Keystone State Byways: Exploring Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier
The topography appears to have been created for the benefit of motorcyclists. Mountains and rivers carve winding routes for sport riding. Rolling hills set the pace for laid-back cruising. Roads less traveled, some with asphalt and some without, serve up the wonder of exploring. It’s easy to steer clear of interstates because there aren’t any. However you define sport touring, the roads of Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier have something to get you smiling as you travel on two wheels.
I leave Massachusetts at first light with Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, as my goal for the day. Heading west
I meander through the Catskills region of New York, then drop south into Pennsylvania. In the hamlet of Lanesboro a towering line of stone arches, partially obscured behind trees and homes, demands further investigation.
A turn down a dirt road reveals the Starrucca Viaduct. Built in 1847-’48 by the New York and Erie Railroad, this massive stone bridge spans the abrupt valley formed by Starrucca Creek. The structure is 1,200 feet long, 110 feet high and 30 feet wide at the top. Each of the 17 arches spans 50 feet. Built by 800 workers at a cost of $320,000, it was the most expensive railroad bridge ever constructed anywhere in the world at the time. It appears to have been a good investment as the bridge has been in continual use ever since, today by the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway.
With no specific route in mind, I revert to my time-tested method of navigation: “I wonder where that road goes?” It doesn’t take long to discover that in these parts state highways with four-digit route numbers are frequently unpaved. This suits me fine as I recently changed out the stock tires on my Kawasaki Versys for a more aggressive on-/off-road tread. One road, however, gives me cause to turn the other way. A crew is spraying fresh oil over the dirt. “Keeps the dust down,” I am told. “Slippery mess ’til it dries.” The Road Closed sign cinches the deal and I choose the left turn instead. For much of the afternoon I make westerly progress, more or less, encountering deep green forests, rolling farmlands and little asphalt.
Eventually I reach the town of Rush and stop to rest by a white steepled church. Seeing the graveyard alongside jogs childhood memories of visits to old burial grounds with my dad, who pursued a scholarly interest in their history. Once refreshed, I take a moment to cue up “Red Barchetta” on the MP3 player (I am in Rush, after all) and set course west on PA 409. East of Towanda, the road T’s at U.S. 6. This is the main east-west road across the Northern Tier, undulating for more than 400 scenic miles. With its flowing curves and smooth blacktop, the section from here to Wellsboro serves up a pleasant cruise to close out the day.
Wellsboro offers an excellent base of operations and several of my riding buddies are converging on the region for a long summer weekend. If your budget allows, the classic Penn Wells Hotel is a fine place to spend the night. There are also lower cost motels in town and several campgrounds nearby. Restaurants range from fast food to fancy. Depending on the season, festivals and cultural events can nicely round out a day in the saddle. (Some events sell out all available rooms months in advance, so it’s wise to make reservations.)
Wellsboro sits at the northeast corner of the Pennsylvania Wilds, a 2-million-acre region of the Keystone State’s Northern Tier. Rivers, lakes, forests and mountains form a varied landscape comprised of small towns, parks and wilderness. The largest elk population east of the Mississippi River roams the Wilds. Anglers, hikers, mountain bikers, hunters, campers, astronomers and artists find much to enjoy. Motorcyclists are treated to some of the best riding I’ve found in the northeast.
Promptly at 7 a.m., Ray joins me for breakfast at the Wellsboro Diner. For diner aficionados, this small restaurant is a must. Manufactured in 1938 by the J.B. Judkins Company of Merrimac, Massachusetts, it’s just about all original. The green porcelain shimmers, inside and outside. The windows are accented with red stained glass. The counter stools spin around to the delight of young patrons. The glass-top counters are a showcase for the diner’s homemade pies. Of course, pie isn’t just for dessert so I order a slice of blackberry pie to complement my black coffee.
Well fueled on my breakfast of champions, I point the Versys south on PA 287 to Morris, where PA 414 wiggles west along Pine Creek and ends at PA 44. We turn right and follow signs for Hyner Run State Park. The narrow Hyner Run Road leads to the mountaintop and one of the best scenic vistas in the state. At Renovo, we turn north on PA 144. Summer showers bring on an eerie fog and a different visual experience than bright sunshine provides.
Farther north we take a break in Oleona (population 8), where PA 144 meets PA 44. At the Country Store, Sam calls my attention to a stack of firewood that’s peculiar to this region. Ash is the raw material for wooden baseball bats like the Louisville Slugger, and much of that ash is harvested in Pennsylvania. The density of the forests compels trees to grow straight and tall as they compete for light from above. This results in long trunks with even grain ideal for bat making. Scraps from the early stages of manufacturing, including concave leftovers and “splits” with obvious imperfections, become fuel for woodstoves and campfires. Deb and Zane Forry, proprietors of the Country Store in Oleona, offer good conversation, ice cream, sundries for hunters and campers, gas and firewood that didn’t make the major leagues.
The left fork onto PA 44 takes us through the highest elevations in the area. Along this road, it occurs to me that there are many 4’s and 1’s in the route numbers we’ve chosen today. Perhaps the highway department has a code that identifies asphalt amusements for motorcyclists.
At a clearing we pull into Cherry Springs State Park. The elevation and remoteness in this part of Potter County produce an especially vivid night sky. This haven for stargazers is Pennsylvania’s first dark sky park, with observatory facilities and an ongoing series of astronomy programs. Overcast skies are forecast through tomorrow so we don’t stay long.
Since U.S. 6 figures into tomorrow’s ride, we cross over 6 to wander back roads through farm country just south of the New York border. I can’t help but smile at the irony of an electrical substation located near an Amish farmhouse. Sam sticks to the map’s thin gray lines, easing us into Wellsboro by dusk. After supper in town, riders gather to compare notes on the patio at our motel; I long for a campfire fueled by bat scraps.
The morning begins with bagels and coffee followed by the 12-mile ride to Leonard Harrison State Park, home of Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon. It’s not so grand as that other one in Arizona but clearly worth a visit, both for the view and for the ride there and back on serpentine PA 660.
As we begin heading west, the mile markers repeatedly encourage us to “Do 6” but at Galeton we turn off U.S. 6 in favor of the tighter curves and elevation changes of PA 144. A truck laboring with its load of fence posts confirms the lack of passing zones on these back roads but before long the driver turns off. On the way through Oleona we beep hello to the Forrys at the Country Store and turn south on PA 44 toward Clinton County.
We’re making good time so we add a loop south to Lock Haven. The banked curves on PA 664 down the mountain feel like a bobsled run. On PA 120 we stop for gas at a genuine service station, complete with mechanics, local information, the cheapest gas we’ve seen all day and free compressed air! The proprietor chats with us about his bikes and ours, but he’s too busy today to join us for a ride.
At Renovo we turn south onto PA 144 and the Elk Scenic Drive. We see no elk and that is just as well because we’re spending our time on the road where an elk encounter could be hazardous. Numerous lookout spots along the drive offer elk viewing from a respectful and safer distance.
Steve, our reigning barbecue consultant, declares that we’re too close to Clem’s Café not to make the trip and we fall in line toward Tipton. After yesterday’s lunch stop (which Michael had characterized as “nonhabit forming”) we are ready for a good lunch today. Clem’s ribs are fall-off-the-bone fantastic. If somehow you’re not hungry for barbecue, skip the ride to Tipton as the only fun is weaving between distance markers painted on the flat, straight road.
Retracing to PA 144, we turn left onto PA 879 then right on Quehanna Highway. A few klicks up the road Wykoff Run Road slices through a beautiful stream valley. Even a summer shower doesn’t detract from the joy of this rollercoaster of a road. At Sinnamahoning, a left onto PA 120 cuts through the mountains to Emporium, then a right on PA 46 point us north toward U.S. 6.
It’s been a long day, and the gentle curves of U.S. 6 offer a pleasant contrast to the technical terrain that’s entertained us thus far. Up the road in Galeton we pull into the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum. Opening hours are over so instead we talk to a pair of Harley riders en route to Montana. Across the highway is Ski Denton, whose Avalanche Trail—with a 66-degree vertical pitch—is among the steepest ski slopes in the Northeast. Today it’s draped in summer green. Before Wellsboro we peel off the main drag onto PA 3023. The wet road holds the rain we just missed and a rainbow arcs over the open space west of town.
Morning offers one last opportunity for a Wellsboro Diner breakfast. Today I take an eggs, bacon and toast approach. With John as my wingman we head east on U.S. 6. The sun rises higher and the road unfolds through the same farmlands and open spaces that greeted me on my way west three days ago. Experience has taught me that a reverse route offers more than just a way back, however. Sights rolling in from the opposite bearing offer a fresh perspective, and this time the day isn’t ending, it’s just beginning.
This is all the reason I need to come back to Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier and ride these great roads again…in the other direction.
(This article was published in the October 2010 issue of Rider magazine.)