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20 Great Biking & Hiking Trails in Western Pennsylvania

Each trail has been lovingly constructed and maintained, using old infrastructure to reconnect disparate communities.



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Photos by Chuck Beard

 

At first glance, a trail is just a nice place to jog. The crushed limestone path extends into the distance, and the trees and songbirds herald the arrival of spring. But trails are more than that: They are pedestrian arteries, bikeways free of motorized traffic and meeting points for friends and families. A trail is a place to picnic, to take romantic strolls and even to ride a horse.

Western Pennsylvania is crosshatched with trails, most of them converted from old railroad lines — a perfect metaphor for the region’s transition from an industrial hotspot to a healthy, socially conscious place to live. Each trail has been lovingly constructed and maintained, using old infrastructure to reconnect disparate communities. Whether you prefer to rollerblade to downtown or bike to the nation’s capital, these “greenway systems” are some of the most powerful symbols of Pittsburgh’s progress.

For a chance to get fresh air and explore western Pennsylvania’s outdoor spaces, here are the best routes you’ll find to take a hike or ride your bike.
What are you waiting for?
 


photo via flickr

Three Rivers Heritage Trail

Distance: 25 miles
Location: Along Allegheny, Monongahela and  Ohio Rivers
Many of the central neighborhoods of Pittsburgh are connected by the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, a system of riverside paths reclaimed and restored over more than two decades by Friends of the Riverfront; it now enables you to fluidly travel throughout the city and access its three rivers. You could spend days exploring the Heritage Trail’s 25 miles (with more planned) of interconnected routes. From there, trails radiate away from Allegheny County, extending in multiple directions across the state and beyond.
 


 


photo via flickr

South Side Trail

Distance: 3 miles
Location: Station Square, South Side, SouthSide Works
Also part of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, the South Side Trail runs parallel with East Carson Street and never is more than a few hundred feet away from the South Side’s busiest boulevard. Still, the trail couldn’t be more different from that thoroughfare. Quiet, tranquil and trellised with leafy trees, this paved path starts near the Station Square complex and cuts straight to the SouthSide Works. Walkers can pause for a moment beneath the Birmingham Bridge and watch the ducks, or gaze at the Monongahela River through openings in the forest. Artifacts of industry (such as Carrie Furnace, above) still punctuate the landscape studded with bridge piers and chunks of concrete. Wait long enough and you’re sure to see an actual train chug past, as the still-functioning railroad runs parallel to the trail. The neighborhood proper is replete with bike shops and bike-friendly businesses (such as OTB Bicycle Café), so riders should feel welcome anywhere they stop. The views of Oakland, Duquesne University and downtown are postcard-worthy.
 


 

Ghost Town Trail

Distance: 36 miles
Location: Black Lick (Indiana County) to Ebensburg (Cambria County)
It sounds like an episode of “Scooby Doo,” but in fact the Ghost Town Trail is a real route connecting multiple towns in rural Pennsylvania — including places that no longer are inhabited. When the coal industry fell apart, so did many of these communities, and the mass exodus left relics of that bygone day. Most of the mid-19th-century settlements have vanished over time, but you still can see traces of pioneer life. The most celebrated monuments are the Buena Vista and Eliza Furnaces, two massive stone structures that resemble ancient temples as they rise out of the Earth. There also are coal cars, ruins of old buildings and the tranquil waters of Black Lick Creek. We can’t promise that you’ll see any actual poltergeists, but on a foggy day, the route can look delightfully spooky.
 


 

Coke Trail

Distance: 6 miles
Location: Mount Pleasant to Scottdale
Mount Pleasant and Scottdale are classic examples of Pennsylvania small towns: There are main streets lined with antique brick buildings, historical monuments (including a “doughboy” statue) and a long history of farming and manufacturing. Between these two towns is a scenic sample of Westmoreland County countryside, and traveling the Coal & Coke Trail is the perfect way to see it. True to its name, the Coal & Coke Trail passes through former industrial sites where black rock once was mined and processed, although most of what you’ll see today are trees, houses and greensward. Along with fields and woodland, you’ll pass plenty of backyards, motorways and athletic fields. The trail is just long enough for a leisurely afternoon ride, and it runs parallel with a lovely creek and the still-functional railroad. Local volunteers are working to refine the route, improving signage and fluidly linking different trail segments.
 


 


photo via flickr

Steel Valley Trail

Distance: 19 miles
Location: SouthSide Works to McKeesport
This ever-curving segment of the Monongahela River once was one of the busiest industrial corridors in the country. In their heyday, factories here also turned this part of western Pennsylvania into an environmental catastrophe. To commemorate that era, the Steel Valley Trail follows the railroad line that connected all of those forges and warehouses. The trail crosses train tracks, rolls over hills and even passes Kennywood Park. (Feel free to stop and watch the roller coasters through the trees). The Steel Valley Trail also boasts some of the most awe-inspiring trestle bridges in the county, and they’re yours to enjoy. For ambitious cyclists hoping to ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., this trail was the missing link between South Side and McKeesport. Now, after years of negotiating and construction, that epic route is complete.
 

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The woods are lovely, dark and deep indeed, and when you bike or hike a few miles down the path, you don’t want to get caught unprepared. Here are some tips for enjoying Pennsylvania’s trail system.

Plan a Route

Many of these trails are straight (well, straightish) lines, and they don’t make a full circle. If you’re planning a day trip, first figure out a reasonable distance to travel and determine where you’ll turn around. Multi-day travelers should figure out arrangements for lodging ahead of time.

Prepare for Weather

Pennsylvania summers often are a mix of simmering heat and passing storms, so plan accordingly. Sunblock is essential, and you never know when you could use a collapsible poncho.

Bring a Friend

Accidents happen, and although crime is unusual on the trails, joggers always are safer when accompanied by a buddy. Some trails lead to isolated places, so whether you have a small problem (flat tire) or a big problem (a stroke), having a friend available always is a good thing.

Pack Grub

Always bring water and a snack, no matter how short your circuit. This might be as simple as a granola bar. Every trail on this list also has at least one perfect spot to picnic, so consider bringing a full spread.

Pair with Other Activities

The trails are great on their own, but they also enable you to travel to really interesting places. Adjacent communities often are filled with shops, museums and eateries, and the trail provides the perfect excuse to visit them. Stopping in at that charming deli on Main Street can be a fun experience — plus it helps the local economy.
— RI  

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Decoding Google Maps for Bikes

• When using the “Get Directions” function in Google Maps, users can specify directions for bikes. Google spent years compiling bike data to create routes that offer safer passage to cyclists by avoiding heavily trafficked roads or roads that don’t allow bikes. Light-green lines indicate dedicated bike lanes and dashed green lines are bike-friendly roads.
–– Margaret J. Krauss

• View an interactive bike map built by BikePGH

Download a biking map of the city, also from BikePGH

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