The Many Perks of Riding Pennsylvania’s Perkiomen Trail
Bicycle Adventurers: Author David Luttenberger with Joe Mayne, David’s neighbor and long-time riding and hiking partner.
When: Sept. 24-25, 2016 on the weekend of Bike Your Park Day
Accommodations: Tent camping at Green Lane Park
Distance: We rode 80 miles over the two days.
Bonus tip for this adventure: 90% of our ride was on the most meticulously groomed, hard-pack trails I've ever ridden.
One could easily begin at myriad trailheads a few miles west of Philadelphia in the trendy, millennial haven of Manayunk, PA, or even at one of many free public parking lots along the Schuylkill River Trail.
We had the luxury of parking at a friend’s house, picking up the Cynwyd Heritage Trail behind the Trail’s End Café at Cynwyd Station in Narberth, PA, and riding across the newly renovated Manayunk Bridge Trail over the Schuylkill River, open exclusively to cyclists, runners, and the occasional roller blader. For those a bit low on air pressure, there’s even a stainless steel tire pump bolted to the base of the bridge.
From there, we picked up Baker St. for two blocks, then turned right on Leverington for one block, then directly onto the Schuylkill River Trail (SRT), which for a short jaunt is a scenic hodge-podge of hard-pack gravel, paved paths, and even a section of wood planks adjacent to the Schuykill River’s old Manuyunk Canal.
For us, it was a straight shot of about 15 miles to where the SRT forks at the entrance of Valley Forge National Historical Park. A short side trip across Sullivan’s Bridge brings you to the entrance of Valley Forge, a worthy sidebar trip if time allows.
Of course, coming to a fork in the road, we took it! For the next few miles, the SRT skirts the Benjamin Franklin/Pottstown Highway and picks up the SRT until it crosses Perkiomen Creek. It’s there we took a U-turn directly onto the Perkiomen Trail, or the “Perky” as it’s known to locals. The trail uses the former rail bed of the Perkiomen Line of the Reading Railroad, made famous as one of four railroads for sale on the venerable board game Monopoly.
Once the Perky winds through a few recreational areas near Lower Perkiomen Valley Park, it transitions from wide, and widely used, paved paths to hard-pack gravel. Once on the hard pack, it becomes quickly evident that the trail has been meticulously groomed and extremely well maintained. Nothing against the paved and sometimes bumpy Schuylkill River Trail, but the Perky’s hard-pack is a 20-mile, silky-smooth testament to the very best intentions of this Rails-to-Trails Conservancy project. Although punctuated by a few short sections of paved paths and a handful of well-maintained wood plank bridges spanning the Perkiomen Creek, Joe and I gave the Perky a unanimous “superior” rating as one of the smoothest hard-pack trails we’ve ridden on the East Coast.
The Perkiomen Trail falls mostly under a full canopy of oak, walnut, and maple trees as its runs parallel to the shallow and slow-moving Perkiomen Creek. The trail is also mostly elevated on one side, about 30 feet directly above the creek, making it imperative that we paid as much attention to the trail as the scenery below. We often encountered lichen- and moss-covered limestone walls on one or both sides of the trail. At one point, we found an oddly placed park bench that had been dedicated to Mary Carson, the loyal stoker to her tandem and life partner, Buck. There was even a picture of the tandem couple affixed to the bench, which brought their story and the reason for the bench’s lonely placement on the trail into context.
Both the Schuykill River Trail and the Perkiomen Trail are predominantly flat, with a few barely-bigger-than-speed-bump hills. Just outside of Schwenksville, PA, there is one very short 12-percent grade hill that reminded us our legs and lungs hadn’t really worked all that hard on the flats on day one — kudos to the trail planners for paving this short section. With a fully loaded rig, it would be dicey going either up or down the hill.
Our first day’s ride saw us pedaling effortlessly for just shy of 40 miles from where we embarked in Narberth to where the Perky dumped us directly into Green Lake Park and the Green Lake Campground. Tent sites are $30 per night (with reservations recommended depending of the time of year). Warm showers and bathrooms are available, but there’s no camp store, electricity, or firewood delivery. The local ranger gave us the thumbs up to scrounge for firewood in the dense woods behind our campsite. I’m quite sure he also looked the other way at the six-pack we smuggled in, purchased just about a quarter mile off the trail at the recommendation of the local bike shop, Perkiomen Bicycles.
Being just outside the small town of Perkiomenville, Green Lake is just far enough afield that on a clear night like we had, star gazing and comet spotting come easy while sitting at the lake’s edge, covertly sipping a frosty beverage.
With the night-time, early-fall temperatures dipping to about 50 degrees, a light-duty sleeping bag made for a comfy night’s rest, interrupted the next morning by two small boys who found it necessary to play “sword fight” at 6:30 a.m. with the previous night’s left-over, marshmallow-roasting sticks. On the plus side, bear-bagging wasn’t required.
We managed to rekindle our fire from the night before and ate a hearty breakfast of ramen noodles and leftover baked beans. While that may not sound like great pre-trail-riding fare, we’d already planned to have breakfast on Sunday morning at the Collegeville Diner, a mere 10 feet off the trail. Generous servings of eggs, hash browns, sausage, bacon, whole wheat toast, coffee, and chocolate milk — for about $10 each, provided ample fuel for the remaining 32 miles back to Narberth. Joe and I had to restrain ourselves from buying a couple of the colorful, mega-size Cookie Monster cupcakes on the way out of the diner.
Besides the well-groomed, hard-pack, and scenic overlooks from the wood plank bridges, Joe and I found the Perkiomen Trail to be extremely well marked and incredibly easy to follow. Moreover, when the trail did cross a road, the crossings were not only well marked for cyclists, but for motorists as well. In fact, we found that at every crossing, traffic voluntarily gave us the right of way, and most often was accompanied by a wave from the locals, obviously accustomed to the bike and hiker traffic in their small towns. I wouldn’t exactly give Philly and Narberth residents the same accolades — cross and navigate the roads there at your own peril.
All along both trails between Manayunk and Green Lake Park, there are ample places to eat and drink without venturing more than a few yards from the trail. Although I can’t find it on any map, just prior entering Manayunk, a bicycle-friendly watering hole has become a local favorite that’s hard to pass, in part because there’s ample bike parking just a few feet from the trail.
For anyone considering this ride, it’s a cinch to plan, as the entire route is clearly marked on the satellite view in Google Maps.
This trail connects many public parks and historic sites, among them Lower Perkiomen Valley Park, Central Perkiomen Valley Park, Green Lane Park, John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Pennypacker Mills, and the local Skippack Township Trail that continues to Evansburg State Park. The trail passes through the historic villages and towns of Arcola, Collegeville, Schwenksville, Spring Mount, and Green Lane, offering many town services for trail visitors.
Your favorite local bike shop? Caffeinated Cyclist, Pittman, NJ
Bike overnight tips and tricks? Cold beer was paramount. Broken ankles, daughters’ weddings, and business travel kept us from other rides this summer, so it was pretty easy to motivate each other to ride.
HOW ABOUT YOU? Inspire others by submitting your own bike overnight adventure!