From the first moment I’d heard about a place called the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania”, I fell in love. I read everything I could find on the canyon and the 62 mile Pine Creek Rail Trail that ran through it. This included every article and page on the website Pinecreekvalley.com, which is a remarkable resource for a person planning a trip. In particular the articles by writer David Kagan drew me in, especially his account of a 117 mile ride on the trail.
It took a while, but I finally visited in 2009. The trip turned into a vacation with bike rather than a proper bike tour. I didn’t feel comfortable having the car deposited at a public lot with no security at the southern end of the trail, and the outfitter quoted a price but was unenthusiastic to pick me up and take me back to the car. So I resolved to ride portions of the trail, including the Pine Creek Gorge.
My first day had nothing to do with the bike, but a lot to do with being a tourist, and a little to do with the weather. My first stop was two hours into the drive, at Boulder Field in Hickory Run State Park. The boulders, all 16 acres of them, were deposited by a retreating glacier. Note the threatening sky. The heavens opened a few minutes later. It took forever to get out of the park in the blinding rain. I later learned there had been a tornado warning – a funnel cloud had been spotted nearby.
Once on I-80 I made decent time, despite the rain, to Williamsport. My goal was to ride on their bikeway, but the weather made me cancel. Instead I visited a private zoo, Clyde Peeling’s Reptileland, and spent an hour with snakes, lizards, and turtles.
I stopped in Jersey Shore, a place that in my youth I called “the most boring town in Pennsylvania.” It wasn’t quite that, but I found little reason to stay once I’d visited the town square. I figured sooner or later I’d reach it as the southern end of a trip on the trail. But today it was onward to my campsite.
I spent the night at Little Pine State Park in Waterville, 4 miles from the trail and many, many miles from ‘civilization.’ The conservationist on site had a social get together with campers and answered questions, most of which were about the list of 50 state parks scheduled to close under a budget proposal. Little Pine was on the list. While the parks employee couldn’t comment on that, one of the campers claimed to be friends with a representative in Harrisburg and stated that proposal wasn’t being discussed. Pennsylvanians love the state park system and no politician wants to be known as the guy who closed the parks.
The next morning I headed north for Wellsboro, but became concerned because what was listed as a state road on the map became a gravel fire road. Also, my gas gauge was getting low, and I doubted I’d find a station in the middle of nowhere. So I went back, had breakfast and fueled the car in Waterville. Over breakfast I thought about how my plans for the day were messed up because I’d be late getting to the northern end of the trail. I’d fallen victim again to my stubborn determination to follow a plan and follow it through. Then as I ate I remembered two phrases from my friends: “Just ride bikes” and “No more epic journeys.” I smiled and knew what I should do.
So instead of heading north, I rode the trail from Waterville trailhead up to Dry Run, and south to Torbert, the last access point before the southern terminus in Jersey Shore. Since Jersey Shore isn’t worth seeing twice in two days, I turned around and rode RT 44, the parallel road, back to the car. It’s PA Bike Route G, and while the climbs were much harder than the trail, it was worth it. I was glad I wasn’t dragging a trailer when I did them.
The trail surface is fine gravel, and very well groomed. Grade crossings are well marked. Services leave a bit to be desired. Country stores are all over the place, but I missed being able to get ‘real’ food at a sit down diner. I was a bit less of an outdoorsman in 2009; on subsequent trips I’ve not missed a diner at all.
The views were all that could be desired. After the riding in the morning, I drove up 19 miles to Cedar Run to my campsite, and rode from Cedar Run to a mile or so past Blackwell. The Blackwell access point, where Babb’s Creek meets Pine, is the end of the Pine Creek Gorge, so by riding north I got a foretaste of Sunday’s ride. I finished the day with 35 miles of riding.
But the end of the day became a mess. I had to drive five miles to get food, and by the time they served me it was dark. I had to set up camp in the dark, using my car’s headlamps to illuminate the campsite.
The commercial campsite I used was unkempt, with 110 sites and only three toilets and two showers for men. The showers required a quarter for three minutes. As nice as the site was, located so close to Pine Creek that I woke up to the sound of the flowing water, I’d not stay there again.
After paying 50 cents for a shower, I packed up and drove north to Wellsboro. A couple of places I had to stop to take photos. Also, it gave me a break from bouncing up and down on semi-paved roads. I reached Wellsboro and immediately went to the Wellsboro Diner for breakfast. After fueling, I took photos of the town, particularly the rows of gas lamps on the main streets.
Next, I drove up to Colton State Park and found one of the scenic overlooks of the canyon. Colton Point is the park on the west rim, a few miles from the outfitters. Photos and reputation hadn’t done the canyon justice. It’s rare that my jaw drops, but it did here. I began to take photos, but not before reflecting on the wonder before me, and He who created a world with such wonders for us.
Then to Pine Creek Outfitters. I arranged to ride the canyon and gorge to Blackwell, 18 miles, and then get picked up. The canyon ride was great, although the tree cover obscured much of the view of the canyon walls. Also, the canyon is best seen from above, not below.
I raced people in canoes along the creek. They were also getting the three PM shuttle back to the outfitters, but I managed to jump ahead of them. I finished the 18 miles in a little less than three hours, which included many stops for photos, water, and…. a rattlesnake.
Doug gave his side of the story in another post. What really happened was that another rider pointed out the snake to me. After he rode off, I took out my camera. Another two riders came up and pulled out cameras as well. One of them seemed to know a lot about snakes, so I suggested we try to get him to move. So I sprayed the snake with my water bottle from a distance of about three feet. He obviously didn’t like getting wet, so he raised his head and rattled his tail. He had 8 rattles, and made sure we knew it.
After getting picked up in Blackwell and deposited at my car I got ice cream at a small store outside Colton Point State Park and headed to the northern end of the trail. Wellsboro Junction isn’t a town so much as a road crossing, scenic railroad terminal, and a farmer’s market. The trail runs through farmland until it reaches Darling Run and enters the canyon, and I enjoyed seeing the mountains in the distance, and not up close on either side. I rode 4 miles to a trail bridge and then back, giving me 26 miles for the day.
After getting dinner and changing in the bathroom at the farmer’s market, I headed to the East Rim of the canyon in Leonard Harrison State Park and spent about a half hour at the overlooks there. The views are even more spectacular at Harrison than at Colton Point, but I prefer the solitude one has on the West Rim. I had to tear myself away for the five hour drive back to the Philadelphia suburbs. Its a shame I had to leave, because if I could I would live there forever.