(Published in SPOKES, April 2012)
Photos by Joseph Insalaco
Most cyclists know of the relationship between miles pedaled and ice cream consumption. In fact, it was an ice cream story that introduced me to the Pine Creek Trail. In the spring of 2011, my friend Larry told me about the fantastic ice cream he recently enjoyed. It was only when I asked him where he had this ice cream, did I learn about the fantastic trail ride that led to his dairy delight.
Who couldn’t resist ice cream and a great trail? Early in the fall, my friend Joe and I decided to share in Larry’s experiences and drove to the Pine Creek Trail. The trail is located in north central Pennsylvania just northwest of the city of Williamsport. Its northern end starts near the town of Wellsboro and its southern end is in the town of Jersey Shore. The trail is a 60-mile long former railroad right-of-way with a 2% grade on a hard- packed gravel surface.
Joe (from New York) and I (from Virginia) met near the middle of the trail at the Cedar Run Inn (www.cedarruninn.com) to start our ride and seek out “the” ice cream.
The Cedar Run Inn, built in 1891, is now a bed and breakfast with 13 guest rooms (some with private baths). The inn is located next to the trail and just across the street from the general store that sold Larry his ice cream. Larry was definitely onto something. When I arrived at the inn, I saw many people with large double scooped cones relaxing from their time on the trail. Joe also was there waiting for me with ice cream in his hand. Besides great ice cream and fine lodging, this location provided us with a great place to watch a bald eagle sore over the creek. The inn is located in the “middle of no where” and offers serenity not found in our normal congested urban living environments. While we did not have cell service, both the inn and general store had payphones—old technology that seems to be disappearing everywhere else but valued at Cedar Run.
The trail originated as a Native American path that followed Pine Creek. As the area was settled, lumbering became its major industry and by 1840 there were a reported 145 sawmills along the creek. The creek was used to float logs down stream to the saw mills. In the late 1800s, the Jersey Shore, Pine Creek and Buffalo Railway completed laying its tracks and began service along the Native American trail. Primarily, the railway carried lumber from the many sawmills to markets. After a series of reorganizations, the railroad along Pine Creek became part of the New York Central Railroad and eventually Conrail. Freight and passenger service continued until 1988 when Conrail ended rail service along Pine Creek. The tracks were eventually removed and the first section of the Pine Creek Rail Trail opened in 1996. The trail was completed in stages with the most recent section (from Ansonia to just north of Wellsboro) being completed in 2007. The trail is operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
While the Cedar Run Inn is near the center of the trail, we decided to cycle the trail from end to end. To get to the northern end of the trail we cycled northeast from Cedar Run via state route 414 to the town of Morris then headed north on state route 287. Route 414 had no shoulder but was virtually deserted. Route 287 had traffic but a reasonable shoulder. We could have avoided route 287 by cycling Stony Fork Road. Stony Fork Road was clearly visible on the other side of a wide and knee deep creek along route 414. However, these roads were not connected by a bridge. To get to the Stony Fork Road we would have had to carry our bikes through the stream. Afterwards, we anticipated several steep climbs on this route.
We still had a long, but relatively easy climb on route 287 to get to the town of Wellsboro. Just south of Wellsboro, at the top of the mountain, we stopped at William Schlegel’s studio. Mr. Schlegel is a wood sculptor/carver. He gave us a tour of his studio and showed us his current carved animal projects including a bear, beaver, and an eagle. He starts his wood carvings with a chain saw and then uses a small hand tool for the finish work.
Leaving Mr. Schlegel’s studio, we had a 2.5 mile drop into the small but vibrant town of Wellsboro. The town founded in the early 1800s has a population of just over 3,000. Despite its small population, its downtown is lively with many shops, motels, and places to eat. We ate lunch at the historic Wellsboro Diner. This restaurant is an authentic diner dating from 1939. While the diner was old, its food was great with home made soups, pies, and cookies…we tried all 3. Wellsboro also offers a bike shop and several outfitters that rent bikes, canoes, and kayaks. We had planned to kayak on Pine Creek but were told that the creek’s water level was too low. The outfitter suggested that we come back in the early spring when water levels offer great kayaking. Also, just a few miles from Wellsboro is one of Pennsylvania’s largest wetland complexes called “The Muck” that offers bird observation blinds that are open year round. In addition, Pine Creek is a very popular place for fly fishing.
Leaving Wellsboro we headed north on route 6 to the Pine Creek’s northern trail head. Across the road from the trail head we first stopped at the Tioga Central Railroad (www.tiogacentral.com) which operates on a right-of-way that dates to 1840.
The railroad offers excursions on vintage rail cars. There was also a restaurant at the trail head…the only place to eat along the trail until you reach Cedar Run. (If planning to cycle the trail note that the Cedar Run Inn only serves food on the weekends and the country store is also open only on the weekends. To obtain food during the week you will need to cycle 5 miles further south to Slate Run.)
Cycling was easy on the trail’s hard packed gravel surface. We quickly left civilization as the trail meandered through marshes and farm lands and headed into the Pine Creek Gorge. The glacially-carved gorge is about 12 miles from the trail’s northern terminus.
The northern section of the gorge is known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. After visiting the Nation’s Grand Canyon in Arizona, I would not use the term “grand canyon” to describe this gorge. However, it is a wonderful gorge in a narrow valley with only the trail and creek on its floor. Both sides of the valley are steep, tree covered hills. The deepest point of the gorge is 1,450 feet and while it is mostly narrow, one part does spread out to nearly 1 mile in width. As we cycled through this narrow valley, we enjoyed the creek and we wondered how the gorge would look in just a few weeks as the leaves took on their fall colors and how the creek would look in the spring when it flow increases dramatically.
Access to the gorge appeared to be limited. While we did not see any roads or parking lots, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ map shows 2 roads entering the park from the north and east. We did share the trail with horse pulling 2 Conestoga wagons. These wagons offered a great way to experience the gorge and were full of tourists. Each wagon had a narrator describing the areas history and resources.
Since we were cycling on a weekday and the weather was overcast, we saw only a few other trail users on the northern section. We saw several day hikers and 2 cyclists with heavily loaded bikes on what appeared to be a long journey. We talked to a couple cycling on their tandem. They were going in the same direction but were much faster than us. While they both have cycled across the United States on their tandem, he has crossed the country 5 other times on his road bike. No matter how many trips Joe and I take, we find someone who makes our adventures seem like trips around the block. We also met a park ranger who told us we just missed 2 black bears that crossed the trail seconds before we rounded the bend to his location. Earlier, I saw a black bear from the safety of my car and was not too disappointed in not seeing bears while we were on our bikes. However, Joe is always looking for a great photo opportunity and was disappointed in missing the bears. The ranger also told us that camping is allowed in the park and during the spring and summer the trail and creek are used by bikers, hikers, equestrians, canoeists and kayakers.
Heading south below Cedar Run, the trail is closer to public roads and goes through several areas that are more developed (but still very rural). On my Sunday drive to Cedar Run, this section of the trail was very busy with many cyclists and walkers. However, today it was deserted.
About 5 miles south of Cedar Run is Slate Run which also has lodging and food at the Hotel Manor (www.hotel-manor.com) and is open during the week. The 10-room hotel was built in 2004 to replace the original logging era hotel that was destroyed by a fire. We stopped there to eat. Talking to our waitress we expressed our frustration over the lack of cell phone coverage. She told us that we should cross the road and stand in Bill’s driveway where we would find a cellular sweet spot. While we did not know Bill, there was only one home across the road. So after filling our caloric needs, we crossed the road and used our cell phones in Bill’s driveway. (I wonder if this is why the chicken crossed the road.)
Continuing south, the next town is Waterville, about 18 miles further down the trail from Cedar Run. Waterville also offers lodging, food and a great side trip up to Little Pine State Park. This park offers lodging in campgrounds, cottages, and yurts. Little Pine Lake in the heart of the park offers swimming, fishing, and boating. Additional camping on the southern part of the trail is allowed at Bonell Flats and Black Walnut Bottom.
The trail’s southern terminus is in the town of Jersey Shore located along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. This town dates back to the late 1700s but did not get its current name until 1826. Originally the town was named Waynesburg but was frequently referred to as Jersey Shore. According to Wikipedia, one of the original founders had relocated from New Jersey and settled on the western shore of the Susquehanna. Thus the nickname Jersey’s shore eventually became so fixed that in 1826 the town’s name was officially changed. In the town of about 5,000 people, we found a great Italian restaurant to celebrate the trip.
Joe lives in New York and I live in Virginia and we both had to travel about 250 miles to get to the Pine Creek Trail. A week before our trip, the 10-day weather forecast indicated that we would have sunny days with temperatures in the low 70s. The closer we got to the start of our trip the weather forecast changed from sunny days to rainy days. The day we drove to Pine Creek we had the promised sunshine. The next day it was overcast and cool and the second day the rain came. However, it was still a great trip and I look forward to going back and spending more time exploring the Pine Creek area.
A postscript on the ice cream is required. After returning from Pike Creek, I talked to Larry, my ice cream loving friend. When I described our trip and the Cedar Run ice cream stop, Larry’s face took on a puzzled look. He said that he was having second thoughts on where he had that great ice cream and it may have been at Waterville or near Wellsboro. He revealed that he made several ice cream stops on or near the trail and while he could not remember which ice cream was the best, he did conclude that “the one I am currently eating is always the best ice cream ever.”