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The 26-mile Lehigh Valley Gorge Trail, part of the D & L Canal Trail in eastern Pennsylvania, slices a tantalizing path through a montage of forests, mountains and river valley. The entire route snakes along the Lehigh River, and waterfalls tumble from the rock cliffs above. There are no towns in between, so your job is to sail along on your bike, taking in the scenery and fresh mountain air. Your base is Jim Thorpe, a National Historic District chock-a-block with boutiques, restaurants, antique shops and historical places of interest. The hamlet even made National Geographic’s list of 100 Best Adventure Towns in America.
Fly into Lehigh Valley International Airport near Allentown, Pa., and drive about 36 miles to Jim Thorpe, which is wedged in the Pocono Mountains on the banks of the Lehigh River.
For superb accommodations—from quaint to modest to elegant—your choices are many. The Inn at Jim Thorpe, built in 1849, comes with its own ghost or two. Situated in the midst of the historic district, it’s convenient for walking or biking to nearby attractions and restaurants. In the evening, you can sit on the veranda and sip a glass of wine. Their suites have whirlpool tubs and fireplaces, and there’s also a spa.
In 1953, the boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk joined and changed their collective names to Jim Thorpe, after the early 20th century’s celebrated Olympian and all-star athlete. Raised as a Sac and Fox Indian, Thorpe’s native name, Wa-Tho-Huk, translates as “Bright Path,” which is a fitting moniker for the trail here, itself a shining path through a gem of a landscape. How the town acquired his name, and the continuing dispute, is an interesting saga and one which you can learn more about at the town’s monument erected in his memory.
For bike rentals and shuttles, Pocono Biking has a range of rides, including tag-alongs and trailers for the kids. They also offer guided package deals by bike and/or boat. Blue Mountain Sports rents bikes and has regular shuttles for area trails, as well as boating adventures and winter sports equipment.
Start your day with a stack of “cakes” or an omelet at the Broadway Grille & Pub, located on the street level of the inn. (They also serve lunch and dinner; Monday is raw oyster night and Tuesday is tapas.)
You could conceivably ride the whole trail in as few as three hours, but why would you want to? The scenery is so inviting, you’ll want to ride more slowly and stop often to take pictures or simply bathe in the scenery. So spend the better part of your day on the trail. Waterfalls are everywhere, and you’ll find places to lay down the bikes and head to the river for a refreshing foot soak.
You can parse this trail in many ways. Adventurous riders can do the whole caboodle round trip (about 51.5 miles), while others might prefer to ride out and back in sections or one way in sections with shuttles (e.g., between Rockport and Jim Thorpe and between Rockport and White Haven). The most popular option for riding one way is to shuttle to White Haven and ride back to Jim Thorpe.
You won’t find food or drink along the route, so we recommend getting some sub sandwiches to go at Renee’s Cold Cut Hut (103 Berwick St.) in White Haven. Strategically located benches and picnic tables along the trail maximize your viewing pleasure while you enjoy that authentic Philly hoagie or Italian sub.
In White Haven, the trailhead begins at the south end of Main Street, by the river. Your tree-lined pathway first goes under Interstate 80, and shortly after, you cross a set of active rail tracks. The river is on your left and you are blissfully enveloped by forest, passing an occasional home until the next mile or so when you reach Tannery Road. In the 1860s, the Village of Lehigh Tannery was home to the second largest tannery in the country. Bark from the stands of hemlock and white pine trees was used to tan animal hides.
Continue on the trail through Lehigh Gorge State Park, characterized by river canyon walls and rock outcrops weeping with waterfalls. Stop to read the historical markers that relate the region’s coal mining, logging and railroading stories.
Integral to that history is the Delaware & Lehigh Canal (the D & L in the trail’s name), and you’ll encounter ruins of the old canal along the journey. Use caution when exploring; we don’t want you tumbling in! The canal was built in the 1820s and ‘30s to ferry anthracite coal from the upper Lehigh Valley to Easton, 66 miles southeast of White Haven. When the system was destroyed by a catastrophic flood in 1862, the Lehigh Valley Railroad took over (formerly known as the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill & Susquehanna Railroad).
If water is plentiful in the river, you’ll notice flotilla upon flotilla of boaters enjoying the snaking waterway. Give them a wave. Watch for other wildlife, too, of the animal variety. Herons and beavers are common on the river, while lizards scuttle over rocks. Black bears have been spotted in the area as have rattlesnakes. Both are harmless if left alone.
About nine miles from White Haven, you reach Rockport trailhead. In 1819, the railroad bought valuable timber lands here. Rockport became a railroad town, and sawmills abounded. Just before you reached the trailhead, you probably saw the train tunnel across the river. Completed in 1884, it remains one of the oldest hard-rock tunnels still in use—and one of the longest at 1,100 feet. You’ll see the other end after you leave Rockport.
Nearly seven miles farther down the trail, the active rail line crosses the river to share the same corridor with the trail. The train chugs atop an elevated bank. Railroad aficionados and photographers can stake themselves out here at Penn Haven and wait for great photo ops of trains crossing the trestle.
Moving southward, the landscape is less shaded, so lather on that sunscreen for your last six miles or so into Jim Thorpe. Just outside town, the trail arrives at Glen Onoko Falls. It’s a steep hike to see the beautiful cascade, and you may want to save it for the next day. There’s also an old rail tunnel here. From the trailhead parking lot, your route now parallels the main road to the recently renovated Nesquehoning Trestle across the Lehigh River, a dramatic finish to your adventure. The end point in Jim Thorpe is just 1.5 miles from the trestle crossing.
You’ll want to spend extra time in the area, and Jim Thorpe is the perfect base. The city's numerous historical sites and outdoor recreation opportunities will keep you engaged for days. More information is available at the visitor center, housed in the old Central Railroad of New Jersey Station. It’s also where the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway tours leave from, offering one-hour excursions along part of your bicycle route.
This area was originally called Mauch Chunk, a native Lenape word derived from the term “bear mountain,” thought to refer to a local peak that resembles a sleeping bruin. The town was established by Josiah White, founder of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, which built the canal. The Mauch Chunk Switchback Gravity Railroad, wryly billed as the country’s first roller coaster, also had its home here. If you want to bike that corridor, you can hop on it in two places in the Jim Thorpe Historic District.
There are plenty of options for guided or self-guided tours to further explore the region’s rich past. JT eXperience offers guided historic and adventure tours by bike, boat, bus or boot. Tours are package or custom, and some include admission to sites and meals. The Mauch Chunk Museum also sponsors tours by van. The museum’s exhibits include geological displays on the formation of the coal that was so influential here and the native Lenape Peoples, who were pushed aside in pursuit of the “black diamonds.” You can also learn about the D & L Canal and the Switchback Gravity Railroad; there’s a 30-foot replica of the latter.
If you want to do your own tour, stroll Millionaire’s Row (Broadway Street) and admire the stately homes and splendid architecture. Many are open to visitors (some open just a few rooms). More information about touring the manors is available at the visitor center. One that’s worth a look-see is Asa Packer’s mansion. It’s a National Historic Landmark and former home of the eponymous philanthropist and railroad magnate who helped build the town. Interestingly, his son’s digs, the Harry Packer Inn, was used as a model for Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion in the Magic Kingdom. The house is now an inn and offers self-guided tours and other events for non-staying guests.
Other places of interest include the Old Jail Museum and the Opera House. Ten miles east of Jim Thorpe in Lansford is the No. 9 Mine and Museum, a former coal mine now offering tours.
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