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The trail along Pine Creek © Rails-to-Trails ConservancyFlowers along the trail © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
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Trail of the Month: July 2009
Pennsylvania's Pine Creek Rail Trail

Known locally as the "Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania," Pine Creek Gorge can make you feel rather small and sheltered. Glacial ice sheets drained through the gorge thousands of years ago and accelerated its carving. The deeper you venture in, the steeper the slopes grow, and 100-year-old hardwood forests shadow the mountainsides. Looking up from the valley floor, 1,000 feet down along Pine Creek, you may get the feeling you're in the maw of a woodsy beast.

Despite this résumé for a rugged adventure, Pine Creek Gorge is actually incredibly welcoming and accessible, thanks to the 64-mile Pine Creek Rail Trail. On smooth crushed stone, the trail runs from Jersey Shore to Wellsboro Junction and lets visitors comfortably tour the gorge's imposing terrain. You get all the sights with few of the strains.

The route's roots are in the timber industry. The Jersey Shore, Pine Creek and Buffalo Railway first built tracks in 1893 to service local sawmills, but the Fall Brook Coal Company soon purchased the line to haul coal to New York. Ownership and use of the corridor shifted several more times before ending with Conrail, and the last freight train passed through in 1988.

Within a year, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and other partners were lobbying the Pennsylvania legislature to acquire the route for trail development. The value of such a trail was not always clear to local communities, and it took three votes for the measure to pass—with a purchase of $1 from Conrail. "There was some controversy," says Tom Sexton, director of RTC's Northeast Regional Office. "Some people thought the trail was going to stop people from enjoying the wilderness; others thought it was going to bring a bunch of unwanted development. Neither has happened."

Opened in 1996, the Pine Creek Rail Trail now ambles creekside for all but seven miles of the route and passes through two state forests—the Tioga to the north, and the Tiadahton to the south. A citizen advisory committee continues to oversee development around the pathway. They've helped keep commercial intrusions to a minimum, although you'll find enough services to keep you comfortable. "There's a happy medium," says Sexton.

As a result, Pine Creek Gorge remains a well-protected refuge for all kinds of wildlife. The most remote section of the trail begins at the northern end in Tioga State Forest, where the diversity of animal populations is especially striking, from the creek bottom to the treetops. "You quickly get into this other world where you can see bald eagles," says Sexton. "It's unusual if you don't seem them."

One of these first segments, between Ansonia and Wellsboro Junction, glides through boggy marshland, home to many waterfowl and snapping turtles. The turtles are laying their eggs along the trail corridor right now, says Roy Siefert, a district forester with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Wayside exhibits explain more about local ecosystems, and there's plenty to discuss. The gorge supports bears, wild turkeys, waterfowl, deer and even river otters, which were reintroduced in the 1980s. You should also keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. But don't worry, says Siefert, "they're pretty mild and lay there and let folks take pictures."

One geographic constant on the trip is Pine Creek. Like the gorge, the stream is splashing with life. It's the largest tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River and a popular trout stream. Kayaks and canoes carve its current all summer, and fisherman cast out from rock outcroppings.

In decades past, Pine Creek also hosted thriving American eel and mussel populations. The eels disappeared when hydroelectric dams broke up the river basin, but they played a crucial role in the reproductive cycle of mussels. Without eels in the ecosystem, the mussels have been vanishing, and the creek has suffered from the loss since mussels filter sediment and pollution from the water. So to jumpstart the mussel population, a group of state and federal officials and environmental organizations released 308 eels into Pine Creek near Darling Run this spring. It will take several years to know whether the project succeeds. In the meantime, keep an eye out for one of these slithery eels (harmless to dangling toes in the water, by the way).

For a more dramatic perspective of the creek and trail, you can climb up the one-mile Turkey Path at Leonard Harrison State Park. You'll follow switchbacks to reach the top of the gorge, from where you can see trail users pass far below like a string of ants.

Stick to the rail-trail, though, if you want to minimize your exertion. The elevation change is fairly mild from south to north, working from 645 feet at Jersey Shore to 1,146 feet at Darling Run, just before Ansonia. Spaced out over the whole trail, the grade is barely noticeable. The surrounding terrain also eases considerably as you head into Jersey Shore. Fields replace forests, and the gorge's high walls settle like waves to ripples.

If you savored the trip, you aren't alone. In 2001, USA Today rated the trail one of the "10 great places to take a bike tour" in the world. Easy to reach and even easier to ride, rich in the spoils of an unspoiled landscape, the Pine Creek Rail Trail has earned every superlative.

For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.

This month's Trail of the Month is generously sponsored by:

 

Related Links

Tioga County

Pine Creek Gorge

TrailLink.com

 

Trail Facts

Name: Pine Creek Rail Trail

Trail Web site: www.visittiogapa.com/railtrail.html

Length: 64 miles

Counties: Lycoming and Tioga

Start Point/ End Point: Jersey Shore to Wellsboro Junction (north of Wellsboro)

Surface type: Crushed stone

Uses: Walking, jogging, bicycling and cross-country skiing; the trail is also wheelchair accessible. Equestrians are advised to access the trail at the Ansonia trailhead, where there is a dirt path alongside the main pathway.

Difficulty: Easy

Access and Parking: The best way to locate driving directions and parking options is to log into TrailLink.com to access the GIS interactive map for the trail. Registration is free, and it will enable you to search maps for all other trails in the database.

Nearby Attractions: If you don't have a mount of your own, but you'd love to experience the trail on horseback, try arranging a ride with Mountain Trail Horse Center, Inc., in Wellsboro. They offer rides on the Pine Creek Rail Trail and other pathways in the gorge area. They also provide two-hour covered wagon tours, including a cookout option with an open fire picnic. The seats are padded, and there's plenty of room for larger groups. Call 877.376.5561 to learn more about their rates and ride schedules.

Wellsboro is one of the host cities for the Endless Mountain Music Festival, July 31-August 16. Now in its fourth year, the festival features solo recitals, chamber music and a 62-member festival orchestra, with styles from Baroque to Romantic, and classical to contemporary. Check out the venues in Wellsboro and specific event times and dates, and let summertime serenade you after a day on the trail.

When August hits north-central Pennsylvania, summer is most definitely in full swing—especially if you arrive in time for the Little League World Series, August 15-24. Each year, teams from all over the world compete for the championship in Williamsport, Pa., only a few miles from the southern end of the trail in Jersey Shore. Just follow the clink of aluminum bats and the smell of hotdogs to find Lamade Stadium, where all the games are played. From there, you can tour the nearby Little League Museum if you want more background on the international event.

Bridge over Pine Creek © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

The crushed stone surface drains incredibly well after storms © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

In the heart of Pine Creek Gorge © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

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