Experimental music, photography, and adventures

Lehigh Gorge

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Sarah had to work on Saturday, so it was a good opportunity for me to go ride at Lehigh Gorge State Park. This was a very different kind of ride than I’m used to, as it’s a long rail trail. Twenty glorious miles of smooth, traffic-free gravel trail following the Lehigh River, which rushes through a deep gorge, surrounded by mountains, passing waterfalls, rapids, a variety of rock outcroppings, and some active train tracks along the way. I contacted The Blasphemous Bicycler to see if he wanted to join me, and asked him what bike I should take, since he has ridden a number of the rail trails in Pennsylvania. He couldn’t make it, but he suggested I take the Long Haul Trucker, and he was right on. Thanks for the advice.

I had to drive for about an hour to reach the access point where I wanted to start near the town of Jim Thorpe. It was a gorgeous drive to the area, on a part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, then some smaller mountain roads with some impressive foliage. However, at higher elevations most trees had already lost their leaves, and I was surprised to see snow on the ground, presumably remnants from a storm we had last week. I knew it had snowed, but was surprised there was still snow. It merely rained in the valley where I live.

There are closer access points to where I live, but the trail gradually climbs in one direction, and goes downhill in the other. I was planning to ride all the way to the end of the trail and back, and I wanted to get the climbing out of the way first, which meant starting at the southern end of the trail.

After taking a couple of wrong turns, I found the parking lot, used a nearby bathroom and headed out. I took my good camera on this ride. I don’t normally take it on rides, but this promised to be an easy ride with some great scenery. At first I carried the camera in my handlebar bag, but eventually found I could simply put the strap over my shoulder and let the camera rest on my back. This prevented it from hanging and swinging around in front of me.

I started riding, and saw a sign warning to watch for black bears. The trail surface was fine, hard-packed gravel, and made for some very smooth and easy riding. I must have stopped 5 times in the first mile. The scenery was absolutely amazing. It was overcast and a bit of a dreary day, but the foliage was brilliant.

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First glimpse of the gorge

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The Trucker

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Foliage

The trail ran right next to some active train tracks for a while, and also periodically had markers with  explanations of sights along the trail. I didn’t stop and read all the signs, but there was one thing I found interesting. A pipeline, built in 1886, spanned the gorge, and a sign explained that it used to be an oil pipeline. Now, it carries fiber optic cable.

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Pioneer Pipeline

Shortly after that stop, I saw a smaller trail running off the side of the main trail and down to the river. I followed it and found a sandy beach and some nice views different from those on the trail.

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Interesting coloration

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Rock face and rhododendrons on the opposite side of the river

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The Trucker

Mountains by Lehigh Gorge
Panoramic view from the gorge

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Another view from the trail

I stopped to take a photo of a small waterfall, and started to hear the rumblings of a distant train. I stayed in that spot, with my camera ready.

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Waterfall

As the train approached, I could see it was a small tourist train. People waved, but I was too busy being aloof and taking photos to wave back. Waving to crowds isn’t my thing. I’d make a poor politician.

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The train approaches

A few minutes later, I passed the train, which had stopped for some reason, and never saw it again. The tracks diverge from the trail at a switchyard, but I’m guessing the train turned back at some point. Otherwise, I should’ve seen and heard it pass on the tracks, which moved to the other side of the river.

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The trail diverges from the tracks

It had been a cloudy, overcast morning, but the sun was doing its best to burn through the clouds. Finally the sun came out and I enjoyed the warmth of the sun, and beautiful blue skies for some time. I saw a rock jutting out over the river and had to stop to take in the view. I was getting hungry, so I thought maybe I’d eat some lunch.

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Walking out on the rock platform

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The view, unobstructed

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Looking in the other direction

After taking a few photos, I realized I had forgotten my lunch on the kitchen counter. Whoops! I was pretty hungry, and mad at myself for forgetting my lunch. Fortunately, I had some Nutter Butters (which are great riding snacks) and energy bars. I sat on the rock platform and reveled in the sun’s warmth, taking in the sights and sounds. Some cyclists rode by on the trail, and one of them asked “see anything down there?” I was a little baffled by the question. I was simply stunned by everything I was seeing all around me; I couldn’t in good conscience answer “no,” even if I wasn’t looking at any one thing in particular. “Just the river,” I muttered.

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A restful place

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Resting on the rock (yes, the rock is on an angle, I’m not just leaning wildly)

I got back on my bike, and passed several more small waterfalls. Most of the time, I heard them before I saw them. I didn’t stop again until I saw scene that looked like a painting.

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The backdrop isn’t a painting, although it looks like one to me

With all the river scenery on one side, it would’ve been easy to completely miss the sheer rock faces on the other side. I noticed as I rode that the rock varied greatly: the rock walls ranged from light tan to nearly black stone, each with its own texture, shape, cracks, etc. Some had leafy plants growing on them, others had lichen or moss, while other were just bare stone. At this time I saw rock overhangs behind a row of trees. I heard and saw water dripping from the rock above, and a small stream below.

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The trail passes a row of trees hiding a rock face

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Dripping rock overhang

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A creek empties into the Lehigh River under the bridge

Next, I passed a small waterfall labeled “Luke’s Falls,” and a small, strange round building, then reached another access point for the trail that offered an impressive view of a tight bend in the river and another small waterfall. At some point the sun lost the battle with the clouds and it grew increasingly overcast during the rest of the ride.

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Strange small round building

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Luke’s Falls

Bend in Lehigh River
Panoramic view of a bend in the river

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Another view of the bend

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Another small waterfall

There were bathrooms at the access point, but I didn’t stop. A couple of minutes later, I found some larger falls. These weren’t labeled, so I’ll claim them, and call them Apertome’s Falls.

Waterfall at Lehigh Gorge
Apertome’s Falls. Eat your heart out, Luke!

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Apertome’s bicycle by Apertome’s Falls

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A closer view of part of my falls

I didn’t stop again for a while. I got to thinking that this ride reminded me a bit of our drives on the Blue Ridge Parkway: the scenery never gets old, and never ceases to inspire awe, when you’re there. But then you get home and find that all your photos look alike, and all fail to capture the magnificence of what you saw.

The trail gradually climbed further above water level. Eventually, I saw some strange structures on the right that I believe may be remains of some old locks. I’m not really sure what they were, but I wanted to explore, and there happened to be a faint trail leading right where I wanted to go. I parked my bike by a tree and hiked over to see what kind of views I could get. I hiked down a little, and then back up onto what was now nearly a peninsula.

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Strange carved-out rock

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Shot showing some of the rock structure below

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A better view of the gorge

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Looking back at the bike

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BIke

I rode on. By now, I was starting to feel the fact that I’d been climbing for the past 18 miles, even though it was a gradual climb. The trail continued to rise further above the river, providing some different views. I am fairly certain that I passed by the point where we stood and looked out over the gorge from Hickory Run State Park last weekend, but I wasn’t able to recognize the exact location. I also felt it was getting colder and windier, and the sky looked a bit ominous. But I wanted to ride the trail to the end, and then ride back. It was easier knowing the trip back would be almost entirely downhill.

I passed under a couple of bridges (one of which I later figured out was I-80), and by another waterfall or two. I rode on what I determined must be a new section of trail, as it was rougher and seemed to have seen less traffic.

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New trail

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Passing under a bridge

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Riding under I-80

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Small waterfall

Eventually, I reached the end of the trail. I turned around immediately and headed back, although I did stop for another snack. I enjoyed riding downhill. My crusing speed, which had been about 14-16 mph on the way up, was now closer to 18-20 mph without expending too much effort. And this is on gravel. Fun times.

However, I’d be lying if I said the riding never got boring. It was dull for a while, because it’s a lot less challenging than what I’m used to. But this ride wasn’t about pushing myself, it was about being outdoors, taking in the scenery, and doing over 40 miles of easy, worry-free riding. It was exactly the kind of ride I hoped for, and it felt great to log some more miles after a long period with little riding, and heading into a winter that I suspect will see me riding less.

On that note, I stopped very few times during the return trip. I focused on just riding, and lost myself in the rhythmic pedaling. It was an incredibly relaxing ride.

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Gently curving trail

It continued to get colder, and of course I felt colder because of my higher speed and lower level of effort. As I got about two thirds of the way back, the sun came out again. It was getting low in the sky, at least relative to the surrounding mountains, and the light warmed, casting a glow on the foliage. By the last leg of my ride, I had lost any notion of boredom, and I slowed to soak up some sun rays, and the views.

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Another great view of the gorge

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Back by the switchyard

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Last view of the gorge

Once back in the parking lot, I talked to some other cyclists for a while. One lady had a Cannondale touring bike and seemed impressed with my Surly Long Haul Trucker. She asked me a few questions about how it’s set up and she showed me her Cannondale; it looked like a pretty nice bike. She and her husband had just been riding and they saw the Trucker and struck up a conversation.

I’ll definitely be returning to the Lehigh Gorge trail — hopefully, next time Sarah can come, and we can ride out as far as we feel is necessary and (mostly) coast back to the parking lot. I also want to explore the Switchback rail trail, which is in the same area only on top of the mountains, and its offshoot mountain biking trails. I love that you can explore this same area in so many ways: we saw it from the top of a mountain in Hickory Run State Park, now I’ve ridden in the gorge, and I can’t wait to see it from above again from the Switchback area. You can also go rafting down the river, or skiing or snowmobiling on the trail during the winter. I want to explore this beautiful land in as many ways as possible.

4 Responses to “Lehigh Gorge”

  1. Eric Says:

    What a beautiful trail, and gorgeous fall colors!

  2. Bone Says:

    Wow. Now I’m *really* sorry I couldn’t make it. Those pictures are wonderful.

  3. Jon Grinder Says:

    The little round building may be an old iron forge. Lots of those in Western Kentucky, where I lived in the early 70s. That looks similar.

    Any history of forges there?

  4. Myles/ rattrappress Says:

    Wow! Your pictures have always been great but your “good camera” makes a difference.

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