Biking the Montour Trail, and returning by bus, a grand adventure


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Think of it as a lazy guy's triathlon: 35 miles by bike on the Montour Trail, 15 miles by train through the South Hills and the final 8 miles by bus from Downtown and across the length of Neville Island back to Coraopolis.

Total cost: $4.50 for a Port Authority light-rail 2-zone fare and a bus transfer. Figure another $7 or $8 for an on-the-trail meal. A wiser course, however, might be to carry lunch, along with a rain jacket and sunscreen.

The result is a daylong, mostly "green" and quiet journey that passes through some of the most beautiful and varied neighborhoods in Allegheny and Washington counties. Views and trail conditions will vary, depending on the season, but it is a trip that can be taken pretty much year-round.

Montour Trail offers cyclists beautiful views

Ride along with the PG's Len Barcousky as he explores the Montour Trail. (Photos by Len Barcousky; edited by Melissa Tkach; 6/19/2012)

PG VIDEO

At least in summer, the earlier the start the better. When planning a recent ride, I had hoped to arrive about 8 a.m. just east of Coraopolis at the parking lot that is next to the "Mile 0" marker for the Montour Trail. It was closer to 9:30 by the time I had parked my car, double-checked air pressure in my bike tires and started out toward Library. As a result, the August sun already was high in the sky. The good news was that much of the cycling-and-hiking path remained shaded by a canopy of trees.

The trail is named for the creek that runs nearby for the first eight miles of its route. That stream also gave its name to the Montour Railroad, the original user of the trail. The civil engineers who laid out the route designed it for long, heavily loaded coal trains. Their work resulted in gentle grades, although accomplishing that meant digging multiple tunnels, building dozens of bridges and blasting through rock outcroppings.

From early spring until frost much of the route is bordered by green trees, shrubs and brush. Wildflowers provide spots of brighter color. Much of the trail maintenance and track-side landscaping are done by volunteers from various "friends" organizations who also have planted gardens and put up birdhouses that attract gold finches and cardinals.

While the steel rails and wooden ties are gone, evidence of the trail's industrial roots remain. They include a handful of Montour Railroad track signs and signals along the route. The most impressive symbols of the trail's heritage, however, are trestles and tunnels.

The McDonald Viaduct, near Mile 18, is almost 1,000 feet long where it crosses high above Noblestown Road and the Panhandle Trail, another rails-to-trails project. Riders traveling south on the trestle can see below them on their right massive culm banks. They are large piles of waste coal and rock dug out decades earlier from nearby mines.

PG graphic: Montour bike loop
(Click image for larger version)

Not all the bridges along the trail date from the coal-hauling days of the Montour Railroad. Just last month the Montour Trail Council celebrated the opening of two new spans in Washington County that eliminate gaps in the trail where it passes through Cecil. The pair of bridges, about a half-mile apart, eliminate detours and what had been dangerous crossings for hikers and cyclists at Morganza and Georgetown roads.

Another way the civil engineers who laid out the route were able to eliminate steep climbs was by digging tunnels. The 35-mile route between Coraopolis and Library cuts through three hills.

The Enlow Tunnel, more than 500 feet long, is just beyond Mile 7 of the trail in Findlay. No matter how hot the afternoon, the interior of the tunnel remains chilly and damp.

The National Tunnel, at Mile 25 in Cecil, is curved. It was unlighted for many years, which meant that riders walking their bikes through it would start out peering into total darkness. The recent addition of lights makes passing through less of an adventure.

The much shorter Greer Tunnel, between miles 28 and 29, is flanked by two bridges. One crosses over Chartiers Creek and provides one of the most beautiful vistas along the trail.

The Montour Trail Council has erected several sign boards between miles 29 and 30 that relate some of the story of the railroad and the coal mines it served. Parked along the trail is an impressive example of rolling stock. The restored X1 crane was built in 1947 for the railroad and remained in service until the railroad ceased operations in the early 1980s.

Just past the historical display is one of the remaining major breaks in the trail. Riders and walkers arriving at Thompsonville must use the shoulder of Valley Brook Road for a few hundred yards before getting back onto the Peters portion of the trail.

While the trail surface is most often crushed stone, the route through much of Peters is asphalt. That smoother surface attracts lots of parents, either walking or jogging as they push strollers. This portion of the trail also offers several vantage points for watching thoroughbreds grazing in the fields around the Empress Arabians stables.

As the trail leaves Washington County and re-enters Allegheny County in Bethel Park, it offers at least one more pleasant surprise. While much of the route through Peters is slightly uphill, riders can coast the last mile or so. A thick canopy of trees completely shades the route.

Riders must exit just past Mile 35, a few hundred yards before the trail reaches an unrestored trestle over Library Road. A clearly marked detour takes riders out to Library Road via Knights Drive and Royal Drive. The West Library station for the Port Authority's light-rail trains is no more than a quarter-mile north of the intersection of Royal Drive and Library Road, also known as Route 88. While there is a shoulder on the northbound lanes, busy Route 88 remains a dangerous road for cyclists.

lifestyle

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. First Published August 19, 2012 4:00 AM


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