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The Swatara Rail-Trail uses the corridors left behind by a canal and a railroad to snake around an Appalachian mountain in eastern Pennsylvania, passing through the forests of Swatara State Park most of the way.
The trail route got its start with the discovery of anthracite coal in nearby Tremont, prompting construction of the Pine Grove feeder canal in the early 1800s that ran along Swatara Creek and connected with the main Union Canal near Lebanon. In 1862 a flood wiped out the feeder canal, which was never rebuilt. In the meantime, the Reading Railroad had built several connecting lines along the canal that were consolidated as the Lebanon and Tremont Branch in 1871. The Union Canal closed 14 years later.
Operating under several subsequent owners, the rail branch closed in segments from 1965 to 1981. The state acquired the land and built the trail. The 10-mile trail begins in Lickdale, crosses a gap in Blue Mountain created by Swatara Creek, and ends in Pine Grove. Much of the trail is crushed limestone and asphalt, although segments at either end are dirt and grass and may be more conducive to mountain bikes than road and hybrid bikes. There are several trail junctions, including one with the Appalachian Trail, along the way. Future plans call for the Lebanon Valley Rail-Trail to meet up with the Swatara Rail-Trail in Lickdale. Horseback riding is allowed from the Sand Siding Trail east to Pine Grove. Cross-country skiing is permitted in the park, although the trail is not groomed.
The southern trailhead begins in the vicinity of a commercial campground in Lickdale, where you’ll also find multiple restaurants, hotels, and an RV park. Heading north toward Swatara State Park, you’ll pass a small trail parking lot and reach another trailhead on Monroe Valley Road in 0.8 mile. A historical marker nearby shows the spot of Fort Swatara, a stockaded blockhouse built in 1755 to guard settlements against attacks through the Swatara Gap during the French and Indian War.
In another 1.2 miles, the trail begins a narrow passage through the water gap through Blue Mountain created by Swatara Creek. Here, you’ll pass the 1890 vintage Waterville Bridge, a 221-foot steel bridge that was relocated here after it was retired in the village of Waterville, more than 100 miles from here. The bridge carries the Appalachian Trail across the creek and connects with the Bear Hole Trail that runs 5 miles through the state park on the other side of the creek. Remains of seven locks and three dams, as well as sections of towpaths, are visible in the state park, and you’ll spot the first ones in this gap if you cross to the Bear Hole Trail for a short distance.
Trending right after the water gap on the Swatara Rail-Trail, you’ll pass six mountain bike singletrack runs to your left of about 1.5 miles each. About 4.3 miles from the Monroe Valley Road trailhead, you’ll pass a pedestrian bridge for the 0.4-mile Sand Siding Trail. A side trip here crosses the creek and turns left for a mile on the Bear Hole Trail to an old log cabin built from on-site lumber and stone in 1939. The owner refused to leave when the park claimed the land, and the state let him live out his days here.
From the bridge, the trail runs another 2 miles through the park and then continues 3 miles through mostly wooded terrain to a truck stop and hotel in Pine Grove.
To reach the southern trailhead in Lickdale from I-81, take Exit 90 toward SR 72 N/Fisher Ave., and turn left onto Fisher Ave. Turn left at the traffic light onto SR 72 north and go one mile. Turn right onto Monroe Valley Rd. and go 1/4 mile, then turn right into the parking area for the rail trail.
To reach the Monroe Valley Road trailhead from I-81, follow the directions above, but instead of continuing on Lickdale Road, turn left onto SR 72 N. Go 0.9 mile, and turn right onto Monroe Valley Road. Go 0.2 mile, and look for trailhead parking on the right. The endpoint is located 0.8 mile farther south along the trail.
To reach the northern endpoint in Pine Grove from I-81, take Exit 100, and head west onto SR 443/Suedberg Road. Go 2.3 miles, and look for roadside parking on the left. The endpoint is located 2.2 miles farther east along the trail at Anspach Dr. (facing the trail from the road, turn left to head east).
To reach a centrally located parking area in Swatara State Park from I-81, take Exit 100, and head west onto SR 443/Suedberg Road. Go 5.1 miles, and turn left at the entrance for Sand Siding Road. Go 0.6 mile, and look for parking straight ahead, where the road intersects with the trail. From the parking lot, turn left to head 5 miles toward the southern trailhead in Lickdale, or turn right to head 5 miles toward the northern trailhead in Pine Grove.
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