For hikers and bikers, the popularity of rails-to-trails rests on three truths:
First, these routes are mostly flat, since trains can’t climb steep grades; second, in rough or rugged terrain, railroads tend to follow scenic waterways; and third, they often go where cars do not.
All of this is proven by the world-famous Pine Creek Rail Trail, 62 miles of biking heaven in the wilds of Northcentral Pennsylvania.
Opened in 1996 and completed 11 years later, the PCRT runs on the abandoned and almost perfectly level roadbed of the former New York Central line ending at Lyons, NY—which explains the “L” on mileposts that still stand sentry along the bike-path. Often short on stores, auto access and cell service, the trail’s terrain includes creek-sides, roadsides, cliffsides, marshes, meadows, farmland, fern-filled forests—and 16 miles of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, a gorgeous valley of towering cliffs, verdant foliage and rapid-riddled waters. In 2001, USA Today ranked the PCRT among the 10 greatest biking trips in the world.
Let’s follow this trail from north to south, shall we? I’ll highlight what to expect in each segment, stopping briefly to examine such matters as wildlife, lodging and recreation.
Trailhead to Ansonia, 8 miles
The PCRT kicks off near Wellsboro, PA, a lovely little tourist town of old-fashioned shops, terrific restaurants and generous lodging—though the actual trailhead is tough to find; try plugging in Pag-Omar Farms Market, which stands about 100 yards from the access lot. You might also stop there for drinks, snacks, maps or carry-out lunches; there are no other stores for the first 25 miles of the trail.
This initial leg does not follow Pine Creek, but rather the smaller yet equally charming Marsh Creek. While some find these first miles boring, the surrounding wetlands constitute a bird-lover’s paradise, with more than 150 species to spot. I snapped a photo of my first-ever cedar waxwing here, also sighting herons, geese, ducks, thrashers and the elusive kingfisher.
Elsewhere on the trail, look for hawks, ospreys, orioles, turkeys, grouse, hummingbirds and bald eagles. Other wildlife along the PCRT includes raccoons, deer, bears, porcupines, foxes, minks, otters and bobcats.
During spring, watch for snapping turtles crossing the path in this section; they lay their eggs at trailside, and later in the season you’ll find piles of empty shells at regular intervals.
Ansonia to Darling Run, 1 mile
Just off Route 6, Ansonia access—also known as Marsh Creek—is one of more than a dozen parking lots attached to the trail. It’s a great starting-spot, as the next one-mile segment has much to offer:
Visible to the right is headquarters for Ole Covered Wagon, a horse-drawn carriage ride that traverses the trail down to Tiadaghton. That’s possible because the railroad here was double-tracked, with the creek-side path now reserved for the carriage and other horse-riders. (You can bike on it, but it’s rougher than the carefully groomed gravel bike trail—and there’s an elevation difference, making it tricky to cross between the two.)
As you leave Ansonia, the PCRT crosses Marsh Creek on the first of eight major bridges—though this is the only one where two trestles run side by side. Then it passes under Route 6, and shortly thereafter Pine Creek joins Marsh Creek from the west, a truly enchanting spot. Just south of this bucolic merger, there’s a well-established eagle’s nest in a conifer across the creek.
Also nearby is Pine Creek Outfitters, which rents all kinds of gear and also provides shuttle services to help with the logistics of one-way biking.
Darling Run to Tiadaghton, 8 miles
The Darling Run lot tends to get crowded on weekends, especially in the fall. That’s because the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon starts here, with the tree-clad cliffs climbing close to 1500 feet in some places. This remote area has no cell service as the trail winds along the waterway, which includes several Class III rapids. Kayaks, canoes, rafts and tubes are common, though boaters should check water-levels, which often drop sharply in the summer. Pine Creek Outfitters and Miller’s Store in Morris are among several places that rent watercraft. Bike rentals are likewise available at many local establishments.
Eight miles south of Darling Run, the PCRT crosses Turkey Path Trail, which climbs both walls of the gorge to scenic outlooks high above. On the eastern or trail side, the steep and occasionally tricky path runs beside several waterfalls, taking about a mile to get up to Leonard Harrison State Park, which offers spectacular canyon views in both directions. Courageous hikers can also ford the creek and take the similarly arduous 1.5-mile ascent to Colton Point on the west rim—with likewise stunning views and somewhat sparser crowds. (Harrison really gets thronged on autumn weekends.)
Along with Turkey Path, the PCRT connects at various points with many other hiking trails—including the scenic West Rim Trail; the 323-mile Mid-State; and the 9-mile Golden Eagle, which Purple Lizard calls “one of the best day-hikes in Pennsylvania.”
Tiadaghton to Blackwell, 8 miles
The Iroquois name for Pine Creek, Tiadaghton is a solitary waterside spot for swimming, picnics and fishing. I’ve never been here without seeing someone camped in a hammock between its trees; indeed, Tiadaghton is the first of five areas where primitive camping is allowed on the PCRT—but you must get a permit from PA’s Department of Conservation of Natural Resources (DCNR), which oversees the trail. Of these five—including Hoffman, Tomb Flats, Black Walnut Bottom and Bonnell Flats—this is by far the most isolated; it is best reached by bike or hike, as even four-wheel-drive vehicles may have trouble on the steep and treacherous access road.
Tiadaghton likewise features one of 15 “comfort stations” appearing every few miles along the trail. With flushless toilets that are a step or two above port-a-potties, these stations are spacious, ventilated, well maintained and faced with stone to match the terrain.
South of Tiadaghton the trail remains remote, with slope on one side and creek on the other. Perhaps its most notable aspect is the likelihood of seeing a timber rattlesnake dozing in the sun at the foot of the cliff; my wife and I once photographed a tangle of five beside their den—though one was a garter taking advantage of its venomous cousins for camouflage. I’m sure deadly vipers are no selling point for some readers, but if you leave these retiring creatures alone, they will gladly reciprocate.
Next up is Blackwell in the town of Morris, where both sides of the trail’s road-crossing offer a noticeable grade—necessitated by the fact that the train-tracks formerly spanned this road on an overhead bridge.
Here the canyon becomes less pronounced, while civilization reappears in the form of several historic buildings and the disarmingly tiny Miller’s Store. This busy establishment offers drinks, supplies, fresh-cooked eats from a small daily menu and an impressive array of used books; they also rent bikes, some lodging and colorful floating tubes for the creek.
Besides Miller’s and Pag-Omar, other trailside stores include three further south: a general store at Cedar Run, Wolfe’s at Slate Run and McConnell’s in Waterville. All five offer sandwiches and other light fare—plus ice cream.
Blackwell to Slate Run, 10 miles
The small lot in Blackwell is intended for boaters and anglers, while generous parking for hikers and bikers is two miles south at Rattlesnake Rock. As Linda Stager notes in her excellent PCRT guidebook, the section from Blackwell to Rattlesnake is, at nearly two miles, the longest straightaway on the trail. This begins at an imposing trestle across the creek (somewhat frustrating, as you cannot see over the sides) and continues through a handsome rock cut with cool stone walls on both sides.
Shortly thereafter comes Rattlesnake Rock—a massive outcrop into the water, reached by a path through woods near the lot. Named when the region was literally swarming with snakes, the outcrop is now thankfully viper-free and serves instead as a popular swimming hole, generally bedecked with youngsters diving off the rock.
The trail then winds on toward Cedar Run, creeping along beneath the perilously engineered Route 414, which clings to the cliff high overhead—and then crossing an impressive three-span truss bridge with open sides for generous views of the water.
Situated almost exactly at the PCRT’s halfway point, Cedar Run is a tiny but charming village with a general store, a small hotel and restaurant (the Cedar Run Inn)—plus a popular private campground known as Pettecoat Junction.
South of Cedar Run, keep an eye out for the road-crossing at mile 34; a few hundred feet to your right on 414 stands a handsome lattice-truss bridge originally built in 1890. It’s a glowing steel gem, well worth a short side-trek for photos.