I love riding rails to trails for their history, safety, and unique features. I’ve rode miles and miles in New England and Pennsylvania.
A Great Hike or Bike Ride to See the Fall Foliage
Just 5 miles south of Franklin, PA, and stretching from Fisherman's Cove in the west to Van in the east, the Sandy Creek Trail includes a nearly quarter-mile-long railroad tunnel, an updated railroad trestle, the Belmar Bridge, and several smaller bridges.
This is a wonderful hike or bike ride in the spring, summer, or fall. It was particularly beautiful on a warm sunny October afternoon with fall foliage in full bloom.
Winding its way through beautiful Pennsylvania forest and crossing the Allegheny River, the terrain is essentially a flat asphalt-paved surface that makes for a rather easy ride for bikers of all ages. While the total length of the trail is 12 miles, the highlights can be enjoyed in an easy 3-mile ride (6-mile round trip).
Allegheny River Trail vs. Sandy Creek Trail
Part of the Allegheny Valley Trail Association, the Sandy Creek Trail crosses the much longer Allegheny River Trail. Together the Allegheny River and Samuel Justus Trails stretch almost 40 miles from Oil City, PA to Emlenton, PA. The Allegheny Valley Trail is much longer and has more tunnels, but few if any other trails can beat the Sandy Creek Trail for interesting features in such a short distance.
The Sandy Creek Trail "crosses" the Allegheny River Trail, but don't look for an intersection. The "crossing" occurs just east of the Belmar Bridge, where the Sandy Creek Trail actually crosses over the Allegheny River Trail.
There are signs marking the way down to the Allegheny River Trail, but to get there you will have to get your bike down a set of steps (to help, there is a ramp for your bike). While the Sandy Creek Trail runs along the west bank of the Allegheny River west of the Belmar Bridge, the Allegheny River Trail runs along the eastern bank just east of the bridge.
The Belmar Bridge
Built in 1907 by oilman Charles Miller and railroad man John D. Rockefeller, the 1385 foot long Belmar Bridge over the Allegheny River was intended to serve as a link between New York and Chicago. Ultimately though, it was used to transport coal from the area to Ashtabula, OH, and Lake Erie. Made pedestrian-safe with a wooden deck and railings, great views of the river valley can be enjoyed from the bridge in all seasons.
After crossing the Belmar Bridge, there are 3 trestles before the Sandy Creek Tunnel and 2 more after the tunnel as you head east toward the Rockland Road Parking Area. As you can see from the pictures the Belmar Bridge and all of the trestles are well re-enforced and safe to ride a bike or walk across.
The Sandy Creek Tunnel
Also known as the Mays Mills or Deep Valley Tunnel, the Sandy Creek Tunnel is almost 1000 feet long. Well re-enforced trestles lead to the tunnel from both directions.
Cement lined and essentially dry, there are reflectors down the middle and along the side walls. The tunnel is straight with a slight downward grade from east to west.
In the top picture of the tunnel, you get the sense that this is a tunnel inside a tunnel because it is. The original tunnel was unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists. To restore the crumbling 30 by 30-foot tunnel, workers built a 12 by 13-foot concrete tunnel inside of it. Over 250,000 old tires were placed between the two tunnels to cushion the inner tunnel. Besides finding a use for over a quarter of a million old tires, the technique decreased the cost of the tunnel restoration.
While a flashlight or bike headlight can be helpful, they usually aren't absolutely necessary for this ride. This is one ride where you can always see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Caution: If you have sunglasses on, for your safety, remove them before entering the tunnel.
Trailheads and Parking
If you don't have the time (or energy) to ride the whole trail, the best features (the Belmar Bridge and the tunnel) can be experienced on the 3 miles of trail between Belmar Village and Rockland Road.
Note: Unfortunately, good things are not easy to come by. None of the trailheads are particularly easy to find.
Access and parking are 3 miles south of Franklin, PA off U.S. Route 8. Turn east onto Pone Lane and continue past the Franklin High School to Belmar Road. Turn right and follow Belmar Road down the hill. At the foot of the hill (with the bridge in sight), the parking area is on the right. Great place to start for a 5-6 mile round-trip that includes the Belmar bridge and the tunnel. GPS N 41 19.983 W 79 46.467
Rockland Road Trailhead
Take U.S. Route 322 to its intersection with Route 257 in Cranberry, PA (at the Cranberry Mall). Turn south on Route 257 and travel about 3 miles. Turn right on to the access road just after you cross over the old railroad grade (and just before you cross East Sandy Creek). Also, a great place to start for a round-trip to experience the bridge and tunnel. GPS N 40 18.983 W 79 43.417
Fisherman's Cove (West-End) Trailhead
From I-80, take Old U.S. Route 8 north (north of Barkleyville) or from Franklin, take new U.S. Route 8 south. Just before new Route 8 becomes a divided highway (traveling south) turn east onto a dirt road at the end of the Pecan Bridge (Sign for Seneca Hills Bible Camp). Turn right at the foot of the hill and travel about 3 miles on the dirt road. At a sharp right turn, the trail is just ahead. Park along the road. GPS N 41 19.583 W 79 50.933
Van (East-End) Trailhead
From U.S. Route 322 in Van, PA, turn west onto Tarkiln Hill Road and travel about 1/2 mile to the parking area. GPS N 41 18.950 W 79 39.267
Sandy Creek Trail Facilities
The trail is in a remote area with limited if any facilities. You should plan on bringing your own snacks and water. There are picnic tables near the Belmar Bridge Parking Area just west of the Belmar Bridge.
Be responsible, carry out what you carry in. Whenever riding a bike, a helmet is always a good idea for everyone. Sunscreen and bug repellant should be considered on sunny warm days. A flashlight or bike headlight for the tunnel as well as a cell phone for emergencies are just a few things that you may also want to have with you.
Help Support the Trail
All of the trails in the Allegheny Valley Trails Association (AVTA), including the Sandy Creek Trail, depend on volunteer workers and donations to acquire, develop, and maintain the trails that we all enjoy. Please consider making a donation to one of these organizations so that you and others can continue to enjoy the trails for years to come.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Mark Shulkosky
Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on March 17, 2012:
Thanks. Glad you liked. I spend time in the summer in Maine. Hope to write about something's around me including Acadia.
Mark Shulkosky (author) from Pennsylvania on March 17, 2012:
If you are in the area, it is a great ride for kids. Glad you enjoyed it.
suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on March 17, 2012:
Great Hub! Lots of great detail and photos - thanks for sharing!
Susan Holland from Southwest Missouri on March 17, 2012:
Hi BanksCottage! This looks like a beautiful place for biking and walking. I love the history you give for the landmarks, too! I love PA! It is a beautiful state. Votes and shares! :-)