Natl’ Central Railroad & York County Heritage Trail, MD-PA

By Guest Blogger, Dave Stratton

The National Central Railroad Trail (aka Torrey C. Brown Tail), known in Maryland as the NCR Trial, is a popular and true rails-to-trail bike path maintained in part by the Gunpower Falls State Park. The trail runs north-south and connects Hunt Valley, Maryland with York, Pennsylvania. It is approximately 45 miles in length and the terrain is relatively flat. Once in Pennsylvania, the trail becomes the Heritage Rail Trail County Park.  This combo trail description claims it is 48 miles long, while this one claims it is only 41 miles long – so, as always, only YOUR odometer knows for sure!

The NCR runs next to the Big Gunpowder Falls River and there are a fair number of rest stops with bathroom facilities, as well as benches and picnic tables, along the way.  The trail is a gem for cyclists!  There are numerous places to enjoy the river’s beautiful views and the sounds of rushing water. If you are hungry and want to stop, there are cafés in Monkton, MD, New Freedom and Glen Rock, Pa.  In Seven Valleys, Pa, you can stop for a glass of wine at Four Springs Winery.  And in Parkton, you can get one of Baltimore’s famous epicurean delights, a “snowball.” (A delight, that is, if you like shaved ice with sweet fruit-flavored syrup.)

Trail highlights include the Howard Tunnel, the NCR Train (a real old-timey train that follows the same route that carried President Lincoln to Gettysburg where he delivered his address) and smaller two-person rail cars on the tracks. Additionally, there are bridges, beautiful corn and wheat fields and mile after mile of actual active railroad tracks. And, at the 11-mile mark North from Hunt Valley, there is Gnome Hill, a 10-foot high hill with hundreds of garden gnomes to check out.  There is also a water and snack station at Gnome Hill. (Just watch out for deer crossing there.)

Since moving to Hunt Valley from Rockville, Maryland, the NCR is my go-to trail. The trail is very well shaded and consists of a mix of crushed limestone and hard dirt.  Even on 90-degree days, the temperature on the trial is extremely tolerable.  Once you cross into Pennsylvania and approach York, there are large sections that are paved.  The trail can be accessed from several locations with parking lots in Hunt Valley, Sparks, Monkton, Parkton, New Freedom and elsewhere.  Route 45 runs adjacent to the trail and has excellent signage on where to access the NCR. 

I typically ride a gravel bike with 700-35 tires but have recently switched to 32’s.  I see many road bikes on the trail having no difficulties with the rocks, so riders’ choice.  I ride several different distances on the trial depending on where I start. If I leave from my house, the trailhead is only ½ mile away, then I ride either 25 or 30 miles.  Occasionally I will drive up to Parkton and ride North for 40-45 miles and take advantage of the sections that are paved. When I start at Parkton, the first seven miles are somewhat uphill which makes the last seven miles easy! Sometimes I am dropped off in York and ride home which makes most of the ride downhill.  

Foot traffic can be heavy on the weekends particularly between Hunt Valley and Sparks, and again North of Monkton for two miles. There is a tubing company there, so throughout the summer, there is often a steady stream of families and teenagers hauling their large, inflated inner tubes and coolers along the trail about a mile upriver to the put-in spot.  (This forced march actually looks miserable. They do tend to walk about five abreast, however, so be prepared to call out “on your left” frequently!)

For post-ride beer lovers, my recommendation, although it’s 4-5 miles from the trail, is Big Truck Farm Brewery in Parkton. Their beers feature some big truck terminology, e.g., Half Cab Hazy IPA, Highboy One Ton IPA, Flatbed Pale Ale and Dually Double IPA – which packs a 70 IBU wollop.  But they also have delicious wheat beers, Kolsch and blonde ales.  On the weekends, you can stick around for their food trucks and live music.

Have you ridden this trail or gone to this (or other nearby) breweries? If so, do share in the Comments below!

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