Converted railway trails may be pretty common, but there is nothing ordinary about the Switchback Railroad in Carbon County, PA. This wooded trek through Pennsylvania coal country takes you back to the roots of American rail travel. Whether or not your pups are history buffs, they'll enjoy a hike that's both peaceful and exciting on the Switchback Railroad Trail.
The 1827 Switchback Gravity Railroad was Pennsylvania's first railway and the nation's second, built before steam engines were in common use here. Designed to move coal from Summit Hill to transportation corridors and the town of Mauch Chunk (fortunately renamed Jim Thorpe in the 1950s) the 9-mile Down Track of the Switchback operated primarily on gravity.
The shockingly steep descent was such a wild ride that the railroad let thrillseekers tag along, and after more efficient technology ended its coal-transport business, it continued as a tourist enterprise. By the 1870s, the Switchback was drawing over 75,000 visitors a year, second only to Niagara Falls. The exciting ups and downs are thought to have inspired the world's first roller coaster, built in 1884 on Coney Island, NY. The Switchback closed for business during the Great Depression and went unused until adventurous hikers revived it as a recreational trail, enjoying not just its history but also the dense forest canopy and stunning views over Jim Thorpe and the Lehigh River Valley.
In addition to the main Down Track, an additional 9-mile Back Track forms a figure-eight with the original railroad. The Back Track was added to return empty coal cars to Summit Hill via mule without blocking the main route. Both tracks are now open only to hikers, bikers, and on-leash pups. The northern Back Track is more rugged with several steep, slippery slopes; it is better suited to mountain bikes than tender paws. Only confident hikers and sure-footed dogs should attempt it.
The high-elevation trailhead is on Holland Street in Summit Hill; only roadside parking is available. On the other end, the Jim Thorpe trailhead is near the intersection of Pine and North Avenues; you'd be starting your hike with a steep climb, though, and your doggos might hold a grudge. Note that at mile 7, the trail appears to dead-end into Lentz Trail, but if you head downhill along the road past the power plant, the trail picks up again at the end of the power plant access road.
Mauch Chunk Lake Park is a midpoint along the trail, and many hikers and bikers start their journey here for an easier walk of about 5.5 miles from the park to Jim Thorpe. The park has water, restrooms, and free parking. The Mauch Chunk campground, unfortunately, does not allow pets, but there are 10 dog-friendly hotels in Jim Thorpe.If coming down the mountain sounds more fun than climbing back up again, note that shuttle services are available for hire in Jim Thorpe. You can leave your car in town and catch a shuttle to Summit Hill! (Fido will thank you.)