Union Canal Towpath Trail is fit for a family-friendly, beautiful bike/walk afternoon

Bil Bowden

So, before summer's heat burns a sunglass tattoo on your winter/spring face, make plans to visit the outdoors in more reasonable temperatures. In July, you'll wish you had hiked there, biked here, swam at this lake, explored that park-- all before temps hit the scorching point.

To kick-start your family's outdoors world, grab all the bikes and take a short trip to the Reading area, only 60 miles up U.S. Route 222. The Union Canal Towpath Trail is maintained by Berks County, and boasts National Historic Landmarks, a covered bridge, a canal museum, canal locks. All this and beauty too, since it parallels the Tulpehocken (Tully) Creek, a trout fishing stream that lures equal numbers of fishermen and great blue herons-- all searching for the same fish.

trail runner

The Union Canal Towpath isn't for serious cardio bikers, or someone looking for an long overnight ride. It's easy, flat, and beautiful and only eight or nine miles round trip/walk, depending on the starting point. And, you'll probably see more walkers than bikers, so leaving wheels at home is an easy option. Locally, York County's Heritage Rail Trail is hard to beat, with more than double the miles, generally shaded with plenty of pit stops for a drink or bite, a dive into York County history. In fact, York's trail was honored twice in 2015 for being the star that it is as the Pennsylvania Trail of the Year, and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Hall of Fame. And you can travel at warp speed, if you are so inclined.


Very impressive.

But if you're looking for a short trail to start the season, take this one quietly, easily. The Union Towpath is a trail to be wandered, not raced; enjoyed, not challenged.  It's to be savored, not hurried. It's remarkable how many points of interest can be stuffed into one short trail.

To get there, take Route 30 into Lancaster, and Route 222 north into Reading. Exit at Spring Ridge Road, turn left to Paper Mill Road, and follow that to Reber's Bridge Road. Turn right, and follow that until you find the "Tully". Just before crossing the bridge, you'll find a parking lot on the left.

The original Union Canal ran almost 80 miles from Reading to Middletown when it was finished in 1827. Unfortunately, the canal was never much of a financial success and was closed in 1884. Initially proposed in way back in 1690, it was hoped to be a major aid to Philadelphia in its battle for commercial supremacy over Baltimore.  It apparently helped some, and construction began in 1792, but even George Washington's first official shovelful couldn't save it.

Today, wildflowers line most of the trail, and the "Tully" flows quietly alongside. Park the car (cars?) at the Reber's Bridge Road parking lot, cross the bridge and take a right on to the trail. Just a short distance on the left is canal lock 47E.  Turtles and frogs hide under the solid blanket of duckweed, with just their heads sticking up.  The lock was rebuilt forty years ago and shows signs of age, but it's easy to see how the locks raised and lowered the water level so barges could move freight, much of it coal.

turtle hiding in duckweed

The locktender's home was behind the locks, and he was paid the handsome sum of $10 a month.

Along the way, check the numbered posts alongside the trail for information concerning what is-- or was-- standing there in years past. Use a phone's QR Reader to get all the information at that post. Riders wander through thick woods but after passing under massive bridges for U.S. Routes 222 and 422, are reminded that they are never far from civilization.

At #8 post is the Wertz's Red covered Bridge and the Berks County Heritage Center, visitors center and museum.  There is also a snack shop there for hydrating the thirstiest of your riders, and restrooms.  Guided tours of the Gruber Wagon Works and the Canal Center are available for a fee. The red bridge was built in 1867, and  at 204 feet, is the longest of Pennsylvania's surviving single-span covered bridges.

On Saturday, June 11, the Center hosts a Fiddle Festival from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Continuing on, keep an eye out for hawks, snakes, turtles and deer. And listen closely for the squawking of the herons. Plenty of fisherman trails make it easy to reach the creek, even in the deep wooded areas.

Wertz bridge

Check for historic buildings, or just the foundations of them. Mills were scattered throughout the area (Wertz's, Kulp's), as were cemeteries, like the Deppen Cemetery between posts seven and eight. It includes the graves of three dozen Irish immigrants who died of "canal fever", or malaria, while building the Union Canal.

Beautiful new homes are built on the left, while stately old mansions are generally on the opposite side of the creek, including one owned by miller David Gring. Many others built during the canal's boom are now being used as park offices and visitors centers.

fishing pair_tonemapped

At Reading's Stonecliff Action Park, skateboarders spend hours jumping, scraping and rolling over dozens of obstacles. It's a welcome stop, and bleachers are set up inside the park for a comfortable view.   The park itself is outfitted with tables, benches and water fountains, although they weren't turned on as of last week.

Beyond the park is an abandoned brick building and dam of some kind (?), and eventually the path will take riders into Reading. However, there's not much more to see, there are no convenience stores nearby. You might want to turn around after seeing the skateboarders work their magic at Stonecliff Park. Head back and check everything you missed on the way.

The Union Canal Towpath is a beautiful ride nearly any time of year. In spring, wildflowers cover the damp areas below the towpath, in autumn the colors are almost as bright as the summer flowers.

It's a nice ride. Maybe not for the spandex racing crowd or for those looking to double their heart rate. But for a quiet, comfortable ride that takes riders from farm country, but never far from the city, this might be just the ticket.

wagon factory tonemapped