I’ve ridden on many great rail trails in Pennsylvania, but few have offered quite as much to see as the few miles I biked of the Armstrong Trail.
The Armstrong Trail is a 35-mile rail trail along the banks of the Allegheny River in Clarion County and Armstrong County, PA. The trail runs from just north of East Brady, near Brady’s Bend Overlook, through Kittanning and down to just past Ford City.
While there are great sights to see along the entirety of the trail, my experience biking this trail only encompasses a short section along the trail’s northern end, which is what I’ll focus this article on.
The portion of the trail that I’ve biked is just under three miles in length and runs from Philipston to Redbank Creek. All told, this is a roughly 5.5-mile out-and-back trip if you opt to follow it as I have here. However, you could certainly continue biking further down the trail if you wanted a longer trip.
While many opt to park in the lot in East Brady to bike this section of the trail, I started my adventure in Philipston, a tiny community that appeared to be filled mostly with RV campers during my visit in early September. Starting here instead of in the parking lot in East Brady cuts off about 3.5 miles of biking for the entire trip.
The dirt road leading to the parking area in Philipston is steep but was very easily accessible in a standard car when I visited.
I parked in the Armstrong Trail parking lot at the following coordinates: 40.975073, -79.589374.
Once you’ve parked and gotten ready to ride, hop on the trail and pass the yellow gate to head downriver. However, don’t get too comfortable, as the first spot worth checking out is only about 200 feet from the parking area.
Off to your left while on the trail and visible from the parking lot, you’ll be able to see the Philipston Turntable.
The Philipston Turntable was originally constructed in 1923 and is the last remaining part of the Philipston Yard, which was originally constructed in the 1860s when the Allegheny Valley Railroad extended their line three miles north of Redbank Creek.
It was the Allegheny Valley Railroad that originally owned and operated the entire portion of the rail trail. This area continued to support the railroad for over 100 years, being first sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad and then to Conrail, before being abandoned in 1984.
The Philipston Turntable is the first of several fascinating remnants of the railroad that you’ll see while biking the trail. And, like the other spots on this list, there is a bit of signage nearby to tell about this spot’s history and importance.
Once you’ve had a chance to check out the turntable, hop back on your bicycle and continue heading downriver. Along the way, you’ll pass beautiful views of the Allegheny River and, if water levels are high, several small waterfalls.
The trail itself is wide and well-maintained and is covered with crushed stone. The trip downriver is a very slight downhill grade, but it’s not very noticeable, even when biking back, as there is only about a 40-foot elevation decline over the 2.75 miles of the route being covered here.
The next specific point of interest can be found 1.2 miles further down the trail: the Brady Tunnel.
The Brady Tunnel was constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad and completed in 1916. This tunnel is just under half a mile long and was built to cut off several miles of curvy track around East Brady.
When I visited in the late summer of 2021, the tunnel was closed to bicycles due to its condition. However, work is ongoing to reopen the tunnel for bicyclists as part of the effort to build a trail from Erie to Pittsburgh (and then onward on the Great Allegheny Passage towards D.C.). Hopefully, someday soon, you will be able to ride your bike through the tunnel.
That being said, take a few minutes to stop here and enjoy the incredible beauty and craftsmanship of this tunnel. And don’t miss the giant sluice that carries water down the hillside just above the tunnel.
Continuing on the Armstrong Trail for another 1.1 miles will bring you to, in my opinion, the most striking feature of the trail: the Redbank Coaling Tower.
This massive structure was completed in 1930 and was used to replenish coal for steam locomotives that ran along the track. In 1957, when the last of the steam trains were phased out for diesel locomotives, this tower ceased operations.
While I couldn’t find any information on the exact height of this tower, it’s likely at least 80 feet in height and quite fascinating to look at while biking the Armstrong Trail. In fact, the trail runs directly below it!
While you could turn around at this point for a five-mile bike ride, I opted to continue biking a short distance further to the far end of Redbank Creek, which is only about four-tenths of a mile further down the trail.
Biking this extra distance, I passed the start of the 51-mile Redbank Valley Rail Trail and got to cross over the creek on a railroad bridge built in the early 20th century.
Just beyond the creek, you’ll find a small parking lot at the end of Redbank Road. If you wanted to walk to the coaling tower, this would be the closest parking area, though I haven’t driven the road to know of its condition, so preceded with caution.
For those that want to access this parking area, you can find it at the following coordinates: 40.981212, -79.548734.
From this point, you could continue to bike the Armstrong Trail for many more miles downriver, though other than a lock and dam on the Allegheny River a few miles downstream, I don’t know of any specific highlights along the next few miles of the trail.
Because of this, I opted to turn around for the 2.75-mile bike ride back to my car near the Philipston Turntable.
As I said at the beginning, I’ve biked many rail trails in Pennsylvania, and without a doubt, the Armstrong Trail is one of the most interesting that I’ve done. While other trails might have more in the way of natural beauty, I can’t think of any other three-mile stretch of trail that features so many fascinating abandoned ruins that are so easily accessible by bicycle.
[Click here for information on how to use the coordinates in this article to find your destination.]