September 8, 2021
The Northwest Lancaster County River Trail is approximately 14 miles long and runs along the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, from Columbia to Falmouth. Unlike many of the other biking trails you find throughout the region, this trail is NOT a “rail trail”, there’s actually still an active railroad that runs between this trail and the river. You’ll find all kinds of people walking, running, rollerblading and biking on this trail which is so much more fun to use because unlike a rail trail, there are lots of bends and curves to keep your journey interesting!
The trail also connects the historic river towns and villages of Columbia, Marietta, Bainbridge, and Falmouth. The trail is very well marked with clear mile marker posts.
Expect to see scenic views of the Susquehanna River and area farmland along your ride.
This blog is everything you need to know to bike the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail.
We like to start our rides at the beginning of the trail in Columbia. There are plenty of places to park at the Columbia Crossing River Trail Center located at 41 Walnut St, Columbia, PA. If the center is open, they have maps of the trail and they have exhibits on display related to the history of and along the Susquehanna River. They also have indoor restrooms (there are plenty of port-o-potties along the route).
There’s even an outfitter onsite if you decide you want to add some canoeing or kayaking onto your day! There are MANY other parking and trail access points along the trail though, so you can just refer to the map and find the one that works best for you.
Developed from a master plan in March 2003. The trail follows the route of the historic Pennsylvania Mainline Canal and uses some of the original towpath that remains along the corridor. Visitors pass by numerous industrial archaeological remains along the trail including abandoned canal locks, the iron furnaces at Chickies Rock, and the old quarry operation at Billmeyer.
The earliest trail of the Charles Greenway was a small and unpaved hiking trail that stretched 2.3 miles. In 2009 the trail was widened, paved, and extended another 1.7 miles to better accommodate bikers and roller bladers.
All of the 14 miles of the NW Lancaster County River trail is now paved. The trail was upgraded in 2010 from strictly a hiking trail to a multi-purpose trail accommodating hikers, bikers and inline skaters. The majority of the trail runs parallel to the Susquehanna River, the remaining portions of the trail cut into woodlands and agricultural lands providing scenic views throughout the trail.
The trail is owned and maintained by Lancaster County and the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority.
Approximately 1 mile from your starting point you’ll pass through the abandoned (and allegedly haunted) Point Rock Tunnel, also known as Chickies Rock Tunnel. The unlined 180-foot-long tunnel was blasted through solid rock when it was built in the 1850s for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
At the 1.5 mile point you’ll come to Chickies Rock where you can often find climbers working their way up to the Chickies Rock Overlook. The views from the top are fantastic and it’s worth driving there when you’re done with your
ride. It’s an easy walk, less than a mile, from the parking lot to the overlook.
Located north of the town of Marietta, East Donegal Riverfront Park has a large pavilion with picnic tables, a massive playground, riverfront views, and ample grounds for outdoor activity in case you want to bring a Frisby along. If you’re stopping for a picnic along your ride, this is one of the best spots for it.
This beautiful old bridge is one of the interesting sites to see along the trail. Shocks Mill Bridge opened January 1, 1905. The bridge is 2,209 feet long and has some great stone arches connecting the pylons that support the train tracks, which Norfolk Southern Railway still uses today. The Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority invested $325,000 to build the walkway running underneath the bridge. They completed the walkway in 2014.
The White Cliffs of Conoy are quite likely the first great industrial waste tourist attraction in the world! This once thriving limestone quarry created different products for nearby farms and businesses, such as lime, dolomite and quicklime. Once pulled from the ground, the limestone was crushed into a powder, then burned to create these useful items. With time the waste became large white mountains up to 30 feet tall made of excess stone. Now you know the story behind an unusual sight not seen anywhere else on earth: The White Cliffs of Conoy!
There are a number of great places to stop along your ride. From parks with covered pavilions and picnic tables to simply benches with views of the river, it’s a great way to break up your ride. It’s never a bad idea to give yourself time to really soak in the views of the Susquehanna river while enjoying a picnic lunch or snack.
Here’s a link to a digital version of the NW Lancaster River Trail Map. Of if you’d rather refer to a printed copy, here’s a print version link for you.
Part of the fun of taking a big bike ride is rewarding yourself at the end with a treat. Lucky for you, the Northwest Lancaster River Trail has plenty of opportunities to do just that! From an ice cream shop at the very beginning / end of your ride, to some great local pubs in Marietta, you will have great places to enjoy a sweet treat or a cool pint during or after your ride.
Why make your trip to the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail a day trip when you can make a whole weekend of it? Book your stay at the Historic Smithton Inn in Ephrata PA. This bike-friendly Lancaster B&B is a great place to base yourself for a biking vacation in Lancaster County.
In addition to being easily accessible to the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail, the Historic Smithton Inn is also just a mile from the WERT Trail, an 8 mile rail trail that connects Ephrata to Lititz. It’s also only 15 miles from the Cornwall Trailhead of the Lebanon Valley & Conewago Rail Trails that connect Lebanon to Elizabethtown. Plus there are a number of other biking routes that will take you through Amish farmland and quaint Amish Towns you will enjoy!
Choose one of 7 luxury guest rooms and suites, all with private baths and working fireplaces. Or if you prefer you can rent their vacation rental house, the Smithton Guest House, next door. Book early for the best rates and choice of rooms.
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