Yep, you read this right: we did it again, an encore to the Excellent Adventure 2 earlier in 2019. Since I’m a software guy, I versioned it as Excellent Adventure 2.1.
It was a four day trip around northeastern PA using primarily – but with a LOT of holes – the Delaware & Lehigh and Schuylkill River Trails. That’s what makes these trips fun; if it were all just smooth rail trails without some kind of “deviation” it would just be tedious. This ride was definitely not that. The short version in video form:
For the long version, read on!
Coming off such a fun trip through the Monongahela National Forest in remote West Virginia, Charles started casting about for another trip to do this year. In researching what other long trails (100+ miles like the GAP, C&O) exist in the USA, he came across the Delaware & Lehigh Trail (D&L) (Wikipedia). Looking in PA at what trail could be ridden back to to make a loop he discovered the Schuylkill River Trail (SRT) (Wikipedia). Much of the route planning followed the process outlined in an earlier post using a combination of the Google, Ride With GPS and trail specific web sites. We wanted to repeat the 4 days of the 2018 trip, but also not deal with the gnarly A-B trip type logistics of the last two trips, so found Philadelphia a convenient and interesting starting/ending spot. The other factors that figured prominently in the route were places to stay – mid-level hotels where we could use points – and of course microbreweries of which PA is doing a GREAT job at promoting, because there were many more than we could visit!
Who is that extra person in the cover photo you might be wondering? After talking up the last couple of trips at work with a friend Steve, who commutes into DC by bike, he starting showing some interest in a multiday trip. He accompanied us on the test ride to Baltimore Charles and I did in May. After purchasing a new bike that could accommodate 35mm tires necessary for non-paved trails, the light went on and he decided to join us for all four days.
Day 1: Philadelphia to Easton – 82 Miles
Philadelphia is a doable drive from Annapolis on the first riding day so we did not need to stay overnight there the night before, which in many ways additionally simplified the logistics and the reduced cost. We met at my house at 6 am, picked Charles up and headed up the eastern shore. Other than an ill fated attempt at a food stop in downtown Philadelphia during rush hour, we got to the Edgewater Parking Garage where we had prepurchased 4 days of parking for $51. A quick scan of the barcode and up to the top of a nearly full garage, we parked, unloaded, kitted up and hit the road.
The trip out of Philadelphia essentially paralleling the Delaware River through the northeast first ring suburbs was not particularly pleasant, but there were bike lanes most of the way, so not dangerous. What struck me is the presence of traffic lights at virtually EVERY block. From a Strong Towns perspective, what a waste of money because they were used as speed control devices, not to meter cross street traffic. They could accomplish the same thing with a road diet or small roundabouts. But I digress other than to say our speed of 12mph was exactly wrong and we hit almost every red light for an hour, which definitely was annoying. Things started to thin out and we hit the D&L in Bristol. For “Mile 0” of the trail it was so unremarkable, we never stopped to take a picture.
The trail rolled along very nicely pretty much all the way to Easton. The only adversity was the storm that came through Wednesday night and blew quite a number of trees down over the trail, some which required bushwhacking off the trail to get around and the fact that any time I went through some water, I flatted. Three times. Yep, I was that guy. At least I was prepared with multiple tubes and lots of patch kittage. Other than that, the trail is in pretty good shape and what you would expect on a typical unpaved rail trail/towpath. It was pretty hot, but a thunderstorm cooled it off in the afternoon. We had a nice lunch stop about 3 pm at a little cafe in New Hope, a swanky/artsy community. The only downside of that type of establishment was no sugary Coke available, much to all of our chagrin!
We didn’t get into Easton until about 7:30 pm because of the later than expected start, trail detours, flats and a few tourist moment stops. I had a little over 6 hours moving time and an elapse time of 9 hours.
Strava for the day: https://www.strava.com/activities/2602906942
After checking into the Grand Eastonian hotel, an older building right downtown, showering and “making black water” (a reference Charles makes to my being a Zappa fan and the song Let’s make the Water Turn Black) by washing kits in the sink, we headed up to the featured brewery of the day Two Rivers Brewing Co. Of course I had an IPA (2 actually), what else? See my beer selections and ratings at the end of the post. By 9 pm we were starving after a long day on the bike and also ate there. It was pub food, but very good. The city of Easton is an awesome, older small city and was all “done up” and looked really pretty (it’s the home of Crayola Crayons). The Grand Eastonian was an excellent experience.
Day 2: Easton to Hazelton – 84 Miles
After a nice breakfast at the hotel, we packed up, got the drive trains lubed and rolled about 9 am. We had originally planned on about 100 miles, taking the trail all the way up to Mountain Top before turning towards Hazelton. Given the heat and the experience with the time on the road from the day before, we wisely decided to cut the top of the course off to 80-ish miles.
It was a quick ride back down to the trail (even though we got messed up a bit getting to it on the right side of the tracks through town) and we started the ride in earnest. It was was a beautiful day, not quite as hot as the day before, but just as sunny. The planned lunch stop was at Jim Thorpe at about 50 miles. The trail was largely complete except for some easy on road sections through North Catasaqua and other small gaps where a local street ran atop the trail. The terrain was definitely starting to change and the surrounding area was looking much more “lumpy” around Palmerton as the river cut through the first ridges that that make up the Poconos.
The only big navigation question was a known trail closure coming into Jim Thorpe. There is a new bridge over the river into the town, but the southern approach was not completed. We had been watching this development for a couple months and we were hopeful that it would be open by the time of the trip. We missed it by three days. We were told we could climb over some barriers and make it work, but we decided to take our on-road route so we headed out to US 209. There was a pretty good hill – around here any deviation from the trail always included some climbing! – but not too bad. However at the top, US 209 was closed for construction. The road monitor told us it would open in about an hour for the weekend, but there was a 5 minute (by car) detour up Flagstaff Rd. It was a significant hill from the looks of it and his comment was the understatement of the year. It was a 2 mile hill at about 6-10% and the surface was not in great shape. Not the hardest hill in the world, but with a 45 pound bikepacking rig, it was hard. Nonetheless we grunted our way over it and flew down the backside. By the time we got into Jim Thorpe, it was, surprise, about an hour. Oh well, it made it epic. Can you tell where the detour was from the profile image?
We stopped at Antonio’s Pizzeria for sandwiches and lots of cold coke about 3 pm. Soooo good. After lunch we looked around Jim Thorpe briefly on our way down to the trail. The trail up through the next set of ridges/gorges was really pretty with the high, steep mountains along the river. We continued for about 13 miles to Lehigh Gorge State Park where our shorter “alt” route left the trail. This began the on road transition from the D&L Trail to the SRT. This transition encompassed the last part of day 2 and the first part of day 3.
Of course any time you leave the river valley in a hilly area, it goes up. Fast. So on the access road out of Lehigh Gorge State Park, we walked. All of us. The really steep part was short and we remounted and continued on surface roads, climbing up about 1000′ to the Eckley Miners’ Village at mile 68, a pristine restored company town. I got there first and the visitor’s center was closed but they had a coke machine out back and I had money. Just what the doctor ordered. After resting a bit we rolled along mostly country roads with an awesome tailwind all the way into Hazelton. We stayed at the Fairfield in off PA 93, a nice hotel in a seriously STROADy place. But, points are points so it was free!
I got to the hotel first and since I booked it, checked in quickly and showered immediately as Charles and Steve rolled in. They had laundry facilities so “making black water” was much easier. We did our basic chores and got ready to head out to our evening’s brewery. I had 7:20 moving time and 10 hours elapsed. It was definitely a looong day in the saddle and no doubt the hardest as the climbing came at the end of a hot day. While it was hot, the beginnings of a summer cold front were rolling through – this is what created the great southerly tailwind – and as the day moved on the humidity started to drop. By the time we got to the hotel, the front had mostly passed.
Strava for the day: https://www.strava.com/activities/2605347219
The brewery of choice for the evening was the Conyngham Brewing Co. in Conygham PA. It was a 10 minute drive that was easy to grab a Lyft ride to. They don’t serve food there, but suggested calling a local pizza place to deliver, which was spot on. I had a couple Brut IPAs which were really good. The pizza and salad really hit the spot and after relaxing a bit, Lyfted back to the hotel and crashed.
Day 3: Hazelton to Reading – 84 miles
After a decent basic breakfast at the hotel, we rolled out. The first half of the route out of Hazelton was the second part of the D&L to SRT transition. The first 15 miles or so was rolling with some small punchy hills that let us warm up for the last major bit of climbing. We could see the impending ridge with the windmills on it as we crossed over Catawissa Creek to begin the 2.5 mile climb. It was not too steep, maybe 3-8% undulating, until we got to the “No Winter Maintenance” sign. Anyone who has spent time in a rural area knows that means gravel. In this case it was 1km at 8%, but not knowing the route really well, I frankly had no idea how long that section was. From the route map, we only had another mile and change to the top of the ridge so was not going to be too bad. I got to the gravel first and remember thinking “Steve is not going to like this…”. As he and Charles rolled up, I yelled “SURPRISE!”. We just grunted it out and it was actually quite a nice climb as gravel climbs go; the surface was uniform and the gravel not too lose. From there a short pitch to the top for some Facebook live and a few pictures and videos of the whirring windmills. They make a fair bit of noise up close if you have never been next to one, it is surprising.
Once over the ridge we had a really nice downhill run into the towns of Shenandoah and Frackville and then over I-81. This was really the end of the transition between trails, but the beginning of what we knew would be some navigational “challenges” as we got into the Schuylkill River watershed. The northern part of the SRT is not well traveled and still a work in progress. Basically, lots of “bushwhacking” where there eventually might be a trail if the SRT is ever extended this far north. Starting in Frackville, the river (Mud Run to Mill Creek to the Schuylkill in Pottsville) run down the gorge – basically along PA 61 a 4 lane divided highway. Just south of Frackville, there appeared to be a trail along the east side of 61 from the satellite view (the old rail alignment), but to get to it, the first obstacle was getting around the Frackville State Correctional Institution to where it appeared the dirt road started. As you might imagine, there are lots of no trespassing signs and we were visited by some polite officers who confirmed this was not going to work. A few minutes consulting the Google and we decided our best course of action was to bomb the 4 mile descent on PA 61. I have ridden on divided highways before and is not that big a deal to me especially a big downhill as I just let it unwind at about 40 mph. It was actually quite fun; I wish I had thought to turn my go pro on.
North of St. Clair starting at Walmart on PA 61, we found a little bit of random ATV trail followed by on road sections and took us all the way to Pottsville, where the first “real” marked section of the SRT is. Definitely a bushwhacking 1 mile section of trail, but I suppose you have to start somewhere.
From there through Auburn PA, it was road, trail, road, trail, road, then the next navigation challenge: getting from Auburn PA to Port Clinton PA through state game lands that have no passable roads. This appears to be a key missing piece of the SRT and probably the reason the rest of the trail north is so under developed. There is the right of way of the abandoned rail alignment containint an unpassable bridge over the new tracks (see in the video below) and bridge over the Schuylkill river. The cost of making the bridges usable is probably what keeps this section from being completed. To detour around this on roads, you’d have to deviate a number of miles east to PA 61. So Charles mapped a route along the current rail alignment starting at a level road crossing to what appeared to be a path connecting to the continuing developed trail. Definitely interesting and a bit of a leap of faith as this time of year as the area was very overgrow with grass and weeds. But eventually, we saw a weed covered gate and a sort of path that we charged up and voila! A trail.
Here’s the way it looked on the ground:
From there, we had some nice condition SRT to Hamburg PA where we finally stopped at Hecky’s Sub Shop for a much needed excellent lunch (hoagie and lots of Coke of course) about 3 pm. Although the rest and food were good, it’s always hard to get going again. Other than one mile on PA 61, the rest was quiet country roads or nice trail sections, so made it mentally easier. South of Leesport, we deviated west and connected to the Union Canal Trail, that went into Reading with some very pretty scenery. The trail was unpaved and raised with canal on the left and river on the right but in very nice shape.
Once near Reading, the trail became a little confusing and we short cut over the Schuylkill on Buttonwood Rd which took us into West Reading to the Courtyard Marriott. I was pretty tired and not thinking clearly and it look my wandering around the block of new luxury townhomes/apartments to actually find the Marriott.
Not quite as long a day as Friday, and quite a bit cooler as the cold front had passed and the wind was around from the north, providing yet another tail wind day. How often does it work this well? Tailwind all the way around! I ended up with 7:15 moving time and 8:40 elapsed.
Stava for the day: https://www.strava.com/activities/2608189393
After our usual clean up and chores (no real wash with one day to go and a spare kit), we headed to the evening’s fun the Sly Fox Brewing Company. which was right across the street. It’s in an area that is being redeveloped, it appears as a commercial adjunct to the new housing near the hotel. It seemed a little sparse and the tap room was tucked in the side of one of the buildings. It was definitely crowded and the beer and food was not bad, but not the brewery highlight so far. Given it was the last night, I broke Frank Foulke’s rule about 1 is too few and 3 is too many by having three beers. We stumbled back to the hotel and crashed, starting to look forward to the last day.
Day 4: Reading to Philadelphia – 63 miles
No hotel breakfast so we headed into town to the American Diner and had an awesome breakfast. As the days have gone on, the first pressure on the saddle is a bit of an unknown, but ended up not being too bad for me. Others’ mileage may have varied… We were all feeling a bit tired, chaffed, sore and sun tender, so we went fairly slowly to start to get everything warmed up. The majority of the difficulty of the ride was over terrain-wise and with only 60 or so miles for the day, we were in no hurry.
Once south of Reading the entire route with only a few minor exceptions was trail. There were some on road rollers, but nothing really hard and it was predominantly trending downhill and we still had a fair bit of northerly tail wind pushing us along. This was especially true as we got to the paved sections of trail in the northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia. It was what I would describe as a champagne slide. Easy pedaling and nice speeds of 15-18 mph on a 15’+ wide, smooth trail.
Since this was the last day, we combined the lunch stop and the brewery du jour at the Conshohocken Brewing Company that is located right on the trail. It was jammed when we got there with bikes and people as it looked like a charity ride was stopping there. Regardless, we got a table and ordered food and beer pretty quickly.
I was ready to get an Uber after a beer – well not really, however at that point I would rather have had some more beer – but we did get back on the bikes for the final 15 mile slide to downtown. It was definitely worth it as the river front into the city is really beautiful. It has lots of parks and places like “boathouse row” and lots of beautiful people out recreating on a fine Sunday afternoon. Lots of people using the trail and you know you are near a city when you start to see fixies/single speeds, so speeds were slow and you had to pay attention. Once into downtown proper, the trail is really well organized with access to local rail, side streets and a river promenade. Very much like a best-of combination of Boston and DC trail systems along the river.
The last section was a boardwalk built into the river because they ran out of right of way.
This took us to “Mile 0” even though they don’t bill it as such because eventually it will continue south. We did our social media duties there and headed back to the parking garage with a sprint up the 5 floors, which about made me puke. The day’s ride was 4:46 moving time, 7:21 elapsed.
Strava for the day: https://www.strava.com/activities/2610966908
Overall this was a fantastic ride. The terrain was very varied and interesting including the bushwhacking. I was trying to figure out whether it was harder than the 2018 GAP/C&O given the number of days and mileage was about the same. I think this ride was definitely harder because the climbing was more aggressive and while day 2 of the GAP/C&O ride was longer at 105 miles and contained the epic Little Orleans Shitshow, this ride had it’s set of navigational challenges which offset that.
Even though at times the lack of trail and having to stop to figure out what we were doing was annoying, the unexpected is what makes these rides memorable. If everything went to plan and it was just a lollygag down a rail trail, what fun would it be?
The total ride numbers:
- Total Moving Time: 25h 39m
- Total Distance: 313 miles