A Great Ride On A Historic Rail Line
If you’re looking for a scenic ride through quiet woods, neighborhoods with that Pennsylvania character, farm lands and over old bridges spanning creeks and country roads, the Saucon Trail is the perfect choice. The trailheads are in Hellertown at the North end—Water Street Park is a good parking and entry point—and Coopersburg at the South end near Southern Lehigh Living Memorial Community Park. The trail was a railroad corridor for almost 130 years with trains running from Philadelphia to Bethlehem. The segment converted for trail use currently runs for about 7 miles so it’s a nice length, giving you a good 14-mile round trip. For me, that’s the perfect distance for my typical rides in the warmer weather. The only caveat is a slight uphill grade that starts as the trail heads South out of Hellertown, and continues all the way to the end. But it’s certainly not a deal breaker. Plus, historic South Bethlehem (and Bethlehem proper across the Lehigh River) is just 10 minutes up the road with all sorts of attractions to entertain you, from cafes to a world class hotel and casino, and everything in between. Plan a weekend stay-cation or a mini-getaway and ride the Saucon Rail Trail…it’s the perfect rail-trail adventure.
The Saucon Trail was built on the former path of the North Pennsylvania Railroad, which was constructed in the early 1850s and subsequently leased by the Reading Railroad (The Reading Company) in 1879. Construction began in Philadelphia on July 2, 1855 and opened between Philadelphia to Freeemansburg and Easton, PA in 1857. It was completed through Bethlehem in 1858 where it connected with the Lehigh Valley Railroad. From there you could travel to New York City or anywhere else you desired. I wish these rail lines still existed; at one time you could travel by rail to practically anywhere in the country by boarding a train that came virtually to your doorstep in your small town. It’s a shame that era has long passed but now these former rail lines are being converted to rail-trails across the country, providing a new type of transportation network that helps people live more fulfilling and healthier lives.
In the latter half of the 20th century the line became part of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) on which commuter and freight service ran until 1981. The last train on the line was in 1984. Thereafter the corridor was unused and eventually converted into the rail-trail that exists today, with that work beginning in 2008. You can see the history timeline HERE.
I have a special connection to this former railroad. Eighty years ago my father rode the train on this line to begin his freshman year at Lehigh University in the Fall of 1940…and I’m sure he took it back and forth between the University and home in the Philadelphia suburb of Media PA. The section that is now the Saucon Rail Trail went all the way into South Bethlehem to the terminus at Union Station (pictured above in 2018), on Union Station Plaza off W. 2nd Street in the shadow of the Hill to Hill Bridge.
Connection To South Bethlehem
The section of this former railroad in South Bethlehem is now the South Bethlehem Greenway and is currently not connected to the Saucon Trail. See my post here on that trail. But you can ride the Greenway south out of town passing over an old arched concrete railroad bridge along the way to its end at Auburn Street. There’s a concrete company now sitting on the old right of way just up ahead of this point. Just a little farther down is the Saucon’s Trail’s north end at Bachman Street. The Saucon trail has multiple entry points along its length and there are two beautiful parks—Water Street Park in Hellertown and Upper Saucon Township Community Park—that make nice entry and resting points, and both have clean modern restroom facilities.
The trail will eventually be continued south of the Coopersburg end and I sincerely hope they’ll connect these two trails in Bethlehem in the near future. Re-joining the two segments would contribute to the network of rail-trails being built across the country for the active transportation initiative led by The Rails To Trails Conservancy, while providing an excellent bike and walking route between Coopersburg and South Bethlehem.