One of my favorite hometown trails is the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail. It’s a peaceful ride through the scenic rolling farmlands of the Cumberland Valley in my home state of Pennsylvania. Flanked by Carlisle (one of the most walkable small towns in PA) and Shippensburg, the town offers tons of options for pre- and post-ride celebrations. Best of all, the trail is still under active development. That means that the existing sections are extremely well-kept and new segments are still in progress. Long story short, it’s my go-to when I want to just disconnect and spend an afternoon pedaling.
The trail follows the path of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, which began freight & passenger service in 1837. At its peak the CVRR employed 1800 people and provided passenger service from Harrisburg PA (that unused rail bridge across the Susquehanna, no not that one, was built by the CVRR) to Winchester VA. CVRR was the first railroad to use sleeper cars in the US, and the line played a crucial role ferrying troops and supplies during the Civil War. Passenger service ended in 1952 and the line was largely abandoned by 1980.
Planning for the trail started way back in 1992. The trail opened from Newville to Shippensburg Township Park around 2005, with bridges expanding this 12.5-mile segment to its current footprint in 2017. Two additional isolated segments — a one-mile segment running west from Allen Road and a two-mile segment running east from Springview Road — show what the future may hold. At Allen Road, the trail connects with Carlisle’s West End Trail, providing a safe passage into downtown Carlisle. Once the trail is complete, this will provide a safe passage between all the restaurants, brewpubs, and shops that downtown Carlisle and downtown Shippensburg have to offer!
But wait, there’s more!
If you look at the original right-of-way for the CVRR, you’ll notice it eventually winds its way through Williamsport, Maryland. If that town rings a bell it’s because the C&O Towpath Trail also runs through Williamsport. The C&O connects Washington DC to Cumberland MD, where it meets up with the Great Allegheny Passage.
In other words, the Cumberland Valley Rail Trail has the potential to connect the Cumberland Valley with one of the most epic rail trails in the US. In other words, this would provide a continuous off-road bike trail linking Carlisle PA, Washington DC, and Pittsburgh PA! How epic would that be?
Admittedly, this is a reach. Nobody at the CVRT has announced any such plans. Even if they did, it would require a gigantic amount of effort, time, and money to implement. But never say never, right?
The Cumberland Valley Rail Trail offers a shady, mostly-tree-lined ride through the rolling farmlands of the Cumberland Valley. The trail surface is mostly crushed gravel and packed dirt, with some segments near Newville and Shippensburg offering a paved surface. As of 2023, the isolated segment west of Allen Road is largely unimproved (but still very rideable) dirt track. Overall, the entire trail is in excellent condition thanks to constant maintenance and TLC from the volunteers who support the trail.
One thing to be aware of is the unusually large number of road crossings along the trail. The Newville / Shippensburg segment has 12 at-grade road crossings, along with four bridges and underpasses. Most of the at-grade crossings are at low-traffic rural roads with good visibility. In addition, because you’re traversing rural farmland, you’re going to encounter a handful of driveways and access roads crossing the trail.
I’ve never had any safety concerns but if you’re riding with small children or inexperienced riders, this makes a good opportunity to bring them up to speed on crossing safely. In fact, for anyone doubting their endurance, the large number of crossings make it easy to divide the trail up however you see fit.
You’ll also encounter a lot of animals along the way. Cows and goats are pastured right up against the trail (please respect our trail neighbors and leave the animals alone) and you’ll often encounter horses sharing the trail. I’ve also had more than my share of farm cats trot out to greet me, or stake out a sunny spot along the trail.
The CVRT can get pretty popular, especially when the weather is ideal. You’re more likely to encounter other users — especially pedestrians — around the Newville and Shippensburg trailheads. That said, I’ve never encountered significant congestion like you’ll occasionally get on some other area trails. Even on the busiest days, the CVRT is a relaxing ride.
On One Hand, Carlisle
At Allen Road, a one-mile stretch of rail trail sits disconnected from the rest of the trail, awaiting further development. But if you’re willing to adventure just a little bit north, you’ll pick up the very accessible West End Trail. This gives you an easy and enjoyable connection into downtown Carlisle by way of a few parks and quiet residential streets. Pay attention and you’ll find a few short mountain bike trails just beyond the cornfields!
Carlisle was recently ranked as one of the most walkable towns in Pennsylvania! Downtown has its share of restaurants, brewpubs, cocktails, wineries, galleries, shops, and more. Some of my favorites:
- Massey’s Frozen Custard (above) is an icon. I promise you, it is worth the trip and whatever you get will be outstanding! Sure, the calories you pack on will technically cancel out your ride, but who cares?
- 1794 The Whiskey Rebellion offers indoor & outdoor seating and the best cocktails, steaks, and burgers in the area. Their scorpion fries offer a slow burn that pairs great with steak or burgers.
- Market Cross Pub is my go-to dive bar. They lack outdoor seating but they’re unbeatable for cheap brews and satisfying, affordable pub fare.
- Grand Illusion Hard Cider also has indoor / outdoor seating and a creative tap list that skews towards ciders and sours. They round it out with a handful of stouts, ales, and IPAs. Their events page is equally unique, with murder mysteries, tipsy history, and trivia on a regular basis.
- Denim Coffee is a local coffee chain that roasts their own beans. Everything they brew is excellent, but I highly recommend anything iced for the ride.
- Molly Pitcher Brewing Company is my other favorite brewery in downtown Carlisle. They also feature live music and a menu of burgers, sandwiches, and other casual fare.
On the Other Hand: Shippensburg
The southern end of the trail terminates in Shippensburg, near Shippensburg University. Being a college town, Shippensburg has many options for refilling as well. The Wheelhouse Cafe offers casual, no-frills diner fare at affordable prices. Appalachian Brewing Company is a regional brewpub favorite with a wide selection of in-house brews and excellent pub fare. Shippensburg First Friday runs April through October and offers a collection of food trucks, merchants, and live entertainment.
Carlisle and Shippensburg both offer tons of great places to eat, drink, and visit. Both towns have made massive investments in developing their downtowns and creating very walkable destinations that are well worth the trip. There’s just one problem: bike racks are rare. When you do find one, it’s poorly placed and away from wherever you want to be.
I’ve reached out to some of the businesses in both towns, and the general consensus seems to be that bike racks aren’t a priority at the moment. So just be aware that if you want to patronize any of these businesses (and I highly recommend you do), you’ll either need to designate someone to stay behind and watch the bikes, or ride back to your trailhead, lock them down on your bike hitch, and drive into town.
It’s an oversight that’s cheap and easy to fix — and that can offer a tremendous return on investment — so hopefully this will improve in the future.
I usually start my ride at the Newville trailhead. This trailhead features plenty of parking, full restrooms, and lots of foot traffic. You’re also likely to get a friendly wave from some of the locals. From here it’s about 10 miles south to the Shippensburg trailhead, and about 2.5 miles north to the temporary terminus at Green Hill Road. You’ll have a very gentle grade (about 1%) southbound, so this gives you a slightly easier ride back.
Shippensburg Township Park is another good place to start. You’re only a mile north of the Shippensburg trailhead, and like the Newville trailhead, full facilities are available. Just remember that this is a popular park, so parking can be tight on the busiest days — especially holidays.
Parking is also available at multiple trailheads along the way, but these typically only have 5-10 spots and fill up quickly. Additionally, the Carlisle and Springview Road trailheads have space for about five cars each.
The Cumberland Valley Rail Trail is an easy, scenic ride that’s readily accessible to all ages and ability levels. It’s bookended by very walkable small towns (with a slight win going to Carlisle), and is constantly being developed and maintained. Go on any given weekend and you’ll encounter lots of friendly walkers, runners, cyclists, and equestrians sharing the trail — yet it never feels congested.