By: Jeff McPartland
A new year and a new opportunity to participate with our bike club at one of my favorites events, the annual Finger Lakes get together at Hobart and William Smith College in June. If you are considering going let me suggest bicycling to the event is a good way to get started. In 2016 I finally did something I have wanted to do for several years ... cycling from my home in Camp Hill. It takes a little longer pedaling vs driving but it gave me the opportunity to see a lot more of our home state from the seat of my bicycle especially away from the fast route via highway and onto the two-lane back roads plus I had the opportunity to take in more of our Commonwealth of Pennsylvania history along the journey. Read and listen to my story and maybe you’ll find yourself pedaling the roads of Pennsylvania this summer on a little adventure of your own.
How Far? 230 miles +/-
How Long? Depends on how fast and how long you want to ride each day but I decided 70-80 miles per day and 3-4 days would work best for me and I looked for places to stay using this as my gage. Our Finger Lakes gathering starts late on a Thursday afternoon so I started from home on Monday and found myself in Watkins Glen in the early afternoon of Thursday.
Accommodations? I chose two hotels and a bed & breakfast and passed campgrounds too that might be used if carrying gear and weather is not an issue for you.
How to Get Back? There are lots of HBCers who go to this event so surely one has room for a bike and gear and you … or bike both ways.
Route? I followed Pennsylvania Bicycle Route J from Harrisburg to Sayre which has signs posted at all turns and occasionally in between and then picked up similar New York state signed bike routes. Driving the highways between Harrisburg and Geneva you might be thinking there are endless hills and mountains on the route and this is true but the actual bicycle route diverts from the main highways much of the way and takes the back roads. The total elevation gain per RideWithGPS shows less than 7,214 feet in 270 miles between Harrisburg and Watkins Glen following these bike routes. A few hills here and there but nothing real steep or long and lots of gentle rolling hills too and a good deal of downhill thrown in.
The stimulus for this journey started last Spring when Bike Guru Dick Norford suggested we bike PA Bicycle Route J sometime. This seemed like a challenging undertaking and why not take this route all the way from Harrisburg to the New York border in Sayre where I knew similar marked bike routes in New York State connected to Watkins Glen and Geneva. And because Dick planned to join me I figured we’d travel light and stay at bed & breakfasts and hotels so no heavy gear to carry and 3-4 days would allow quick travel and plenty of time to look around as we traveled. My planned trip turned into a solo venture but not taking camping gear turned out to be the better option, saving effort and the time to unpack, setup and repack and I really appreciated a roof Day 3 when I awoke to rain and wind.
My planned journey last summer started from home in Camp Hill down through the “Bottleneck” of Lemoyne to Market Street and the Market Street Bridge to City Island. From the island cross the Susquehanna River via the “broken” pedestrian bridge and hook a left onto the Capital Area Greenbelt and North picking up Bicycle Route J near the Governor’s Residence.
Photo: Crossing the Susquehanna River on the Harvey Taylor Bridge to Harrisburg
State Bicycle Routes …
One of the advantages of using a signed bike route like “J” is with “PA Bicycle Route J” signs posted at all turns there is no need to keep pulling out a hardcopy map or trying to read a GPS while moving and squinting from the bright sun (or protecting same from the rain and wind). Plus these routes “mostly” have shoulders and follow the less busy roads. A disadvantage is miss one of these infrequent signs and you could pedal a ways before realizing your error and suffer a few more extra miles finding your way back on the route. And sometimes it takes a little interpretation where the signs are posted because sometimes the turn is immediate and sometimes it’s a block or so further along. I remember one sign with the arrow left across from what looked like a little used road where I turned and then it turned into a trail and then a field. Turning around I pedaled back to the road where I turned and proceeded across a long bridge and took the next left and soon found another “PA Rt. J” sign. All part of the adventure.
These routes were developed by cyclists for cyclists and mostly follow state roads with shoulders (some very narrow and some with no shoulders) and all the main Pennsylvania Bike Routes (A, S, J, E, L, G and Y) go from “border-to-border” in our state East to West or North to South (or vice versa). Another advantage of using our PA Bike Routes is hard copy maps can be easily printed from the web in small 10-15 mile increments. But because the routes mostly use state roads you may also find yourself on a shoulder like Rt. 11/15 or 322 with much larger and faster vehicles.
Route J can also be taken South from City Island to York where it joins the York Heritage Rail Trail to the Maryland border where the Torrey C. Brown Trail goes another 22.9 miles to near Ashland, Maryland.
There are also “spurs” like J-2 (route to Gettysburg National Park and Fairplay) and J-3 (route to Lancaster and other points East).
PA Bike Routes can be found at the PennDot web site:
Alternate site for PA “Spurs”:
The most hazardous section of “J” was the Dauphin Narrows along Rt. 322 through the Railroad Underpass; steep, rock wall on my right, speeding vehicles on my left, debris littering the very narrow shoulder and the actual underpass in deep shadow. Cyclists should try to time their travel through this passage to avoid the large trucks and other vehicles. Difficult and not for the average cyclist for sure and the current route on the East side of the Susquehanna River may be closed soon to all bicyclists. There are other alternatives to be considered … arrange to be dropped off further North on “J” … Dauphin for example … or take the route I am developing between City Island and Duncannon following back roads. Personally, I’ll take the road less traveled the next time even if it adds miles to the route.
Sayre is the last town North on “J” and then there is New York State Bike Routes 17 and 14 to Geneva … more marked bike routes with little traffic and gentle, rolling terrain. And, again, no steep or long hills to contend with. And from Horseheads to Watkins Glen the beautiful Catherine Valley Trail.
Notes from my journey ...
Day 1 … I started my journey on Monday under beautiful sunny skies and because it seemed shorter and easier than my planned route and I was meeting Dick in Dauphin I biked across the Harvey Taylor Bridge and took a left onto the Capital Area Greenbelt and soon was on Rt. J and pedaling the infamous “Dauphin Narrows” and through the Route 322 Railroad Underpass. I pass a group of bike club members out on a route and one shouts “Where are you headed?” but no time to linger as I reply “Geneva”.
Dick met me in Dauphin and showed me a better way across the river … the Appalachian Trail pedestrian bridge … “the road less traveled” and thus safer avoiding the high bridge with fast traffic and after an hour or so biking together we parted and I was on my own again cycling alone through the towns and countryside of Pennsylvania.
I biked 75 miles the first day winding my way from village to village and finding my way at the end of the day to a very nice hotel where I had made reservations and with an outdoor pool and indoor bar just short of I-80 where I shared $2 drafts and stories with truck drivers exhausted from driving 10 hours on the interstates and highways of PA. Most probably they covered 700-800 miles vs my paltry 75 but I’m sure I had more fun because I saw no need to get drunk like two of them to face the road tomorrow.
Photos: (1) Views along the Susquehanna River (2) Road Art (3) Williamsport Trail Statue (4) PA J2
(5) Susquehanna River Bridge View
Day 2 … Similar in weather to Day 1 and better two-lane roads and I biked another 75 miles to Grover, PA where I had reservations at the 200-year old “The Grover Guest House”. Only $40 for a single person (and I was their only guest that night) plus $5 more for a breakfast you can only dream about … yogurt with fresh strawberries and blueberries and oranges, apples and more with plenty of whip cream … home made of course … on top PLUS a baked oatmeal souffle with all kinds of nuts and berries and such. But I forgot to mention when I arrived after a very long day in the saddle and missing the turn to their B&B caused me a few extra miles my hosts also invited me to share their pot roast dinner along with a lovely dry red wine. Yum yum. And later there was the large, circular hot tub to enjoy on the outdoor patio to enjoy under the stars. Worth finding and stopping at this b&b even if you choose not to bike there. Yep, biking solo has it’s moments like this. Great hosts!
Photos … (1) Tributes to Veterans (2) Chris at Knapp Winery & Restaurant (3) Catherine Valley Trail (4) Last Raft Memorial Bridge (5) Sullivan Expedition Marker (6) Stephen Foster Historical Marker
Day 3 My first two days were picture perfect weather-wise but the life of a long distance traveler will not find winds at your back and all downhill under cloudless days every day and Wednesday started out as one of those days a bicyclist dreads … heavy rain outside and falling almost sideways from the stiff wind in sheets (but I’m thinking ‘... at least I am in a solid building at the moment and 200 years old so it must have lasted under similar onslaughts and I am NOT in a tent’). Now a word about long distance bicycling … flexibility … you gotta know when to ride ‘em and when to fold ‘em. I am seriously thinking of throwing in the towel and staying another day and night and calling for my ride but stalling making this decision and hoping for a break in the weather. And around 10:30am after lots of caffeine to fortify myself the rain slows and the skies brightened along with my positiveness and I was soon pedaling down the road and five miles into my ride the sun was fully out and it was drier except for the water on the road. A few drops fell now and then from distant clouds but I was mostly dry and a heckuva lot drier than I expected at the start of this day.
Twenty miles or so into my ride a bobcat crossed the road 10 yards in front of me. I kid you not … short stub for a tail and large furry paws, about twice or maybe three times the size or your standard housecat. Wow … I knew y bobcats are fairly common in Pennsylvania but had never seen one in the wild. Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. Bobcat never acknowledged my presence but just meandered across the road and into the brush. I’m still pondering this experience as I biked another two to three miles on this rather remote back road when a truck pulled over to my left and the driver leaps out with a camera and suddenly a large black bear burst out of the brush about 20 yards from me near the photographer and it runs pell mell across the road and downhill into the stream. Yo! Chance sighting and timing. Stopping quickly I pulled up the camera strapped to my belt but by the time I could turn it on and aim it in the general direction of the bear all I captured was a small black dot of the bear’s butt. Well, these two sightings made my day!
Serious head winds prevailed most of the afternoon and a few steep but short climbs sharing the road with big construction trucks now and then but the drivers were fairly careful in passing me. After a stop in Sayre near the NYS border I reconsidered my options and elected to cut my planned ride that day 25 miles short of my goal after just 55 miles. The headwind was taking a toll on my body and it was after 4pm because of my late start and I decided if I saw something agreeable I’d just stop. Bingo … Comfort Inn on my left at 9 o’clock and I soon had a bed for the night and cancelled my reservation up the road just in time to avoid a late fee. Plus the sun was out, the pool open and there was a cooler in the lobby with beer and wine for sale. AND warm chocolate chip cookies for guests on the table too. Life is good again. No, make that life is GREAT always but beer, chocolate chip cookies, a pool and a comfortable bed make it just a tad sweeter.
Photos: (1) Bear Sighting (2) Montour Falls
Day 4 … Another bright sunshine day but I got a little confused finding the starting point spinning in a broad circle of several miles searching for my planned NYS Bike Route 17 but eventually I found someone who knew the road I was looking for and there it was … an abandoned road blocked to motor vehicles and the road sign turned the wrong way and why I missed it the first time but I proceed cautiously past deep potholes and high cliffs on one side and the river on my left several miles expecting a bear or a madman to confront me at any moment and I am rewarded when the the real NYS Bike Route 17 sign was posted and from hereon the road was well marked with signs and has a wide shoulder and very little traffic. “And so it goes” … according to one of my favorite authors. I make better time after this despite more head winds and a gentle uphill now and then. Fortunately, after a lunch break in Horseheads and having biked portions of it a couple times in other years I find The Catherine Valley Trail. I’m pretty sure I could have gotten on the trail in Horseheads too and from this point it goes downhill most of the way to Watkins Glen and is protected by the trees from the head winds. After reaching Watkins Glen it was only 25 more miles to Geneva via Rt. 14 but considering the headwinds that day I opted for “Plan B” … to wait for our son, Chris, who was driving to the Finger Lakes to join me for the weekend and he was only an hour behind me. Like I said be flexible and it pays to have a “Plan B”.
In summary, a pretty darned nice bike ride … some really good weather and a little rain now and then too … winds Day 3 more of a challenge than anything else … a few hills near Towanda really tested me with a head wind most of the day … sightings of a bobcat and bear made the decision to move that day far more interesting and exciting for me … b&b choice extra special with their hot hot tub outside even more so … some really nice roads and trails to explore along the way. My GPS recorded 250 miles from Camp Hill to Watkins Glen but I clocked a few extra miles finding the route Day 4 and biked a few more miles on the trails around Williamsport exploring various alternatives plus some miscellaneous miles seeing the sights.
Note: Taking the “ less traveled” and traveling slower on a bicycle allows me to take in some of the history wherever I travel in our Commonwealth. Sometimes I take photos of the historical markers, signs and statues and search for the “rest of the story” later.
The Sullivan Expedition took place in 1779 during our American Revolutionary War and this marker near Lodi, New York led me Wikipedia which revealed that it was ordered by George Washington and led by Major General John Sullivan and Brigadier General James Clinton who marched with a force from Easton, Pennsylvania against Loyalists (“Tories”) and four Nations of the Iroquois who sided with the British. Sullivan’s army carried out a scorched earth campaign, methodically destroying at least 40 Iroquois villages throughout the Finger Lakes region of Western New York.
The Last Raft Memorial Bridge occurred on March 14, 1938 was another interesting find. The 112-foot raft was a historical re-enactment of the 1800s when millions of logs were rafted together, floated downstream and then dismantled and sold to mills and ship builder. Starting in Bellnap near McGee’s Mill in western Clearfield County the 200-mile journey down the Susquehanna River ended up at Fort Hunter in Dauphin County. Tragically, the raft struck a per of the former Reading Railroad bridge near Muncy on March 20 with almost 50 people on board … all but two thrown into the water and seven people drowned. The raft eventually reached its destination March 25 and there are vintage photos of the “Last Raft” available on the internet.
Stephen Foster Historical Marker ... located in Towanda where Foster lived in 1840-41 and where he composed "The Tioga Waltz". Known as the "Father of American Music, Foster wrote ballads and folk tunes such as “Oh, Susanna”, “Camptown Races”, “My Old Kentucky Home”, and “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair”.
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