The Eastern PA Traverse

Helena Kotala, Mapping Coordinator

The speed of bicycle travel allows us to see the world through a different set of eyes. We are immersed in it, feeling the elements, smelling the smells, seeing snippets of places we would miss if we were flying by in a car on the interstate. To arrive at a destination covered in sweat and dust, having experienced the journey fully and under your own power, is one of the best feelings. 

So when I can, I choose to ride my bike long distances instead of driving. A hectic schedule doesn’t allow this form of travel most of the time, but when I do have the opportunity, I jump on it.

Driving 3 hours just to turn around and drive back didn’t make sense… but riding 170 miles of trails and back roads did.

This past summer, a meeting of the NEPA Trails Forum in Scranton happened to be scheduled for the Thursday before the weekend of a family commitment in Malvern, PA. I live near State College, so driving 3 hours just to drive home and head back east the very next day didn’t make a whole lot of sense in my mind. But riding a series of trails and back roads 170 miles south did. 

The D&L Trail just south of Jim Thorpe (photo: Helena Kotala)

I planned to spend two nights camping along the way, leaving on Thursday afternoon after my meeting and arriving at my in-laws’ house on Saturday morning. About 85 of the 170 miles would be on off-road trails — the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail, D&L Trail, Saucon Rail Trail, and Perkiomen Trail. The availability of these pathways in a heavily-populated region of the state made this trip much safer and more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been.

After chatting about trails for a couple hours on Thursday morning with my colleagues at PEC and other trail organizations in the northeastern corner of the state, I changed out of my work costume and into my biking one, and hit the trail. The paved Lackawanna River Heritage Trail took me the first few miles through Scranton, and the pedal out of town went surprisingly quickly. I found myself climbing and climbing, until the city was far below. Several hours and a few route-finding snafus later, I was in a different world entirely, surrounded by Game Lands and passing roadside waterfalls as I neared the town of White Haven. Just north of town, I found the D&L Trail, which I’d follow for the next 50 or so miles. 

Waterfalls abound between White Haven and Jim Thorpe on the D&L Trail (photo: Helena Kotala)

In town, I stopped for a dinner of pizza and root beer at Antonio’s, loaded up on snacks at the grocery, and continued down the trail and into the Lehigh River Gorge to find a spot to camp for the evening. I slept on a bed on leaves on a secluded natural bench between the trail and the river.

Opting to forego the tarp as the weather forecast gave no mention to rain, I awoke just before dawn to what I thought was a raindrop on my nose. While it wasn’t light yet, the world was an early morning blue hue, and I knew it must not be that far from dawn. It was clearly overcast, and a check of the weather confirmed that there was a slight chance of showers. My phone told me that it was just before 5 am, so I decided to pack up camp rather than fiddle with the tarp or gamble on the rain holding off. Twenty minutes later, I was pushing my bike back up to the trail and pedaling my first few miles of the day by light of my headlamp.

I stopped for coffee in Jim Thorpe and briefly conversed with some other cyclists who were riding the D&L to Bethlehem that day. We exchanged words about the nearly-complete pedestrian bridge (it’s now open, by the way!) that connects the two sides of the trail over the Lehigh, and how to get around the still-closed bridge. I found my way around via some back roads and railroad tracks, ducking back onto the trail just on the other side of the bridge. 

Old locks still stand on the D&L Trail south of Jim Thorpe (photo: Helena Kotala)

The section of trail south of Jim Thorpe was incredibly interesting, riding an elevated strip of land between the old canal and the river. There were also several intact locks along the way.

In Lehighton, the trail shared the road briefly, and I somehow missed the re-entry, finding myself turning circles in an auto repair shop parking lot. I knew where the trail was, I just couldn’t figure out how to get to it from where I was. I started to backtrack, and an older guy flagged me down, proceeding to give me detailed instructions and a few stories of his own about riding the D&L.

I learned a valuable lesson about route planning: check the satellite view.

I continued southward and the day grew hotter. Just north of Allentown, the trail stops and cyclists have to ride roads for a few miles to get to the next section. I took this opportunity to find a grocery store. I’d forgotten sunscreen and I was starting to turn red, and I needed lunch. I found a little market and locked my bike outside. In the deli section, I stood staring at the case of pre-made sandwiches and packaged potato and pasta salad. I knew I was hungry and I knew I needed fuel, but nothing seemed appetizing except the giant deli pickles. The woman behind the counter offered to make me a sandwich to order, so I took her up on it. Pickle, sandwich, and sunscreen in hand, I found a little park to sit down and eat before getting back on the bike.

Admiring waterfalls by the light of my headlamp before dawn (photo: Helena Kotala)

I learned a valuable lesson about route planning in Bethlehem — check on the satellite view on Google Maps to see if the intersection you intend to turn at is at grade or if there is actually a giant bridge way above where you are and no clear way of getting where you need to be. Luckily, there were some steps for pedestrians to get up and down from the bridge, so I carried my bike up and got to the other side of the river, picking up the Bethlehem Greenway past the old Bethlehem Steel stacks.

My original route plan was once again foiled by roads that didn’t actually intersect despite appearing to do so on the map, and roads that were under construction with no way through. Between Bethlehem and Hellertown, I spent lots of time looking at my phone, trying to find alternate routes that would connect me to the 7.5-mile Saucon Rail Trail

A few miles of easy pedaling on the rail trail led me to my final leg of the day — 20 miles of rolling climbs on back roads in the scorching Lehigh Valley sun. Despite the heat, it was a beautiful ride to Green Lane Park, where I was camping for the evening. The Montgomery County park maintains a nice little campground, and also boasts a lake and mountain bike and hiking trails. 

The road less traveled goes to Weatherly, PA along an unimproved trail that intersects the D&L (photo: Helena Kotala)

In the morning, I jumped on the Perkiomen Trail right from Green Lane and rode it all the way to Valley Forge, where I caught the Schuylkill River Trail for a mile or so and then left it for roads the rest of the way to my in-laws house. I arrived for the family picnic just the way I like to — sweaty, tired but energized, and having experienced the eastern side of Pennsylvania in a way I never had before.