Youghiogheny River Trail, Northern Section

Along Youghiogheny River from McKeesport to Connellsville, in Allegheny, Westmoreland, and Fayette Counties

The trail begins in McKeesport's McKee Point Park on the east side of the Youghiogheny River just south of its confluence with the Monongahela River. This is milepost 15 of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad route (P&LERR); if milepost 0 existed, it would be under the Smithfield St Bridge in Pittsburgh. The trail alignment runs through McKeesport and splits at the 15th St Bridge; either side of the river goes to Boston on a combination of trail and low-traffic roads. From Boston the trail remains on the south side of the Youghiogheny all the way to Connellsville. Volunteer trail monitors, usually wearing distinctive gold shirts, ride the trail carrying first-aid kits, basic tools, and cellular telephones. Flag one down if you need assistance or have questions.

Youghiogheny River Trail, Northern Section

Location                                                South Versailles and Elizabeth Townships, Allegheny County;
                                                                                                Rostraver Township, Westmoreland County;
                                                                            Perry, Franklin, and Dunbar Townships, Fayette County

Trailheads                                                          McKeesport, Boston, West Newton, Cedar Creek Park,
                                                                                                                      Smithton, Dawson, Connellsville

Length, Surface                                                                             43 miles, mostly packed crushed stone

Character                                                                                         Busy to crowded, wooded, shady, flat

Usage restrictions                                                    Horses ok beside trail—stay off improved surface;
                                                                                                          no motorized vehicles; no snowmobiles

Amenities                         Rest rooms, water, bike rental, food, camping, lodging, swimming, fishing

Driving time from Pittsburgh                                                               45 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes

McKee Point Park in McKeesport (mile 15) is the official northern terminus of the trail. From the park, the trail runs south past the marina on Water St to 9th St. Here it stays off the streets on packed crushed limestone for a quarter-mile between Kane Hospital and the river's edge. It turns away from the river to join Saunders St for two blocks. At Market St the trail leaves the street, returning to packed crushed limestone. It crosses 11th St and parallels 11th St to Walnut St (PA148) for two blocks. Just before Walnut St, the trail turns to run alongside Walnut St to 13th St, where it jogs toward the river to pass behind a building, soon returning alongside Walnut St to the 15th St Bridge. The large round building just below the trail is the old water treatment plant. This sounds much more complicated than it actually is; the trail stays between the main drag (Walnut St) and the river, and it's easy to follow.

For the three miles or so between the 15th St Bridge and Boston, the trail has options on both sides of the river. Both alternatives are partially on roads. The alternatives can be combined to make a loop ride up one side of the river and down the other.

The official trail route, the Liberty Connector, crosses the Youghiogheny River on the 15th St Bridge; you have a choice between walking on a narrow sidewalk and riding on a wide shoulder. At the end of the bridge the trail turns left along the west side of the river on River Rd, which has been widened a bit and posted as an on-road bike route. If in doubt about the route, follow signs for Durabond Coatings. The trail follows River Rd for just over a mile to the Durabond plant gate. At the Durabond gate, the trail turns right, goes uphill for about 200', and turns left, climbing about 75 feet on a 5% grade (hence the nickname "Durabond Bypass"). Once on top, the trail clings to the side of the hill on top of a sewer line as it skirts the back side of the Durabond plant for half a mile. From the bypass behind Durabond, a very steep trail to the right ascends to Liberty Borough. After crossing above the Durabond plant, the main trail descends steeply to rejoin the railroad grade at Deadman's Hollow (mile 18). A network of hiking nature trails (no bikes) runs up Deadman's Hollow. Our trail remains level and goes through woods for a mile to the trailhead at the Boston Riverfront Park (mile 19.1).

An alternate route, the East Loop or Christie Park Connector, runs from the 15th St bridge to Boston on the other (east) side of the river. This is the route to use if the Liberty Connector is closed or if you want to make a loop ride. The route uses a combination of trail, low-traffic roads, and bridge sidewalk. Just before the 15th St Bridge, an asphalt ramp descends to cross under the bridge. This is the beginning of the East Loop. The paved trail goes for a mile and a half through Christie Park and ends at the McKeesport city limits. Here a gravel road goes under the RR bridge and up on the other side to join Douglas St. From here it is 1.3 miles on low-traffic roads to the Boston Bridge. One route follows Douglas St along the river then turns left on Juniper St to cross the active RR at the first opportunity.  Be careful here – there are two tracks, and there might be two trains. After crossing the RR, this route follows First St parallel to the tracks until reaching the Boston Bridge. Just before the bridge, it goes left up a hill to reach the bridge (one block is one-way; walk on the sidewalk). The bridge is narrow and busy, so walk across on the downstream sidewalk. At the end of the bridge, make two right turns to reach the Boston access area.

Whichever side of the river you use from McKeesport, you end up at the Boston trailhead, one of the most popular on the trail.  From here the trail runs along the edge of Boston, with light industry on the river side and residential back yards on the land side. The warehouse at mile 20.8 has doors to match boxcars on some long-gone adjacent siding. The scrap yard at mile 21.2 has an art object of a ten foot tall duck. Wildflowers proliferate along the shoulders. After fifteen road crossings, including four in the residential area of Greenock (mile 21.3-21.6), the trail leaves civilization and runs along the river in splendid isolation for 5 miles to Buena Vista. In early May trillium carpets the slopes of the 300-foot hillside along miles 22-23.

The trail emerges on the flats in a curve of the river and passes the site of the Dravo Methodist Church (mile 24.9). This church was founded in 1801 and once drew a congregation from both sides of the river. It was the oldest in the area until fire destroyed it in 1920; the cemetery remains. The trail's first campground, Dravo Landing, is between the cemetery and the river, accessible by the wide trail to the right of the cemetery. It has two fire rings, some adirondack shelters, pavilions and shares the well and the "sweet-smelling" (composting) toilet with trail users at the cemetery. This campground is for trail users and canoeists; share the space. For a group of 20 or more, contact the Regional Trail Council first.

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Dravo Cemetery, mile 24.9

Half a mile past Dravo Cemetery is the ghost town of Stringtown, marked only by a few inconspicuous foundations. If you wander around here you might fall into one of these remnants, so admire the field from the trail. This village once strung out for half a mile along the railroad. Also near here was Indian Queen Alliquippa's summer village.

The trail enters Buena Vista at the Dapul Company on the right, and a greenhouse on the left (mile 26.4). Also here is a toilet and small gazebo. A picnic pavilion (mile 26.6) greets you at the canoe access and parking area in Buena Vista, not far from the swimming pool. For the next 4.8 miles, the trail passes frequently through small towns, alternating between woods and residential communities. Many of these communities began as company towns associated with nearby mines. In Industry (mile 27.5), note the stained glass windows in the Merritt Primitive Methodist Church. As you pass through Industry, Blythedale (mile 29), and later Smithdale (mile 30), notice the uniform basic shape of the houses—a common characteristic of company towns—and the way subsequent owners have individualized them. The trail crosses SR2017 at mile 29.5, next to the bridge to Sutersville. Be careful at this busy road crossing.

From Sutersville, the trail runs half a mile between the cliff and the river to Smithdale (mile 30). Smithdale is one of several company towns along the trail and a particularly good example of how a production-line town can evolve into a community of individualized homes with quite distinct personalities. After leaving Smithdale, the trail returns to the bench along the cliff to pass into Westmoreland County at mile 31.4. It emerges in a residential area of Collinsburg (mile 32.3), which blends into West Newton (mile 33.2).

In West Newton, the trail council's combine car—a rail car that's part passenger, part baggage—sits beside the train station near PA136. This car is one of the three remaining cars of its kind; it has been restored, largely by volunteers, to become an environment learning center. You'll see some fine old homes in West Newton just before reaching a major trailhead at PA136. There are stores on the right side of the trail and also on the other side of the Youghiogheny River, across the PA136 bridge. Be careful at the PA136 intersection; there's a lot of traffic but no signal. At West Newton, the trail leaves civilization for most of a mile, until Buddtown (mile 34), where Joseph and Joshua Budd once operated a ferry across the river (mile 34.1). Just after leaving Buddtown you pass the remnants of the Banning #4 coal mine and coal cleaning plant (mile 34.5, private property). The mine is closed, but the water treatment plant still runs. Note the cattails across from the water treatment plant.

Then the cliff approaches the river and the trail runs on a wide flat bench between the cliff and the river. A wooden bridge marks the entry to the Manderino Riverfront section of Cedar Creek Park (mile 36.5), where you'll find heat and running water in the restrooms and snacks in restored Cedar Creek Station. The Cedar Creek gorge, accessible by walking trail, has superb wildflower displays through the year. The main trail continues through the waterfront section of the park, crosses the access road (mile 37.1), then re-enters the woods between the cliff and the river. A biker/boater campground has been developed at the southernmost end of the park (new MP110); small groups do not need reservations. Larger group camping near the access road is available by prior arrangement and fee; contact Westmoreland Co. Parks at (724) 838-3968 for information and permit. The trail remains in the woods for another mile to Smithton (mile 39.3), where there's another parking lot and canoe access. Across the river at Smithton you can see the Jones Brewing Company, built in 1907 as the home of Stoney's beer.

Past Smithton, the trail continues along the Youghiogheny River through old company towns and their mines, beginning with Van Meter (mile 40.1 to 41.2) and Whitsett (mile 42.7 to 44.5). Van Meter (mile 40.5) served the Darr Mine, whose coal cleaning plant you'll see at mile 41.4. Van Meter became a virtual ghost town almost overnight in December 1907, when disasters in both the Naomi and Darr Mines claimed first 34, then 239 lives. The large building on the west side of the trail near the road intersection is the former Company Store; you can still buy soft drinks at the vending machine nearby. The residence next to the trail that looks like a train station once was the train station. A suspension footbridge once crossed the Youghiogheny River from Van Meter to Jacob's Creek. At 432 feet in length, it was believed to be the longest such bridge in the world when it opened in 1926.

After Van Meter, the trail passes under the Norfolk and Western High Bridge (mile 41.5), The Banning #2 mine (office at Whitsett Rd, mile 42.7) was served by Whitsett (mile 43), another coal patch town. Ralph Whitsett Sr., the town founder, built the large red house on the road near the river (mile 43) in 1873. An exhibit at the Pittsburgh Regional History Center features Whitsett.

The most remote section of the trail runs from Layton (mile 45.7) to Dawson/Dickerson Run (mile 52.8). There is no road access in this 7-mile stretch, just the woods and the river. Be prepared to do your own repairs here; it's a long walk to the nearest road. Just past Layton you'll pass the remains of a brick factory and its associated kilns (mile 46.2) and cross several small streams. The trail council has developed a primitive campground at Roundbottom (mile 47.6, new MP102).

Dickerson Run (mile 52.8), across the river from Dawson, was once a major switching yard. The P&LE operated the 2500-car yard under a joint switching agreement with the Western Maryland RR from 1912 to 1970. It has a large parking lot and trailhead. For 2.5 miles south from here, to Adelaide (mile 55.2), the trail again runs close to the river.

 This area was once known as the coke capital of the world. Hundreds of coke ovens in one or two rows dot the hillsides just above the trail. An interpretive sign at mile 54 describes their history. An 8-foot thick outcropping of the Pittsburgh Coal Seam and a row of coke ovens are visible near mile 54. This is the only spot on the trail where you can actually see the Pittsburgh Seam, which played a key role in the region's economic history.

At Adelaide (mile 55.2) the trail emerges from the woods at River's Edge Campground, passes through a small town for about a mile, and re-enters the woods. At mile 57.2 a side trail leads to a (closed) railroad bridge across the Youghiogheny. The trail emerges into a large cindered parking lot at mile 58. At the edge of the lot a former railroad yard office is being refurbished as a trail information center; eventually there will be rest rooms here.

From the left edge of the cinder lot a ramp winds down the hill to Yough River Park near the William Crawford cabin. The trail goes through the park to a parking lot, where it connects with the bike trail along 3rd St through Connellsville to the southern section of the trail. At Connellsville the river leaves the farm and mining lands in the valley and enters the water gap through Chestnut Ridge. As you cross to the southern section, the character of the trail changes from flatwater to whitewater, and the setting changes from rural mining towns to near-wilderness gorge.

Local history, attractions

The railroad that once ran here opened for business as the Pittsburgh, McKeesport, & Youghiogheny Railroad—PMc&Y, also known as the "P-Mickey"—in October 12, 1883. Almost immediately, on January 1, 1884, it became part of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad (P&LERR). In 1887 it became a New York Central (NYC) line, which merged with the Pennsy in the 1960s to become the Penn Central. The collapse of the Penn Central made the P&LE independent again in 1978. P&LE filed to abandon the line in 1990, after the decline of the coal industry reduced traffic too much. Most of the P&LE's business was related to steel-making: coal, ore, coke, and limestone. P&LE boxcars bore the slogan "Serves the Steel Centers."

Industrial activity in the valley revolved around the steel industry, and the trail shows conspicuous remnants of both steel and mining activity. In some areas piles of mine tailings (also called gob, or red-dog) dominate the landscape. Several ruins of coal-processing plants remain. Less obvious, but still visible, are a number of areas of mine drainage. Spot these by the bright orange soil under the waterfall or creek. Remains of coke ovens lie near the trail at several locations. Several of the towns along the trail are former company towns.

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Coke oven, near mile 54

A short-lived canal served the Youghiogheny River between West Newton and McKeesport. The Youghiogheny Slackwater Navigation Company built two dams of logs and stone. Locks allowed steamboats to overcome a 27-foot change in elevation and created a slackwater navigation system. The canal began operations around 1850 but was destroyed by a flood in January 1865.

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