Adventures in Coal Country: Exploring the Houtzdale Line Trail.

*I started this post last spring but never published it. I found it as I was cleaning out old post drafts and figured it was worth a share, better late than never!

Last spring, I was dealing with some hamstring injury issues, meaning I was forced to cut back on the intensity of my bike rides. This also meant I needed to find relatively flat places in Central PA to ride, a task easier said than done. But rail trails are always a good go-to. Because I tend to like climbs and varied terrain, they usually aren’t on my radar unless it’s to include them in a longer ride, so needing to take it easy was a good excuse to go explore places I wouldn’t otherwise gravitate towards.

First up was the Houtzdale Line Trail, which runs from near Osceola Mills through Houtzdale to Smoke Run, in the heart of Pennsylvania coal country on the Allegheny Plateau. During the late 1800’s, the now-trail was a railroad known as the Moshannon, which carried coal from mines to industrial centers. In the early 1990’s, the railroad was abandoned and subsequently purchased from Conrail to become a pubic asset for recreation in the area.

The day I’d chosen for my explorations was one of the first warm ones of the spring. It was sunny, but not too sunny — some clouds breaking up the rays that are deceivingly strong this time of year. I parked in the little town of Ramey, just off Route 453. The gravel lot was tiny, with enough room for just 3 or 4 cars. There weren’t any others there.

I started my journey northeastward, towards Osceola Mills. Here, the trail was packed with crushed stone, but grass poked through the center, a clear indicator that this trail doesn’t get the intense maintenance that other, more well-known rail trails do (i.e. the Lower Trail). But while may others find this a negative, I enjoyed the rustic nature of the trail, and ever-changing surfaces and scenery kept things interesting.

I was in no hurry, and I was still in the phase of my injury where stopping to stretch every few miles made a huge different in my comfort level. I took frequent breaks, making use of the benches placed occasionally along the trail.

The HLT passed through the town of Houtzdale, where a group of kids played in the middle of the path. They stared at me as I passed and gave them an awkward hello. Beyond town, the rail grade became a little more rough and primitive, the limestone surface giving way to rutted four-wheeler tracks. The ruts were filled with water, and mud sprayed my legs as I splashed through.

The trail ends at Rt. 53 just south of Osceola Mills. Despite the need to take it easy, it’s hard to shake my desire to explore, so I started up a dirt road that intersected the trail at its terminus. It became more and more chunky, but I pressed on, until I realized that I’d forgotten all my bike tools. It was a solid 7 or 8 miles back to the car, a distance that I didn’t want to have to walk, and I didn’t feel great about my odds for getting a ride. I turned around to be safe, not wanting to be stranded with a flat tire or mechanical, and it was probably for the best. I was supposed to be resting, after all.

The ride back to the car went a little quicker, and I was feeling decent so I decided to keep rolling past the car and do the remaining couple miles of the trail south of where I’d parked. The trail passed close to homes in Ramey and then disappeared into the woods, a change from the scrubby, formerly-mined land on the northern end. Small waterfalls trickled towards the trail as it descended slightly towards Smoke Run, the southern terminus.

The trail officially ends at the Smoke Run parking lot, but the rail grade and right-of-way continues, slowly turning into singletrack as it disappears into the distance. I rode a short distance beyond the Smoke Run lot, then decided to turn around at a bridge, heeding my limits for the day.

The climb back up to Ramey was a welcome change from the flats, and it felt good to get my heart rate up to end the day. I ducked off the rail grade through town and rode the streets for a bit, past locals tilling a garden and working on cars. Just before I got back to my own vehicle, I passed another solitary cyclist enjoying the trail.

If you’re in the area, I recommend checking out the HLT! Just go prepared for a little adventure and a bit of an atypical rail trail experience.

3 Replies to “Adventures in Coal Country: Exploring the Houtzdale Line Trail.”

  1. Nice! While I like the charms of a well-groomed rail-trail, the more “adventure” ones are also cool. There’s one fairly close to home, the Crown Zellerbach, which I do every once in a while. I also need to get up to the Palouse to Cascades Trail in Washington, at least the Snoqualmie Pass segment.


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