When coal was discovered in Summit Hill in the late 1700s, a rush of development ensued in the Lehigh Valley. Josiah White and the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company constructed a series of dams and canals in the early 1800s to move coal to the markets down south. The canal system was wiped out by flooding in the mid-1800s, and the railroads took their place serving a booming logging industry. Fire ripped through the area and wiped out the logging industry in the late 1800s. The area became a tourist attraction until fire again swept through the region in the early 1900s, after which the gorge was abandoned. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began reclaiming the land in the 1970s.
Today, thanks to the state's efforts, you will find one of the finest rail-trails for a wilderness getaway. This 26-mile trail cuts through 4,500 acres of dramatic river gorge parkland along the Lehigh River on a former rail and canal route. Grab your bike and board a shuttle in Jim Thorpe to cycle from the northern point in White Haven to the southern point in Jim Thorpe, a gorgeous tree-line ride with excellent river views. Or, if you are looking for a shorter, 15-mile experience, pick up the trail in Rockport; however, you will only get 5 miles of gorgeous trail before the last 10 miles of more open trail.
The entire route features river views on one side and about 15 miles' worth of scattered waterfalls on the steep rock face on the other side. Although there is a slight grade going South, cyclists do have to pedal the entire way. Although there is plenty of wildlife within the park, it isn't usually evident on the trail because the steep rock face makes the trail difficult to reach from inland. However, herons and beavers are commonly spotted on the river side, and you also might encounter an occasional snake or lizard. This 26-mile trail is certainly the highlight, but Lehigh Gorge State Park also offers opportunities to whitewater raft, fish, hunt and cross-country ski. The first 15 miles of the northern section is open to snowmobiling in winter months. Check the website for seasonal restrictions.
For nearly seven miles, the Reading and Northern Railroad parallels the trail. The rail line carries freight and seasonal tourist trains run by the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway.
Although there is no obvious grade, cyclists do have to pedal to keep moving. During the last 5 miles of the trip, the trail runs next to an active railroad line that is elevated about 3 feet above the trail by a stone wall. Just 1.5 miles north of Jim Thorpe, the trail comes to a parking lot, then continues on, following the main road out to the recently renovated iron railroad bridge that crosses the Lehigh River. The bridge supports bicycle and pedestrian users, as well as an active railroad. An awesome reminder of the trail's origins, the bridge was completed in 2009 after years of planning and provides an extra mile of trail leading into downtown Jim Thorpe.
The community of Jim Thorpe is a treat. Chockfull of charming shops, restaurants and inns, it has several outfitters that rent bikes and offer shuttles to the surrounding trails. Two other rail-trails to visit in the area are the D&L Trail: Lehigh Canal North and the Switchback Railroad Trail. The shuttle is about $16 per person.
To reach the northern trailhead in White Haven, take I-80 to Exit 273 into White Haven Borough. Follow State Route 940 east to the White Haven Shopping Center. Go through the shopping center parking lot and bear left to the state park access area.
To reach the southern trailhead in Jim Thorpe from I-476, take Exit 74 to 209/Lehigh Avenue into Jim Thorpe. The parking is across from Packer Hill Road near the Carbon County Courthouse.
To reach the Rockport Trailhead (15 miles north of Jim Thorpe) from Jim Thorpe, take 209 South to State Route 93 north. Continue to Lehigh Gorge Drive into the village of Rockport. Turn on State Route 4014 to access the parking lot for this trailhead.