South-Central Pa.’s Top 6 Fall Trails for Hikers and Bikers

South-Central Pa.'s Top 6 Fall Trails for Hikers and Bikers

Photo courtesy of Steve C.

By Kalena Thomhave

September 18, 2023

These hiking and biking trails in Dauphin, Cumberland, and York counties will get you close to dramatic fall foliage boasting different shades of red, orange, and yellow.

With a final goodbye to summer (and its humidity and bugs), it’s time to start planning how you’ll enjoy the fall season. We recommend getting outdoors and experiencing the crisp autumn air on the numerous hiking and biking trails of Pennsylvania

According to the Pa. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pennsylvania has the longest and most varied fall foliage season in the world. If you time your treks right, you’ll be treated to dramatic fall colors boasting different shades of red, orange, and yellow.

We’ve put together a selection of trails that will get you close to fall color in Dauphin, Cumberland, and York counties. Keep your eyes on fall foliage reports to know when the leaves will be at peak color, and also be sure to wear blaze orange if you’re hiking in an active hunting area.

Cumberland Valley Section of the Appalachian Trail – Carlisle area

You may not be up for attempting the entire Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. But you can complete a portion of “the AT” right in the Cumberland Valley. As hikers are making their way along the Appalachian Mountains, you can be assured that the fall colors surrounding you will be magical.

There are 46 miles of the trail that run through the valley and 17 miles through Cumberland County itself, but you can shorten your trek even further to construct your own day hike on the trail. For instance, you could drop a car off at the trail’s Bernheisel Bridge Rd. (I-81) Parking Area and then drive to the York Road (PA Rte 74) Parking Area to start a 6.9-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. Good news: this portion of the AT is one of the smoothest and gentlest legs on the entire trail, largely passing through pastoral scenes of farmland.

Pole Steeple Trail – Gardners

Pine Grove Furnace State Park is found at the northern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and on this recommended trail, you will indeed be summiting a mountain. The trailhead of the Pole Steeple Trail is actually located just outside the state park and is technically fully in Michaux State Forest. You’ll hike just 0.75 miles up Piney Mountain, but the climb is steep and difficult. Still, when you get to the top, it’ll be worth it. When you stand atop the quartzite rock of Pole Steeple in the fall, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible view of the bright fall foliage of Michaux State Forest and Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

York County Heritage Rail Trail – York

Before the York County Heritage Rail Trail was a trail for pedestrians and cyclists, it was part of the Northern Central Railroad, a key transportation link in the early United States that brought President Abraham Lincoln to Gettysburg for his Gettysburg Address. The trail is 21 miles long, stretching from York to the Pennsylvania-Maryland border and passing through forests and tunnels of southern York County. During the fall season, these trees rise up in spectacular colors on both sides of the trail. But the railroad isn’t entirely absent: the train tracks along the trail are still in operation. In fact, if your legs get tired, you can take a fall foliage tour on the Northern Central Railway of York.

Mary Ann Furnace Trail, Codorus State Park – Hanover

Located in the southern hills of York County, Codorus State Park surrounds a large, picturesque lake. Park visitors can canoe or kayak in the lake, but they can also wander along the beautiful 3.5-mile loop of the Mary Ann Furnace Trail, which is lit up in autumn in colors of red and gold. Named after a furnace built in 1762 that supplied artillery to the Continental Army, this hiking trail treks across a boardwalk over wetlands, through a hardwood forest, and then veers to follow the shore of the lake. Find the trailhead on Black Rock Road.

Wildwood Park Nature Trails – Harrisburg

Wildwood Park is a natural oasis within Harrisburg, located just ten minutes from the city’s downtown. The county park has a nature center and a wooden boardwalk meandering through the wetlands of Wildwood Lake. While there are roughly six miles of trails within the park, a popular loop connecting the Towpath Trail and Wildwood Way takes hikers and bikers 3.1 miles around the lake. In fall, you’ll see great views of the water through lush red and orange foliage, as well as a wide, open meadow.

Clarence Schock Memorial Park at Governor Dick Nature Trails – Mount Gretna

The lovely community of Mount Gretna is located just east of the Dauphin-Lebanon County line. Clarence Schock Memorial Park at Governor Dick spreads more than 1,000 acres across this area, with 16 miles of hiking and biking trails and a popular observation tower that lends itself to majestic views of five Pa. counties. The park is particularly enchanting in the fall, when that five-county view gets a colorful makeover, as do the trails within the park’s forests.

Mountain bikes are the bicycle of choice in this park, as the unpaved trails are rugged and promise adventure. You can also hike all trails by foot, enjoying the large boulders, and charcoal furnace remains. Trails range from easy to difficult. You’ll definitely want to hike to the concrete Governor Dick Observation Tower so you can feast your eyes on the scenery of south-central Pa. Reach the tower via a half-mile hike from the trailhead on Pinch Road, and then scale it via a series of ladders.

 

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