Today’s trip is one of our favorites. We live near Pittsburgh. Our rivers define us. The Monongahela from the south, and the Allegheny from the north meet at Point State Park to form the Ohio. When I was a kid, steel mills lined the Mon from just south of Pittsburgh for 50 miles. Barges loaded with coal passed each other at every bend of the river providing the carbon for carbon steel. At night, the Mon Valley lit up like day. It was “Hell with the lid off”.
Along with the barges, railways ran along each river bank. The Pennsylvania Railroad, The Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, The Baltimore & Ohio, The Chesapeake & Ohio, The New York Central. These were the names written on the cars that rumbled through the Mon Valley when I was a boy. But as the steel mills shut down, and the railroad companies merged, the need for so many railways disappeared. But instead of allowing the lines to fall into decay, a great thing happened. Many of the railways became bike trails. So many that a continuous trail starting in Pittsburgh, follows the Mon south to McKeesport, then follows the Youghiogheny River (right past my house) for over 100 miles before connecting with a trail near Cumberland, MD that follows the Potomac River to Washington, DC. In total, the Pittsburgh to Washington Bike Trail covers 335 miles. I’ve never done it, but I plan to. The trails are wide, flat, and constructed of crushed limestone, which is an
excellent surface to ride on unless it’s raining.
We will start along the Mon just south of Pittsburgh, head north along the west bank of the river to Station Square, then right through the downtown Golden Triangle to Point State Park. Across the Allegheny to the Northside before starting back south. There may be better ways to spend a sunny day away from work, but not many.
1. Second Avenue Car Park
There are lots of places to access the trail as parking lots are provided along the way. If we feel ambitious, we will park at the Homestead Waterfront which probably adds 10 miles to the trip. Today, we will drive through Hazelwood to Second Avenue. Turn up the hill at the flashing yellow light to enter the carpark. I’ve always left my unlocked bike rack on my car here, and, knock on wood, it’s always been there when I returned. About a quarter mile north of the car park, the trail splits. We will take the newest of Pittsburgh’s many bridges, the Hot Metal Bridge to the Southside. It is actually an old railroad bridge that was converted to automobile (and bicycle) traffic when they took out the tracks and made the bike trail.
On the west side of the river we pick up the trail that follows the Mon due north through Southside. The main drag through the Southside is Carson St. It is full of great restaurants and bars and really jumps on weekends (check out Fatheads for some good pierogies). The trail along the river is much quieter and offers glimpses of downtown through the gaps in the trees. The last half mile or so the trail follows the railroad tracks into a Pittsburgh landmark, Station Square.
Like all big cities, there were blackout restrictions on Pittsburgh during WW-2. The rich stained-glass roof of the Pennsylvania and Lake Erie railway station was painted black and promptly forgotten, until a workman inspecting the roof for a new restaurant scuffed the paint with his boot and a shaft of green light stabbed through the dark interior. The station now is home to one of Pittsburgh’s finest restaurants, the Grand Concourse. It is a beautiful place so stop in and look around. Station Square is chock full of restaurants, bars and shopping, so lock up your bikes and pick a place for lunch. We generally have lunch at someplace quicker like the Hard Rock Café which has an outside patio where we can eat and keep an eye on our bikes. It also overlooks a music-driven dancing fountain that is fun to watch.
Directly across Carson St. from Station Square is the Monongahela Incline. At one time nearly a dozen of these inclined railways scaled Mt. Washington. Now, this one and the Duquesne Incline about a half mile further down Carson are all that remain. The view of the city from the top is spectacular. Don’t miss this if you’ve never been here before.
Leaving Station Square, we cross the Mon on the Smithfield St. Bridge. This is one of the few remaining Lindenthal bridges in the US and was built in 1883.
Across the bridge is Downtown, or “Dahntahn” as us yinzers say it. Go left and head for the point where the rivers converge. This is Point State Park which was the site of Ft. Duquesne when Pittsburgh was founded by the French, and later Ft. Pitt when the city was taken by the British in the French and Indian War. There is always something going on in the park with the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the Three Rivers Regatta in the summer, to pre- and post-game partying for Steelers games. A big fountain stands at the apex of the point.
A wide walkway/bikeway leads across the Ft. Duquesne Bridge to the Northside. Look left and see Heinz field, home of the Steelers, and right to see PNC Park, home of the Pirates. Heinz Field is hallowed ground as the Steelers are what all Pittsburghers live and die for in the fall. This is the Northshore Riverside Park.
Another cool feature is the Water Steps which is located just past PNC Park. Man-made water falls make for a great place to cool off on a hot day.
5. Carnegie Science Center
A paved bike trail follows the river bank past Heinz Field to the Carnegie Science Center. This is a great place to take kids for hands-on science. Parked on the water just outside is a WW-2 Era Tench-class submarine, the SS Requin that is open for tours. My dad served on the SS Dogfish, a Guppy-class sub in the Korean War.
6. PNC Park
I’ve been a Bucco fan since before I could read. My dad took me to Forbes Field to see Dick Groat and Bill Mazeroski play, then to Three Rivers to see Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. The 60s and 70s were great times to be a Pirate fan. The 80s tailed off a bit, but came back strong in the early 90s. Then the bottom fell out. The Pirates set a record for 21 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2012. It was miserable. After these lean times, the team looks to be pretty good again making the playoffs the last two seasons. Finally, the best park in baseball has a team worthy to play in it.
PNC park is gorgeous. Outside the outfield fence is a walkway, then the river with the buildings of downtown beyond. The view is breathtaking.
Outside the park are three statues. Honus Wagner who was arguably the best shortstop to ever play, Willie Stargell who took the team on his back to win the 1979 World Series, and Roberto Clemente, who is the best loved athlete in the city’s history. Roberto led the Pirates to the 1971 World Series crown, then collected his 3000-th base hit in 1972. After a devastating earthquake hit Nicaragua, he organized an airlift of humanitarian aid from his off season home in Puerto Rico. He was on the plane as it went down in the Caribbean on New Year’s Eve 1972. I was 14 and babysitting when the news broke and cried like a baby.
Getting close to suppertime, we like to stop at one of the restaurants in the ballpark. We like Atria’s, which has windows looking out onto the field. This is a good place to see the park when the Pirates are off.
7. Allegheny County Jail
The Roberto Clemente Bridge is our route back to downtown, then across town to the jail. The jail is fairly new and is supposedly pretty nice though I’ve never been in there. It is more important as this is where the bike trail resumes. Follow the trail along the other side of the Mon back to the Hot Metal Bridge and the parking lot.
I hope you enjoyed our bike trip in Pittsburgh. It’s my home town, so I’m probably biased, but I think it’s a wonderful city. It’s small enough to explore completely in a day, and very bike and pedestrian friendly. Come and visit us.
And there are plenty of other, less urban trips to take along the trail.