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Nature Watch: Pittsburgh-Erie Trail is full of surprises

Another rails-to-trails route is being established. When completed, this hiking-biking trail will run from Pittsburgh to Erie, Pa.

The route isn’t direct, however. It follows the Allegheny River northeast from Pittsburgh and then leaves the river at Oil City to wind up through Chautauqua County to Brockton, a few miles west of Dunkirk. From there it follows the Lake Erie shoreline west to Erie.

Some sections are very well-developed. At the outset, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers join to form the Ohio River, Pittsburgh has miles of its Three Rivers Heritage Trail, all of it either paved or on crushed stone.

Other largely completed off-road trail sections include the Armstrong Trail, the Allegheny River Trail, the trail through Oil Creek State Park and the Chautauqua Rail Trail. However, all of the completed sections represent only about a quarter of the full route; the rest is either along highways or still closed.

For my final scooter-camping adventure in early August, I followed the entire trail route as closely as possible. Because my scooter is mechanized, I was not allowed to ride on the trail itself, and that posed some difficulties. I saw very little of the sections that were converted from railroad rights of way.

The 350-mile trip was a great outing and I visited much country new to me, but it was very different from what I expected. My earlier experience following the Pat McGee Trail in Cattaraugus County had led me to believe that the trail would follow valleys parallel to country roads on which I could ride.

Railroads avoid steep climbs and that is why they follow streams that have carved passages through hilly areas. For much of the southern third of this route, the railroad and its replacement trail follow the bank of the Allegheny River. If you look at a map of this section, you will see that the river course is a series of oxbows, one after another of these twists. In many places, to gain a mile of its southward route the river flows three or four miles.

I foolishly took these twists to represent the kind of meanders you find when a stream crosses flat land. Wow! Was I wrong. I should have looked more carefully at the topography of my maps. The river is indeed seeking level going, but these twists are finding the valleys between high hills.

The roads cut across the oxbows and over those hills. There were 7 percent and even 10 percent grades, and many places where trucks were advised to maintain a 20-mph speed limit downhill because of the sharp switchback bends. My scooter was not enthusiastic about these grades and I was often limited to that same reduced speed.

Only when the road dipped down again to pass next to the river would I come close to the trail. Then almost immediately I would be off uphill again.

What struck me most about the roads I followed was the small amount of traffic. In mid-Pennsylvania, I met only one or two cars per mile. There was not much open country along the southern half of this trip. Almost all of it was through extensive forests.

As I have done on these trips, I ate in local restaurants but camped out nights in my hammock. I start looking for unposted land at about 8 p.m. One evening I came upon a dirt track near Cranberry, Pa., running up into the woods. It was marked Pine Hill Rural Cemetery. Up the path I went, coming into a small clearing with about a dozen headstones. It was a lovely spot. I set up my hammock at its edge and slept soundly among my 19th century neighbors.