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Freedom Valley Ride & Schuylkill River Trail

(2006, 2007, 2008)

Another non Jersey ride, but it's only across the river in Philly, with a start/finish just a few blocks from the I676 museum exit (25th street?). We parked our car on Sedgely Drive, which is right off Kelly Drive in Fairmount Park, there were no parking meters, and we saw people unloading bikes here so we just parked along with them. The registration tables were located at one boat house row on Kelly Drive.

We rode a large portion of the Schuylkill River Trail as part of the Freedom Valley ride organized by the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia on Father’s day in June 2006. The Schuylkill River Trail (SRT) had been on our ride list for over a year based on favorable reviews from other riders, after learning of the Freedom Valley ride we decided it would be a good introduction to the trail; there is nothing like having support in unfamiliar places. In hindsight this was a very good decision because we would have certainly gotten lost trying to access the trail from either Philadelphia, or Valley Forge on our own. We chose to ride the 44 mile route to Valley Forge, which also included the 8 & 22 mile routes on the SRT. Here is a GPS track, in gpx format (save with a .gpx extension), for the 44 mile route.

The Freedom Valley Ride

The Freedom Valley ride offers many riding distances; providing choices for all riding levels, this however is a two-edged sword, because it also causes confusion for the 1st time participant. We found that asking oncoming riders about rest stops, turn around points, etc is rather hit-or-miss; one poor guy was riding along with us as we returned from Valley Forge to Philadelphia on the SRT, when we informed him that he wasn’t on the 100 mile century loop, and had accidentally followed the 50 mile return route from the Valley Forge rest stop.

The distances for 2007 were 22, 35, 44, 50, 68, and 100 with a start time of 7:45 AM&. Here is what we learned about the various routes, the 22, and 44 mile distances are all up & back on the SRT, that is you bike up the SRT for a distance, then turn around and return to the start. These are level rail-trail type rides away from vehicular traffic.

The 35, 50, 68, and 100 mile rides are all loops (no up & back) that contain a return segment on the SRT, but also run on roadways open to vehicular traffic, these routes contain hilly sections as well. The loop rides are all based on a 68 mile loop with 50, and 35 mile cut-offs, as well as a 32 mile extension loop for the 100 mile century riders.

The mass start at 7:40 followed the flashing lights of a police car around the circle, past the Art museum, and up the west side of Fairmount Park, where the 35, 50, 68, and 100 mile loops leave the park, while the 22, and 44 routes continue north in Fairmount park to the Falls bridge where you're able to cross back over the Schuylkill river and ride the sidewalk north on the park’s east side in Manayunk.

The Freedom Valley ride’s web site describes the routes on the SRT as “almost all-trail”, which is true, however there is a short road section in Manayunk that isn't very kid friendly so be aware of that, should you have little ones with you. Road bikes may also wish to avoid the Manayunk canal greenway in the same area and stick with the road, we had no problems with our hybrids, but the skinny tire bikes will have a rough ride of it (cobblestones, dirt, boardwalks).

Including the start/finish, we visited three of the six rest stops that serviced the ride. We started off in the morning in Philly with bagels and hummus… different, not the classic New Yorkbagel with a smear” cream cheese thing, but good just the same. The start/finish also had Pretzels (it’s Philly after all), bananas, some interesting breads, energy bars, water, and Gatorade.  The Spring Mill rest stop (mile 11?) on the SRT had pretty much the same goodies, as the start.   The Valley Forge rest stop was also stocked with similar goodies as the Spring Valley, but it did offer real toilets, and tables to sit at in full shade. The ride through the un-shaded park however seemed endless as we searched the rolling hills looking for the stop, adding to our angst was that the cue sheet wasn't helpful once we left the main SRT rail-bed (see Schuylkill River Trail Section), and the NPS dosn't allow road markings or signs.

At the finish we were treated to the rides famous tomato pies. These tomato pies aren't pizza, at least I wouldn't call it that, they are more like “sauced bread”, very yummy, a must try.

We had no trouble following the painted trail markings; however the cue sheet was of little help on the SRT, it seemed I could only identify the waypoints after we had found the painted arrows on the road. The SRT on the other hand is pretty easy to follow since there are so many riders using the trail. I can't comment on any other cue sheets besides the 44 mile.

We had an enjoyable ride; the problems we encountered were small and easily remedied. My comments shouldn't be taken as criticism, just observations, the organizers, and volunteers of this event, are to be praised for pulling off such a large and diverse event.

Schuylkill River Trail

The Schuylkill River Trail is more of a system of trails rather than a single trail. The “main” trail can be classified as a rail-trail; it is paved, flat, and is built on an abandoned rail-bed that gently winds along the Schuylkill River, there is an occasional low traffic road crossing to navigate, but for the most part it is free wheeling. The trail has good tree cover in some sections, as well as some wide open exposed sections, there is the occasional out cropping of rock, and the rumble of a passing commuter train on the nearby active rails. The trail traffic was very high the day we rode the SRT, in fact this was the heaviest trafficked trail we've ever biked, on the plus side the continuous flow of riders and bladers forces everyone to keep to the right, and we encountered very few 3 wide walkers blocking the path. The day we rode the SRT there were a lot of toe clip riders (See Toe clips, uprights & wobblers), usually the toe clip crowd is the preferable group to bike with, but this day many seemed to be aggressive and rude; the usual “on your left” was grunted with a get out of my way attitude, perhaps this is why we saw so few wobblers on the SRT; they've simply been run off the trail.

We picked up the main trail at Port Royal Ave; this is where the southern paved rail-bed portion appears to begin, south of here the SRT system runs on the Manayunk greenway along the Manayunk canal. The short canal greenway’s surface is pretty much crushed stone & dirt with occasional exposed (embedded in dirt) rail ballast rocks, as well a number of wooden boardwalk bridges. The greenway is kind of interesting, with a cobblestone hill, ruins of a lock tenders house (or something), and the boardwalks over the canal. There is some restoration of the old brick industrial buildings across the canal going on as well; condos or apartments conversions I think. Retaining the old brick facades, while surely expensive, does keep the old feel about the canal. The trail did have a lonely feel to it, and I was glad we were in a group since we were unfamiliar with the area. The canal greenway ends appropriately enough at Lock Street, after that you must travel a short distance through Manayunk on open roadways before you reach a sidewalk on Kelly drive. The Kelly drive sidewalk eventually becomes a pathway that runs thorough Fairmount Park.

On the northern end we left the main SRT to enter Valley Forge; to get to Valley Forge you must cross a pathway on the 422 bridge over the Schuylkill River. The bridge pathway is safely separated from the road by a concrete divider and fencing, but it is barely a bike width wide, when encountering oncoming bicycle traffic both riders must stop and lean outward to pass. After crossing the bridge there is a short downhill to the edge of the park, from there you can ride the multi use trail around the hills of Valley Forge, and remind yourself why flat rail-trails are such a treat.