The Pittsburgh to Erie Trail


(This 1170th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 25, 2013.)


A Section of The Armstrong Trail

along the Allegheny River

in Pennsylvania


Another Rails-to-Trails route is being established. When finally completed, this hiking-biking trail will run from Pittsburgh to Erie. The route isn't direct, however; it follows the Allegheny River northeast from Pittsburgh and then leaves the river at Oil City to wind up through Chautauqua County to Brockton, a few miles west of Dunkirk. From there it follows the Lake Erie shoreline west to Erie.


It is early years still in the organization of this trail. Some sections are very well developed. At the outset where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to form the Ohio River, Pittsburgh itself has miles of its Three Rivers Heritage Trail, all of it already either paved or on crushed stone. (Across the river the completed Great Allegheny Passage trail runs south 150 miles to Cumberland, Maryland.)


Other largely completed off-road trail sections of the Pittsburgh-Erie Trail include the Armstrong Trail, the Allegheny River Trail, the trail through Oil Creek State Park and the Chautauqua Rail Trail. However, all of the completed sections represent only about a quarter of the full route; the rest is either along highways or still closed.


For my final scooter-camping adventure, in early August I followed the entire trail route as closely as possible. Because my scooter is mechanized I was not allowed to ride on the trail itself and that posed some difficulties. I saw very little of the sections that were converted from railroad right-of-ways.


The 350-mile trip was a great outing and I visited much country new to me, but it was very different from what I expected. My earlier experience following the Pat McGee Trail in Cattaraugus County had led me to believe that the trail would follow valleys parallel to country roads on which I could ride.


Railroads avoid steep climbs and that is why they follow streams that have carved passages through hilly areas. For much of the southern third of this route, the railroad and its replacement trail follow the bank of the Allegheny River.


If you look at a map of this section, you will see that the river course is a series of ox-bows, one after another of these twists almost back on themselves. In many places, to gain a mile of its southward route the river flows three or four miles.


I foolishly took these twists to represent the kind of meanders you find when a stream crosses flat land. Wow! Was I wrong. I should have looked more carefully at the topography of my maps. The river is indeed seeking level going but these twists are finding the valleys between high hills.


The roads cut across the ox-bows and over those hills. There were seven and even ten percent grades and many places where trucks were advised to maintain a 20-mph speed limit downhill because of the sharp switchback bends. My scooter was not enthusiastic about these grades and I was often limited to that same reduced speed uphill as well as down.


Only when the road dipped down again to pass next to the river would I come close to the trail. Then almost immediately I would be off uphill again.


What struck me most about the roads I followed was the small amount of traffic. In mid-Pennsylvania I met only one or two cars per mile. Although the area is not densely populated, I am sure that the interstate highways are contributing to this virtual privacy.


There was not much open country along the southern half of this trip. Almost all was through extensive forests. I found myself thinking how this land is reverting to its original state before it was colonized.


As I have done on these trips, I ate in local restaurants but camped out nights in my hammock. I start looking for un-posted land at about 8:00 p.m. On one evening I came upon a dirt track near Cranberry, Pennsylvania running up into the woods. It was marked "Pine Hill Rural Cemetery". Up the path I went, coming after perhaps a hundred yards into a small clearing with about a dozen headstones.


It was a lovely spot. I set up my hammock at its edge and slept soundly among my 19th century neighbors.-- Gerry Rising