Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Swatara State Park, PA with State Game Lands 80 and Appalachian Trail

Swatara State Park - PA DCNR
Friends of Swatara State Park

Construction at Swatara State Park (At this date looks like trails are all complete but some parking lots are not yet open.  Both new bridges are in place and open.)
This sign was on the AT bridge crossing.  I think maybe someone forgot to take it down because the Bear Hole Trail was open and when I emailed the park to find out the status of the trails due to construction the response was that all trails were open but not all parking lots, which I did find to be the case.

GPS Coordinates 40.480525, -76.532961

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There is roadside parking along Route 72 where the Appalachian Trail crosses so whether the parking lots in the park are open or not doesn't matter if parking here.


Swatara State Park Map - PA DCNR
As of this date, the map has not been updated to show new bridges.
  • Locate Sand Siding Road on the map.  At the image of a bicycle above that road a new bridge connects the Swatara Rail Trail with Bear Hole Trail (formerly Old State Road)
  • At Swopes Valley Road and Route 443 the map shows a break in the Swatara Rail Trail which previously involved a section of road walking along Route 443.  The rail trail now continues across Swopes Valley Road and crosses Mill Creek on a new bridge.
PA Appalachian Trail Map Sec. 1-6: Delaware Water Gap to Swatara Gap - Keystone Trails Association
I tried to use unmaintained trails on the PA AT map to connect from the AT to Swopes Valley Road to Swatara State Park to make a loop and although I was successful (eventually) I don't recommend trying this unless you have all day to bushwhack through SGL 80.  The woods roads/trails end abruptly, go in directions other than where you need to go, and I probably started out wrong anyway so just a word of caution!

For me, 15.4 miles.  If there is a way to get directly from the AT to Swopes Valley Road, it would be more like 12 miles.

From the roadside parking, walk back a short distance to the bridge which is where the AT crosses Swatara Creek northbound.
The AT crosses over the Swatara Rail Trail just before the bridge.
The Waterville Bridge, built in 1890, was relocated to Swatara State Park in 1985.
The Appalachian Trail crosses Swatara Creek on the Waterville Bridge.
Swatara Creek
After crossing the bridge, the AT turns left briefly, then right through a new parking lot ...
... and continues on a paved road until ...
... the AT leaves the paved road to the left under I-81.  (Graffiti makes the turn blaze less noticeable.)
Under I-81.  Unfortunately, you can hear I-81 throughout much of this hike.
Seating under I-81 for weary AT thru-hikers who will be coming through in a few months.
The AT then ascends Blue Mountain to the ridge.
Almost at the ridge, looking back with the Second Mountain in the distance.
The the top, the AT turns left along the ridge at a partial view.
The AT follows the ridge with more seasonal views to the right.
At times the AT is very smooth ...
But it just wouldn't be the PA AT we all know and love without some sharp, jagged rocks thrown in.  Just after this rocky section an unmaintained trail to the left is blocked off by branches.  This is probably how I should have tried to connect to Swopes Valley Road - not recommending this, though, as these trails all seem to fizzle out in the middle of nowhere.  Based on the AT map, I proceeded to the view and decided to take the next trail at the abandoned power cut but I can now tell you for certain, that is not the right way.
A little farther along is a view.
Views of the Monroe Valley.
A couple more steps north on the AT lead to the abandoned power line, which I thought was the route I needed to take.  After returning home and consulting with SGL 80 and USGS topo maps, I saw what happened.  The power line is not the trail on the PA AT map - it bears to the north and not to Bear Hole Creek in the opposite direction, which is where I needed to be.  Based on the map there should have been a trail to the left but probably too overgrown to notice.

Descending down the abandoned power cut.
Old power line parts.
After the well-defined power cut fizzled out into nothing, finding other old woods roads and following them until they fizzled out, then giving up on trying to find woods roads and bushwhacking in the direction I thought I needed to go, I happened across the State Game Lands boundary on the left and private property on the right.  I continued following the boundary line through the woods until ....
Yay!  Swopes Valley Road!  Not a single car passed along this stretch of road walk and it was very pretty following a creek lined with hemlocks down to the left.
Swopes Valley Road crosses over I-81.
Nice views from Swopes Valley Road and after crossing I-81, only 1 car drove by.
New trailhead on Swopes Valley Road - should be access for the other end of the Bear Hole Trail which is on the left before crossing the bridge over Swatara Creek.
A bridge on Swopes Valley Road crosses Swatara Creek just after the new Swopes Valley Traihead.
The new Swatara Rail Trail bridge over Mill Creek comes into view through the woods.
Turn left on the Swatara Rail Trail just before the intersection with Route 443 ...
Then cross the new bridge over Mill Creek which eliminates the pre-bridge road walk.
Swatara Rail Trail
Looking to the left across the valley at the Blue Mountain where the Appalachian Trail runs along the ridge.
At times the Swatara Rail Trail runs right along Swatara Creek.
It seems to go on forever...
Not too long after passing Sand Siding Road with a parking lot, a second new bridge connects over to the Bear Hole Trail.
Swatara Creek from the bridge.
Bear Hole Trail which used to be Old State Road, now a multi-use trail closed to traffic.
This must be from the canal referred to in the sign on Route 72.
The Bear Hole Trail comes back around to the AT at the Waterville Bridge.
A better shot of the bridge with blue skies instead of morning clouds.

I am going to break this down into sections.  I could not even begin to describe how I got to Swopes Valley Road to make the connection so I'll leave that part out.

AT (can be done as an out-and-back for a total of 9.6 miles)
[  0.00]  Walk back along Route 72 towards the Waterville bridge, turn left and cross bridge
[  0.10]  Turn left at end of bridge briefly, then right on paved road towards I-81
[  0.45]  AT leave paved road to the left under I-81
[  0.75]  AT crosses over a gravel road
[  1.50]  AT turns left along ridge; partial view
[  3.50]  Faint trail to the right goes down to Monroe Valley
[  4.60]  Very rocky section
[  4.80]  Overlook on right at abandoned power cut; retrace

Swopes Valley Road - road walk from #849 Swopes Valley Road to Swatara Rail Trail
[  0.00]  Left on Swopes Valley Road at mailbox with number 849
[  0.55]  State Game Land parking on left
[  0.65]  Bridge over I-81
[  1.15]  Swopes Valley Trailhead parking on left
[  1.25]  Bridge over Swatara Creek
[  1.65]  Swatara Rail Trail crosses over Swopes Valley Road

Swatara State Park - Swatara Rail Trail can be used in conjunction with Bear Hole Trail for about a 10-mile loop.
[  0.00]  From where the Swatara Trail Trail crosses Swopes Valley Road, turn left before Route 443 and cross the bridge over Mill Creek
[  0.25]  Keep right at fork
[  0.35]  Rail trail begins to run parallel to Swatara Creek
[  2.55]  Cross Sand Siding Road with parking lot on left
[  2.75]  Turn left and cross very long bridge; continue straight after bridge
[  3.15]  At T-intersection turn right on Bear Hole Trail
[  4.50]  Canal and lock remains on right
[  4.75]  At parking lot barrier, keep right and cross Waterville Bridge
[  4.85]  Swatara Rail trail cross over other side of bridge
[  4.90]  Back at parking on Route 72


  1. Very Impressive! That was a nice piece of navigation from the AT to Swopes Valley Road. My aging knees won't let me trace your route, so thank you for for the photos and commentary which allowed me to once again return to the top of the mountain!

    The lock is lock 6 which was on the east side of the Big Dam on the Union Canal Company's Branch Canal to Pinegrove. The 430' wide dam was 50' high on the east side with a 40 foot high spill way on the western 200' of the dam. On the upstream side of the lock, it was 25'8" from the top to the bottom.

    1. Thanks! And thanks for the info. You seem to know the area well so if you come back and see this, or anyone else who knows the area, I have a question. I want to return and hike the Yellow Springs - Rausch Gap loop. The map shows Cold Spring Road as "rough road" going down Second Mountain to the parking area. My car has AWD but has low ground clearance. Does it sound like I would be able to drive it?


    2. It would not be recommended to take a low-clearance car over Cold Springs Road. The trail on the way up is a bit rough with several gullies and a few large rocks and on the way down there are lots of clearance hazards like tree roots, rocks, etc. You'd be better off accessing off Goldmine Road.

  2. Thanks to our Secretary's comments at our Friends Group meeting last evening and the link she emailed me, I have found my way back to your site. I double checked with the Game Commission this morning and they do not recommend the use of the trail by vehicles with low ground clearance. My Game Commission contact said he has seen Suburus on the trail, but he certainly does not recommend the trail to them.

    After reading your post, I decided to walk up Bear Hole Run from Swopes Valley Road to the top of Blue Mountain and the AT. I followed what I beleive is an unmaintained Game Commission access road to the top of the mountain mostly on the west side of Bear Hole Run. The trail is shown on on the USA Topo Map. It is a little hard to follow from the top down initially, but gets easy to follow as you go down the mountain.

    You are right, the photo of the lock is a photo of Lock 6 at the Big Dam. It was in operation from 1830 until 1862. There are actually 4 locks in that immediate area. If you go out to our web site (friendsofswatara.org) or check us out on facebook, you can see more info on the park.

    We have a group of folks who are very familiar with the hiking trails in the area so give us a shout if you have any other questions.


    1. Dave,

      Thanks for the info! I haven't returned to hike the Yellow Springs-Rausch Gap loop yet - still on my list - but I did find where there is pullout parking over on Route 325 so I am going to shoot for that since it would avoid that rough road issue.

      I probably lost the trail to Swopes Valley Road where you said it gets a little hard to follow coming in the other direction. It was a very nice hike, though!


  3. Daniela,

    Don't know if I know how to do it, but if you will allow us to put a link to this hike on the Friends of Swatara State Park Website, I can ask our web guy to do it. Everyone really likes your pictures!


    1. Dave,

      That is so nice that the Friends of Swatara State Park would like to link to the hike - so honored! Absolutely they may do so. I also added in a link to the Friends site. Thanks!