Pennsylvania is one lucky state.
It already has the amazing Great Allegheny Passage, that 150-mile rail-trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md., where it links up to the C&O Canal for those wanting to bike to Washington D.C.
After two days on the Schuylkill River Trail, I think this could be eastern Pennsylvania’s response. Admittedly, the trail isn’t completed and some completed sections are on quiet roads, rather than on paths. Nor will it be as long as the GAP. But even on the stretch we did — just over 50 miles from Conshohocken northwest to Reading, and then back — we had urban and rural, one-time industrial towns, some doing better than others, wide open and tree-covered paths, paved and crushed-stone surfaces, glimpses of river and a detour to history at Valley Forge. We even saw a row of four smokestacks, all that remains from an old factory. It could have been on the GAP.
The Schuylkill Trail actually begins/ends in Philadelphia and within sight of 30th Street Station (its main train station), but we settled on suburban Conshohocken for two reasons. I started last year’s East Coast Greenway ride there, and I liked the idea of heading in the other direction. And it was easy to get to from our house.
Why Reading? It was a good distance to ride and had a hotel downtown, not far from the trail. No need to find a back route to a hotel off a highway.
This was pure credit-card biking, and we traveled super light on our road bikes and a drawstring bag on a back, no panniers. Yes, our 23-mm tires coped just fine, but I know the idea of skinny tires on something other than asphalt would freak out many riders.
Thinking of camping? I saw just one campsite, built by a Boy Scout and very primitive, not even a pit toilet.
Biking on the Schuylkill River Trail
We started Day 1 just enjoying the wide, paved path. A storm the day before had chased away summer, and the air now felt autumnal. No searing heat, and leaves were already falling in some places. We hear the path can get crowded all the way to Valley Forge, but this was a weekday and overcast, so we saw relatively few joggers and bikers.
The wide asphalt route stayed with us for the first 13.5 miles, until we reached Phoenixville. Shades of the Great Allegheny Passage — this is a one-time steel town (the mill went bust in 1984). Happily, the town seems to be undergoing a renaissance, and the construction site for plenty of condos has closed off a small section of trail, sending us through downtown. But it was too early to stop, so we made a mental note to sample one of the many restaurants on the way back.
A new section of the trail opened this year, bringing it from Phoenixville to Parkerford. The Parkerford-to-Pottstown section is supposed to open by 2018, but for anyone comfortable riding on the road, just do what we did: When the trail runs out, take the quiet Old Schuykill Road just off to the left (and left of Route 724) until it runs out and dumps you on 724. We then took 724 (avoiding Route 422) to South Hanover, turned right and followed it into downtown Pottstown.
Pottstown is another old industrial town that has seen better days. It doesn’t seem to be making the same comeback that Phoenixville is, but Lily’s Grill, the place we somewhat randomly chose for lunch after a sweep of an uninspiring High Street, was quite the surprise. Delicious food, generous portions — and try the truffle fries!
Then on to Reading — the end of our 51-mile day. We stayed at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel (no real Lincoln connection, but John Phillip Sousa did spend his final days there), and just wheeled our bikes into the elevator and then into our generously sized room — no hassles. Reading has lost much of its industry, and the sidewalks were pretty much rolled up on a Friday night. But we found good food at the Speckled Hen Pub (get the Marquis au chocolate), and that’s really all we needed.
And yes, George Washington was here.
We’d picked this weekend and trip not knowing that Reading was hosting a pro bike race on Saturday. With rain in the afternoon forecast, we didn’t even stick around for the start of the Reading 120, let alone the end. And the hilly 120-mile route? Not something I could fathom right now.
Day 2 reminded us why trails — and projects like the East Coast Greenway — are so important. We pulled into Pottstown just as the celebrations after a 5K run/1K walk were wrapping up. No doubt we could have scored some leftover bagels or even a hot dog or two. Instead we fell into conversation with a couple from out of town who wanted information about the trail. They’d driven over with their mountain bikes and previously had ridden a ways toward Reading. They wanted to know what it was like in the other direction. And it quickly became clear that they did not feel comfortable riding on the road, and definitely not that route we took to get out of Pottstown. They saw themselves as out of shape and ready to ride no more than 10 or 15 miles. To me, it was just great that they were on bikes. We suggested they drive to Phoenixville and try that portion of trail. I hope they did.
And Phoenixville is where we headed for a proper break (nice farmers market, but our lunch spot didn’t deliver as well as our other food stops).
Something else we discovered about Pottstown and Phoenixville (and Hamburg, too, on the other side of Reading) — free bike share. We came across a fairly large group headed from Pottstown westward. My guess is they were on this neat-sounding Pedal and Paddle day trip. Some of them looked like they hadn’t been on a bike in a long time — just another example of how trails can get people on bikes and exercising.
And you think one benefit of a trail is that you can’t get lost? Try us. We ended up going in a loop around the Union Township Recreation Area before we reached Pottstown, only realizing something was wrong when we recognized some of those walkers! Turns out we’d noticed the sign for the trailhead but not the one next to it for the trail that pointed us to the right. Instead we just kept following a path …
We did take one deliberate detour — to Valley Forge National Historic Park. Finding the way took a little bit of looking (the trail to the temporary, narrow path along the bridge, thankfully separated from traffic by a fence, is behind the orange barriers, but a new bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians is being built.) A partial (hilly) loop, the visitors center and then back to the trail and past the site of the old Betzwood film studios. Bet you never heard of it either, but owner Siegmund Lublin was an early movie mogul.
We passed on a couple of other historic sites a bit further afield — the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, which tells the story of America’s industrialization, and the Daniel Boone Homestead. Perhaps on another visit.
After all, the Schuylkill River Trail connects to the 20-mile Perkiomen Trail near Phoenixville — all part of the 750-mile Circuit of trail envisioned for the Greater Philadelphia area. More than 300 miles already exist! Hmm… Conshohocken to the Perkiomen Trail there and back, an overnight in Phoenixville, and then the Schuylkill Trail into Philadelphia and the amazing Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk and then back to the car. Or a day trip using one of the many trailheads along the Schuylkill River Trail?
From Philadelphia, of course, major cities along the entire East Coast — from Maine to Florida — is reachable via the East Coast Greenway.
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