When it began operating, the Switchback Railroad was the second railroad in America and the first in Pennsylvania. Built to haul coal from the Summit Mine to the Lehigh Canal, the railroad evolved from a gravity-powered system (The Down Track) and mule-powered system (The Back Track) to a 95% gravity-run operation.
Today the Switchback Trail still inspires tourists and locals alike. Two 9-mile routes intersect to make up the Switchback. Regardless of which you choose, start in Summit Hill and bike downhill toward Jim Thorpe. The grade in reverse is challenging. Although this trail doesn’t require a lot of pedaling, it commands your attention. (For a shorter ride, pick up the trail in Mauch Chunk Lake Park, which has parking, restrooms, picnic areas and campgrounds. Fishing is permitted.)
With its hard-packed dirt surface, the Down Track is the easier southern route. This track takes you along Mauch Chunk Lake for 0.5 mile and then plunges into a lush forested area. At mile 7, the trail ends abruptly on Lentz Trail Road. Cross the road, head downhill toward Jim Thorpe and continue past the power plant entrance (go around the gated drive); pick up the trail again at the back of the power plant access road. From here continue on a peaceful wooded trail, riding on a bluff overlooking the community of Jim Thorpe below.
The northern Back Track is suitable for mountain bikes. Be prepared to pay attention as you traverse ballast, navigate large rocks in packed dirt and portage your bike around sections of the trail that are too steep to cross otherwise. As this section of the trail winds down outside Jim Thorpe, you’ll discover an optional small loop that takes you to a scenic overview. Beware: locals say copperheads have been seen in that area. At the trail’s end, you will encounter a knee-breaking descent on a steep, slippery rock surface, where keeping your footing while holding your bike will be challenging.
Bike rental and shuttle services available in downtown Jim Thorpe will drop you off at the trailhead in Summit Hill, where you can take the Switchback Trail downhill right back into town and spend the rest of your day enjoying the many quaint shops and restaurants. If you’d rather keep exploring trails, the area has several other rail-trails to explore, including the D & L Trail – Lehigh Canal North and the D & L Trail – Lehigh Gorge State Park.