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Stony Valley/Rausch Gap: offroad bike camping trip (S24O)

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Scott (FiveToedSloth) organized a bike camping trip this past weekend along the Stony Valley Rail Trail. We met at the eastern trailhead off Gold Mine Road. In attendance were Scott, Geoff, and myself, although Geoff wasn’t able to do an overnight trip.

Before I begin, I should mention that Scott has posted some photos here, and Geoff’s are here. Both got some good shots of the scenery, and both have some shots of yours truly as well.

It was a hot day, with nearly record-setting temperatures approaching 90 degrees. Fortunately, we were riding in the woods the whole time, and were well-shaded. Here’s a map of our trip.

View Stony Creek/Rausch Gap bike camping 04/25-04/26/2009 in a larger map

We started with some easy riding on the rail-trail. It had a very smooth crushed stone surface and we climbed a bit, but it was very gradual. This was my first time really loading down the Trucker, and I was curious how it would handle. From the start, it felt very solid. I knew we’d later encounter rougher terrain, however, and I wasn’t sure how the bike would handle it.

Stony Valley Trail

The Trucker, loaded

The Stony Valley Trail is located in State Game Lands 211, which has many other trails to explore. We were only on the rail trail for about four miles before we crossed a bridge and turned onto a steep, rocky trail that joined with the Appalachian Trail for a while. Our first order of business was to find Rausch Gap, and the AT shelter. We planned to camp near the shelter that night and we wanted to know where we were heading.

Rausch Creek

Walking a steep, rocky part of the trail

The Appalachian Trail

Scott, on the trail toward the shelter

We found a great campsite on our way to the shelter. It was on a ledge, overlooking Rausch Gap, with views of other mountain ridges and the soothing sound of Rausch Creek running below. Oddly enough, several people had passed this campsite and settled in inferior sites closer to the shelter. We would ultimately come back to this site; in hindsight, we should have left most of our gear there while we went out to explore further.

The shelter was interesting, basically a small, three-sided cabin with room for people to sleep and water running constantly, coming right out of the ground. A spring, I guess, although the water was running out of a pipe. Nearby were an outhouse and a few other campsites.

Geoff and Scott, on what would later become our campsite

After leaving the campsite, we got back on the trail but soon saw a very nice spot by the creek. We stopped and for a while, we all took photos. We weren’t covering a lot of ground, but the area was quite beautiful and I was glad to be riding with others who like to stop, explore, take photos, and enjoy the scenery. No one was in a hurry: we had no schedule to adhere to, and only a vague plan to try to see a few things and explore some trails.


The AT follows Rausch Creek


Closeup of Rausch Creek

I also took the opportunity to document all the bikes. Scott was riding a Schwinn High Plains — a 90s rigid, steel mountain bike. His is set up with slick tires, fenders and racks. It reminds me of my old GT Timberline, which I still ride, and which I still consider a good bike. Geoff was riding a borrowed Trek 830, another rigid, steel mountain bike, with knobby tires. I rode the Long Haul Trucker. Scott was pretty interested in my Trucker, as he has one on layaway.

Scott’s Schwinn High Plains

Trek 830

My Long Haul Trucker

I should probably point out, since I’m sure someone will cry fowl about our riding on the AT, that here, the AT joins some State Game Lands trails, which allow bikes. There were no indications bikes were not allowed, and we were only on the AT as long as necessary to get to the campsite and the other trails. We did our best to be respectful of the hiking intent of the AT. In fact, this section even had a crushed stone surface much like the rail-trail, which was conducive to bicycles.

We continued riding, and apparently we missed the turn for the trail we were looking for. We were trying to find the Horseshoe Trail. Instead, we accidentally stayed on the AT and hit a section that was unridable, with insane stone steps. We turned back to try to find the right trail.

Scott on the AT

Insanely rocky section, complete with stone steps, on the AT

On the way back, we passed a large pile of coal rejects (there’s a technical term for these, but I can’t remember it). One of many ruins from the old coal mining town of Rausch Gap.

A pile of coal rejects on the right

We saw some red blazes indicating SGL trails, and attempted to follow them. We had to lean our bikes sideways and duck under some fallen trees. The trail abruptly hit Rausch Creek, with no good way to cross. Things looked even more rugged on the other side, so we decided to go back and try to explore an old railroad siding Scott had seen previously. But first, Geoff crossed the creek on foot to if there was any way we could continue on this trail, while we filtered water from Rausch Creek. The water was cold and sweet and tasted wonderful. We splashed creek water on ourselves to cool down. A much-needed break. Geoff returned and reported that we needed to turn back. The trail was mostly non-existent on the other side, and crossed the creek repeatedly.

Ducking under some trees

Rausch Creek

Heading toward the railroad siding

Scott and Geoff walked their bikes for a few minutes. They told me the trail got really steep up ahead. I rode ahead a little bit, but as promised, the trail soon became impossibly steep, and loose rocks killed whatever traction I once had. I walked the rest of the way. The other guys caught up a minute later, and we left our bikes and went out on foot, exploring an old railroad bridge, with Rausch Creek now running below us.

Geoff and Scott push up the steep, rocky trail

Heading toward the old bridge

Geoff inspects where the bridge once was

Rock wall on the other side of the creek

Looking down

The Trucker, overlooking a ravine

We went back to our bikes and turned onto the old railroad siding. This would prove to be difficult riding. It’s basically a wide trail, but it is not maintained. There were sticks, rocks, puddles, and mud spots to deal with, and still a lot of leaves from last fall. This was a great test of the Trucker’s handling loaded down, off the road. It performed admirably. I was able to do wheelies over some logs and rocks, and shift my weight forward to carry the rear wheel over them, even with the extra weight. I didn’t experience any shimmies or anything of that nature, although this was not exactly a high-speed affair. The only problem I had was that my tires had a tendency to sink in the muddy spots — but we all had that problem.

While it was challenging, this was very pleasant ridgetop riding. Well, actually, we were only partway up the ridge, not on top of it, but the feeling was similar. We passed numerous boulder fields and saw a few side trails. I wonder if they lead anywhere; they’re not on any map I’ve found. You could spend days exploring this place and still not find everything.

Old railroad siding

More of the trail

We saw a pipeline right-of-way, which was in effect a very steep, rocky trail perpendicular to our direction of travel. We noted that we could go back down to the rail-trail that way, if necessary. But it looked on the map like we should be able to make a longer loop.

In a few places, we had to get off and walk our bikes around mud — in one place, the whole width of the trail was flooded. It was tricky getting past that part.

Our exploration of the railroad siding ended abruptly when the trail turned into a stream. All of a sudden, it was completely covered in water, for as far as we could see. We had no choice but to turn back.

Looking down a pipeline right-of-way

Suddenly, the trail became a stream

This meant once again walking around the disgusting, swampy puddle that covered the whole trail. We had to walk on the higher ground and rocks along the side, letting our bicycles roll through the mud. It was quite a mess.  A few minutes later, we were at the pipeline again, and we had to walk down. It was too steep and rocky to ride. It was quite a challenge keeping good footholds while trying to move slowly with a loaded bicycle. I saw some mayapples and some young fiddlehead ferns along the way — signs of spring that I always enjoyed in Indiana. It was comforting to see them here as well.

Working our way around the swampy puddle

Looking back up at the pipeline

Once we got to the bottom of the hill, Geoff headed back. Scott and I rode back to see if the campsite we wanted was still available. We were quite tired and moving slowly by this point. Fortunately, nobody had claimed the site. We dropped off some of our gear and rode down to Rausch Creek to filter more water.

We filled all of our water bottles. I had brought the bladder from my Camelbak, which holds 100 fluid ounces of water, to use as a dromedary bag at our campsite. So, we filled that as well. It took a while to filter that much water, but I actually enjoy the process. It’s a good excuse to sit by the creek for a while.

Once we had all the water we could carry, we headed back to the campsite to set up camp and cook some dinner. Scott had borrowed Geoff’s REI tent, which was very nice. I brought the cheap bivy tent that I got last year. Despite the fact that Scott didn’t have any instructions and had never set up this tent before, he finished a while before I did. It took some doing to figure out how my tent went together. Ultimately, I figured it out. I didn’t have instructions, either, but I wasn’t sure where they were, and I remembered them being fairly useless before.

By this point, we were seeing some alpenglow on the other side of the gap. We couldn’t really see the sunset through the trees, but some oranges and pinks were reflected off the other ridge. It was lovely.

Tents and alpenglow

We cooked dinner. I have an alcohol stove, and Scott brought an Esbit stove (which use small, white tablets as fuel). We found Scott’s stove could boil water much faster than mine, but my stove can burn longer. Scott also had a wide, shallow pot, which probably helped speed up the process. Anyway, neither of us had trouble boiling water, mine just took longer. Scott also had a homemade windscreen that worked very well. I will definitely need to make one for my stove, or buy a pre-made windscreen. Scott let me borrow his, and my stove worked much better with the windscreen.

Scott’s Esbit stove and homemade windscreen

My alcohol stove

Scott tried a method for making coffee that I had read about, but never seen in action. He had a filter ball for loose tea leaves, and put coffee grounds in it, then submerged it in hot water and let it steep. Unfortunately, it didn’t work very well — he said the coffee was weak, and the filter let some grounds through it. I think he’s going to have to find a different way of making coffee. I love coffee too, but I opted for tea, as it is a lot easier to make. I think we both benefited from a hot, caffeinated beverage.

We both brought freeze dried backpacking meals. They were OK. Scott said the beef in his stroganoff was awfully salty. I had some pasta that was better than I expected. It was a vegetarian meal and while I am not a vegetarian, I think meat might not work too well in a freeze-dried meal. Everything in my meal reconstituted well — pasta, cheese, sundried tomatoes, some sauce, jalapenos. The jalapenos added a lot of flavor and I think made the meal.

I should have eaten more. I must have been feeling some effects from the heat, as I was not feeling very hungry. Later that night, I got quite hungry but didn’t feel like getting up to make more food. I brought plenty of food with me, I just didn’t actually EAT enough of it.

Dusk falls on our campsite

The Trucker

Soon, darkness fell, and we started to wonder: what do we do once it’s dark? Neither of us had really brought anything to do. We tried some night photos, most of which did not turn out (at least mine didn’t) but our time was mostly spent on conversation. We sat for a while, taking in the stars and just talked about stuff. But we were both tired and we soon decided to call it a night.

It was the earliest I had gone to bed in a long time. But I did not sleep well. I laid there for a while, looking up at the stars. I left the fly off my tent, even though I thought it might get chilly. I could always put the fly on later, or cover up more. But I really enjoyed being able to look up at the stars, and feeling the breeze flowing over me. It didn’t really take me very long to get to sleep, but I kept waking back up. I’d sleep for a while, and then wake back up, turn over, and fall back to sleep, etc.

My sleeping pad is really quite comfortable, and I brought an additional pillow, but I like to sleep on my side, and when I did so whatever arm I was laying on would fall asleep. Eventually, my allergies started acting up as well. As the night wore on, it did get colder. I used my cycling jacket as a blanket, and while I was still a little chilly, it didn’t bother me. I guess the biggest problems were my arms falling asleep, and not being able to breathe very well, thanks to my allergies.

We woke up by dawn. I sat up and felt fairly awake. Scott said he’d already been awake for an hour, so we decided to get moving. I felt a little chilly so I put on some long pants and a jacket.The first signs of light were just peeking up over the adjacent mountain. I am not accustomed to being up this early, but there is something very pleasant about watching the day begin. Here is a sequence of shots, from dawn to shortly after sunrise.


The sun is just below the horizon


The Trucker at sunrise

A cup of coffee at sunrise

Scott’s bike

The tents

The view, unobstructed


Breakfast was our first order of business. I had a strange but satisfying breakfast of trail mix, bagels with peanut butter, and chicken ramen. It was a weird combination, but I had to make up for not eating enough the night before — and in fact I felt a lot better once I had eaten. And of course some tea helped me get moving.

Once we ate, we started breaking down the tents. As we did this we could feel that it was warming up rapidly. The forecast was for another 90-degree day, so we hoped we would be done riding before the hottest part of the day. We headed down to the AT shelter to filter some water from the spring there and sign the logbook. We didn’t stay long.

We rode back down to the rail trail. It was downhill the whole way, and rocky enough that it was tricky. There’s nothing like some challenging riding to get the blood pumping in the morning.

Scott was riding down to the opposite end of the trail from where we started on Saturday. His wife would pick him up there. I rode with him for a while in that direction. We were only about four miles from where my car was parked and I wanted to do a little more riding. As we cruised down the rail trail, we saw an interesting side road marked “Cold Springs.” I looked at my GPS, and it looked like this road descended some 150 feet and went by Dresden Lake. We decided to explore.

Partway down, we saw some ruins. Several foundations, one of which Scott speculated might be the remains of a hotel that used to be in this area. We may never know for certain, but it was cool to see these ruins. One foundation was very mossy.

Cold Springs Road


Mossy ruins

Scott riding on Cold Springs Road

Riding through a clearing

A view in the clearing

The road took us further downhill, and we soon saw the tip of Dresden Lake, with Stony Creek flowing out of it. A bridge took us across the creek. We got off our bikes to look around and immediately saw a large spider on a tree.

We couldn’t see much of the lake itself; it might be worthwhile to go back sometime and see if we can find a trail or road around the lake. We did see an old wall that appeared to have served as a larger dam and the road seemed to have gone across the top of it at one point.


The end of Dresden Lake


The old wall/dam, and our bicycles

Now we had to climb back up the way we had come. It wasn’t an insanely long climb, but it got steeper at the end and the gravel was just loose enough that we had poor traction. It was slow going and we were really feeling it when we reached the top.

I rode a bit further with Scott and after a while, we stopped to check out Yellow Springs.

Yellow Springs

I decided to turn back at this point. In hindsight, I wish I had gone a bit further as we were almost to Dauphin County, and I could have added an additional county to my list of counties in which I’ve ridden (that reminds me, I haven’t updated the list in a while).

We parted ways. I’m not sure how far Scott had to ride after that. For me, it was about another eight miles back to the car. There was some climbing, but it was quite gradual. Overall, the riding was easy, and I was glad that it was. I was feeling tired, and it was getting hot. I stopped to photograph a boulder field and some strange stone arrows that were pointing at the ground, but otherwise I just kept pedaling.

Boulder field

Stone arrows

When I passed the AT connection, I knew that I only had a bit over 4 miles to go, and that it would be mostly downhill. This last part of the ride was a fantastic middle-ring cruise through the woods on smooth gravel. I saw the only notable wildlife of the whole trip during this time when a couple of deer bounded down the trail ahead of me.

Soon, I was back at the car. I loaded the car and headed home.

It was a great trip. I really enjoyed riding with Scott and Geoff — I think our riding styles were very similar in that we are all photography nuts as well, so we liked frequent stops to take photos. And nobody was in a hurry, we just enjoyed exploring the woods.

The camping part of the trip was really fun; we had an excellent campsite, our only neighbors were probably a tenth of a mile away and they were very quiet. I even enjoyed cooking — I’m not sure why I don’t enjoy it at home, but I do  when camping.

I think the water filter was necessary for this trip; I can’t imagine how we would have carried enough water with us. The way I figure it, we filtered over 3.5 gallons of water, which would have weighed almost 30 pounds!

This trip also served as a reminder that I basically have everything I need to do trips like this. I should do them more often!

8 Responses to “Stony Valley/Rausch Gap: offroad bike camping trip (S24O)”

  1. Baump Says:

    Sounds like a great trip. Its a fantastic area for biking, hiking, and driving (get back to that in a minute). FYI, there’s a good website that describes the amazing, but disappearing, history of this little valley: http://home.comcast.net/~StAnthonyWilderness/picpage.htm. In October of each year the SGL has a day where you can drive the length of the rail trail (yeah, its driving…but was easier when we had a baby and 2 old dogs) and make lots of stops. They have tour guides at the Cold Springs Hotel site.

    Keep up the great blog.

  2. furiousBall Says:

    amazing shots and what a cool trip. loved the pics of the lost bridge

  3. doc Says:

    I always encounter “fishing bikes” on the Dauphin County side, where guys take old mtb’s and attach bucket panniers for carrying bait and their catch; and pvc tubes for their poles. I need to photograph one. If you continue past the parking area on the Lebanon side, you come up to the resevoir – another great site.
    It looks like you guys had a great trip.

  4. Doug Says:

    I was wondering when you were going to take that LHT camping?

    As I read this post I kept thinking Rausch Gap Shelter sounds familiar. So I dug out my AT journals…and sure enough we stayed at Rausch Gap Shelter on June 11, 2001. The night before we had stayed at Peter Mtn Shelter. I wrote: ” Today started out with an easy stretch then about 5 miles in we had a descent to a road and 1,000 ft back up. Then it was flat.” I also wrote we were trying out a bug tent inside the shelter for the first time that we had received in our last mail drop. I remember that water trough and watching some dumb-ass thru-hiker rinsing out his dishes in it. Goo times!

    Anyway, enough of my memories. Looks like you had a good time. And oh…it’s called Hiker Midnight. That’s when the sun goes down, no one knows what to do , and everyone is tired, so you just hit the sack.

  5. Baump Says:

    I’d forgotten….also a great place for wildlife. I saw two rattlesnakes on the rocks between the AT and the reservoir. My friend has seen bear while camping near the devil’s racecourse, a boulder field. The history makes it even more interesting. Can anyone imagine that whole valley and the surrounding slopes completely devoid of trees?

  6. Jimbo Says:

    Not to bust your stones or anything but the “no bikes allowed” signs are just to the left off of your “Heading toward the railroad siding” photo just south of the bridge. Anyhow, there are some very nice treks just to the east and west of the one you describe here. Worth checking out. Advice – carry a snakebite kit and keep your eyes open, especially east of Goldmine Road.

  7. Apertome Says:

    Jimbo: Hmm, never saw those signs.

    Regardless, yes, it’s a very interesting area indeed. Wish I got to explore it more!

  8. Vince Says:

    Those strange stone arrows were along the railroad, and were used for holding spare pieces of track in case repairs were ever needed.

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