Pennsylvania’s D&L Trail
Trail of the Month: January 2018
“You’ll see waterfalls along the side and lots of animal life. It’s serene and beautiful."
If you’re only planning to take one bike trip this year, eastern Pennsylvania’s D&L Trail is not only at the top of our list, but also ranks in the top 10 most-viewed trails on TrailLink.com by trail users—and that’s out of more than 3,800 trails listed on the website. The D&L Trail is remarkable not just for its 141-mile length, but also for the diversity of scenery and the dozens of communities it traverses on its journey from Bristol, in the Greater Philadelphia region, to Mountain Top, nestled in the Appalachians.
“There are gems all along the trail,” said Michael Drabenstott, chair of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor board of directors. “One of the most spectacular areas is the Lehigh Gorge; the trail goes right through it. You’ll see waterfalls along the side and lots of animal life. It’s serene and beautiful.”
Winding through the lush valleys of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, the primarily crushed-stone pathway provides access to three incredible state parks and connects travelers with historical sites from the American Revolution through the canal-building and railroading booms of the country’s early industrial era. And all of this is within just a two- to three-hour drive of some of the largest cities on the Eastern Seaboard, including New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, where it plays a role in the Circuit Trails, the region’s developing 800-mile trail network.
Pathway to the Past
Washington Crossing Historic Park is undoubtedly a highlight of the D&L Trail, commemorating the turning point in the American Revolution when, on that fateful Christmas night in 1776, Washington’s surprise attack and subsequent victory over opposing forces provided a much-needed boost to the Continental Army’s dwindling morale.
“Everyone knows about the famous picture of Washington crossing the Delaware,” said Drabenstott. “To have our trail cross where George Washington and the troops crossed has special significance. That’s the sort of history that’s up and down this corridor.”
Within the park’s 500 acres, visitors can tour a historical village, view educational exhibits and climb Bowman’s Hill Tower, built of native stone in the early 1900s, for a view of the countryside from 125 feet up.
About 50 years after that historic event, the region’s canal era was burgeoning. Between Bristol and Easton, the D&L Trail traces a historical towpath through Delaware Canal State Park, serving as a rolling museum to history. In Easton’s Hugh Moore Park, the National Canal Museum offers rides on a canal boat called the Josiah White II pulled by two mules named Hank and George.
“There are about 20 canal locks up and down the towpath, several aqueducts and five original camelback bridges—all manually operated to keep it in its historical state,” said George Calaba, park manager at Washington Crossing Historic Park.
Beyond Easton, travelers will pedal through neighboring Bethlehem, where they’ll see the century-old towering Bethlehem Steel stacks across the Lehigh River. It’s worth a short detour off the D&L Trail to visit the site of this former industrial powerhouse, once one of the largest steel manufacturers in the country, which supplied the building materials for iconic structures like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Chrysler Building and the Hoover Dam.
“I’m jealous of the sojourn riders,” chuckles Calaba about the bevy of bikers who will be enjoying the D&L Trail this coming June on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s annual sojourn ride. “They’ll see Pennsylvania the way it was 200 years ago.”
New Life for Old Towns
In 2012 the D&L Trail brought in an estimated $19 million in annual economic impact to the more than 50 communities that surround it. All along the trail, towns are thriving, including charming spots, like New Hope with its vibrant artistic and cultural scene, and Bristol, one of Pennsylvania’s oldest towns, where the motto is “Welcome Friend.”
Perhaps one of the most inviting stops for tourists is Jim Thorpe, which Drabenstott describes as “like a little Swiss town with narrow streets and Victorian-style homes.” Near the town square is a visitor center that was once the town’s railroad depot. Tracks running beside it carry the trains of the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, which rail fans can board for an hour-long ride to White Haven and then bike the 26 miles back to Jim Thorpe. Trailside railroad ties and Turn Hole Tunnel, cutting 500 feet through the mountainside, provide glimpses of the rail-trail’s past as a route once used to carry anthracite coal from mine to market.
In 2012 the D&L Trail brought in an estimated $19 million in annual economic impact to the more than 50 communities that surround it.
“At the time, like many coal-mining towns, Jim Thorpe had become economically depressed when the coal dried up,” said Sky Fogal, vice president of Pocono Whitewater, a family-owned business begun here by his parents and grandfather four decades ago. “The town itself used to be a wealthy town, so it still had Victorian architecture, but it was really run down with no open shops.”
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor was established by Congress in 1988, and the trail traversing the corridor has been developing steadily since then. Growing interest in it prompted Pocono Whitewater to begin offering bike rentals, biking trips and shuttle services in the 1980s in addition to their whitewater rafting options. Their fleet has increased from 20 bikes back then to 200 today (with talk of expanding to 250). Fogal said their most popular rentals—and the type that they’ll be providing for RTC’s sojourn riders—are comfort bikes with hybrid tires, noting that the trail is well maintained with a surface that’s just “one step below paved.”
“You can see the change,” said Fogal of the town’s revitalization. “There are wineries and small mom-and-pop shops; there’s an opera house that has live bands and open mic nights. It’s taken on that funky biker atmosphere. All of it is really because of having the trail in town.”
Bridging the Gaps
Just south of Jim Thorpe, the construction of a key pedestrian bridge, 25 years in the making, will be celebrated with great fanfare by the sojourn riders on June 11. Currently the second longest rail-trail in the state, the D&L Trail when finished will total 165 miles, besting the Great Allegheny Passage in the number one spot. The new Mansion House Bridge will close a major gap in the D&L Trail between its northern and southern halves.
“When the bridge comes in, it will open up our trail for long-distance trail users,” said Brian Greene, the trail programs manager for the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. “This gap stopped people who wanted to do multiday trips. The bridge will create a 59-mile stretch of continuous trail, which will be really huge for the community.”
The few other gaps remaining in the trail are also clicking into place, the most critical one being the handful of miles needed between Northampton and Allentown, the trail’s biggest community.
“Allentown has one of the largest gaps in the 165-mile expanse,” said Drabenstott. “We’re dedicating time and energy to close that gap; it’s our number one priority right now. From Allentown, you can go to Easton and almost all the way down to Bristol, about 75 miles.”
Tom Sexton, RTC’s northeast regional director, vividly remembers the organization’s very first sojourn hosted on the D&L Trail in 2002. “It’s come a long way since then,” affirmed Sexton, adding that he looks forward to it getting even “bigger and better as more connections open!”
2018 Pennsylvania Sojourn
This summer, join us on the beautiful D&L Trail for the ride of a lifetime. Equal parts adventure, challenge and celebration, our 2018 Pennsylvania Sojourn is an experience you’ll never forget—and won’t want to miss!