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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mountain Biking Harrison Hills Park

Boy Scout Trail HeadIf you find yourself twenty miles north east of Pittsburgh and your looking for some mountain bike trails, Harrison Hills Park is a great place to ride. Over the course of the summer I got to explore the trail system in the park; there's a lot out there to ride. Harrison Hills Park sits atop the ridge line overlooking the Allegheny river along Freeport Road between Natrona Heights and Freeport. [Park Location Google Maps]

Harrison Hills is a great place for beginners there are many well maintained and groomed trails throughout the park and most don't involve a lot of climbing. I'd like to put together a good beginner/novice loop, but this ride was geared a little beyond first time riders; it's suited to someone with at least a little riding experience.
Harisson Hills Park Map

There are a ton of trails in Harisson; they constantly intersect and merge and even with the trail markings I found riding there could get quite confusing. The Friends of Harrison Hills web site provides this terrific map and it's quite helpful. I recommend printing it out and bringing it with you. [Download the map]

The Ride

This entry describes a nice loop we put together that covers roughly six or so miles. It is primarily based on the Boy Scout Trail that travels in a five mile loop around the outer edge of the park; our route detours a couple of extremely steep sections of Boy Scout that lead to unrideable climbs. We also covers a few of the other trails in the park.

What you are in for

There's nothing extreme on this ride but the Boy Scout Trail contains a few sections that are more challenging than other trails in the park so it may be geared a little more for the intermediate rider but it's also a great place for a novice who is looking for some challenge but still wants a fun ride. Challenges include some short quick climbs requiring momentum, a couple of longer more moderate climbs, a few steep sections, and a section of tight windy single track with some off cambers, logs, rocks and roots.

Intermediate trail? How do I gauge trails? I take my girlfriend along, if she falls, complains or can't make the climbs it's dubbed an intermediate trail.

The Boy Scout Loop and Pink Trail

The image to the left outlines the route we took and is highlighted in bright green. To get your bearing, use this in companion with the park map pdf (linked above). If you are thinking of visiting the park and riding this loop, I highly suggest printing out both maps and take them with you. Even though the trails are well marked, there are so many intersecting and converging trails that following the route on a bike gets quite confusing. There are also many mapped but unmarked trails throughout. I spent a lot of time getting turned around and backtracking before I was able to put together a comprehensive ride.

Step By Step Tour

To get to the trail head, take the main entrance into the park. At the first intersection take a right (uphill) this is Woodchuck Drive. If you go down a steep long hill you've taken the wrong road.

Parking spaces for the Buckeye picnic area will be to your right and to your left will be spaces for the Baneberry Grove pavillion. Park at one of the Buckeye parking spaces and the trail head will be up and to your right.

The Boy Scout Trail is demarcated throughout with red vertical rectangles and there is also a sign along this road marking it. The ride begins taking the Boy Scout loop counter clockwise around the park.

Cut across the open shaded picnic area and enter the trail in the wooded area up and to your right. This wooded single track goes for about a half mile and eventually lead into a field. The trail goes down across the field until you come to a 'T'. Make a left towards the pond. Follow along the pond and make a left around the end of the pond. At the corner of the pond there will be a track straight ahead and one to the right. Take the trail off to the right up over the short steep climb.

After a short wooded piece you will emerge into a wide open area with soccer fields. Follow the trail to left and travel up around the first soccer field. Travel across the lawn area and angle down and to your right across the lawn crossing the gravel road and heading counter clockwise around the second soccer field. You might spy some of the red triangles that mark the boy scout trail.

The trail goes through the uncut field below the soccer field and leads you into the onto some single track.

This is classic single track with tight windy turns, roots, rocks and off cambers. For me it was the favorite part of this ride.

Eventually the trail will lead you to the closed area. A large white foreboding sign reads 'Keep Out Unsafe Area'. I do not know the official reason for the sign. Perhaps it's a nuclear fallout area or a cover up for some secret government project probably has nothing to do with the area above the cliffs are unstable. Though you'll see on your map the Boy Scout Trails travels through this section, you'll probably want to detour this because the trail looks overgrown and unmaintained.

After you make a left at the danger sign you enter the yellow trail. Immediately start looking for a trail off to your right that crosses a small valley and stream. You may spy one of the blue trail markers. Hmmmm this is starting to sound like one of those text based adventure games:

After you cross the stream make a quick steep accent that puts you at the edge of a black top road. There's a pavilion to your right on your side of the road, ahead of you a very large lawn area with a playground in the center and a sign pointing to the observatory along the side of the road.

>Look playground

You see a children's play ground with slides and swings. A small gnomish looking creature stands atop one of the slides.

>Swing on swings

You are on a mountain bike you can not swing on a swing.

>Get off bike

A gang of derelict juveniles steal your mountain bi
ke, beat you over the head with it, and throw you off the cliffs. Your ride is over.

What you have no idea what that was about. So you've never wasted weeks of your life playing text based adventure games like Zork or Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy? Lucky you. Back in the 80's before Nintendo and before we had mountain bike trails, there were these... ummm never mind.

Getting on with it.... Head out across the lawn toward the observatory. Here at the observatory you get a relatively uninteresting view of the homes and golf courses that make up River Forest. This might be interesting if you were a golfer but being that you are out here mountain biking, you are probably not a golfer.

However much more impressive and more likely to hold your attention is the precipice your standing over and the knifes edge trail leading along the ridge line. This is where you pick back up the detoured Boy Scout Trail. Continuing: after cutting across the lawn area and reaching the observatory you make a left on the boy scout trail and follow the ridge line trail upriver along the cliffs. Do take caution!

Other trails will join this trail and branch off just keep right and follow the trail along the edge of the cliffs.

After a few hundred yards of following the ridge you will come to a very steep long downhill where a stream valley, the river valley and the corner of a field all intersect.

We decided to detour this steep section. I was with my girlfriend and she would not be happy pushing her bike out of this hole. Looking at the map there may be a reasonable trail that follows the contours up out of the stream valley but I'll leave exploring that to another ride.

Instead of heading down go to the fields edge and follow the trail to the right. This is a section of the Wetlands Trail and it's marked with the color green.

The trail goes along the edge of the field along the woods line and heads into the woods bordering along the field. A trail will branch off down to the right, keep left. The trail leads up and then out of the woods and down across the field. The trail will cross a gravel road. Make a left onto the gravel road.

Travel on this road past the construction area. This will lead to a house and a barn looking structure which is the park office. You'll know you have reached this point if you notice the road turns to blacktop.

Head for the barn structure straight ahead of you. Vere off to the left and look for the 'Flag Staff Hill' trail. It's demarked with pink rectangles. On the park map its marked with purple. At this point the pink trail is a relatively fast double track that runs along a ridge line. It takes you back towards the observatory.

After traveling along the ridge line for a while the trail will quickly plummet down over a hill. Before the bottom of the hill make the sharp right and follow the the pink trail markers. If you end up at an open lawn area at the observatory you've gone just a little too far.

After the trail makes the sharp right, it heads across the paved road and runs up a valley between the stream and the road.

After running up the stream valley for a time the pink trail runs back across the road where it meets up with the green 'Wetlands Trail'.

As the trail heads up the valley you'll come to blacktop. You are actually just downhill from the park office. Make a left onto the blacktop you'll see a parking area on your left and some bathroom facilities on your right. After a couple hundred feet the blacktop meets an intersection. Make a right on the blacktop heading up the hill.

Immediately begin looking for a trail off to your left. After entering the trail ascend up about a 50 yard walk-a-bike section. At the intersection at the top make a right onto the white/red trail. The trail curves around and takes you behind the Baneberry Pavilion.

Congratulations you've completed the loop.

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