Published by Jeremy. Last Updated on February 10, 2023.
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When it comes to getting out into nature, we love the great outdoors and will do everything we can to find a unique hike regardless of how rigorous it ends up being (which has gotten us in trouble a few times if we are to be honest).
But we know that this level of exertion is not always for everyone, and sometimes you just want to get out somewhere for an easy stroll or bike ride. For those who seek out this kind of outdoors experience, The Panhandle Trail (a converted rail trail) is for you.
What You Can See on the Panhandle Trail
The Panhandle Trail is a predominantly flat trail that runs 29 miles from Walkers Mill all the way to West Virginia. As such, the scenery at times is somewhat consistent with intermittent breaks in the trees where you can see a creek, several boroughs, or rolling hills depending on where you are located on the trail (our description is fairly accurate as you travel east to west into West Virginia).
Closer to Walkers Mill you can see many decorative bird houses, several memorials (including one to an avid runner as well as a children's 9/11 memorial), a few old quarry ponds, and more. In Oakdale you can stop at Helicon Brewing for a beer (a favorite perk of ours) and as you head further west you get into more rolling hills and some denser forests; however, it is worth noting that most of the trail is exposed to the sun so we do recommend wearing sunscreen here.
The Panhandle Trail also has two unique offerings including a cave which requires pre-approval for a tour, as well being in close proximity to a Nike missile site from the Cold War (although you'll likely also have to beg a historical association to get a tour and they are quite far off the main trail).
Overall, for leisure walkers, runners, or bikers, the Panhandle Trail is simply a serene spot to enjoy a few miles of activity on relatively flat terrain, much like other trails in the region such as the Montour Trail or the Butler-Freeport Community Trail. The trail itself is beautiful and well maintained, so it is well worth a visit, but do not be expecting much beyond a few small highlights here or there.
Hiking and Biking the Panhandle Trail
Exploring the Panhandle trail is one of the easiest excursions you can make as the trail is wide open, flat, and paved throughout the Washington County stretch of the trail (which is about 18 miles). This means that all you have to do is park at one of the many entrances (we typically start at the Walkers Mill entrance or in Oakdale), walk or bike as far as you are able, and then turn around for the trip back.
That being said, there are numerous opportunities to get off-trail on this one to get out into nature even more. These trails are more in-line with standard hiking trails and have minimal signage at times and are maintained to various degrees as well. As such, most visitors will likely stick to the main path for easy exploration.
For those who bike this trail, most of the path follows no more than 1% grade which makes for a fairly easy ride. It is worth noting that the ~10 miles on either end of the trail are fairly consistent 1% up, with a bowl in the middle for about five miles (also about a 1% change), so there are some rather long stretches of slight elevation gain. This only becomes noticeable once you have biked a rather long distance and are exhausted, but isn't bad all things considered. On a return trip we biked from Oakdale to the West Virginia border and back in just over four hours (40 miles).
More information on The Panhandle Trail, including maps, can be found at the Friends of the Panhandle Trail website.
The Panhandle Trail is also one of the features in the amazing book “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Pittsburgh Edition” that we are working through as a part of this series. If you are interested in day hikes near the city we highly recommend picking this one up!