Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lehigh Gorge State Park Rail Trail Virtual Tour

Click the following links for more historical information about what you will experience riding the Lehigh Gorge:

~Penn Haven Junction: the Epicenter of Sorrow and Railroad Deaths (1st of 3 parts)

~Penn Haven and the Upper Grand Canal link

~Hetchel Tooth and Huckleberries along the Lehigh Gorge

June 2011: Click here for my story about a day in the Black Creek Gorge, a tributary that enters the Lehigh Gorge at Penn Haven Junction ("The Day of Seven Black Racers..."). On Saturday, June 18th, I saw the Swallowtails "puddling" at Rockport and at Penn Haven Junction.  About 30-40 were kettling around one spot, some landing on it, most in flight.  They saw the males sense a mineral nutrient that is necessary for breeding purposes.  At Rockport, near the laurels to the right of the restrooms.  At Penn Haven, near the cement foundation on the spur that leads to Weatherly.  (Check the link above for more.)

A male Five-lined Skink takes a break from his frantic
sprints along the wall along the Lehigh Gorge.  As
naturalist Judy Wink once said, "Don't blink if you see a
Skink."  This lizard is quite the quick one.  Click this link for
 a YouTube video I shot.  You can see him panting, though
my presence stopped his fervent searching.
May 2011: Below are some new pictures a recent trip, May 21, 2011:

The Eastern Cottonwoods with their fluffy
white cottony catkins (more properly named
raceme) were quite evident all along the Gorge
this weekend, though many were pummeled
into the dirt by the heavy rains of the past week.

June 2010:

The following post chronicles a bike ride from Franklin Township, outside Lehighton, on up to White Haven along the Delaware & Lehigh Corridor and Lehigh Gorge State Park in June 2010.  Please return to this post from time to time as new pictures will be added from subsequent trips.  And if you ever have any questions about the Gorge for a trip of your own, feel free to contact me through this site or Facebook...Enjoy!

 I access the park from my home in Lehighton onto Lock #7 of the Lehigh Canal. (This picture is looking toward the Narrows section along the Lehigh Canal Lock #4, just below Jim Thorpe.)

From there, into downtown Jim Thorpe, cross the train tracks and back under the Jim Thorpe bridge that connects the downtown to the east side. It is here where the new trail head is located that will take you into Glen Onoko which is the southern extreme of the park. The northern extreme ends at White Haven, where my brother's cabin provides a resting point and solitude until my return home the next day. Total distance for me is 32 miles. From Glen Onoko to the next access point is 13 miles to Rockport. From there it is about 8 miles to the only intersecting road at Lehigh Tannery and another 1.1 miles from there to White Haven itself.
The following is this year's account of my trip, which instead of barrelling through to beat my personal best time, I stopped to investigate locks and the Penn Haven inclines. I will only be describing my journey north here, though some of the photos were taken on my return trip.

I hope you find this virtual tour useful in planning your own trip of the Gorge...Enjoy exploring...Ron

Just moments into my trek (...on my new Trek I purchased from Lehigh River Outfitters in Hazard Square in Jim Thorpe; I am quite pleased with my purchase.) four living creatures intersected: another human (wearing portable oxygen), a golden retriever, and a small fisher or a mink.  The retriever flushed it out of the canal bank as his owner grinned. It halted my progress as I bisected the line between the chaser and the chased.  We exchanged quick pleasantries and I continued, such welcomed diversions are common along this trail. 
After exiting the canal, over then under the Jim Thorpe borough bridge, you can enter the newly inaugurated trailhead.  Here is an ideal spot to start.  You can park your car in the County Lot, near the Jersey Central Railroad Station in downtown Jim Thorpe ($5 for all day.)   Or you can drive over the bridge, and park inside the Glen Onoko State Park.  On the bike, you travel up a 2-mile stretch, you enter the Lehigh Gorge State Park, which lies beyond this old signaling station and steel trestle.

There are numerous diversions along the Gorge depending on your tastes.  It is difficult to explore all of them in one or even several visits.  Slow down and enjoy just one or two, get the rest when you can.  I'm a frequent visitor, and yet have only climbed the falls maybe six times in my life.  My sons took me exploring Hetchel's Tooth for the first time on Father's Day (Above: The panoramic shot is from atop Hetchel's Tooth; the pic above it, shows what it looks like from below on the gorge).  The tunnel in the picture below has been named "Hole in the Wall" by visitors.  It was abandoned by the railroad tunnel and now is fun to explore.  You shouldn't need a flashlight if you give your eyes some time to adjust as you enter.
Once past Glen Onoko, I'm ready to simply spin.  And on most previous trips, I'm all about breaking my previous time.  But not this time.  I did my best and stayed out of my own rat-race.  I found this to be a most enjoyable Lehigh Gorge sojourn, as I made some new discoveries and as usual, made new acquaintances along the way.
Just a mile out of the Glen, I bumped into Mr. and Mrs. Waits of Franklin Township with their daughter Mrs. Snyder and her three children.  Her oldest daughter, Emily Snyder,  just finished first grade at Franklin Elementary School with Mrs. Nichole Hydro.  Her grandfather said, "Maybe you'll have this man for your teacher in fifth grade."  She coyly averted her eyes.  Today's talk must be about biking.  "How far do you intend to get?" I asked.  Penn Haven is a nice destination they said.  You can stick your toes into the cold Black Creek.  That's about a 12-mile round trip, that'll do.  (STORY UPDATE September 2014: Emily Snyder is indeed in my 5th grade class!  I embarrass all the time about this picture!)

Next, under the old Buckeye Pipeline that carried petroleum across Pennsylvania here to the east coast refineries but now carries fiber-optic cable, I met two of my former students.  There's always that little pause of retrieving names.  They always smile after I break the silence.  Vicky Schiffert and William Douthart were 5th graders back in 1997.  It did my heart good to talk to them.  The four-foot Black-racer and the three foot Rat snake were not the scariest things they saw.  It was the three inch Yellow-ringed garter that Vicky almost stepped on that made nearly made her heart stop.  We exchanged snake stories including my first experience seeing a Hog-nosed last week, how he regarded me with his cobra-like puffed out neck.  I've also seen Five-lined Skinks in the Gorge, something a species biologists claim to be unique to the Lehigh Gorge.  I've only seen one, one time and it  was only about 5 inches long.  Someone told me they've seen them much bigger.  The best place to keep your eye out is along the stone retaining wall of the elevated rail bed.
There are a few places with easy access down to the river.  This sandy-bar is about 1/2 mile below Bear Creek.  You can find nice round stones and pieces of coal.  Coal-silt outlines most banks along the Lehigh.

The Lehigh Canal, that ran the coal from Jim Thorpe down to Easton, was the brainchild of Josiah White.  At first, he tried to conquer the river with bear-trap locks (See May 15th Post: "He was the hand that Rocked the Cradle of the Industrial Revolution" ).  Then built the lower section in 1829.  Later, with Edwin Douglas, they built the Upper Grand section from Jim Thorpe up to White Haven.  This section, used dams on the river and locks at the end to bypass the dam.  What you see above here are the remains of the lock channel of Lock #9.  The 29 locks helped to overcome the 600 feet of relief between White Haven and Jim Thorpe.  There was a disastrous flood in 1841 that was eclipsed in 1862.  The Pennsylvania legislature stopped the Lehigh Coal and Navigation company from rebuilding, because the breeched dams exacerbated the destruction.  John Leisening, superintendent of the LC & N, estimated that 200-300 people lost their lives in the flood and from the surges that occurred when the pools of logs floating on the river acted like battering rams on the dams.

 About 5.9 miles north of Glenn Onoko, you will arrive at Penn Haven Junction where the Black Creek enters the Lehigh.  The railway branching left goes to Weatherly.  Here, the active tracks of the Norfolk Southern (formerly Conrail, and before that, Asa Packer's Lehigh Valley Railroad.)  Immediately above you will find the remains of the inclined railway built by the Hazelton Railroad that was later taken over by the Lehigh Valley Railroad. 

Here we see the remains of retaining walls lining the plane to the top, about 450-feet high.  At the top were steam powered engine houses to bring the empty coal cars back to the top and back to Beaver Meadows and Hazleton.  The Hazleton Railroad operated from 1832-1852, when they were abosrbed into the Lehigh Valley Railroad.  In 1850, they ran the first incline from the top of Penn Haven.  Then in 1859 they added the second incline, the 4-track bed on the left.  The planes were abandoned after the 1862 flood.
Here on the picture above right, you can see the pipeline leading from Black Creek up to the top of the plane to the Engine House.  The picture below right shows the enormous wall of the 1851 engine house.  The 1859 engine house would be on the left about 100 feet away.

Now for what you're been waiting for: the view.  The valley to the right leads to Weatherly, the Lehigh River and trail is to the left looking south toward Jim Thorpe.  I did not question what I was doing, climbing this hill after 12-miles into my 32-mile ride.  But sometime later, around mile 22, my legs were questioning my 43-year-old mind, "Why did you do this to us?"  It was worth it. 

Here's what the inclines looked like around 1860.  For a much more in-depth look at Penn Haven Junction and the Planes, please click here for a April 18, 2014 post about them here on this blog.

Next along the trail, you'll find Stoney Creek.  Though not marked on the new trail markers, it's about 1.5 miles north of this rock outcropping.  When you see Stoney Creek on the right, notice the large, expansive rocky ledge that hangs out toward the trail.  On my return trip the following day, I surprised a mother and her spotted-fawn, just like in Bambi.  Mamma run right and up, while the fawn tried to out run me south.  Tried as I may, I could not get out in front to turn the fawn around.  Finally it stopped and I get ahead of it.  As I snapped this shot, I saw Mamma cautiously watching from up the trail.

Next stop will be Rockport.  This is an almost mid-point rest area with non-flush lavatories.  The quaint, formerly bustling patch-town has some lovely architecture in a tight notch between hills that speaks to lore of its former glory. 

Luke's Falls, just before Rockport.

Here, the rafting outfitters have a river entry point where the Buck Moutain Creek flows into the river.

The water is amazingly clear with no moss growing in its bed, whether this is natural or a result of acidic mine draining I do not know.

Just above Rockport you will find Buttermilk Falls, a popular stop.  I've seen some people climb to the top, but have not done so myself.  I'm not sure if I ever will nor do I reccomend it.

Next up is Mud Run, site of the tragic passenger train collision in October of 1888.  Many trains were returning home from a Catholic Temperance parade in Hazleton.  Trains were set to leave at 10-minute intervals.  Well, the best laid plans of mice and men...Over 80 people were killed, wooden trains telescoped into one another, many mangled beyond recognition.  At the time, this was considered the worst train wreck in U.S. History. 
This is where I made the acquaintance of Adam Keller and Joe Kistler.  They were discussing the engineering of the 29 locks along the Upper Grand and how the Flood of 1862 ended river navigation.  Adam works for the Wildlands Conservancy and just completed work on the trail in the Lehigh Gap.  Joe, from Duncannon PA, where the Juniata River meets the Susquehanna, was once quite the avid biker, owning a Gary Fisher bike in the 1990s.  Now, at 71, a nice leisurely trek from White Haven to Rockport is more his style.  Tell me today that I'll still be biking at 61 and I'll be satisfied.  It was certainly nice talking to these gentlemen.

Mud Run is home to Lock #22 and it is a beauty and worth the stop.  This is a view from inside the down-river end of the lock.  I suspect this archway may be the water drain baffle for lowering boats within the lock.  This is definately on my checklist of places to investigate this winter.
Down here at River level, the Mud Run Creek enters beneath the New Jersey Central trestle arch.  A few years back a work-train crane tipped over here.  The operator jumped from it before it ended up in the river. (I know a forklift operator I grew up with who tried to do the same and was pinned in the chest by the roll cage, killing him.)  The problem though was the diesel fuel spill that was entering the river.  I remember seeing Bob Ford of the Times News walking up the trail, his large lenses in tow and a flushed, sweated face, arriving here by foot from Rockport.  I really appreciate the lengths our journalists go to to keep us informed, and more importantly, keeping us safe with their vigilance.  I thank you Bob!
Above left, the Mud Run ravine and bridge from this Jersery Central ariel photo from the 1950s.  Below left, a closeup of the merging waterways.
The mile markers come at more and more quickly at the end.  I'm entering my 5th hour of the ride, doing a considerable amount of exploring.  With minimal breaks, this trip from Lehighton, through Jim Thorpe, to White Haven, is normally around 3-4 hours for me.  (In the photo to the left, Adam Keller of the Wildlands Conservancy and Joe Kistler whom I met at Lock #22.)

Being so close and riding so long, my thoughts turn to food.  And that can mean one thing: Antonio's in White Haven, home to Piero and Dan, home of one of the best Stromboli's you'll find.  In fact, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle and their crews always stop here for a meal when in town for the June and August NASCAR races.  (Here's Danny at the counter taking the dough and Piero behind working it...Thanks guys, you're the best...)
This was Thursday afternoon, June 17, at my brother's cabin.  It was chilly.  A nice afternoon, disconnecting from daily life.  Disconnecting from a hyper-connected world.  A nice day and evening.  The next morning's breakfast at the White Haven Diner was just what I needed for my ride home.  A short stack of pancakes for carbs and "death-meat" scrapple (as my wife likes to call it) for protein?  I had a lunch date with friend and fellow historian Bill Allison at Mollies at Noon sharp.  I did a few forays to lock #28 and #22, and of course the interactions with Mamma and Baby deer, and I arrived into Jim Thorpe at 11:50, just as Bill was crossing the street.  A Ceaser salad at Mollies Pub hit the spot.  And like the cold Romaine, this trip hit the spot.

The following week, I did the gorge run again, as my brother Randall Rabenold was visiting from Charlotte NC (CLICK HERE to see his corporation of specialized investigations and brand protection Vaudra LTD.).  This time, a straight run without any investigations and made it in 3 hours flat.  It was a major Francis Walter Dam relaease weekend and kayakers, rafters and just palin old "tubers" were everywhere.  We "tubed" in our old truck tire tubes from below the dam to just before White Haven.  It normally would take us about two hours and made it in just over one!  It was a good run.  We saw two of mamma mergansers, with their fledglings.  I was home in ten minutes under 3 hours with a few stops to investigate some snakes.  This first one I estimate to be about 3 1/2 feet, a Timber rattlesnake.  It was quite docile and lethargic, which made him an excellent photographic subject.  These were taken about 1/2 mile above the Buckeye Pipeline.
The other snake was being handled by two local amateur snake handlers out for some Sunday field work.  This is the second rattler they discovered that day, though they tell me they missed the one I photgraphed above.  This one, in his black phase, was found at the base of Hetchel's Tooth.

August 6, 2010 - On a bike ride from home to the Gorge today, I saw two black rattlesnakes.  The first was near the entrance to the Tunnel at the Park Entrance.  It was about four feet long with ten visible rattle segments.  It slowly rattled as it cautiously crept across the dirt lot toward the rocky hill.  He then scaled up about 1.5 feet and coiled on a small ledge of rock.  When I returned an hour later, it was more tightly coiled and calm.  The second snake was about 1/2 mile before the Buckeye Pipeline in the grass on the Lehigh River side of the trail.  This one was stubborn.  I first tried to roll my bike toward it to get it to go down toward the river and out of the path of other bikers and to keep it away from the approaching state tractor with mower deck.  It took a few minutes to get it to move to the top of the embankment, only for it to come back to the edge of the trail again.  The second time it moved much quick and I didnt stop pushing it until it went over the embankment.  Minutes later the state tractor passed through.  I think it stayed safely on the other side.  It was about 3 feet long and had 6 rattles.  The first used its warning sound loud and long.  The second barely rattled at all. 

(Click here to see this watersnake (copperhead look-alike) slither away.)

May 21, 2011 along the Gorge.


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  2. Great article!

    Anyone who wishes to see more of my work (the stone sphere at the top) please go to