This past September, under many days of sunny skies and mild temperatures, cyclists from throughout the Commonwealth took to gravel roads as part of this year’s edition of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s Public Lands Ride. What began as a contingency plan in a year of cancelled events turned into an opportunity to expand beyond the one day, one route model and give riders the tools to explore a variety of areas on their own schedule.
Started in 2019 with the goal of providing the experience of a challenging-but-attainable bike ride for multiple abilities and showcasing some of Pennsylvania’s public lands, the inaugural ride was a one-day group event based at Black Moshannon State Park, just northwest of State College, PA. It offered two different distance options and led riders through a variety of landscapes in Moshannon State Forest. The intention was to return in 2020 with a slightly different route, but the uncertainty of group events caused an early pivot to a “virtual” ride model instead.
For this year, we created six different routes in four different state forests — Moshannon, Rothrock, Bald Eagle and Forbes. Each route was based out of a state park that offers camping to easily facilitate overnight travel and weekend-long adventures. These routes also all were in areas covered by State College-based map-maker Purple Lizard Maps, so that riders could use the companion paper map to tweak their ride or explore the areas further beyond the RideWithGPS route we provided.
Each of the routes was 45-65 miles in length and had their own flavor — from endless ridges, vistas, and mossy streams in Bald Eagle State Forest; to rolling climbs and descents on the Allegheny Plateau in Moshannon State Forest; to chunky snowmobile trails in Forbes and near Trough Creek State Park (Rothrock State Forest). All in all, the six routes covered 335 miles of gravel and dirt roads, doubletrack trails and pavement, and totaled 30,700 feet of elevation gain. They passed through or near 10 state parks and countless wild and natural areas, as well as state game lands and Army Corps of Engineers land.
The intent was to offer distances hearty enough to travel a few hours to ride (as evidenced by strong contingents of riders from both the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia area) but also attainable for weekend warriors. With the focus on exploration instead of completing the route the fastest or even doing the entire distance, we saw a variety of approaches. Some folks did shorter versions of the rides, sometimes to sneak in a hike or paddleboard session afterwards, sometimes to stop often to take photos, sometimes because they were new to gravel riding and a 20-mile ride was enough of a challenge. On the other hand, we also had a participant combine two of the rides into one big 120-mile day. We also had a couple incorporate one of the routes into an overnight bikepacking trip that left from their front door. Just as we had hoped, the mapped routes provided a framework and suggestions, but each rider could (and did!) make it their own.
“The Public Lands Rides were just what I needed this year,” said Kitaira Stotler of Pittsburgh. “It was a nice push to go explore some new places and helped me to fall in love with Pennsylvania.” Stotler was the star photographer of the event, taking her time and capturing gorgeous wide-angle landscapes of each of the routes. She also noted that the planned routes and companion Purple Lizard Maps “took away a lot of the planning needed and left energy in the tank for riding.”
This sentiment was echoed by many who appreciated the motivation to get out there, but in a non-competitive manner over a flexible time frame. For some, the Public Lands Rides also provided the impetus to discover a whole new genre of cycling. “I didn’t know if I ever wanted to really ride gravel like this until these routes,” said Sara Khalil of Greensburg. “But they are the best style of riding ever!”
Several sponsors such as StansNoTubes, Nittany Mountain Works, UnPAved of the Susquehanna River Valley and Purple Lizard Maps donated prizes that were distributed to riders who stood out in their approach to the rides — the best photos, completing all six routes during the month of September, and pushing themselves as brand new to gravel riding, to name a few. Anyone who completed routes (or did as much of the route as they could) and posted photos and stories to social media also got a patch designed by Pittsburgh-based artist Stephen Haynes and made by local patch-maker Falls Creek Outfitters. About 50 people fit into this category.
The positive feedback from this year’s Public Lands Ride format has illustrated the need for more mapped gravel routes in public lands throughout the state, so PEC will release a new batch of routes to be enjoyed in a DIY manner again next year (even if there’s an in-person event too). And the 2020 Public Lands Ride routes aren’t going anywhere. The list of routes and links to maps and route descriptions can be found here. If you ride them, make sure to tag us @pecpubliclandsride #PECPublicLandsRide2020 on Instagram and tell us about your experience!
Thanks to everyone who shared photos from the ride!