountains in the Inn of Jim Thorpe, circa 1849.

A poster of Native American Olympian Jim Thorpe hangs in the Jim Thorpe Inn, in the town that was renamed for him © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Jim Thorpe – an odd name for a town – was established in 1818 as Mauch Chunk, which means “Mountain of the Sleeping Bear,” the name the Lenni Lenape Indians gave to the nearby mountain. But it was later renamed for an Oklahoma-born Native American, the Olympic hero Jim Thorpe, who is buried there. Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1888 and raised on the Sac and Fox Reservation and had never set foot in the borough.  But Patsy Thorpe, Jim’s third wife, cut a deal with two struggling towns in Pennsylvania, that if they would merge, rename themselves Jim Thorpe and build a memorial to honor him, she would present them his remains for burial.

The town played a key role in the emergence of the United States as an Industrial Revolution powerhouse. Here, entrepreneurs led by Josiah White formed the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company in the 1820s (you can still see the brick building), which shipped tons and tons of anthracite coal and other goods to market via the Lehigh and Delaware Canals which they constructed. The town grew in importance when it was named Carbon County’s seat in 1843.

Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, PA © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

A major attraction here is the Packer Mansion, which I was lucky enough to visit on my trip. Asa Packer’s story epitomizes the rags-to-riches-for-those-with-grit-and-a-good-idea American Dream: Born poor in Mystic, Connecticut, Asa Packer (1805-1879) left home when he was 17, setting out on foot to Brooklyn, Pennsylvania where he apprenticed as a carpenter to his cousin, Edward Packer. In 1828, he married Sarah Minerva Blakslee (1807-1882) and the couple tilled a farm they rented from Sarah’s father.  But after four years, they were just as poor as when they started. So hearing that men were needed to captain coal barges on the Lehigh Canal, Asa traveled to Mauch Chunk, in the winter of 1832. He used his skill as a carpenter to build and repair canal boats. He resettled his family in Mauch Chunk and became the owner of a canal boat that carried coal to Philadelphia, then opened his own firm, A. & R. W. Packer, which built canal boats and locks for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company.  

He tried to get the company to build a railroad, but was refused. So, in October 1851, risking financial ruin, Packer purchased nearly all the controlling stock and interest for the unfinished Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad (later known as the Lehigh Valley Railroad).  By November, 1852, he expanded the railroad from Mauch Chunk to Easton, Pennsylvania, in exchange for the company’s stocks and bonds, and later into New York State. 

He became the third richest person in the world and parlayed his business success into political success, serving as a Judge, a state representative, a two-term Congressman (1853-7), and even challenged Ulysses S. Grant for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868. He narrowly lost election to become Pennsylvania’s Governor in 1869.

The Packers settled in their Italianate Villa in Mauch Chunk in 1861 and, to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, on January 23, 1878, held a fantastic gala (a newspaper printed in gold described it, and the man who performed their wedding attended). Asa died just 18 months later.

Biking the Delaware-Lehigh Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This quaint village is a hub for many marvelous attractions including the Packer Mansion; the Old Jail Museum (the eerie dungeon where the Molly McGuires were jailed; Cell 17 with its mysterious handprint on the wall, under the gallows on which seven of the accused Molly Maguires were put to death); the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, St. Mark’s Church, Historic Stone Row, the Mauch Chunk Opera House, Anita Shapolsky Art Center, Mauch Chunk Museum, plus wineries and distilleries (Big Creek Vineyard and Stonekeep Meadery), biking, hiking and rafting.

Jim Thorpe Visitors Center, 2 Lehigh Ave., Jim Thorpe PA 18229, 570-325-3673, jimthorpe.org.

Day 2 – 37 miles:  After a night exploring the shops, museums and restaurants in Jim Thorpe and breakfast at the Inn, cycle beside the locks and canals along the Lehigh River to the town of Bethlehem, PA. Along the way you pass the Lehigh Gap Nature Center with its protected land. There are stunning views of the Blue Mountain and Appalachian Trail. Bethlehem, circa 1741, an old Moravian settlement, has cobblestone streets, quaint shops, and history around every bend.  Spend the night in the Hotel Bethlehem where Presidents and dignitaries have stayed.

Biking the Delaware-Lehigh Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lehigh Gap Nature Center, a non-profit conservation organization at the foot of the Kittatinny Ridge, is dedicated to preserving wildlife and habitat through conservation programs such as the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge, educational programs such as the Kittatiny Raptor Corridor Project as well as research. I linger in the butterfly garden before setting out again on the trail. (8844 Paint Mill Rd, Slatington, PA 18080, 610-760-8889, http://lgnc.org/)

Along the way, we come upon what is left of the original canal locks – stone walls, wooden gates with metal latches and gears, remnants from the mid-1800s. 

Historic Freemansburg, on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

At Freemansburg, we find a lockmasters house, the remains of the locks and a mill, which, when I visited, was manned by interpreters in period dress. I wonder whether the village was settled by freemen and am told that it was named for one of the original settlers, Richard Freeman.

Freemansburg is a classic example of a canal town with houses and structures built up against the waterway that was the village’s lifeblood in the 1800s. Members of the Old Freemansburg Association (OFA) reclaimed a 1.5 mile section of the Lehigh Canal the Borough owns from overgrowth and debris and restored the towpath which became the D&L Trail. The OFA spearheaded efforts to protect and restore the 1829 Locktender’s House, mule barn, Lock No. 44, gristmill, and coal yard. Volunteers also reconstructed the barn using canal era tools and equipment, a project that took 10 years to complete. The multi-functional building now hosts weddings, educational sessions and interpretative demonstrations. (http://lehighvalleyhistory.com/history-of-the-borough-of-freemansburg)

Riding on, we come to an island that consists of a shuttered steel mill that today stands somewhat surreally like an abstract sculpture.

Bethlehem, PA: A shuttered steel mill looks like abstract sculpture © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Day 3 – 47 miles: After breakfast, the group departs Bethlehem and cycles south following the path of 19th century aqueducts to the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers. Visit the only operating mule drawn canal boat east of the Mississippi. Tour the National Canal Museum and pass through quaint river villages, until arriving in New Hope. New Hope offers bustling nightlife and cultural attractions such as the Bucks County Playhouse.

Two mules pull the Josiah White II canal boat at the National Canal Museum in Hugh Moore Park © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor interprets this fascinating period of American history in the 520-acre Hugh Moore Park through tours of the National Canal Museum and rides on the 110-passenger Josiah White II canal boat. Here you see remnants of the oldest industrial park in the region, a Locktender’s House and one of only three mule-drawn canal boats still operating in America, which plies a two-mile section of the canal that has been restored. The National Canal Museum, with hands-on exhibits highlighting 19th century canal life and technology, normally is open from June until October. (https://canals.org/)

Day 4 – 22 miles:  On day four, after breakfast at the Fox and Hound Bed & Breakfast, ride along the canal trail to Washington Crossing where George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776.  You also cross the Delaware to the D&R Canal State Park and head north to Bull’s Island where the ride ends with lunch before being shuttled back to your car. 

Washington Crossing Historic Park, 1112 River Road, Washington Crossing, PA 18977, 215-493-4076, www.WashingtonCrossingPark.org.

A bike tour, whether guided or self-guided, is an ideal vacation choice this season © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Available dates at this writing include Sept. 14 and Oct. 5 (up to 14 guests per trip, with 2 guides; the minimum age is 13; e-bike rentals are available, but the trail is easy/moderate crushed gravel trail). The cost is $995 ($225 single supplement); $90 to rent a bike, and includes the overnight accommodations, professional bike guides; sag wagon; basic bike repair (replacement bike if needed to complete the ride); rest stops with snacks and water; breakfast on three days; lunch on two days; luggage transportation to each accommodation; morning trail briefings and transportation back to your car by 4pm on the final day.

If you would rather DIY, Pocono Biking also offers daily rates and shuttle service, Big Day Out & Big Night Out (Multisport Adventures), two-day trips, and Pocono Whitewater Rafting on the Lehigh River.

Pocono Biking, 7 Hazard Square, Jim Thorpe, PA, 570-325-8430, PoconoBiking.com.

Other bike tours available this season:

Wilderness Voyageurs, operating out of Ohiopyle, PA, is offering New York Erie Canal Bike Tour (4-days,Sept. 21); Great Allegheny Passage Bike Tour (4-days, Sept. 21, 28, Oct. 5), Easy Rider GAP Bike Tour (3-days,  Sept. 9).

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail, operated by Wilderness Voyageurs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Other upcoming tours: Michigan Islands, Trails & Dunes Bike Tour  (8/30); Cycle Colorful Colorado Bike Tour (9/13); Katy Trail Missouri Bike Tour (9/27, 10/18) and
Kentucky Bike & Bourbon Bike Tour (10/19).

“Bike touring lends itself to a vacationing style that uniquely fits these times: small groups and big open spaces! Although we understand that traveling at this moment is not for everyone and is a personal decision, our goal is to minimize the risks where possible and make traveling as comfortable as possible.”

Wilderness Voyageurs, 103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141, bike@Wilderness-Voyageurs.com, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com

Discovery Tours is inviting biking enthusiasts to design their own tour: “Pick any of our U.S. locations — or suggest a new one — and we’ll customize an incredible biking vacation just for you.”

Groups of 8 or more get one tour free (or spread the savings across the group). Special pricing is available for groups of 4 or fewer.

Biking with Discovery Tours in Woodstock, Vermont © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The company, based in Woodstock, Vt., has already run private tours this summer on the Mickelson Trail and Black Hills in South Dakota, in Maine and in New York’s Finger Lakes.

For details, contact Scott (scott@DiscoveryBicycleTours.com), info@discoverybicycletours.com, 800-257-2226, discoverybicycletours.com.

Find more trails through Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866-202-9788, railstotrails.org, TrailLink.com.

______________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Biking the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, Showcased on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Last Sojourn BikeTour

Buttermilk Falls, along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, is a highlight of Day One’s ride on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Fall is a superb time to bike some of the phenomenal multi-purpose trails repurposed from rail lines and canal tow paths.

This year, I became acquainted with one of the best in our area – the Delaware-Lehigh Trail just across from New Jersey in Pennsylvania, a 165-mile long trail that follows the Delaware Canal State Park and the Delaware Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. The trail was featured in this year’s Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn, an annual multi-day supported biking/camping trip. The itinerary included riding a portion of one of my favorite trails on the planet, the Delaware-Raritan on the New Jersey side of the river.

Rails-to-Trails has offered these supported Sojourn biketours annually since 2002 to showcase repurposed rail trails and highlight the need to advocate for future projects. These trips are incredibly popular and the 300 of us on this year’s trip were saddened to learn that this Sojourn would be the last, because RTC will be focusing on advocacy and leave such organized bike tours to local organizations. Appropriately, the focus of the last Sojourn was also the trail for its first.

Still, it is there for all of us to enjoy, any time.

Beautiful scenery along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor (D&L) follows the Delaware and Lehigh Canals and the old Lehigh Valley Railroad as it stretches through five counties, from the city of Wilkes-Barre in the mountainous coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, to historic Bristol borough, along the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

Congress established the Heritage Corridor in 1988 at a time when the region was economically depressed with the collapse of coal and steel industry that had birthed these communities – the mining towns, factory and milltowns –  to begin with.

With 86 of the D&L Trail’s 165 miles located within two state parks (Lehigh Gorge and Delaware Canal), the advocates to create the trail out of disused towpath had a jumpstart to connect people to the region’s story—one of innovation, conservation and industrialization.

About 92 percent of the D&L Trail is built and the goal is to connect all 165 miles by 2022. Three gaps will have been closed in 2018, including the opening of the $4.1 million Mansion House Bridge across the Lehigh River at Jim Thorpe (we get to participate in the opening ceremony and are among the first to cross), a road/railroad crossing at Middleburg Road in Luzerne County and a connector in Delaware Canal State Park at Tyburn Road in Bucks County.

These trail projects inspire local groups, breathing new life into the small downtowns along the corridor. Three regional revitalization efforts in particular: a 2004 move to greener programming; a 2005 Superfund reclamation project at Lehigh Gap Nature Center (which we visit); and Tales of the Towpath, an educational curriculum that now has 80 schools participating, which we get to sample at the National Canal Museum at Hugh Moore Park in Easton. And all along the way, we get to see participants in the Get Your Tail on the Trail wellness program who so far have logged more than 3 million miles.

As we, the beneficiaries of all this effort, appreciate over the course of our Sojourn, the trail showcases and immerses us into two significant revolutions in American history: the American Revolution (particularly when we get down to our most southerly point, Washington Crossing) and the Industrial Revolution. All along our route, which follows the canals built to transport anthracite coal from the mines to the markets, we see the markers and remnants amidst a beautiful setting.

Indeed, for me, the big surprise was seeing remains of the historic canal, the locks and gates, dams and lockmaster houses all along the ride.

Here we see the underpinnings, the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution, which enabled the United States to ascend as a world power. Yet, from where we are on the trail alongside the canal with trees on one side, in a more natural state, except when we come upon long-shuttered steel mills that now seem like oversized sculpture.

A Soggy Day One

We meet up at Hugh Moore Park in Easton, Pennsylvania, (which we learn is land donated by the man made rich through the manufacture of Dixie Cups) where we park our cars and register. Interestingly, we will be returning here to camp the next night.

Rain starts just as we board the buses that take us an hour and a half to the start of the D&L trail near the quaint mountainside community of Glen Summit. But instead of stopping as forecast, the drenching rain continues on, and on, and on, throughout the day and into the night – almost 24 hours before it stops. I’ve never been outside in the rain for a full 24 hours before.

We set out on the ride – 160 miles over the course of five days – at the highest, steepest part of the trail, literally in the mountains where anthracite coal was mined. The trail becomes muddy and slick in the steady rain. I make myself feel comfortable with the feeling of slipping, but soon enough, the trail flattens out. The trail is surprisingly still solid enough to keep the tires from sinking or catching.

But we miss the gorgeous views for which this part of the trail is renowned.

I am loving the new poncho that I bought at the Bike Expo before the NYC 5 Boro Bike Tour, but thinking about having to set up my new REI tent in the rain which I have never done before, kicking myself that I didn’t use the Comfy Camper service (closest thing to glamping) so that my tent would be up, with an air mattress, when I arrived.

Instead of just enjoying the scenery and the thrill of biking downhill, this becomes an interesting physical and mental  challenge that tests character, an adventure in overcoming obstacles, that when it is accomplished, changes you because you know you have done it and can do it– a value of a biking/camping trip in itself.

We ride along the river and see people out there in canoes and kayaks having a rollicking good time – clearly a great day for a waterborne activity.

Buttermilk Falls, along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, is a highlight of Day One’s ride on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com.

This first day, we bike 35 miles southeast along the rushing Lehigh River, passing the most rugged and natural landscape of the ride – 800-foot hillsides of the Lehigh Gorge. At Moosehead Lake there are the remnants of highlift locks that were part of the Lehigh Canal’s Upper Grand Navigation.

Even this grey day cannot mar the beauty of the waterfalls we come upon, particularly Buttermilk, which cascades down in tiers.

Jim Thorpe, PA

We bike to the quaint town of Jim Thorpe, which (we discover), because of its steep hillsides, narrow streets, and terraced gardens is known as the “Switzerland of America.” I think of it as the San Francisco of Pennsylvania.

Our campsite is on a baseball field literally a 1.5 mile hike up a steep winding narrow road from the center of this charming town, pushing our bikes up (it’s only about half-mile walk back down along a steeper route). The rain is unfortunate because unlike most campgrounds on these trips, the only cover are a couple of dugouts that we have commandeered to stow our stuff (one woman has set up her tent inside one), but no pavilions.

I overcome one of my anxieties, setting up my brand new tent in the rain, fortunately, which has abated to more of a drizzle.

We stand outside in the rain waiting out turn for the shower truck to clean off the mud before walking back down into the town for dinner (tonight’s dinner is on our own).

The charming town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The town of Jim Thorpe is absolutely charming even in this weather that has many of us buying up sweatshirts and sweatpants and even taking lodging in one of the many charming inns and guesthouses instead of camping out.

I am invited to join some new friends from the Sojourn I meet on the walk down for dinner at the Molly McGuire pub-style restaurant, which I learn is named for the Molly McGuires, labor agitators who were executed here (you can visit the Old Jail).

I stroll around awhile – struck by the many American flags and other patriotic displays, and in one of the charming historic inns, I find a poster of Jim Thorpe.

Established in 1818 as Mauch Chunk, which means “Mountain of the Sleeping Bear,” the name the Lenni Lenape Indians gave to the nearby mountain, it was later renamed for an Oklahoma-born Native American, Olympic hero, Jim Thorpe, who is buried there. Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1888 and raised on the Sac and Fox Reservation and had never set foot in the borough.  But Patsy Thorpe, Jim’s third wife, cut a deal with two struggling towns in Pennsylvania, that if they would merge and rename themselves Jim Thorpe and build a memorial to honor him, she would present them his remains for burial. 

Here, entrepreneurs led by Josiah White formed the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company in the 1820s (we can still see the brick building), which shipped tons and tons of anthracite coal and other goods to market via the Lehigh and Delaware Canals which they constructed. The town grew in importance when it was named Carbon County’s seat in 1843.

I explore this charming town before taking one of the shuttles the organizers have arranged for us to ferry us back up to the campground.

I am comfortable in my tent despite the rain which continues to fall, At 1:45 am, I hear the rain abating, so I race to the bathroom and get back to tent just in time for the rain to start up again. It stops in the early morning, so I rush to take down the tent before it rains again.

This morning’s breakfast as been arranged in a restaurant a short walk from the campsite.

I remember that they have arranged for us to have a guided tour of the Asa Packer Mansion (before the bridge dedication) and I race over there.

Asa Packer Mansion

Two things stand out as I regard the exquisite decoration and furnishings in the Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, a charming town on the Delaware-Lehigh trail: the house, which dates from 1861, was vacant from 1912 to 1954, but never disturbed, never vandalized, never burgled despite the fantastic riches it contained; and Asa Packer, who I had never heard of before, was a rags to riches American Dream come true story, who became one of the richest people in the world (Queen Victoria even gave him a table which we see in the house), but was always beneficent to his workers (he built housing for them and paid in cash from a strongbox), founded Lehigh University (was originally for boys who attended tuition-free), hospitals. In fact, everything that he built is still in existence and used for good purpose. Cornelius Vanderbilt hated him because Packer, an intensely religious man, made the miser look bad.

The mansion, built in 1861 by Philadelphia architect, Samuel Sloan, and containing the original furnishings and exquisite architectural details, is spectacular in its own right.

Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, PA © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The mansion was constructed over a span of two years and cost a total of $14,000 dollars.  Topped by a red-ribbed tin roof and a central cupola, or belvedere, the home was built over a cast iron frame and consists of 3 stories, 18 rooms and approximately 11,000 square feet of living space.

The furnishings are exquisite – a “Mermaid” chandelier, an important grandfather clock by Bailey Bay Banks & Biddle of Philadelphia, a table that was a gift of Queen Victoria. The mansion had gasoliers (capable of both electric lights, which was new, and gas) and a self-cleaning stove. But out of all this splendor, there is a “settler bench,” dating from the 1700s, that seems out of place: Asa kept it as a reminder of where he came from.

The mansion is spectacular enough, but  what fascinated me is the story of Asa Packer, one of the early Industrial Revolution millionaires (he became one of the richest people in the world), but who never forgot his humble beginnings, acted honorably to his workers, antagonized the likes of the cheapskate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and whose beneficence created many important institutions that are still operating today, including Lehigh University (which was tuition free when it opened) and St. Lukes Hospital, because there weren’t any hospitals in the area. He made considerable donations to the Gothic Revival  St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Jim Thorpe. “Everything he built is still operating,” the docent tells me.

The mansion – in contrast to Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s Breakers mansion in Newport – is a testament to Asa Packer’s humanism: he kept a safe from which he would pay workers’ wages and from the mansion you can look out on row houses on Ray Street that he built for workers; he built an entire new wing on the mansion and hung gold wallpaper (literally gold) for his 50th wedding anniversary gala at a time when few people lived long enough to celebrate a golden anniversary. He took in two orphan girls who became cooks – their rooms were actually quite splendid (especially compared to the servants’ quarters at The Breakers); the butler’s room had a copy of Lincoln’s bed and was where the son, Harry, would stay when the Bishop visited. (Just next door to the Asa Packer Mansion is the Harry Packer Mansion which was a wedding present; the Victorian mansion is also a jewel, indeed it was the model for Disney’s Haunted Mansion; today, it is an inn and hosts murder mystery weekends and wine tasting events.)

Born in Mystic, Connecticut, Asa Packer (1805-1879) left home when he was 17, setting out on foot to Brooklyn, Pennsylvania where he apprenticed as a carpenter to his cousin, Edward Packer. In 1828, he married Sarah Minerva Blakslee (1807-1882) and the couple tilled a farm they rented from Sarah’s father.  But after four years, they were just as poor as when they started. So hearing that men were needed to captain coal barges on the Lehigh Canal, Asa traveled to Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, in the winter of 1832. He used his skill as a carpenter to build and repair canal boats. He resettled his family in Mauch Chunk and became the owner of a canal boat that carried coal to Philadelphia, then opened his own firm, A. & R. W. Packer, which built canal boats and locks for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company.

He tried to get the company to build a railroad, but was refused. So, in October 1851, risking financial ruin, Asa purchased nearly all the controlling stock and interest for the unfinished Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad (later known as the Lehigh Valley Railroad).  By November, 1852, he expanded the railroad from Mauch Chunk to Easton, Pennsylvania, in exchange for the company’s stocks and bonds, and later into New York State.

He became the third richest person in the world and parlayed his business success into political success, serving asja Judge, a state representative, a two-term Congressman (1853-7), and challenged Ulysses S. Grant for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868. He narrowly lost election to become Pennsylvania’s Governor in 1869.

The Packers settled in their Italianate Villa in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania in 1861 and on January 23, 1878, Asa and Sarah celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a fantastic gala (a newspaper printed in gold described it, and the man who performed their wedding attended). Asa died just 18 months later. For all his success, their life together was marked by tragedy.  Daughters, Catharine, Malvina and Gertrude all passed away before the age of three.  Lucy Eveline (1832-1873), Robert Asa (1842-1883) succumbed to pneumonia. Harry Eldred (1850-1884) passed away from cirrhosis of the liver (the mansion next door was built for him and is operated as an inn today). Mary Hannah (1839-1912), was the last of their children to pass away; she was supposed to sail on the Titanic, but got sick in 1912; she was legally blind when she died.

The Harry Packer Mansion Inn inspired Disney’s Haunted Mansion; it offers Murder Mystery Weekends and wine-tasting events © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Asa never fully forgot his humble beginnings, his generous deeds spoke for him. A philanthropist throughout his lifetime, Asa gave $33 million to the town of Mauch Chunk and the Lehigh Valley.  At the time of his passing, Asa retained an estate valued at $55 million.”

Asa’s daughter, Mary Packer Cummings, who moved into her mother’s bedroom when she got sick, inherited the mansion and estate as the last surviving child of seven (becoming the second richest person in the world after the Queen of England). When Mary died in 1912 (the calendar on the desk is from 1912); she bequeathed the home and all its contents to the Borough of Mauch Chunk as a memorial to her father and his accomplishments. But the house remained shuttered from 1912 to 1954, until the Bear Mountain Lions became trustees and reopened the mansion to the public in 1956. Remarkably, the true testament to Asa Packer and his family is that in all that time the mansion was vacant, with all these priceless antiques inside, it was never vandalized or burgled.

“Robert, the only grandchild who survived, didn’t want the house after Mary died,” the docent relates. “Robert’s great granddaughter and her daughter came on tour once,” she recalled.“

(The Asa Packer Mansion Museum, Jim Thorpe PA  18229, 570.325.3229, www.asapackermansion.com).

Rides on the historic the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway are one of the attractions at Jim Thorpe © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This quaint village of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania is actually a hub for many marvelous natural and historic attractions including the Harry Packer Mansion; the Old Jail Museum (where the Molly McGuires were jailed; Cell 17 with its mysterious handprint on the wall, under the gallows on which seven of the accused Molly Maguires were put to death, and down into the eerie dungeon); the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, the St. Mark’s Church, Historic Stone Row, the Mauch Chunk Opera House, Anita Shapolsky Art Center, Mauch Chunk Museum and Old Jail Museum, plus wineries, distilleries (Big Creek Vineyard and Stonekeep Meadery), biking, hiking and rafting (PoconoBiking.com, PoconoWhitewater.com, Adventurerafting.com.

There are a score of historic bed-and-breakfasts, inns and guesthouses.

Jim Thorpe Visitors Center, 2 Lehigh Ave., Jim Thorpe PA 18229, 570-325-3673, jimthorpe.org. 

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.)

Rails-to-Trails Sojourners are among the first to cross over the new Mansion House Bridge © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for  its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866.202.9788, railstotrails.org,TrailLink.com.

Next:

Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on Delaware-Lehigh Trail Showcases Repurposed Canal Towpath & History of Industrial Revolution

_____________________________

© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Takes Cyclists on Sojourn on Great Allegheny Passage

 

 

A highlight of this section of the Great Allegheny Passage ride is going through the Pinkerton Tunnel, only recently rebuilt and reopened © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A highlight of this section of the Great Allegheny Passage ride is going through the Pinkerton Tunnel, only recently rebuilt and reopened © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I’m the first to arrive at the appointed spot beside the tall brick smokestacks that border the parking field of a shopping mill, where once one of Pittsburgh’s mighty steel mills had been. It’s 6:30 am, but one of the leaders of the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Great Allegheny Passage Spring Sojourn is already here. Gradually over the next half hour, our group of 85 riders comes together. We bring our bikes, now with our “license plate” to a truck, load our luggage and camping gear, board the two buses, and drive about 1 ½ hours to where the start of our three-day, 120 mile ride begins, in Meyersdale.

Meyersdale is just nine miles down from the Eastern Divide – the equivalent of the Continental Divide, a highpoint in the Allegheny Mountains. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a relatively new, dedicated rail-trail completed in 2013, actually starts in Cumberland, 32 miles from where we begin our sojourn. The GAP links to the 184.5-mile C&O Canal trail that comes out of Washington DC, and extends 150 miles westward to Pittsburgh, creating a 335-mile non-motorized route between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. (AMTRAK offers a walk on bicycle service; https://gaptrail.org/, 888-282-BIKE).

We are starting our ride below the Divide, so our trip today, 27 miles, will be a gentle decline totaling 600 feet. Had I been cleverer, I would have done what a few others did, and go back the nine miles up to the Divide, which would have added about 1 ½ hours to the ride. (

We are greeted at the Meyersdale train station, now converted into a delightful café and shop, by representatives of the Meyersdale Merchants Association. We are part of the repurposed, renewed, sustainable economy, now that the rail line, steel and coal extraction have shut down. The rail-trail has brought new visitors, and new vitality, to these small villages and towns all along the Great Allegheny Passage.

This is Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s first spring sojourn, and it takes place over Mothers Day, no less, which accounts for our group being smaller than a typical sojourn – just 85 riders instead of over 200 which is more typical of the annual sojourn. But this year, RTC is for the first time offering a series of four sojourn rides. The first, in Florida, had already taken place. The third one will be in West Virginia (June19-22); and the last is four-days/three nights from Cleveland to Columbus on the Ohio-to-Erie Trail, Ohio in (Sept. 23-26, 4 days/three nights)..

Riding over the historic Salisbury Viaduct on the Great Allegheny Passage trail, wind turbines on the hillside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riding over the historic Salisbury Viaduct on the Great Allegheny Passage trail, wind turbines on the hillside © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

These rides showcase the progress of rail lines that are no longer used converted to biking and multi-use trails, and where there are gaps in the trails that need the support of advocates, communities and government to complete. The Great Allegheny Passage rail trail is on what was the Western Pennsylvania line, which closed in 1975, because it couldn’t compete with the C&O line (that still operates on the other side of the river, and, as it happens, right beside our campsites).

This ride, as it turns out, showcases a success story – the Great Allegheny Passage trail we ride over these three days is exquisite, a testament to the enthusiastic participation and pride of the communities it crosses – wide, with crushed limestone, lovely sitting areas along the way with views to the river, wonderful bridges and tunnels, some bathroom facilities, excellent signage, even “stations” where there are bike repair tools and an air pump. Since its opening, GAP (as it is known) has become one of the most popular trails and was the first inductee in RTC’s Rail-Trail “Hall of Fame.”

Our ride features gorgeous mountain vistas and relaxing river scenes, historic bridges and tunnels that showcase the GAP’s railway heritage. Highlights include Salisbury Viaduct, Casselman River Valley, the Historic Pump House (Homestead) and Great Allegheny Passage Trail towns: Meyersdale, West Newton, Confluence and Ohiopyle.

Offering these supported bike rides is not RTC’s main mission, but the rides are invaluable to raising consciousness and commitment, not just of the riders, but of the communities which are essential. We become ambassadors for the concept of rail-trails,

The Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage is a supported ride © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Rails-to-Trails Sojourn on the Great Allegheny Passage is a supported ride © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I love these supported rides. RTC’s sojourns are professionally organized by an Ohiopyle-based tour company, Wilderness Voyageurs, which lays out the route, arranges for our camping sites, the trucks, the meals (breakfast and dinner), the support stops.

This ride takes place over Mothers Day, as well as over a work/school day. Nonetheless, there are a number of us who have come on our own, leaving spouse and/or children at home (one mother left her five kids, age 8 to 16 at home with her husband as her Mothers Day gift). These rides are ideal for couples, for families (the ages on this ride range from 8 years old to 82 and a 10-year old can manage the ride), and particularly for single travelers because we become not just a community, but a tribe – a nomadic tribe in fact that picks up stakes and moves on each day. It’s a supported ride which means that our luggage is ferried by truck to the next  designated campground where they have arranged dinner and breakfast, a place to charge our phones, bathrooms and showers, provide support stops (with snacks) along the way, leader/volunteers who ride with us and behind, and support vehicle if anyone can’t complete the day’s ride.

Day 1: Meyersdale to Harnedsville, 27.3 Miles

The first day’s ride starts in Meyersdale in the Casselman River Valley, near Pennsylvania’s highest point, Mount Davis (mile 32 from the start of the Great Allegheny Passage trail).

The area was first occupied by the Monongahela Indians, who harvested the sap from maple trees to make maple syrup – and representatives of the Meyersdale Merchants Association greet us with maple candy samples. Known as “Maple City,” Meyersdale has hosted the Pennsylvania Maple Festival every March for more than 60 years.

The town itself is experiencing a renaissance with rail-trail and the completion of a streetscape project. At the trail access, the Western Maryland Railway Station has been turned into a visitor center, with local history exhibits and a retail store. A mural on Main Street (one of several along the Great Allegheny Passage) pays homage to Meyersdale’s roots as a bustling transportation hub for local agriculture, coal and timber. (www.visitmeyersdale.com).

There is a bit of fan-fare as we set out, going through a blow-up arch.

Countryside just passed the Salisbury Viaduct on the Great Allegheny Passage outside Meyersdale © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Countryside just passed the Salisbury Viaduct on the Great Allegheny Passage outside Meyersdale © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is clear, sunny day as we set out, but the weather forecast is for clouds and rain. But we soon come to one of the highlights of the GAP: going over the Salisbury Viaduct,: 1,912’ long, built in 1908, it is our first crossing of the Casselman River (this turns out to be one of the top 10 photo views). At the other end, we see a line of wind turbines on stretched out over the hilltops – a fitting testament to what is old is new again. I also come upon an old cemetery – a stone there memorializes Peter G. Meyers who died in 1891, and I wonder if he is the founder of Meyersdale.

Our cue sheets (very well done) also point us to the Wymps Gap Fossil Quarry, at 9.0 miles into the ride. During the Mississippian Period (330 million years ago), Western Pennsylvania was the hsore of a shallow sea. The exposed limestone layers are a fairly thin band of fossil bearing rock sandwiched between layers of shale. It’s marked with a wooden post, labeled GR5 (unfortunately, I miss it)..

At 11.9 miles, we pass Rockwood, where we are recommended for lunch options.

Rockwood is described as a tightly knit rural community, with roots in industry and railroading. The town was laid out in 1857 but boomed after the end of the Civil War, with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. By 1884, the town had several mils and shops, four general stores, two grocery stores and four hotels.

Playful public art pays homage to Rockwood’s heritage and its new commitment to the bike trail © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Playful public art pays homage to Rockwood’s heritage and its new commitment to the bike trail © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A locomotive sculpture at the Rockwood trailhead is a link between the town’s rail history and its present-day “investment” in biking and recreation. You cross the Casselman River to get into the town. There is public art, including a mural that honors trail ambassador Maynard Sembower, who died in 2009 at the age of 100 – a reminder that these improvements are the result of sweat and activism of committed individuals.

The most interesting structure is the Rockwood Mill Shops & Opera House, with a performance space. Lumber and feed were processed in the building for nearly a century, while the opera house hosted visiting and local performers above the mill. The building was restored in 2000 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (www.somersetcountychamber.com).

The highlight of today’s ride for me comes at 19.9 miles: riding through the 849‘ long Pinkerton Tunnel. The tunnel was originally built in 1911, collapsed and was rebuilt in a kind of a kwansit hut at a cost of $1.8 million and only reopened in 2015. It is very surreal going through it: Inside, a dizzying array of concentric metallic circles – long, dark, with proverbial light at the end of it.

Shortly after, we cross High Bridge over the Casselman River (our third crossing on the GAP today).

The Great Allegheny Passage reclaims a former rail line into a stunning 150-mile non-motorized trail returned to nature © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Great Allegheny Passage reclaims a former rail line into a stunning 150-mile non-motorized trail returned to nature © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At 27.1 miles, we leave the GAP and follow the signs they have placed for us, for a couple of turns that bring us just a 2/10 of a mile beyond to the grounds of the Turkey Foot High School (which has been on the USA Today’s list of top high schools) where we will camp.

It’s Friday and school is in session, so we aren’t able to enter the school until after 3:30 pm – a little disconcerting because rain is threatening.

I opt to continue down the trail another two miles to the town of Confluence, so named because it is set where three rivers converge. It’s the shape of the three peninsulas that looks just like a turkey’s foot.

A highlight of this section of the Great Allegheny Passage ride is going through the Pinkerton Tunnel, only recently rebuilt and reopened © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A highlight of this section of the Great Allegheny Passage ride is going through the Pinkerton Tunnel, only recently rebuilt and reopened © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, in George Washington’s day, this area was called Turkeyfoot by natives and settlers. George Washington, himself, came to the confluence of the rivers in 1754 during the French & Indian War, as he and his soldiers were on their way to the forks of the Ohio River. As we travel the trail in the woods, revitalized and full now that the steel mills and coal mining have shut down, I can easily imagine the wilderness that he saw and the how the Indians would have used the rivers.

The skies have been threatening rain and I return to the campsite.

If we don’t want to set up our own tents, we can use the Comfy Camper service or stay in nearby bed-and-breakfast accommodations. This trip I treat myself to the Comfy Camper service ($118 for the two nights, comfycampers.info, 315-283-0220) and it adds a measure of luxury to the trip: When I arrive, the tent – roomy, comfortable, wonderfully waterproof, with an air mattress, chair and towel – are all ready for me. Shawn Stewart, owner/director, has just finished blowing up the air mattress and I am cozy inside, just as the rain comes down in earnest.

Our dinner is provided by the Turkey Foot Fire Department – another way the Sojourn supports local communities.

Ambassadors for Rail-Trails

Indeed, this is the theme for the Sojourn rides.

During the evening’s presentation, Tom Sexton, Northeast Regional Director of Rails to Trails Conservancy, tells us about the plans to finish the gaps on the trails, and ultimately connect a network of trails stretching through most of the Mid Atlantic.

RTC, in its 30th year, helps finds money and means to build rail-trails. Since 1991, $1 billion spent. Certain amount of transportation money (from fed) has to be spent on things other than highways, airports, bridges, but “other transit.” RTC helps communities, nonprofits, governments come together on how to build rail trail – negotiate with railroad, what surface to use, how to maintain. RTC also offers its members TrailLink – an online tool that helps you find trails and map your ride.

These Sojourns are a means of engaging interest in the rail trials – spotlighting gaps in trails, showcasing successes, and inspiring communities to get involved. The riders become ambassadors – especially with our “license” plates and shirts that announce who we are.

The sojourn also helps show a community (and funding agencies) the economic benefits of trails, as well as its social benefits, building camaraderie, community, and quality of life benefits.

“Towns (like Dunbar) which have fallen on hard times since the railroad left, find the trails revitalize, become the main street. In 15 years since RTC started sojourn rides, we’ve hosted 3400 riders, brought $2.1 billion in spin off to the corridors we ride through.

“We show that an economy built around the rail-trail is sustainable. The money spent stays here, it has low impact. The trail benefits environment and the local people who benefit from trails.”

Indeed, as we ride over the weekend, you see families out and about – the trails provide a healthy, active outdoor activity that families can share together.

RTC has big plans to create a regional network of interconnected trails.

For example, connecting Parkersburg West Virginia, the access for the North Bend Trail (the start of the third Sojourn of this year’s series) to Pittsburgh and the GAP rail trail, which already connects to the 34-mile long Sheepskin Trail out of Dunbar.

Then the idea is to continue on to Clarksburg-Parkersburg trail, which will be 260 miles when finished. At that point, you could start in DC, go to Pittsburgh (on C&O, 183 miles and GAP 150 miles), altogether about 600 miles.

“This is the epicenter of trails in the US,” Sexton says.

But this is only a piece of what is an even bigger grand plan. 

Eric Oberg, Director of Trail Development, Midwest Regional Office, speaks of a “Trails Manifest Destiny”:in describing a sprawling network of 1,450 miles of interconnected multiuse trails that will be called “The Industrial Heartland Trail” which together, would be the largest in the country – from DC to Pittsburgh, to Cleveland –Cleveland-Cincinnati-Dayton, Parkersburg, Indianapolis, up to Erie and Buffalo (where you can then connect to the 400-mile long Erie Canalway). Some 48% of these multi-use trails are done, and the hope is to have it completed by 2035.

“It won’t take 80 years, but it will be more than five years” before the manifest destiny is realized, Eric says.

Comfy Campers sets up comfortable tents with air mattress, chair and towel for those who don’t want that extra luxury © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Comfy Campers sets up comfortable tents with air mattress, chair and towel for those who don’t want that extra luxury © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Sojourn Bike Tours

For the first time in the 14 years of hosting a Sojourn bike tour showcasing a rail-trail, the Rail-Trails Conservancy expanded the series to four rides: the first, in Florida, was held in February; the second on the popular Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, was May 6-8. The third was a four-day/three-night North Bend Rail Trail out of Parkersburg, West Virginia (June 19-22; and the last was four-days/three nights from Cleveland to Columbus on the Ohio-to-Erie Trail, Ohio in September.

“The Sojourn Series is much more than just a bike ride. It’s a trail building tool for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and allows us to pull advocacy into participants’ trail use experience.”

The Sojourn rides are crafted to weave experiences that go beyond simply riding from point A to point B. Each sojourn aims to transform trail users into advocates and create the economic case for trail networks nationwide.

The West Virginia Sojourn showcases the North Bend Rail Trail out of Parkersburg, West Virginia. “It is an incredible trail but does not yet connect to the two communities on either end, Parkersburg and Clarksburg.” This ride serves to bring attention to those gaps and advocate for their completion. The corridor is also part of a much larger trail development effort being undertaken by the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition.

“The West Virginia ride will allow you to get on a new trail and take part in some of the advocacy that our organization is known for.”

Since 2001, more than 3,000 riders have joined RTC’s sojourns. These rides not only highlight incredible trails, but they also help empower communities to complete trail networks that will benefit the entire region.

Equally importantly, they highlight the economic benefit to communities, particularly those who have seen older industries shut down, along with the rail lines.

RTC’s 2015 Pennsylvania Rail-Trail Sojourn brought visitors from 35 states and had an economic impact of more than $245,000 – something significant for a town like Dunbar, Pennsylvania, which once depended upon coal and railroads.

The rail-trail could be an engine for a new economy fueled by lodging, restaurants and gear shops. RTC estimates that the GAP would generate more than $40 million in direct spending from trail users annually.

“The Sojourn Series is a real-world example that show how trails can provide an economic boon to local economies,” says Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development for RTC. “By providing these rides, we’re creating more opportunities for people to experience and advocate for these trail networks.”

For more information about the rides and to register, visit railstotrails.org/sojourn.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization with more than 160,000 members and supporters, is the nation’s largest trails organization dedicated to connecting people and communities by creating a nationwide network of public trails, many from former rail lines. Founded in 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s national office is located in Washington, D.C., with regional offices in California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. For more information, visit www.railstotrails.org. 

These rides are organized by Wilderness Voyageurs which offers many different biking and rafting trips including inn to inn biking trips, across the US and international: 800-272-4141, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.

Next: Great Allegheny Passage Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn Continues

See also:

One Day, Two Nights in Pittsburgh: From Grey to Green, A Proud City Revitalized

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Point State Park Proves Highlight of Walking Tour

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum is at Center of Revitalized City

36 Hours in Pittsburgh: Strip District Exemplifies City’s Past, Future

Two Nights, One Day in Pittsburgh: Historic Omni William Penn Hotel Connects to City’s Proud Heritage

____________________

© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures