Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — March 2010

Bells Gap Offers Hikers Area History of Railroad

by Helena Kotala

Bells Gap Rail Trail Vista

Bells Gap Rail Trail offers scenic vistas · Photo by Helena Kotala

The Bells Gap Rail Trail is a gem near the small town of Bellwood, PA, that combines the beautiful scenery of the Allegheny Front and with the history of the Bells Gap Railroad.

In the 1850s, the Bells Gap Railroad was built to connect northern Pennsylvania with the Mainline railroad. The spur connects to the mainline in the town of Bellwood, and was originally built as a narrow-gauge rail line. It was eventually converted to a standard-gauge line in 1872. The Bells Gap Railroad remained in use until the 1930s, when Route 865 was improved and the railroad became obsolete. Because the rail line had to be kept at a grade below 4%, it now offers a relatively flat, level trail that is excellent for hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.

Bells Gap Rail Trail

Bells Gap Rail Trail is ideal for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter · Photo by Helena Kotala

There are two “parts” to the trail. Approximately 2 miles of the trail is owned by Rails to Trails, and is officially the Bells Gap Rail Trail. However, the trail continues onto State Game Lands 158, adding an extra 3 miles. The Rails to Trails portion of the trail is made of crushed limestone; the Game Lands portion is slightly less improved.

Parking for the trail can be found at the Rails to Trails parking lot off Rt. 865, north of Bellwood. The Game Lands parking lot at the top of the mountain on Rt. 865 offers parking at the other end of the trail in the small village of Lloydsville. You can either do this hike as a shuttle hike or an out-and-back if you would like a longer outing. If you want to do a shuttle hike, you can start at either end. The trail is a slight (less than 4%) downhill from the Game Lands parking area, so starting at the top offers a slightly easier hike or cross-country ski.

Close to the upper entrance of the trail, on the Game Lands, you will pass the Lloydville Run Acid Mine Drainage Remediation System. This is an artificially-created wetland meant to neutralize the pH of the water seeping from a coal mine on top of the mountain. This project was completed in 1998 and was a joint effort of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society and the Blair County Conservation District. Along the trail near the wetland, there is a small kiosk with more information about the remediation project.

Bells Gap Rail Trail winter foliage

Winter foliage along Bells Gap Rail Trail · Photo by Helena Kotala

Shortly after the wetlands, the stunning vistas begin. Take a moment to stop and look out at the surrounding mountains of the Allegheny Front. Many portions of the trail are also lined with abundant rhododendrons, which are especially beautiful when they are covered in snow. If you do go when there is snow on the ground, keep your eyes open for tracks as you walk, snowshoe, or ski. Some common sightings include deer, rabbit, or porcupine. You may even see the faint outline of the wings of a raven, indicating the spot where he has taken off from the ground.

When you get to Shaw Run, the trail dog-legs, and if you look down at the stream you will see a stone archway. Go down to the stream and get a closer look at the archway, but be careful, because it’s a steep slope. This is about the halfway point on the trail, and a good spot to stop for lunch or for a break to take photos. Around this area, there are also some more breathtaking vistas overlooking the Bellwood Reservoir.

Shortly after this point, the official Rail Trail owned by Rails to Trails begins. There are several other information kiosks talking about the history of the railroad, as well as some benches and small pavilions. The final portion of the trail runs through the outskirts of Bellwood and ends up at the Rails to Trails parking lot on Rt. 865.

If you go: Parking for the Bells Gap Rail Trail is located off Rt. 865 slightly north of Bellwood. If you’re on 865 north, the parking area will be on your right. Turn right off Rt. 865 onto Igou Rd. at the village of Roots, and the parking lot will then be up ahead on your left. There is a small sign stating that it is Rails to Trails parking.

Helena Kotala is a student at Penn State University and the Outings Co-Chair for the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club.