Nice trail, but still obviously a "work in progress"
I rode my bike on the Swatara Rail Trail as part of visiting Swatara State Park in August 2014. I had researched the trail, and read the reviews, so I was a little leery about what I would find. I came to Swatara from the west, from Route 81, and easily found the Swatara State Park sign, and assumed I'd easily find the trailhead to the rail trail. No such luck. I drove around for almost an hour looking for it! Finally, using the state park map, I located a portion of the trail that seemed to run along the road (Route 72 I believe). It was right by the Swatara State Park DCNR sign. I parked here (even though it didn't look like a "parking area". Going down the hill a bit, I found some trailhead, I think here you can also get on the AT (Appalachian Trail)! So here, I got on the trail. The first mile or so was a paved trail with several branch-offs of different trails (not sure if these were state park trails or what). Then the next mile or so was an old abandoned road, which was actually a little challenging (hilly). Then the flat, crushed stone rail trail. Now this part was very nice, more like other rail trails I've ridden in the past. This continues for about 5 miles and then, to make a loop, you have to get on the Bear Hole Trail. The entrance for this was a little tricky. At Swopes Valley Road, DON'T keep going straight (there IS a trail there). Go right on the road about a half mile, and the entrance for the Bear Hole Trail is on your right. This portion is rather flat, but there are some up and down hills. It's very scenic, as part of the trail runs along Swatara Creek. The trail now goes another 5 miles back to where you started, after you cross the bridge. Overall, the ride was nice, not really a typical rail trail, but you have to remember, this trail is relatively new, and still a work in progress. When reading the reviews, I saw a lot of negative comments about horses. On my visit, I didn't encounter any horseback riders, but there was a good many piles of horse poop. Just watch where you're riding, and share the trails!
Decent 10 mile ride
The directions to picking up the northern end of the trail head near the Hampton Inn were really confusing. Looking "behind the Hampton Inn" there was nothing but a large field. Couldn't find the trailhead, so we moved on down the road until we saw an open spot on the side of the road near the trail. Then we biked back on the trail toward the Hampton Inn to see where the trailhead actually was. The 'trailhead' is simply part of a large field, nearly indiscernible from the rest of the large field. if you do decide to start there, drive toward the back of the Hotel and, before getting clear to the back, notice the buildings to your right. There's a path there. Just get on it and go as far as you can. Then turn right again, and you're on the 'trail'. Mostly grass and dirt for a mile or so. Then you'll pick up a decent crushed gravel path through the very shady and pleasant woods. After another 2-3 miles, you'll come to what appears to be a little-used road--unmarked and going either right or left. Either way has some fairly significant hills. Since we were just looking for a leisurely, flat trail, we turned around at that point. The part we did do was fairly pleasant; but since we thought we were getting a typical flat, crushed stone rail trail, we were pretty disappointed that we only got a 10-mile ride fitting that description. But if you're looking for a variety of trail surfaces and some hills and shade, you might enjoy this trail.
A great improvement
Last year's construction vastly improved this trail and adds the option of a 10 mile loop using the Bear Hole trail across the creek as a return route. A word of caution,however: the Bear Hole trail is NOT a rail trail, rather a converted dirt road that has been surfaced with crushed stone. There are a few hills that might challenge someone used to rail trail riding.
The surfaces of both of these trails are good, but the horse traffic does leave some roughness (& occasional road apples) that would otherwise not be encountered. There are a few spots on the Bear Hole trail that have small gullies from rain runoff, but they are passable as of 8/11/13.
The new bridge about one third of the way upstream from the the Appalachian Trail bridge offers another option of a shorter loop. Mile markers or a map with trail distances would be helpful to riders.
As an update to an earlier review, there is a port-a-john available at the Trout Run trail head, which seems to be the most spacious & least used parking area. It is also the furthest distance from the main trail.
Overall, this is an enjoyable trail, well shaded most of the way, with views of Swatara Creek from the rail trail. There are remains of a Union Canal lock along the Bear Hole trail. Some historical markers for this & other local features would be a nice addition.
News for Immediate Release
Jan. 27, 2012
Swatara State Park Targeted for Trail Installation, Other Improvements
Harrisburg – A long-awaited construction project that will see trails, parking areas and bridges installed at Swatara State Park in Lebanon and Schuylkill counties is now underway, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said today.
“Long identified as ‘undeveloped,’ this gem of a state park comprised of woodlands and meadows straddling Swatara Creek is targeted for the type of improvements its visitors have requested,” said DCNR Secretary Richard Allan. “Planned facility and infrastructure improvements will support and enhance day-use recreation that already includes canoeing, fishing, hiking, picnicking and bicycling.”
Work will include installation of 10 miles of crushed stone trails along an existing railway bed and a portion of abandoned Old State Road. A new trail and bridge near Sand Siding Road will connect the former rail bed and roadway. Another bridge will span Mill Creek on the rail trail.
Four new trailheads, or parking areas, also are planned, affording easy access to the trails and launch areas for canoeing and kayaking.
Financed through state capital budget funds, the $4.67 million project undertaken by Kinsley Construction of York County is expected to be completed by mid-July.
State acquisition of lands that were to become Swatara State Park began in 1971 and was completed in 1987. Totaling 3,520 acres, the state park was subject of numerous surveys, environmental assessments, Bureau of State Parks research efforts, and governmental and user-group committee studies. The input shaped the park’s future and best utilizes its recreational potential.
“With its increased network of trails and access to Swatara Creek launching areas, we see park visitation growing significantly,” Allan said. “We know more than 84,000 visitors came last year to float and fish its waters and hike and bike its scenic woodlands.”
Park visitors are advised construction work may affect access to certain areas. Closings may be required along Old State Road/Bear Hole Trail, Rail Trail, the Lickdale Spur, and the boat launch near Swopes Valley Road. Mountain bike trails, the Appalachian Trail, and Waterville Bridge will remain open, as will sections of the rail trail. The Swatara Water Trail will require portage around bridge construction.
Updated information can be obtained by contacting Memorial Lake State Park Office, 717-865-6470; or by email at email@example.com.
Most of Swatara State Park is located along Interstate 81 between Second and Blue mountains. An 8-mile stretch of the Swatara Creek Water Trail winds through the park, and two miles of the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine, cross its southern sector.
Part of the Memorial Lake State Park Complex, Swatara Creek is a popular destination for canoeing, kayaking, and tubing enthusiasts, especially in the spring. Designated launches in the northern and southern ends of the park provide access to the creek for boaters.
For more information on Swatara and Pennsylvania’s other 119 state parks, visit www.dcnr.state.pa.us (select “Find a Park”).
Media contact: Terry Brady, 717-772-9101
Swatara gets a bum rap
In reading some earlier reviews of this trail I almost didn't go, but after riding the length and back I'm very glad I took a chance. Swatara is a hidden gem.
If you're looking for a place for the 5-year-old to ride his tricycle or a place to push your baby carriage, then find another trail, but if you want some out-of-the way running, walking or riding, check out Swatara.
The parking was easy to find from the online directions (the camp store has great rocking chairs -- in season -- to occupy as you eat some ice cream). The trailhead was also just where it was supposed to be. And, though I would agree that the first two miles of the Swatara are a bit bumpy, if you have a hybrid (which I do) or a mountain bike (which my riding companion had) you'll do fine. Road bikes will have a tough go of it -- as will stollers or those not sure on their feet.
After mile two, however, the riding is fantastic. Surfaces range from large stones to gravel to hardpacked earth to roadway to grass. Scenery includes the Swatara waterway, some open fields, beautiful foliage and "Old State Road" -- a section of forgotten highway that Mother Nature is doing her best to reclaim.
The last two miles -- marked quite clearly by a missing bridge (!!) are not so trail-like and not as rider/walker friendly.
In between the slightly rocky start and the rugged end are 6 miles of beauty, old bridges, kayakers, wildlife (I flushed two pheasants, which I haven't had the pleasure of doing since I was a kid) and pleasant scenery.
Was not Sure what to expect...
Ok Let me say I took two days to hit this trail one day just exploring and then another day on the Old State Road.
Started off in Lickdale and the trail head sign was blocked by a pick up parked in front of it, so I started down the wrong path, but that was soon corrected. I will say the first 2 miles is tough riding with loose larger gravel, and it is hard to get any real speed. The trail is really, really not marked at all. You have to just guess and hope you are going the right direction, this was not a stretch in the official description at all. Make sure you hit this when there is good daylight. This trail can get dark when the sun is high in the sky, I would not want to be on it at dusk.
The next two miles of the path were a mixture of pavement and ground cinder. But at one point you have to cross up on the road, not sure if its a park road or what, but it was in great shape. I have put pictures of it up there. I chose to stay on the path on the way out, and it was a very nice ride. Lonely, but nice. The smell of Blueberries kept makin my mouth water over the next 3 miles. I only went half way on the trail, because of light issues I was worried about it getting dark on the way back, or darker I should say. On the way back I jumped up on the road that was there, and it was very nice. Some up hills, and down hills. At the Waterville Bridge I could see that you would cut over to the old state road, but I had two miles back to lickdale (picture that sign is actually one of the few on the trail.) and pressed forward. Made a pit stop at the memorial marker about a mile from the trail head (picture). Just something interesting to read...
All in all I will say that this was a great trail to ride once you get past the first 2 miles. My suggestions: bring a light, bug spray and a friend because you will not see a soul....
I went right to the shut down bridge today and parked there to start my journey. I wanted to eliminate the 2 miles of loose hard riding. I went about a half a mile to the Waterville bridge and then over to the Old State Road. I put in a total of 10 miles today all on that dang road, and the reviews are right. It is more a logging trail quality than a road now, it has pavement, but an equal amount of gravel, and then those large stones mentioned below. Very Large Stones, like stand up on the pedals to get over them type. A solid bike is needed for this road, but on the other side a hybrid or even a good commuter would work. You do not have to get on this road to ride this trail, actually I only did it for this review and to explore. Again, very lonely, but a little more lit than the bike path on the other side of the river. I wanted to make it to the Fossil pit but I was out of time, that pit is about 6 miles from the first bridge where I parked. I cannot stress enough that this is not a smooth road at all, but it also has some incline to it. You will be going up and down hills on this road, unlike the path on the other side which is smooth and flat almost the whole way.
All in all it was a great, though quiet, ride both days. My critter count was 2 deer, 4 rabbits and a chipmunk. I think I saw a hiker, but not real sure...
Better Than Its Reputation
"Better Than Its Reputation: Swatara Park’s trails range in character from as smooth as you will find anywhere to virtually impassable. The trick is to pick the riding opportunities that match your interest and ability.
The Park is located next to Routes 72 and 433 that extend from Lickdale (Exit 90 of I-81) to Pine Grove (Exit 100 of I-81). Between those points, the Park provides a total of eighteen miles of three distinctly different types of riding surfaces. There are three miles of smooth two-lane asphalt road; five miles of old potholed one lane road that likely dates back to the early 1800s; and ten miles of rail trail.
The three miles of smooth asphalt roads were once portions of the old State Routes 72 and 433 and were incorporated into the Park when they were replaced with new construction not long ago. These three miles are now closed to traffic and can easily be negotiated by anyone on any kind of bike. You could even use inline skates there if you wished to deal with the moderate hills.
The five miles of the potholed, one lane asphalt, and sometimes dirt Old State Road rises and falls with the hillside terrain as it follows Swatara Creek through the forest. Two of its short hills are steep enough to require my granny gear. Old State Road may have been there since early in the eighteen hundreds. I found a topographical map that shows a number of structures already located along the road when the map was drawn in 1889. The road runs past the remains of five canal locks and the site of a supporting dam that was destroyed by the Flood of 1862. While this road is open to vehicles, there is little traffic. I only encountered five vehicles as they slowly picked their way through the suspension abusing potholes on a pleasant December Sunday afternoon in 2004. While the potholes were a challenge to the motor vehicles, the potholes were easy to avoid on my comfort bike. Two old cast iron bridges cross Swatara Creek to provide access to Old State Road from the rail trail.
Ten miles of rail trail, located on the bank opposite Old State Road and next to Routes 72 and 443, was the site of the Lebanon and Tremont Branch of the Philadelphia and Reading Rail Road that replaced the canal. This is the part of the Park’s trail system that can provide some challenges. The first two miles of the rail trail on the Pine Grove end is virtually unusable and a missing bridge there requires the fording of Mill Creek. You may wish to pass up the opportunity to explore that two-mile section. A more reasonable way to enter the Pine Grove end of the rail trail is located just across from the Swedburg Church of God, 2.2 miles from the Pine Grove exit (Exit 100) of I-81 or, if traveling in the opposite direction, 9.5 miles from Lickdale. After entering the trail there, the first quarter of a mile of the trail is rough and muddy, however, an informal detour around that section is available through the adjacent field.
The other end of the trail, located at the Lickdale Campground by the traffic light in Lickdale (I-81 exit 90) provides challenges as well. From the campground, the trail is currently not clearly marked and wanders through the grounds of a cement plant and provides unmarked opportunities to stray off of the trail. However, it is possible to find your way. After you travel a mile on the trail and cross Monroe Valley Road, the real challenge begins. Here the trail goes through a cut and becomes very muddy and spiced with the occasional fallen tree. In all fairness to the Park, my ride followed three days of December rain. While my Bultaco Alpina from thirty years ago would have handled the mud and fallen trees, I have yet to learn how to make my bicycle do it gracefully. I managed to step off the bike into the mud a number of times. One of those dabs was just at the edge of the roadbed where a slurry of wet, hundred year old, coal dust and cinders fought to hang onto my shoe and cause me to dramatically dismount from my bike. If don’t wish to confront these challenges, I suggest you avoid both ends of the rail trail and use the occasionally narrow but relatively easy six point five mile mid-section of the rail trail.
There are three entrances that will lead you into the less challenging mid section of the Park and its trails. Two point five miles from Lickdale, at the point where route 72 becomes route 433, there is a small parking area and a gated entrance that puts you right onto the Park’s three miles of smooth asphalt road. From there you will have access to the rest of the Park’s trail system. Four point four miles from Lickdale, you can turn onto State Park Lane and drive about one mile to a gate that also accesses the Park’s three miles of smooth asphalt road. Four point seven miles from Lickdale, just before Twin Grove Park, an unmarked dirt road will take you directly to the rail-trail. You will need a car with reasonable ground clearance to comfortably take this dirt road route.
A Park manager told me that they expect to make changes to the trail once the construction project on the I-81 bridges that cross Swatara Creek is completed. That will take another two years. I hope they don’t remove all of the challenges.
You may wish to simply show up at the Park and explore and discover where the roads and trials lead you. On the other hand, if you want to plan your route, go to the excellent park map at:
Or, you can contact the Park Office at 717-865-6470 and they will send you a large copy of that same map."
A changing trail
"Of all the trails I have been on this one is ranked highest by my teen. Even after doing a header over the handle bars while breaking for a rabbit and a bridge that looked out (but was not) the teen still managed to have fun.
The trail scenery and condition changes constantly which makes for an interesting trail. One minute you feel lost in the woods with a river on one side and a cliff on the other; the next minute you are sailing though a field where the trail is only as wide as your tire. A few minutes later you on a nice gravel four foot wide trail. The trail never seems to make up its mind what it wants to be.
The trail is not really upkept so you must constantly keep your eyes on the trail for rocks, branches, holes, sections of drain pipe that gave out, glass and mud pits. But on the other hand this is what makes this trail so interesting.
Feel free to take the side trails and explore. Even though you are out in the woods you are blocked in on one side by highway and the other by the water. So it is always easy to find your way back to the main trail. The trail crosses very few roads.
If you are heading from the metal bridge (where the Appalachian Trail crosses the path) to Pine Grove look for the blacktop paved trail leading up the hill on your left. Up the hill you will find an abandoned section of highway that the kids will find creepy to be on. Visually this trail is a treat, from a scrap yard, to bird preserve to an few small examples of old growth forest. Who knows what you will find next. But mind you, take what you need with you. There are few people on this trail.
There are two campgrounds on this trail: the one in Lickdale where the trail starts (they also rent bikes and kayaks) and KOA Twin Grove Park Campground (see www.twingroveparkcampground.com/index.html) near Pine Grove with 53 flavors of ice cream and a full service restaurant. They also have cabins and camper sites, but only three tent sites. They also have a pool, a basketball court and a band shell that are all newly constructed. Either campground looks like a good place to spend a weekend.
From I-81 take exit 100 to 443 west for seven miles. Just past the KOA Twin Grove Park Campground (located on your right), take the first dirt road on your left for 0.7 of a mile. The road ends in a parking area. The trail runs though it.
The trail toward Pine Grove is better maintained. You can take younger kids on this one. This section is only a few miles long.
From I-78 take 501 and then take a left where it dead ends on the main street of Pine Grove. Take a left onto 443 and then you will go past the I-81 exit and follow the above directions.
The trail toward Lickdale is a little rough but do able on a comfortable mountain bike. It's not good for pulling a trailer that kids sit in, though.
Warnings: The trail is located on state game land so it may not be a good place to bike during deer season, Wear long pants and a helmet. The trail is relatively flat, but plan to get muddy."