Welcome to another installment of our “Trail Town” series of articles. These articles feature a trail running town that you should put on your bucket list of places to visit! This month we feature the city of Johnstown; located where the Conemaugh River forms at the confluence of its tributaries, the Stonycreek River and the Little Conemaugh. This Pennsylvania trail town has a population of 20,000 full time residents.
Although a small town, Johnstown is recognized by people all over the world for having survived three major floods in 1889, 1936, and 1977. The town was home to Cambria Iron Company and Bethlehem Steel Company – both of which had a major impact on the U.S. iron and steel industry in the previous century.
Today, Johnstown is recognized as an outdoor recreation destination for many sports including trail running. Johnstown and its surrounding communities have active residents and organizations who are working diligently to revitalize public lands and make it a great place to live, work and play.
After 100+ years as a steel town, new life has been given to Johnstown’s lakes, rivers, and streams. Trails for recreation are being maintained and extended. Local businesses are reaping the economic benefits of having an active outdoor community and visitors are putting Johnstown on their bucket list so that they too, can enjoy the best the town has to offer.
Natural beauty and fascinating historical features, the Ghost Town Trail is a 46 mile long ‘rails to trails’ trail conversion. The trail includes a 32 mile main stem with 14 miles of branches. Currently, work is being done to create a loop, which will make the Ghost Town Trail the first continuous loop rail-trail in the United States. We smell a future trail race course!
Named for the long-gone coal-mining communities that once dotted its right-of-way, the Ghost Town Trail goes past two massive iron furnaces, old coal-loading tipples, boney (coal-refuse) piles and other traces of industrial history. The Blacklick Creek valley in which the trail is situated is gorgeous, with mountain streams, stands of rhododendron, dozens of wildflower species and cool woodlands.
PRO TIP: Did you know that according to a recent study, rail-trails contribute $930 million to the Pennsylvania economy?
The Ghost Town Trail, in addition to the Path of the Flood Trail and the Jim Mayer Riverswalk Trail have all received national attention for being designated National Recreation Trails. The Ghost Town Trail has also been recognized as one of the top nine hiking trails in the United States.
The Path of the Flood Trail is an 11 mile historic route enabling runners to start just below the breached South Fork Dam and follow the same watercourse that floodwaters took in 1889, when they surged into Johnstown. A four-mile section from the trailhead in Ehrenfeld to Mineral Point offers scenic views, educational trailside markers and moderately challenging slopes when hiking eastward. Below Mineral Point and the two-mile Staple Bend Tunnel Trail, trail runners will be challenged with steep grades for one mile. Following another mile on a flat trail to a hillside park above Franklin, runners will finish with three miles on public streets before reaching the route’s terminus at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Stretching 70 miles along the Laurel Mountain from the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle State Park to the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown, the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is one to add to your ultra-running bucket list! Those running the length of the trail will pass through state parks, state forests, state game lands, other public lands, and private lands.
Named for a local conservationist, the Jim Mayer Riverswalk Trail is a delightful, 3.1 mile urban trail on the east end of the City of Johnstown. This trail offers beautiful views of the river, abundant bird-life and wildflowers, picturesque Buttermilk Falls and serenity within an urban setting.
The Jim Mayer Riverswalk Trail is part of a growing urban trail system in Johnstown that currently follows the Stonycreek River from Central Avenue behind an industrial complex to the residential community of Riverside. One of its best features is the 50-foot Buttermilk Falls, located at the midpoint of the trail.
If you enjoy urban trail systems, be sure to also check out the Cambria Iron Trail that runs through historic Cambria City. The Honan Avenue Community Hiking and Biking Trail also begins in Cambria City, and leads you about three miles past an active beaver dam and waterfalls.
If you are seeking a trail running experience that is truly unique to Johnstown, visit the Inclined Plane Trails. The Inclined Plane Trails provide access for users to run next to the World Steepest Vehicular Inclined Plane. Are your joints or muscles to creaky to run downhill? Run to the top and ride the Inclined Plane to the bottom for a small fee and you can save your quads from getting wrecked!
Runners, Hikers and mountain bikers also enjoy the rugged trails at Highland Regional Park. The park, which offers over 13 miles of trails, are ideal for those seeking a little challenge. For those trail runners who want to try mountain biking, these trails are built to include rock gardens, boulders, log piles and skinnies. Eat your heart out North Shore of Vancouver!
For trail runners who enjoy nature’s beauty and a low-key trail run, Powell Stackhouse Park is a beautiful 250-acre nature park with over a dozen different short trails ready to be explored. Stackhouse Park is beautifully maintained and runners can relax under large pavilions (one even has a fire-place)! A number of cool events take place at Stackhouse each year such as Shakespeare in the Park, musical performances, photography workshops, turkey clinics, and much more!
Parking and Transit:
Public bus transportation is available through local transit agency CamTran. CamTran buses are equipped with bicycle racks. For drivers, there is no fee to park at trailheads or to any fees access the trails.
The trail community throughout Cambria County is enthusiastic, passionate, and eager! The Cambria County Conservation & Recreation Authority (CCCRA) exists to create, enhance and preserve great trail experiences in Cambria County. They strive to provide the residents of Cambria County sustainable recreational trail experiences that connect citizens with the region’s assets to encourage an active and healthy lifestyle.
The CCCRA has over twenty community partners that work to maintain, enhance, market, and help fund their efforts. All entities work together and are motivated by their love for the community, outdoors, and trail systems.
Although Johnstown has been through its share of tough times – surviving three major floods and the loss of the steel industry – there is a lot to be excited about! Revitalization efforts are in full swing as residents, local organizations, and non-profits are working to make Johnstown a top destination for live, work, and play.
Old buildings are being revitalized for business and artistic purposes. New businesses are emerging and the small business community is becoming more vibrant. Outdoor recreation has become a major focus in the area, and visitors are traveling from near and far to enjoy the lakes, rivers, and trails. The Johnstown region has become a hub for a wide range of non-motorized outdoor activities including trail running, hiking, mountain biking, geocaching, tubing, and kayaking.
Flood City Café’s comfortable atmosphere and friendly environment makes it an easy place to relax and enjoy a beverage or meal. The restaurant features fresh beverages, homemade soups, and delicious salads and sandwiches-some traditional and some with a creative twist!
The Morning Grind Coffee House is located in proximity to Johnstown’s Jim Mayer Riverswalk Trail, The Morning Grind serves three types of coffee daily, featuring a flavor of the week. Specialty drinks, teas, and food are also available in a modern, relaxed setting.
A recent addition to Main Street in Downtown Johnstown, Classic Elements is a gift shop, bookstore, and café. The space serves as an excellent spot for people to meet, shop, enjoy a cup of coffee, and relax. Classic Elements serves pastries from Lambcakes, a locally owned and operated bakery in Downtown Johnstown.
Located in the heart of downtown Johnstown, Stone Bridge Brewing Company (SBBC) welcomes outdoor enthusiasts with a selection of craft beers, locally made wine, and live entertainment. SBBC is only steps from Johnstown’s Central Park.
Located about 20 minutes outside of Johnstown in Ebensburg, PA, Coal Country Brewing is located just minutes off of the Ghost Town Trail at the Ebensburg Trail Head. A locally owned and operated microbrewery, Coal Country Brewing also offers delicious rotating non-alcoholic sodas as well as a rotating root beer.
TAP 814 features Pennsylvania-based breweries and distilleries’ local handcrafted beer and spirits to replicate a traditional prohibition style bar. Meal offerings consist of small plates and comfort food that are inspired by their craft beer and whiskey bar.
Pour on Center is a casual dog friendly gastropub in the heart of Ebensburg, PA. Pour on Center serves quality food made from scratch, specialty and limited release craft beers, and other cocktails uncommon to the area.
Voodoo Brewery will be opening a location in Downtown Johnstown in 2020! Voodoo Brewery offers a line of beers that are fun, flavorful, and thought-provoking!
When you dine in the Johnstown region, expect an experience! A great place to start is Asiago’s Tuscan Italian restaurant atop the World’s Steepest Vehicular Inclined Plane. In addition to serving amazing food, Asiago’s is known for having the best views in the Johnstown region.
If you are looking to dine in Downtown Johnstown, be sure to check out Balance and Press Bistro. Balance offers an eclectic lunch and dinner menu, utilizing fresh ingredients. Balance’s diverse but specialized menu includes traditional foods with unique twists. Whether you are sipping on a “Green Monster Smoothie” or indulging in “Three Way Bacon,” rest assured, it’s all delicious!
Press Craft Kitchen & Bar is another restaurant in the heart of Downtown Johnstown that delivers classic American and Asian inspired entrée’s. Enjoy a mid-day coffee, an artistic culinary experience, a sophisticated cocktail, or amazing live jazz and blues music.
Due to the increase in popularity of outdoor recreation in the Johnstown region, new businesses are emerging. Not only are these businesses selling products and services for an outdoor experiences, they are also actively involved in promoting our natural assets.
For information about Johnstown and Cambria County, stop by the Visit Johnstown Welcome Center in Downtown Johnstown. Located at 416 Main Street, Visit Johnstown staff and volunteers will be able to provide you with the resources and information you need to make the most out of your visit.
Up-N-Running, is a specialty running store located near the Ebensburg trailhead of the Ghost Town Trail, and offers a wide range of trail running, walking and racing shoes. This locally owned business also carries other useful items such as hydration equipment, reflective gear, massage tools, and more! Up-N-Running engages the running community by organizing weeknight and weekend group runs.
Ski Den Sports carries full lines of sports equipment for both summer and winter sports activities. Ski Den sports has been serving the outdoor enthusiasts of the Johnstown region since 1979. If you need to borrow some equipment, Ski Den has rental services for downhill and cross country skis, snowboards, and snow-shoes for your winter trail running adventures.
Dillweed Bed & Breakfast, located steps from the Ghost Town Trail, provides peaceful lodging to visitors and trail users. The B&B’s Trailside Shop offers a variety of unique gifts and souvenirs including Ghost Town Trail merchandise, handmade decorations, and a variety of beverages and snacks.
Trail Sharing and Maintenance:
The Johnstown community takes a very active role in helping the local organizations maintain the trails. The Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority created a “Friends of the Trails” program to enhance, expand and beautify the rail-trails throughout Cambria County. Additionally, revenue from events on the trails go back to benefit the trails.
Local artists and students have created murals on the trail and students at the local Vo-Tech have built benches and picnic tables. Two trail bridges were rebuilt by local Eagle Scouts who took the initiative to gather funding and handle the construction efforts. Several volunteer groups like the Girl Scouts and church organizations clean different sections of the trails annually. Hope Cyclery led “riding cleanups” this year on numerous trails, picking up garbage as they rode the entirety of each trail.
Johnstown has a very active bicycling organization whose membership is committed to trail building and maintenance. The Laurel Highland On and Off-Road Bicycling Association (LHORBA), is responsible for building and maintaining the trails at Highland Regional Park, and its members have played an active role in building the new 17 mile Quemahoning Biking and Hiking Trail just outside of Johnstown.
The volunteers of the Inclined Plane Trails Capture Team, which is part of Johnstown’s Vision 2025 initiative, built and maintains these unique hillside trails.
The work of these volunteer groups, in addition to that of other organizations and entities, is playing a significant role in the transformation of Johnstown from an industrial center to a mountain town.
If you are looking for a little competition, consider registering for the Path of the Flood Historic Races and the Ghost Town Trail Challenge.
Experience the Path of the Johnstown 1889 Flood in its entirety with the half marathon or in small droplets through the 5K or 12K races. See the resiliency of the communities of South Fork, Mineral Point, the boroughs and the City of Johnstown. Run through the Staple Bend Tunnel, the first railroad tunnel in the United States. Finish at the Old Stone Bridge, which still stands after stopping the majority of the flood’s energy.
The Ghost Town Trail Challenge, which is held on the Saturday before the summer solstice, challenges participants to hike the entire 50K length of the Ghost Town Trail. Participants begin at sunrise and are challenged to complete all 32 miles by foot before sundown. For those who are seeking a shorter challenge, a 12K and 25K are also available.
Thank you Nicole L. Waligora from the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention & Visitors Bureau for contributions to this article.