The Cumberland Valley marks the midway point of the Appalachian Trail, the perfect base for a hiking or biking holiday and to get back to nature, to enjoy the hills and forests, the state parks and scenic trails of the area. The rolling hills, open fields, deciduous forests and gently meandering rivers invite the visitor to explore the charms of this country whatever the season. In the fall, the colors of the native woodlands bring new life to the valley, which blazes in the sunshine. The turning season’s cooler air brings only a hint of winter to come, which makes this time of year ideal for the exertions of the outdoors, although the heat of high summer or the snows of winter bring their own pleasures. 

A trail for all

The Cumberland Valley Rail Trail, which is a designated National Recreation Trail, is a great all-purpose route, suitable for walking, biking or horse riding, with its well-maintained pedestrian path that runs alongside a grassy bridle path. There is good parking at either end of the trail, which follows the route of the old Cumberland Valley Railroad, a 9.5 mile stretch between Shippensburg and Newville through the picturesque farming country of western Cumberland County. The trail is surfaced with packed stone dust for most of its length, which is easy on the feet, with the final half mile into Newville turned over to concrete and asphalt. The trail is ideal for a summer hike, with much of the route shaded by stands of broadleaf trees, including oaks, hickories, beech and sugar maple, which form a corridor of woodland that provides a habitat for abundant wildlife: if you’re lucky, you’ll spot an American kestrel, belted kingfisher, cedar waxwing or a great horned owl among the trees, and you might even come face to face with a red fox making the path his own before he turns and darts off into the trees.

For a variation on a day’s hiking, you could try a new activity that is great for a family day out: geocaching on the South Mountain Geotrail. This is a game that involves exploring the trails of the valley while hunting for hidden treasure. Go to the geocaching website and you’ll find the GPS coordinates for the various cache sites. All you need is a handheld GPS receiver and a South Mountain Passport (obtained from the Cumberland Valley visitors Center) and off you go. When you find the treasure—usually a waterproof container holding a logbook and trinkets—you sign the logbook, exchange the trinkets for something of your own of equal value, replace the container, and move on to look for the next cache. Each cache has a unique code, which you will find on an index card inside the box. You copy this into your logbook, and when you have found all the caches in the area you are eligible to receive a unique South Mountain GeoCoin. You can go all out and try and find the lot, or just use this as a fun way to explore the mountain with all the family.

Exploring on a budget

If your vacation funds are limited, exploring the trails of the Cumberland Valley is an ideal way for the whole family to have fun on a tight budget. In fact Pennsylvania has the third largest system of state parks in the US, so you don’t need to travel far to find plenty to see and do. From serious bird-watchers to the casual hiker, the rookie trail biker to the experienced rock climber, there is something for everyone available at a very reasonable cost. If you are planning an outdoor holiday, a good B&B, campground or RV park is the perfect, reasonably priced solution. Then, once you are settled, you’ll be itching to explore. Just remember to bring some cash with you as many of the smaller businesses you'll encounter in the area won't always accept card payments. The Appalachian Trail runs for 13 miles through the Cumberland Valley, which forms part of the Great Appalachian Valley that stretches from New York State and Vermont in the north to Alabama in the south, and is one of the major geographical features of the eastern United States. On this section of the Appalachian Trail, you’ll find good parking and access to trailheads, and walking surfaces that are not demanding. Even the spectacular views from Flat Rock in the Colonel Denning State Park are no more than a two and a half mile hike away from the car park, and not beyond the average walker.

The Park is a small, peaceful bit of Pennsylvanian paradise, where you can camp out or rest up in your RV, relax and have a picnic, go swimming, boating or fishing on Doubling Gap Lake. There are 18 miles of hiking trails and the 105 mile Tuscarora Trail begins here. However, if you if you do decide to haul yourself away from the lakeshore and take the more modest trail to Flat Rock, it’s well worth the effort. Up here, you can lie back on the warm sun-baked rock, rest awhile and enjoy the broad view of the valley with its patchwork of farms and woods spread out before you, while hawks circle high in the sky, dipping and turning like kites on the breeze.

-Contributed by Susie Faulkes