West Penn trail Indiana County

July 17th, 2022

Like many, I suppose, the trail I hike most often is not some glorious trek through wildflowers and past vistas where we can see all the way to the next state. It is, instead, just a local place where I can enjoy some fresh air, log a few miles to keep in shape and burn away the stress of the day.

I do consider myself very fortunate that one of the nearest trails to my house is one that is lightly traveled, beautiful and offers diverse scenery from beginning to middle to end. I usually do out & back trips that start at the Westinghouse trailhead (GPS: 40.450896, -79.302989 ) and don't go past the tunnel at Bow Ridge but occasionally the urge strikes to just tackle the whole trail and such was the case recently when Cathy suggested a Sunday morning hike to beat the heat.

We met in the morning, dropped her car at the Saltsburg tailhead (Mile "0" & GPS: 40.481818, -79.447612) and arrived at the Blairsville tailhead parking (About 1/4 mile west of mile "12" & GPS: 40.448844, -79.293611 ) a little after 8:15.

For the first 4 miles or so the trail follows the 1907 West Penn RR route that operated on this grade until 1952 when the Federal Government, via the Army Corps of Engineers, built the Conemaugh dam as flood control to protect the city of Pittsburgh.

The rail line had to be rerouted to higher ground as much of this trail is routinely flooded whenever heavy rain or snow melt causes the flood gates on the dam to be closed.

For this reason, there is often debris along the trail and pushed up against the bridges but water levels were at normal summer pool for us as rain had been even less than normal so far this summer.

It's actually a very nice walking trail in the summer as it's almost entirely shaded except where it crosses the bridges.

There are 4 stone arch bridges that were built in 1904 and one (the first one that we crossed) that had been removed at some point and needed to be rebuilt in order for the trail to exist. It was rebuilt several years ago and uses the original stone piers to support a very modern steel bridge.

There is some educational signage along the trail and still some evidence of the transportation history of the area including the remains of a lock on the old Main Line canal route. I believe much of the stone has been salvaged (possibly to build the bridges?) but, when the water is low, you can see where it used to be. (note: the sign is missing and may have fallen victim to past flood waters... it happens...)

There are no benches to rest upon but there are often old cut stones that have been placed alongside the trail for this purpose which seem far more rustic and, I'm sure, are infinitely more durable when the trail is flooded.

Most of the bridges have high tensile fencing installed to keep people from driving their bikes off the edges and the last two seem to really take a beating when the floodgates are closed as many of the posts and most of the wire have been broken off.

The trail here is mostly straight and has a very slight grade. You would probably notice it on a bike but not when walking. Beneath the bridges, the Conemaugh river has become the standing pool behind the dam and you can often see canoes or kayaks but access points are limited as the banks are usually knee deep silt and we saw nobody on the water or the along the trail during our walk.

We did see some critters this trip as we found this turtle (I know as much about turtles as I do birds... there are Snapping turtles and "other" turtles and this little guy was of the "other" variety)

After about 4 miles we came to the tunnel through Bow Ridge.

The tunnel was plugged when they built the dam (otherwise, it would be a big drain) and the trail goes over the hill through a series of switchbacks to make the climb easier. There are also ramps along the stairs so the biking crowd doesn't have to carry or bump the bike up or down the steps.

On this particular day, there was also another turtle. This one looked a little different than the last but we determined that it was another "just a turtle" turtle.

Even with the switchbacks, the hill is a pretty good climb but there are a few benches on which to rest and, once you're at the top, it becomes a reasonably level footpath along the ridge until you come to a short, fairly steep downhill section just prior to the site of the dam.

From there it's a mostly downhill road walk and there are some very interesting sights. The natural beauty of the river valley, the other end of the Bow Ridge tunnel and another tunnel from the 1864 railroad grade.

As it turns out, there was a third tunnel through Bow Ridge at one time as the Main Line canal crossed the Conemaugh and passed through the hillside on a tunnel between the 1864 and 1907 tunnels. It is supposedly still visible near the waterline and I'll have to return to look during the winter as, without the foliage, it should be easier to spot.

The original stone bridge that served the exit of the 1907 tunnel now carries the trail across the Conemaugh with the "new" (and still active) rail line on the steel bridge above.

The trail then leads you to the Conemaugh Dam National Recreation area which is probably worth a visit of its own. In addition to a canoe / kayak launch for the lower Conemaugh river, there is still clear evidence of the old mainline canal as well as some beautiful stonework and a lot of history in one little area.

After this there is a bit of road walking up to the main recreation area. The upside is that there is potable water available to refill bottles as well as restrooms if needed. We also found more wildlife.

The next section of the trail is the Dick Mayer section. It is a 3 mile(ish) route through the state game lands which was necessary because the 1907 railbed that we had been following is still being used on this side of Bow Ridge.

This section is not nearly as level but is still wide enough for bikes & hikers to pass one another without leaving the trail. It's a very nice walk and the tunnel where it passes under the "new" rail line is a pretty cool feature.

Another mile puts you back on an old railroad grade (the 1864 grade I believe) which, for the most part, parallels the Conemaugh river and alternates between following the old Main Line canal route and running parallel to it (some of the later rail line was build on top of the original canal, most of it runs parallel).

This section is primarily a double track, if there is any grade at all, it's not noticeable and there are still quite a few signs pointing out significant historical items along the route.

Around the 2 mile marker someone started marking the trail with homemade signs every 1/4 mile which we found humorous but also helpful for the final countdown.

(sorry, sometimes the former marching band geek in me wins out)

One more rat snake (honestly, I'm much better with snakes than turtles & birds... maybe because there are no poisonous turtles and birds...), some very pleasant hiking along the river and we arrived at the Saltsburg trailhead just after lunchtime.

From this point, one can go west on the Westmoreland Heritage trail towards Delmont or there have been a couple of more miles added to the West Penn that follow the rail line toward Avonmore. Future plans include linking the West Penn to the Roaring Run trail in Apollo but the rail grade is on private property for much of this and negotiations continue.

On this particular day, we opted for Cathy's car and the a/c that was found within as we drove back to the Blairsville trailhead to retrieve my truck.

Overall a very pleasant day hike and I highly recommend it whether you thru hike the whole 12 miles or do selected sections as out and back hikes. I've rarely seen many people except right around the dam and the history and scenery are outstanding. In fact, in writing up this trip, I am reminded of how cool this little trail really is... sometimes the things you see most often are the ones that are taken for granted...