The East's autumn mecca for mountain bikers
By Joe Surkiewicz
Outside Online correspondent
Nestled in the western Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania is a village with the unlikely name of Jim Thorpe. Once a go-getting town of railroads, robber barons, and coal barges, Jim Thorpe has transformed itself into a mountain destination for visitors who like the outdoors during the day and the creature comforts of a B&B and a classy restaurant in the evening.
Once a Victorian-era coal boomtown, the town fell on hard times in the Great Depression and adopted its unique moniker in 1954 in a trade with the widow of the American Indian athlete who had been a hero of the 1912 Stockholm Olympics and a baseball and football star. In return for becoming Jim Thorpe, the former towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk got the athlete's tomb and the promise of museums and tourists to come.
But in the last decade, it's mountain biking--not museums--that has put Jim Thorpe on the map. And when fall color peaks in the second half of October, it's an ideal destination for foliage-seeking mountain bikers.
Located about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Jim Thorpe is surrounded by mountains honeycombed with railroad grades converted to wide, easy trails. The prime attraction for most visitors, though, is the park located on the town's doorstep. Lehigh Gorge State Park tempts cyclists with 30 miles of nearly effortless riding along the Lehigh River as it cuts a spectacular, 1,000-foot gorge through the Poconos.
A flat trail follows the remains of the Lehigh Canal towpath and abandoned railroad grades, treating riders to nonstop views of seasonal color, ruined bridges, old tunnels, spectacular rock outcroppings, waterfalls, and kayakers coming around a broad bend in the river. This is a ride where the emphasis is on scenery, not bike-handling skills or endurance.
If that's too tame, there's always the Switchback Trail. Fat-tire cyclists with a yen for a top-of-the-mountain-down view can get it from the ridges overlooking Jim Thorpe and the magnificent Lehigh River Gorge.
The trail, heralded as the site of America's first railroad, is divided into two trails: the Down Track and the Back Track. They combine to make a 10-mile loop for intermediate mountain bikers (and adventurous beginners who don't mind a little walking) that offers forest trails, great views of the gorge, a ramble through old Jim Thorpe, and a spin through a thick rhododendron and hemlock forest along a fast-flowing mountain brook.
The ride begins at Mauch Chunk Lake Park, three miles outside Jim Thorpe on U.S. 209. From the main entrance of the park, turn left on U.S. 209 and ride a half-mile to where the Back Track intersects the road on the right. The narrow trail follows a wooded ridge that tests a rider's skills with downed tree limbs, rocks, old railroad ties, and other impediments.
A short turnoff trail on the left leads to "The Point," a rock outcropping with an unobstructed view north of the Lehigh River Gorge where hawks soar at eye level. Next comes the steep, rocky descent into town that marks the final section of the Back Track. The return to the park along the Down Track is an easy, 2-percent uphill grade along a scenic mountain stream in the woods.
Jim Thorpe, located between Allentown and Scranton, is about a 90-minute drive from Philadelphia and three hours from New York City. From town, the Lehigh Gorge State Park is just a ride away--across the Lehigh River on Pennsylvania Route 903 and a left turn onto Coalport Road.
For expert advice on mountain biking, bike rentals, shuttle service to points upriver in Lehigh Gorge State Park, maps, and information on rafting, hiking, and other things to do in and around Jim Thorpe, call Blue Mountain Sports at 800-599-4421.
Baltimore-based freelance writer Joe Surkiewicz is the author of The Mountain Biker's Guide To Central Appalachia (Menasha Ridge Press/Falcon Press).