At times it feels like we live in a reactionary society. Our governing bodies typically operate by putting out fires instead of working to prevent problems or invest in a new vision, perhaps due to lack of funding and capacity, or the overwhelming number of problems they need to 'fix' before they can do something new. But across the nation, more local municipalities and NGOs are working together (along with other government entities) to take charge of their future. The organizations and communities along the Schuylkill River Water Trail, a 128-mile river running from west to east through southeastern Pennsylvania, are a leading example of what this looks like; working together to turn a vision into reality.
"The Schuylkill River is coming back to life. Biking, hiking, and paddling have blossomed along the river over the past five years, especially around Phoenixville, Pennsylvania," shares Tim Fenchel, Deputy Director of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area (SRHA). The Schuylkill River Trail, a multi-use land trail with a projected length of almost 130 miles, is expanding 54 miles to connect communities in the lower river to the trail. SRHA recognized that the time is right to bring more attention to paddlesports, so they made a plan to incentivize businesses and expedite growth for the paddling community. "We're taking the bull by the horns." Fenchel says about SRHA's Recreation Hub project, including a recent offer of $60,000 for a paddlesports outfitter to invest in a business plan and inventory for a brick and mortar shop on the Schuylkill River Water Trail.
Thanks to the work of SRHA and its partners, the paddling potential on the Schuylkill River is palpable. The water trail has 23 access points from Reading to Conshohocken sprinkled with great day trips for the avid and novice paddler alike. The cream of the crop of Schuylkill River experiences starts in Phoenixville, Pa., where paddlers can escape the busyness of Philadelphia or New York and revel in the tranquil waters that helped shape our history.
Start your day in Phoenixville at either Soltane Cafe (for coffee and baked goods) or Steel City Coffeehouse (for a heartier breakfast) before heading to the most popular route called The Loop: a 2.5-mile section of the old Schuylkill canal system that returns via a 2.5-mile stretch of the Schuylkill River, with access points at the top and bottom. This is a great route for getting your paddle wet and experiencing the timelessness of the Schuylkill River — the old locks and canals will make you feel like you've stepped back in time.
This next route is a dream come true for any history-loving paddlers out there. Launch your boat in Phoenixville or rent one through Take It Outdoors Adventures, an outfitter offering rentals and shuttles on the Schuylkill River, and paddle nine miles into Valley Forge National Historical Park. There is an access point on the east side of the river where you can take out. Walk across the new pedestrian bridge to the park's visitors center and spend the day exploring the site of the third winter encampment of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. The historical buildings, recreated encampment structures, memorials, and museums provide a window into what life was like in the late 1770s.
If your arms need a break from paddling, exchange your boat for a bike and pedal the seven miles back to Phoenixville on the Schuylkill River Trail, the multi-use land trail along the river's bank. A string of good food and brews await you on Bridge Street. Looking to continue the fun? Conshohocken Brewing Company has a Rec Room with four shuffleboard tables, five ping pong tables, and a foosball table along with great craft beer and good food. The Mainstay Inn is your best bet for lodging in Phoenixville. It is located right on the main drag, easily accessible to food, drink, and only a 10-minute walk to the river and the Schuylkill River Trail.
When a land trail follows a water trail, opportunities to combine hiking, biking, and paddling are endless (SRHA has amazing maps of the trails in the entire river corridor). While you can currently fill a long weekend on the Phoenixville section of the Schuylkill River, there are many other stretches of the river and canal system to paddle. According to Fenchel, the Schuylkill River Recreation Hub project will dramatically improve the landscape for recreation by improving access points, camping opportunities, and access to gear rental and shuttle services, and will provide more integrated recreation experiences like pedal and paddle events.
For whatever route you choose to explore and whenever you choose to visit, try your hand at a variety of recreational activities along the Schuylkill River. The changes taking place on the river in and near Phoenixville are representative of a new era. The Schuylkill River has seen and been changed by the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and now, with the great work of local and state visionaries, the Recreational Revolution.
Interested in an extended paddling trip on the Schuylkill? Sign up for the Schuylkill River Sojourn: http://www.schuylkillriver.org/Sojourn.aspx
More of North America’s (Next) Best Paddling Towns:
- The departure terminus for a bucket-list canoe circuit in Wells, B.C.
- An urban paddling gem with infrastructure: Minneapolis.
- 37 miles of managed water trail on the New River near Pembroke, VA.
- Explore the country’s second largest delta near Mobile, Ala.
- Lively access to the Kansas River National Water Trail in Lawrence, Kan.
- Paddle downstream, both ways, on the Waccamaw River in Conway, S.C.
- A bayou tour through Cajun country in Breaux Bridge, La.
- Mid-Atlantic rivers and bays in Snow Hill, Maryland
- A range of paddling options along the Huron River in Ann Arbor, Michigan
— Check out C&K‘s full list of North America’s Top Paddling Towns