20 Great Biking & Hiking Trails in Western Pennsylvania

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


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.
 

 


photo via flickr

Panhandle Trail

Distance: 29 miles
Location: Carnegie to Weirton, W.Va.
The Panhandle Trail might just be Washington County’s best-kept secret: Extending westward from the Montour Trail, this route carves a jagged line to the West Virginia border. The creeks, farmhouses and occasional churches are pastoral, giving trekkers a whole new perspective on Washington’s rich countryside. Unlike the urban trails nearby, the Panhandle often is rugged and pebbly. That makes for some rough riding, although hikers shouldn’t have a problem, and standard hybrid bike tires should suffice. While most people will travel the Panhandle in summer, autumnal hikes yield spectacular views of changing leaves, which is why the annual “Night Walk” takes place around Halloween. Don’t expect to make a lot of friends on the Panhandle, as the route is comparatively quiet. Do expect to see all kinds of animals, from wild turkeys to snapping turtles.
 


 


photo via flickr

Eliza Furnace Trail

Distance: 5.2 miles
Location: Hazelwood to downtown Pittsburgh
Part of the citywide Three Rivers Heritage Trail system, the Eliza Furnace Trail is named after the old factories that once smelted steel along the Monongahela River. Many people use its nickname, “The Jail Trail,” because it curves around the Allegheny County Jail. Running in a straight line from Panther Hollow in Oakland to the edge of downtown, this trail skirts Pittsburgh’s southern bluffs and separates the highways. Cars passing at high speeds make this route noisy in places, but the pavement is smooth and flat, and hundreds of bikers and inline skaters turn out on a warm afternoon. The trail offers unique views of the river, the Birmingham Bridge and the South Side. Parking lots at both ends make it easy to load and unload bicycles, and during times of gridlock through Uptown and the Hill District, the trail is a great way to beat that traffic. The Eliza Furnace is one of Pittsburgh’s oldest trails as well as one of its most popular.
 


 


photo via flickr

Great Allegheny Passage

Distance: 150 miles
Location: Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD.
The Great Allegheny Passage is the granddaddy of all rails-to-trails projects, winning admirers not only in Pennsylvania and Maryland but across the country as well. For years, cyclists dreamed of riding one continuous track from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., first following the old railroad line and then resuming along the C&O Canal. Today, riders can eat breakfast on the South Side and pedal all the way to Cumberland without stopping for a single car. (OK, some cars, but not many.) As you pass through Connellsville, Meyersdale and other quaint towns, you’ll see rocky rivers, verdant forest and stately train tunnels. Budget in a few extra days and you can spend some time in Ohiopyle State Park, one of western Pennsylvania’s most adventurous outdoor spaces. If you’re biking away from Pittsburgh, the first half of the Great Allegheny Passage is a gradual uphill climb, but once you reach the Eastern Continental Divide, it’s all downhill to Cumberland.
 


 


photo via flickr

Westmoreland Heritage Trail

Distance: 9 miles
Location: Saltsburg to Delmont
One of the most exciting new routes is the Westmoreland Heritage Trail — not just because it traverses some beautiful countryside but also because it is an ambitious work in progress. Having completed a nearly 4-mile “Phase II” extension in 2013, organizers of the Westmoreland Heritage Trail Chapter plan to blaze the trail to Trafford, thereby doubling its length. Pittsburghers who never had much reason to cruise through Westmoreland County will have the chance to explore these communities in a whole new way. History buffs will enjoy the industrial artifacts scattered throughout the region, and nature lovers will find plenty of woodland and wildlife. Unlike most rail trails, this route has a noticeable 5-mile incline on the way out of Saltsburg in southern Indiana County, so expect to break a sweat. See how the newest addition to Pennsylvania’s trail system evolves in forthcoming years.
 


 


photo via flickr

West Penn Trail

Distance: 17 miles
Location: Saltsburg to Blairsville
As does the Westmoreland Heritage Trail, the West Penn Trail has a trailhead in Saltsburg, so in theory you could travel one and then try the other in the same day. The route through Indiana County roughly follows the Conemaugh River, except that it’s much straighter than the winding waterway as it cuts a near-direct path to Blairsville. There isn’t much human settlement between the two towns, so the West Penn Trail is the perfect place to commune with the natural environment. The Conemaugh is a powerful river that used to serve as a canal for riverboats, and the views it provides are varied and stunning. The Conemaugh Valley Conservancy is especially proud of the trail’s inclusion in the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway, a 320-mile “green corridor” that connects both cities.
 

 


photo via flickr

Montour Trail

Distance: 45 miles
Location: Coraopolis to South Park Township
Carving a gradual crescent through Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs, the Montour Trail is the longest and most dynamic path in Allegheny County. The trail starts in Coraopolis, a stone’s throw from the Ohio River, and crosses urban sprawl, fields, woodland, trestle bridges and rivers on its way to the village of Library in South Park Township (and eventually to Clairton). As you wend your way from one small town to another, each mile offers completely different topography from the last. In some areas, the trail is so sparsely trafficked that it seems as if you have an entire township to yourself. Because the Montour Trail covers such diverse territory, it’s a great place to spot birds, deer and other wildlife. Parts of the trail are used frequently for athletic events, such as the Montour Trail Half-Marathon and the Tour the Montour Trail Ride. The only downside to the Montour is that it often is in need of upkeep, and sections occasionally are closed for maintenance.
 


 

Greater Wheeling Trail

Distance: 14 miles
Location: Wheeling, W.Va. and along the Ohio River
No trail in the region better contrasts industry with nature. The Greater Wheeling Trail starts in the eponymous West Virginia city, framing the beautiful old waterfront and extending northward. As you make your way along the Ohio River, you’ll see massive factories still in operation, billowing steam into the air. The cone of a power plant rises from the horizon, and barges and storage facilities are a common sight. The trail isn’t fancy, and you won’t find elegant bridges and tall mountains. Still, the asphalt is as smooth as blacktop, and on a balmy summer day, the refreshing breeze seeps through the trees and underbrush. Plenty of people use the Greater Wheeling Trail, but generally it’s a good place to enjoy some solitude. Thanks to its connection to the Panhandle Trail, Pittsburghers can ride all the way to Wheeling and back. Make a long weekend of it and explore the town.
 


 


photo by doug butchy via flickr creative commons

Oil Creek Trail

Distance: 9.5 miles
Location: Oil Creek State Park
Ages ago, Oil Creek was the site of a petroleum boomtown. Workers swarmed here in search of “black gold,” and they built a nearly lawless slum called “Pithole.” Workers bitterly competed to drill bountiful wells in the narrow valley, and they packed the place with saloons and hotels. That community has since fallen apart, and the buildings have vanished, replaced by verdant forest, a crystal-clear river and a paved path that winds through the national park. Venango County is rich in picturesque trails, and locals make good use of them. Here you’ll find the Drake Well Museum and trailside plaques that illustrate how the region looked in the 1860s. When you reach the end of Oil Creek State Park, the 3-mile Queen City Trail extends the route to Titusville. While you’re there, you also can hike the forest’s many footpaths. Adirondack shelters on the far end of the park make this the ideal place for an overnight.
 


 


photo via flickr

Allegheny River Trail

Distance: 32 miles
Location: Franklin to Foxburg
Nestled into the hills of Venango County, Franklin is a charming town and well worth a visit. It also is the perfect springboard to The Allegheny River Trail, a surprisingly long path that leads from Franklin to Foxburg in Clarion County. Travelers pass through forest and railroad tunnels as they curve along the powerful Allegheny River, and every mile offers splendid panoramas. There are well-established picnic areas for taking a breather, and nary a house nor car interrupts the pristine ecosystem. Here’s the best part: If you finish the trail from Foxburg to Franklin, you can resume your journey on the Justus Trail, which leads to Oil City — and from there it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the Oil Creek Trail. That’s a long day of biking (never mind walking), but it’s the perfect way to explore Pennsylvania’s remarkable Oil Heritage Region.
 


 


photo via flickr

North Shore Trail

Distance: 6 miles
Location: Millvale to Chateau
If you start your journey in the parking lot at the Millvale end of this segment of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, there is little there to indicate the breathtaking vistas that await you. The North Shore Trail covers an incredible range of landscapes: You’ll pass bridges, boathouses, leaf-matted riverbanks and industrial debris. You can take a side trip to Washington’s Landing, thanks to a wheelchair-accessible metal footbridge, and you can wave to kayakers paddling by. As you approach the North Side, you’ll catch a fine view of the “Three Sisters” bridges that span the Allegheny River, and then you can stroll along the concrete waterfront with unrivalled vistas of downtown. The trail leads right up to PNC Park, then on to the Carnegie Science Center, Heinz Field and beyond. You’ll find easy pedestrian access to the Fort Pitt Bridge, which leads straight to the Golden Triangle — a real boon during summer festivals at Point State Park. If you’re not already exhausted, you can continue down the river and get a glimpse of Brunot Island.
 

Robert Isenberg is a playwright, stage performer, documentary filmmaker, freelance writer and author who since 2013 has lived in Costa Rica, where he has been a staff writer for The Tico Times. While living in Pittsburgh for 14 years, he was a contributing editor at Pittsburgh Magazine, and he continues to report and write for PM and other publications.

 

5 Great Places to Cycle in the City (Without Fighting Traffic)
 

As winter loosens its grip, it’s time to kick cabin fever to the curb, pump up the bike tires and hit the road. For early-spring fun, these routes capitalize on the city’s vast parks system and offer stress-free riding as well as a chance to blow off the cobwebs.
 


photo by Via Tsuji via Flickr creative commons

Riverview Park: A Slow Burn with a View

Use the North Side leg of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail for a longer approach to the park. When you come to the end of the trail, turn right onto Westhall Street. Make a right onto Beaver Avenue before turning left onto Eckert Street. Crossing under the bridge, bear left for McClure Avenue. Stay right for Woods Run Avenue, which will carry you into Riverview Park. Turn right onto Riverview Drive to hop onto Riverview Avenue for a long, steady climb to the top; it’s almost like a mandala for cyclists.
 


 


photo via flickr

Highland Park: Soothing Water (or a stop at the zoo)

There are any number of ways to approach this ride, but for a quick spin around the reservoir, take North Highland Avenue into the heart of the park and turn either way onto Reservoir Drive. For a longer ride, make a left onto Bunkerhill Street from Highland and then turn right onto One Wild Place, staying right to continue onto Lake Drive. This circles pleasantly throughout the park, past Carnegie Lake and eventually, keeping left, turns into Stanton Avenue.
 


 


photo by cam miller via flickr creative commons

Schenley Park: Take a Tour of Oakland (and Beyond)

Cross over Schenley Bridge, stay to the right for Panther Hollow Road and then make a left to meet its country cousin, Panther Hollow Trail. This trail follows the path of Panther Hollow Run before looping back in the direction of Oakland. If you don’t mind sharing the road a little longer, stay on Panther Hollow Road and keep right at the fork; then turn right onto Overlook Drive. The road will climb up, circling the tennis courts and disc-golf course for great views, before dropping your elevation. At the bottom, hang a left onto Bartlett Street to stay in the park, or make a right onto Greenfield Road. The bridge will be open only until Dec. 27, so get there while you can.
 


 


photo via flickr

Frick Park: Get Lost for Fun

Frick Park is the perfect place to tool around on a sunny day. The paths will be full of mountain bikers and joggers, dog walkers and strollers; this is a park that offers as much people-watching as it does nature-watching. At the intersection of Nicholson Street and Beechwood Boulevard, make a right onto Riverview Trail, just to the left of Blue Slide Playground. Stay on Riverview as it curves back toward Beechwood for a short loop, or follow Riverview Extension Trail to connect with the Lower Riverview or Falls Ravine trails. From the latter, you can turn left or right onto Tranquil Trail (fittingly named) to cruise past the Homewood Cemetery or head down Nine Mile Run Trail, respectively.
 


 


photo by matt niemi via flickr creative commons

Allegheny Cemetery: A Cyclist’s Hidden Refuge

Though Allegheny Cemetery technically isn’t a park, it offers a refuge from the bustle of the city. From Butler Street, turn right into the cemetery’s main entrance, located just past 47th Street. Be mindful that cars can drive through the cemetery and that many visitors are on foot. Most of the paths are unmarked (at least in Google Maps), but follow the elevation up and you can meander toward Penn Avenue. 

––Margaret J. Krauss

 

 

 

Categories: Buzzworthy – Homepage, From the Magazine, Hot Reads, More Sports