The most historic of Pennsylvania's Rails-to-Trails, the Switchback Trail traces the gravity and mule-powered railroad that began operation in 1827 to carry coal from Summit Hill to the Lehigh Canal in Jim Thorpe for shipment to Philadelphia.
Today, the Switchback Trail, a designated National Historic Trail, offers mountain bikers several off-road trail options. Whichever route you choose to take, the scenery is beautiful. Design your mountain bike ride according to your ability level and skills.
Option 1 & 2: The Switchback Trail : Down Track (18 miles round tip or 9 miles one way)
This section of the Switchback Trail has been developed by Carbon County and The Federal Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service to offer a well-maintained wide and fairly smooth surfaced rail trail that links towns, historical points of interest and the various recreational facilities within the Mauch Chunk Valley.
The rail trail climbs moderately from the trailhead near Jim Thorpe to Summit Hill, where the story of coal mining in Pennylvania began. It can be ridden as an out-and-back or as an easy, 9 mile one way, all downhill scenic mountain bike ride. Shuttle services are available at Bike Shops and Outdoor Adventure Tour Operators in and around town. The one way, all downhill grade makes for a pleasant, scenic 9 mile bike trip along the Mt. Pisgah ridge before descending into the valley where the trail widens and winds along Mauch Chunk Creek through dense eastern hemlock and rhododendron forest to where it ends at the 19th century Opera House in historic Jim Thorpe, PA.
Option 3: Mt. Pisgah Trails 4.5 - 12 miles (moderate to advanced)
Today, most mountain bikers prefer to ride in the reverse direction by climbing Mt. Pisgah on the Switchback Trail and then descend on the Wagon Trail for a technical, steep rocky climb and descent.
Mount Pisgah is a natural wilderness, home to diverse wildlife such as bear, deer, grouse, fox and a wide variety of plants, trees and birds. There are several ways to approach this ride. Three paths lead to the summit. The Mount Pisgah Plane (2322 feet long, rising 664 feet on a 29 percent grade), the Wagon Road, and the Switchback Trail. The Mt. Pisgah Plane, constructed in 1845 was the route used by the Switch Back Railroad to pull cars laden with coal to the mountain top. The Switchback Trail was the descending route of the cars from Mount Pisgah. Later the Mount Pisgah Plane was the starting point of the nation's first "tourist railroad" or should I say rollercoaster ride.
Begin mountain biking at banks of the Lehigh River in Jim Thorpe and ride to the half-way point at Five Mile Tree Crossover.
An interpretive sign marks the spot. To permit empty coal cars to return unobstructed to the Jefferson Plane, a crossover was constructed. This overpass, approximately 5 miles from the Lehigh River, and a large tree growing nearby, combined to form a well-known landmark "The Five MileTree" for Switchback Tourists. Today, it remains a landmark for mountain bikers and hikers along the trail.
At the sign, about face and take the dirt singletrack Switchback Trail Back Track on the left (see Option 4, Mauch Chunk to Mt. Pisgah, for trail description) heading uphill to the top of Mt. Pisgah. To complete the loop, take the Wagon Road down for a quick, difficult descent over rocks and loose gravel into Jim Thorpe.
Option 4: Mauch Chunk Lake Park Trails
This summer we camped at Mauch Chunk Lake County Park, located midway between Jim Thorpe and Summit Hill. 330 acre pristine Mauch Chunk Lake is the centerpiece with Mauch Chunk Ridge as a backdrop. This is a great place to stop for swim on a hot summer day (See our Bikes & Beaches feature article for more details). Although the campsites were a bit pricey for out of towners ($30.00 per night), this Carbon County Park campground and facilities are in our opinion, well worth it. Shaded, roomy campsites, hot showers, clean modern restrooms with coke machines stationed outside. Great if you were too busy biking to ice up the cooler and need a cold drink. Cabins with picnic tables and fire rings are also available. Best of all, many mountain bike trails including the Switchback Rail Trail and Fireline Trail are easily accessible right from the park. This is a great place to camp with the kids.
After setting up our tent, although it was 4 P.M., we couldn't wait to get out on the trails. Luckily, the Switchback Trail was accessible right from the park entrance.
Mauch Chunk to Summit Hill : (Approximately 2 to 10 miles round trip)
Ride 1: Cross the road at the Mauch Chunk Lake Park entrance (watch out for traffic) and head west on the flat, wide Switchback Trail for about 1 mile to the crossover at Five Mile Tree (see trail map above).
Three branches of the Switch Back Railroad route converge here. You have the option of continuing all or part of the way to the Summit Hill Trailhead before retracing your route back to the park.
Mauch Chunk to Mt. Pisgah : (11 miles round trip)
Ride 2: Start out from the Park entrance as described above. If you are a more experienced rider, at Five Mile Tree, make a u-turn and head onto the dirt singletrack Switchback Trail Back Track on the left, heading up towards Mt. Pisgah. The trail travels in a fairly straight, albeit uphill line for 4.5 miles through woods along the edge of the Mt. Pisgah ridge. Although, there is nothing very technical, there are low hanging branches and other obstacles, including roots, rocks, steep drop offs to the right and a rock ledge where you will have to make an abrupt stop. Although it is an uphill ride, we found the grade wasn't difficult. It all depends on your ability and skill levels. We had to turn around before arriving at the top of Mt. Pisgah as the idea of descending the ridge after dark without lights didn't seem too bright. It was a fun descent back to the Five Mile Tree intersection, and we arrived back at our campsite just before the sun set.
Mauch Chunk to Flagstaff Road : (Approximately 5 miles round trip)
Ride 3: From the main entrance to the park head east onto the Switchback Trail. You'll pass by the north eastern tip of Mauch Chunk Lake and come to the Switchback Trailhead sign. The wide, gravel surfaced well-maintained rail trail follows alongside Mauch Chunk Creek on a slight downhill grade through a cool eastern Hemlock and Rhodendron forest. After about 2.5 miles you'll come to a road crossing. What goes down must come up. Turn around here and retrace your route, this time on a slight uphill grade back to the park entrance. We didn't find the uphill grade a problem at all.
Fireline Trail: 3.5 miles (moderate
The world's first narrow-gauge gravity railroad (2nd in US and 1st in PA) opened the anthracite coal regions of eastern Pennsylvania to commerce beginning in 1827. It hauled coal from the surface mines at Summit Hill to the Lehigh River at Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) using gravity. Mules hauled the empty cars back to the mines. In 1846 mules were replaced by stationary steam engines at the top of two inclined planes on Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Jefferson. It became a very popular attraction as people came from far and wide to experience a scenic, thrilling 18 mile "roller coaster excursion", and was converted to tourist use until 1933.
For more information:
For other long distance multi-use rail trails in this region see Pennsylvania Rail Trails
Mauch Chunk Lake Park:
Phone: (570) 325-3669