Northwestern Pennsylvania has more Sandy Creeks than you can shake a stick at. This trail follows two of them, so it could have been called the Sandy Creeks Trail. On the east side of the Allegheny River, it follows East Sandy Ck from Van to Belmar. East Sandy Ck is on the Pennsylvania Scenic Rivers inventory. The trail crosses the Allegheny River (and the Allegheny River Trail) on the spectacular Belmar Bridge, then continues downstream on the west side of the Allegheny to Sandy Ck. From there it goes up Sandy Ck to Old Route 8 at Pecan. The old railbed is now a dirt road with names of Damascus Rd and Fisherman’s Cove Rd. This was once the Jamestown, Franklin and Clearfield RR, built in 1905–1911 for freight and passenger use. The line was phased out in the 1980s.
Sandy Creek Trail
Location Van to Pecan, Venango County
Trailheads Van, Rockland, Belmar, Fisherman’s Cove, Pecan
Length, Surface 15.1 miles total (12.1 paved, 0.2 decking, 2.8 on dirt road)
Character Uncrowded, wooded, shady, flat
Usage restrictions No motorized vehicles
Driving time from Pittsburgh `1 hour to 1 hour 30 minutes north
Mile markers are based on the zero milepost in the middle of the trail, at the west end of the Belmar Bridge. They count 7.7 miles east to Van and 4.4 miles south to Fisherman’s Cove. An additional not signed 2.8 miles of the trail, follow a dirt road from the end of the paved section westward to Pecan. We, however, describe the trail as a continuous route from east to west.
Beginning at Van on the east side of the Allegheny River, this paved trail runs through hemlock forests down the lovely isolated valley of East Sandy Ck to the Allegheny. The trail starts out on the south bank of the creek, crosses a couple of tributaries, and then begins weaving its way down East Sandy Ck. At MP7.2 there is an Adirondack shelter on the left side of the trail. After five miles and three bridges, the trail reaches a tunnel (MP2.0) through a 200-foot high ridge at Deep Valley.
When the trail was developed, this tunnel was in poor condition, with debris falling from the ceiling. The trail developers found an innovative approach to rehabilitate the tunnel. They installed a corrugated liner, brought in a tire shredding machine, and filled the space between the original liner and the new liner with shredded tires. What was really neat about the project is that the trail group were paid for each used tire that they recycled.
Downstream from the tunnel, the creek is at the bottom of a 300-foot forested valley. The trail zig-zags down the valley, crossing the creek three more times on bridges 50 feet or so above the creek, providing fine views up and down the valley. At about MP0.5 the trail makes a sharp dip, probably where a culvert or bridge was removed.
The blue blazes between Van and Belmar mark the North Country Trail, which follows the Sandy Creek Trail to Belmar, where it heads south on the Allegheny River Trail.
After 7.6 miles, the trail arrives at the 1385-foot Belmar Bridge. At the east end of the bridge, a stairway provides a connection to the Allegheny River Trail, which crosses under the bridge. Just across the bridge, 7.7 miles from Van (MP0.0), the trail splits at a picnic area. The left branch continues downstream along the Allegheny river, and the right branch goes 400 feet to the Belmar trailhead. At the trailhead is a concrete railroad marker milepost, marked A84 on the east side and B51 on the west side. One other marker remains just east of the Belmar bridge (B50/A85). Best guess is that they are miles to Ashtabula OH and Brookville PA.
As the trail joins the Allegheny River, its character changes. The Allegheny here is a National Scenic River, and it is vastly bigger than East Sandy Ck. The trail is on a bench above the river, with woods on the hillside opposite the river. For a short distance it shares the railbed with the driveway for a set of summer homes, but then development drops away, and the trail shares the valley with canoeists on the river. At MP4.2 the trail crosses Sandy Ck and shortly thereafter emerges on Fishermans Cove Rd.
To the right, Fisherman’s Cove Rd is on the old railbed, and the trail shares this dirt and very rough gravel road along Sandy Ck for 2.8 miles to Old Route 8 and Seneca Hills Bible Camp near Pecan. About halfway, just after the trail passes under PA8, it goes through a covered bridge at the mouth of Victory Run near an oxbow lake. It is unclear why anyone would want to ride this road to its end, although it does travel through hemlock forest.
Extensions of the ride
A connection with the Allegheny River Trail (page NE-78), uses the steps at the east end of the Belmar Bridge. There is a ramp alongside the steps on which to roll the bike instead of carrying it. The stairs end at a short paved path that leads down to trail level. From here it is 5 miles upstream (to the right facing the river) to Franklin and 22.5 miles downstream (the other direction) to Emlenton.
The east end of this trail is currently (2018) in a parking lot near Van, about half a mile south of US322. The trail continues for about 4 miles on the opposite side of US322 as the unimproved Clarion Highlands/State Game Lands #45 Trail(page NE-232). To reach that trail, continue northeast out the parking lot on the unimproved trail. At SR2017 there is a gap of a mile, after which the railbed is open but very rough for another 5.5 miles. Getting around the gap involves going south on Kline Rd to US322, turning east on US322, and taking Camp Coffman Rd (the next township road) north to the railbed. We have not personally explored this section.
For hikers, the Sandy Creek Trail from Van to Belmar and the Allegheny River Trail from Belmar to Parker are part of the blue-blazed North Country Trail. See.
In 2015 the trail group was exploring replacing the stairs with a trail from under the bridge up to the dip in the Sandy Creek Trail, a quarter-mile east of the bridge. This plan failed and they are now looking at alternatives. Although none of the current alternatives seem feasible, the trail group is still investigating.
East of Van, the Jamestown, Franklin & Clearfield railroad continued, and trail is being developed along this route. The unimproved State Game Lands #45 Trail begins on the north side of US322 and continues 4 miles east to Kline Rd. It is reported to be unimproved but mowed, horses and bikes are permitted. The mile from Kline Rd to Camp Coffman Rd is closed; it is privately owned, and trail users are unwelcome, but signs direct trail users to a detour via US322. The Clarion Highlands/State Game Lands #45 Trail (page NE-232) begins at Camp Coffman Rd. The trail group has done brush clearing, ditching, and drainage repair for 5.5 miles to Station Rd, where the railroad grade re-enters the State Game Lands. They hope to put a finished surface on this section.
Vicinity: Directions begin headed north on PA8 from I80 toward Franklin.
Van (eastern) trailhead: In Franklin, when US62/PA8 turns left, remain on US322. Continue 11.2 miles to the small village of Van. Turn right/west on Tarklin Hill Rd and go 0.4 miles to trailhead parking.
Rockland trailhead: In Franklin, when US62/PA8 turns left, remain on US322. Continue 7.3 miles to the fourth stoplight of the Cranberry shopping center, where PA257 goes left. Turn right/south on Cranberry-Rockland Rd. Go 2.5 miles and just after crossing over the trail, turn right down an access road. Go 600 feet to trailhead parking.
Belmar trailhead: At about 12.8 miles the expressway ends. Continue another 1.6 miles to the traffic light and sign for the Sandy Creek Trail at Pone La and turn right/east on Pone lane. Go 2.4 miles, at the “T” intersection, turn right on Belmar Rd. Go 3.6 miles to trail parking on the right. This parking lot is also a middle trailhead for the Allegheny River Trail (page NE-78).
Fishermans Cove (western) trailhead: About 5 miles north of I80, take the PA308 exit and turn left/northwest at the bottom of the ramp. In a quarter-mile turn right/northeast on SR3013/Old PA8. Go 5 miles and bear left/northeast off Old PA8 down a ramp signed for “Seneca Hills Bible Camp” and “Fishermans Cove”. At the bottom of the ramp, turn right/south on Damascus Rd (this is the Pecan trailhead, and the trail here is on the road). Continue 2.8 miles to a corner where the trail leaves the road and the road turns right/south. There is room for a couple of cars to park here. An alternative is to continue 0.4 miles to the PA Fish and Boat Commission Fishermans Cove parking area.
Rest rooms, water: No water, seasonal portajohns at Belmar trailhead.
Bike shop, rentals: None along trail.
Restaurant, groceries: None along trail. Services in Franklin and along PA8 near the Pone La turn off for the Belmar Trailhead, or four miles west of Van on US32
Camping, simple lodging: At MP7.2 near Van there is an Adirondack shelter on the south side of the trail. Camping permitted between trail and the Sandy Ck except where developed or posted.
Swimming, fishing: At each of the bridges on the eastern section, paths lead down to the river.
Winter sports: Cross-country skiing.
Wheelchair access: Clearances at gates and bollards is often barely 36”. Long steep flight of stairs from Belmar Bridge down to Allegheny River Trail.
Allegheny Valley Trails Association Franklin Area Chamber of
Maps, guides, other references
Trail brochure, Recreational Trails in the Oil Region, by Oil Region Alliance & Allegheny Valley Trails Association.
USGS Topographic Maps: Cranberry, Kennerdell, Polk.
Text version of 20 Jul 2018 based on car from Pecan to Fisherman Cove 8/2015, by bicycle Fisherman Cove to Van 10/2017. Conditions may have changed; you are responsible for your own safety. Oldest segment check 10/2017.