Pocono Pedaling

Biking in Jim Thorpe, PA

In the western Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, the Lehigh River cuts a spectacular 1,000-foot-deep gorge through tabletop mountains and thousands of acres of state park and game lands. To take advantage of 30 miles of abandoned railroad grade along the river, Pennsylvania created Lehigh Gorge State Park, 6,000 acres of spectacular parkland that stretches south from an Army Corps of Engineers dam near Wilkes Barre to a town with the unlikely name of Jim Thorpe. This combination of a scenic river gorge, state game lands, and a restored Victorian-era village results in one of the best mountain biking destinations in the East.

The area's rich history is also an attraction, especially to mountain bikers. This is coal country, and many of the rail lines used to haul coal from mines to river ports are now converted trails that make for easy pedaling. In the mid-nineteenth century, industry was booming and, as the transportation hub of the region, so were the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk (today's Jim Thorpe). Canal, railroad, and river traffic converged in the towns. Millionaires built mansions, hotels, an opera house, and churches in fine Victorian style on the hillsides overlooking the Lehigh River. When the boom ended later in the century, the towns and the mountainous region around them became a popular summer resort known as the Switzerland of America.

The Great Depression of the 1930s clinched the area's decline. Towns fell into disrepair, unemployment took its toll, and young people fled the region. In the early 1950s, the local newspaper started an economic development fund and urged citizens to contribute a nickel a week. In 1954, the communities were rewarded for their spunk when the widow of Jim Thorpe, the hero of the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games (who died a pauper in a Philadelphia hospital in 1953), agreed to let the two towns merge under the great athlete's name and build a monument and mausoleum for him.

The 1980s marked the beginning of an era of prosperity and restoration for the handsome town. Tourism is now big business. Shops, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and lots of late-model cars line the streets of Jim Thorpe. There are also plenty of mountain bikes, and no wonder. With Lehigh Gorge State Park at its doorstep and miles of hiking trails winding through the town to the overlooks nearby, Jim Thorpe was made for fat-tired bikes. The trails, converted from old railroad rights-of-way, follow 2-percent grades, making for nearly effortless riding. Thousands of acres of state game lands extend the variety of mountain biking from the town.

Since 1986, Jim Thorpe has hosted Mountain Bike Weekend, held every June in nearby Mauch Chunk Lake Park. Bill Drumbore and Galen Van Dine, local riders who help organize the event, discovered mountain biking when it was virtually unheard of in the East. (Drumbore built his first mountain bike in a garage using old ten-speed and BMX parts. It's now stored in the basement of Hotel Switzerland in Jim Thorpe and displayed in the bar during Mountain Bike Weekend.) Every year Drumbore and Van Dine help organize rides for the hundreds of mountain bikers who converge on the town for camaraderie and great cycling. They also helped with the rides that follow.

Jim Thorpe is between Allentown and Scranton, off the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (about an hour-and-a-half drive from Philadelphia). From New York City, take Interstate 80 east to PA 209 south, about a three-hour drive.© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.


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