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The Panhandle Trail offers the most direct and scenic route for self-propelled travel between the Pittsburgh suburbs and West Virginia. Although the trail follows an old railroad grade through the hilly terrain, there was only so much the railroad builders could do to flatten the route. Expect a steady climb to the town of Midway, the high point on the rural journey.
The trail is part of the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition’s developing 1,500-mile trail network through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and New York.
This route was made famous by the merger of several railroads in the 1860s to create the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway (PCC&StL), or simply the Panhandle Route. It was named for the sliver of northern West Virginia it crossed on the way to Ohio. The Pennsylvania Railroad leased the route in the 1920s, and the line later became part of the Penn Central and Conrail systems until it fell into disuse in 1991.
The 29-mile trail is maintained by several communities and organizations along the way. Starting at the old Walkers Mill station about 10 miles west of Pittsburgh, the trail passes through a succession of small towns that become farther apart as you head west. The Panhandle Trail crosses the 61.5-mile Montour Trail, which links to the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage and the 184.5-mile C&O Canal Towpath for an off-road connection to Washington, D.C. Horseback riding is allowed in the corridor in Pennsylvania, but not on the trail itself.
At Walkers Mill Road, the trail starts with a crushed-limestone surface as it heads west across the Allegheny Plateau through a hardwood forest alongside Robinson Run. A quarry at 0.3 mile is a scenic picnic spot, and the site of the annual Rock the Quarry fundraiser held in August for Collier Friends of the Panhandle Trail. A side path another 0.3 mile up the trail visits Fossils Cliff, where rock hounds can find fossilized fern leaves.
The trail passes through Oakdale at 3.7 miles, where thirsty travelers will find a brewery next to the trail and a market and diner down the street. A TNT explosion near the rail line here in 1918 killed 200 people. Over the next 3.5 miles, the trail passes three more towns—Noblestown, Sturgeon, and McDonald—which provide trailhead picnic tables (some covered) and opportunities for buying food in town.
The trail becomes paved asphalt as you enter Washington County just before McDonald. The substantial brick buildings in McDonald are evidence of the oil boom that struck in the late 1800s; coal is still mined in the area. A visitor center, located at the South McDonald Street trailhead, is the start for the annual Tour de Panhandle bike ride in June.
At 8 miles, you’ll pass beneath a 1913 railroad trestle on the Montour Trail that crosses the Panhandle Trail and Robinson Run. You can turn onto the Montour Trail at a nearly mile-long side trail that connects the two about 0.4 mile ahead.
At 10.6 miles, you’ll reach Midway. Although you’ve only completed a third of the trail’s distance, the town was the railroad’s halfway point between Pittsburgh and Steubenville, Ohio. Nearly a mile west of town, you’ll pass a small airfield and the highest point on the trail. Heading downhill, you’ll find that the next two towns, Bulger (13.5) and Joffre (14.5), won’t offer much in the way of services. You’ll encounter another uphill grade on the way to Burgettstown, which offers a food stop at a market, diner, or pizza parlor.
It’s all downhill to the finish, with few services along the way. You’ll cross into West Virginia in 7.3 miles, where the trail becomes crushed limestone again. This final leg meanders through coal country to Weirton, West Virginia, once home to the giant Weirton Steel Corporation. The path runs along Harmon Creek, known for its catfish and carp.
To reach the eastern trailhead in Oakdale from I-79, take Exit 57 toward Carnegie, and head west on W. Main St./SR 3048. Go 0.5 mile, and turn right onto First St., and then immediately bear right onto Dorrington Road. Go 0.8 mile, and turn right onto Hilltop Dr./SR 3052, and then go 1.6 miles, and turn right on Boyds Run Road/SR 3028. Go 0.5 mile, and look for trailhead parking on the left.
To reach the western trailhead in Colliers, West Virginia, from I-376, take Exit 60A and merge onto US 22/US 30 W. Go 3.9 miles, and stay straight to continue on US 22. Go 18.5 miles, and take Exit 3 for WV 1/Harmon Creek Road/Cove Road toward WV 507, and turn left onto Harmon Creek Road. Go 0.2 mile, and turn right onto Worthington Lane. Then go 100 feet, and turn right onto McColl Road. Go 0.2 mile, and turn right into the parking lot. Facing the trail, turn left to go 1.5 miles to the western endpoint.
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