Bikepacking the Northern Central Rail Trail from Maryland to Pennsylvania

Since I started bikepacking last year, I’ve been working on building – from mileage to elevation gain, to technical challenge. As I planned my first summer trip, I thought to myself, what would be the next logical phase of the progression?

The obvious answer: tandem bikepacking!

Bikepacking the North Centrail Rail Trail
A loaded tandem bike ready for a bikepacking adventure

A buddy of my offered to let me borrow his tandem bike for the summer so my partner Greg and I took it for a test ride on the Anacostia River Trail and determined it is indeed tour worthy. Given the bike is quite a vintage beast and balance is a challenge we decided to find a rail trail that wouldn’t be too far from bike shops (just in case!) for our inaugural ride and settled upon the Northern Central Rail Trail.

The Route

The route follows the old Northern Central Railroad which dates back to 1832 and ran until Hurricane Agnes destroyed the tracks. While much of the railway was turned into trail, there are sections of lightly active tracks running next the path on the Pennsylvania portion. The gravel ride combines the Torrey C. Brown Trail and Heritage Rail Trail starting just outside Baltimore in Cockeysville, MD and terminating in York, PA with the mileage split close to even across the Mason Dixon line. The route is the perfect weekend ride for new bikepackers with smooth gravel, grades of only 1-3%, and several small towns.

The Ride: Northern Central Railroad

Total stats for the out and back

Distance: 82 miles

Riding time: 7 hours

Elevation gain: 1,454ft

Average moving speed: 11.8mph

Pizza floats: 1

Tandem crashes: 0!

We started at the Torrey C. Brown trailhead, which is about .5 miles from the actual beginning but has a lot more parking space. The Maryland portion of the trail is in Gunpowder Falls State Park, a really beautiful forested area largely following the Gunpowder River. As you enter Pennsylvania, the trail becomes more varied as you ride through farmlands and several old train towns.

Three miles before you reach York is the Indian Rock Campground that connects directly with a small path that cuts back up a hill on the right. You can also approach from Indian Rock Dam Road if you miss it. They’ve got showers (a rare luxury after a sweat drenching day), firewood, horse shoes, tetherball, and picnic tables; just be sure to reserve a spot here (call 717-741-1764 or email in advance as it can fill up. After setting up our tent, we rode the final stretch into York and celebrated with a beer. Once our bellies were full, we set off from York with cheers from tandem fans seated on the patio of the restaurant across the street. Back at camp we cleaned up, played games, and made friends with other bikepackers at the site next to ours. It was a most excellent first day.

Beer on table next to playing cards

Stopping points

Several of the towns the trail passes through such as New Freedom, Glen Rock, and Seven Valleys have converted their old rail stations into museums and have many spots for food fueling, liquid encouragement, and bike repair/perusing.

a woman stands next to a river
The author and the floating slice

The majority of the trip is riverside following the Gunpowder and Codorus Creek so you can also pull over and cool off with a swim at your leisure. In Monkton, a company rents inner tubes for floating down the scenic Gunpowder River. You can walk up the rail trail as far as you want then float down or pay for a shuttle to bring you upstream. Given our trip was taking things up a notch, we opted to bring a giant inflatable pizza I won at a white elephant holiday party a few years back which fit perfectly into a pannier. We both fit on it surprisingly well and floated on our luxurious supreme slice for about an hour before carrying on down the trail.

A trail oddity you can’t miss is around mile 13 in Maryland: a packed hill of 40+ gnarly gnomes which in addition to being an eccentric attraction also has snacks and a cooler with drinks you can purchase.

A garden of gnomes

Trip thoughts

If you were so inclined, this entire route could definitely be done in a day – but what fun would that be?

Being surround by nature not too far from the city is awesome, but what makes this a great trip in my mind is hanging out at camp and the stopovers.

A man bikes next to railroad tracks

The highs were in the mid-90s the weekend we went and having the creeks to cool off and float in was definitely a highlight. Being able to refuel at breweries, ice cream shops and delis was also a nice treat and helped lighten the load since it meant we didn’t need to pack much cooking gear or food.

While I often prefer wilderness adventures, it was definitely nice to only have to drive an hour from Washington, DC. The trail is pretty flat and very easy to follow and would be perfect for those wanting to dip their toes into bikepacking/touring or even experienced folks seeking an awesome mix of woods, water, and small town hangs.

Shannon Orcutt
Shannon Orcutt
Based out of Washington, DC, Shannon Orcutt is all about whitewater boating, biking, backpacking, and banjo. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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