Last Updated on by Jeremy
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Although Pittsburgh and southwest Pennsylvania is quite hilly, we are fortunate enough to have a number of fairly flat trails to go biking. Many of these trails are found on former train lines (rail trails), which thanks to their restricted grade makes for prime biking conditions.
In this one, we wanted to share a few of our favorite spots to bike in and around the city. So whether you're simply wanting to take a quick ride around the North Shore River Trail, ride the GAP, or go out for a few miles on a rail trail, this one is for you!
The Panhandle Trail
The Panhandle Trail is a nearly 30-mile long trail that runs from Walkers Mill in Collier Township, PA, to Wierton, WV. This converted rail trail offers a beautiful ride through many boroughs (closer to the city) and countryside (closer to West Virginia) with a small, but nearly consistent grade of about 1% which is most noticeable on the return from West Virginia.
Riders on this trail should note that the sections of the trail in Allegheny County and West Virginia are crushed limestone, while the ~20-mile stretch through Washington County to the border is paved. As such, when biking this one we often like to start in Oakdale (mostly to end at Helicon Brewery right on the trail) and bike towards West Virginia. In doing so you only have about two miles on crushed limestone before the easier-to-navigate paved section begins.
But for those who want scenery, you may find a few more interesting sights in the stretch between Walkers Mill and Oakdale (~ 4-miles).
For those who are looking for infrastructure for snacks and water, note that the boroughs around Oakdale have more options than those found closer to West Virginia. As such, you should stock up with everything you need for the day if heading west on this trail.
For more information on the Panhandle Trail, including a trail map, click here.
The Montour Trail
The Montour Trail runs just over 60-miles from Moon Township to Clairton and features a mix of paved and limestone paths that covers a varied path that includes a mix of bridges, former rail tunnels, and more. On the western side of the trail in McDonald, the Montour train links up with the Panhandle Trail. On the eastern side at Clairton, a ~5-mile road ride will get you to the Great Allegheny Passage.
It should be noted that sections of this trail between Bethel Park and Clairton may still be under construction and require some road connections, so those who are wanting a purely dedicated bike trail may do well sticking closer to the western half of the trail. (Although it is worth noting you'll likely find more tunnels in the stretch between McDonald and Bethel Park!) Likewise, we noted more small potholes and fill-in patches on this trail over others in this guide, so you may need to pay just a bit closer attention to where you bike here.
For more information about the Montour Trail, including a trail map, click here.
The Butler-Freeport Community Trail
The Butler-Freeport Community Trail is the only rail trail in this guide that runs north to south. This presents a unique scenario where a fair amount of the trail is likely shaded outside of the peak mid-day sun.
What we love most about this 20-mile ride (one-way) is that the grade is quite gradual- no more than 1% at any given time and only over short distances. As such, apart from the crushed limestone trail (and possibly some wet parts after rain), this one is pretty easy to ride for all skill levels.
For those who like a flowing creek, trees, and rock formations, sticking to the trails near Freeport is for you. If you like wide-open spaces, rolling hills, and farmland, the trail near Butler is the place to be. If you do it all, you'll have a wonderful, gradual change of scenery over the entire ride.
It is worth noting that despite the frequent parking areas and cross-streets found on this trail, only one support business is found on the path to sell food, snacks, and more. This is the Derailleur Bike Shop Cafe located about 5-miles south of the Butler trailhead.
For more information on the Butler-Freeport Community trail, including trail map, click here.
The North Shore River Trail
The North Shore River Trail is one of our favorites in the city as it offers some fairly stunning views. Along the path you can see great views of the Allegheny River, the Three Sisters Bridges, PNC Park, Pittsburgh's skyline, Heinz Field, the Mr. Rogers Statue, the Carnegie Science Center and the USS Requin, the Three Rivers Casino, and more.
The trail itself runs approximately 9-miles from just before the McKees Rocks Bridge to the riverfront in Millvale, PA and the city's master plan for bike trials has this one set to expand in the near future.
For those who want a bit of a challenge, you add on 6-miles to this one by turning it into a loop once you get to the end of the trail at the McKees Rocks Bridge! To do this, you'll need to do the following (note: some segments of this loop are on surface roads without dedicated bike lanes):
At the end of the trail, turn right out onto Westhall Street. At the first intersection, turn right onto Beaver Avenue and then immediately turn left onto Eckert Street. One block down on Eckert Street here will be a fork in the road by Don's Diner. Veer left to turn onto McClure Avenue and take that approximately 750 feet. Another fork in the road will appear at Young Brothers Bar and you will veer right to continue on Woods Run Avenue.
Woods Run Avenue is approximately 0.5 miles long and as an elevation gain of about 450 feet, so you should expect a fairly steep climb over its distance. Near the top, this one turns into Mairdale Avenue and connects up to Perrysville Avenue at the top of the hill. At the light with Perrysville turn right and it'll be a coast downhill all the way to Federal Street*.
Here, turn right again, follow Federal Street down and around Allegheny Commons, and you'll find yourself at PNC Park to access the river trail again!
*Note: Perrysville Avenue connects up to Federal Street twice. Continue on Perrysville until the second meetup- it'll be a dead end where you can only turn left (uphill) or right (downhill). Turn right and coast your way back to PNC Park.
The Great Allegheny Passage
To finish this guide, we have to give a nod to what is perhaps the longest bike trail in our region. The Great Allegheny Passage connects downtown Pittsburgh (from the Point) to Cumberland, Maryland, and is 150-miles in length- great for a multi-day ride!
Going even further than this, while in Cumberland, the GAP links up to the C&O Canal Trail which continues all the way to Washington DC. Together they offer a combined 334.5 mile ride which most riders will split up over a week or so one way.
While nearly 300 miles of the trail is fairly flat, you do have to climb over one mountain on the Great Allegheny Passage segment. The direction you travel here will surely make a difference as going towards Washington you climb 1,500 feet over 50 miles, while going towards Pittsburgh you climb nearly 2,000 feet in 25 miles! Suffice it to say, there is a reason why most riders prefer to take this trip from Pittsburgh to Washington and not the other way around.
Infrastructure along the Gap and C&O Canal Trail is fairly robust as you pass through many towns which offer services, bed and breakfasts and more. Third-party companies even offer fully-booked tours, return transportation, and luggage transfers for this one so all levels of bikers can be accommodated (although to be fair, you really should be prepared for multiple 60-mile days so it is best for some long-distance training).
Be sure to pick up the most recent TrailGuide for the GAP to stay up-to-date with the latest offerings along the trail.
Have a favorite bike trail we haven't featured above? Comment below to let us know about it. We'll go for a ride and then include it in this article!