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The Story of Johnstown Inclined Plane Trails

Johnstown, PA, Mountain Biking

Hiking and Biking in Johnstown, PA

When you think of Johnstown, PA’s, tourist attractions, hiking and biking might not come to mind, the obvious ones do. The Stone Bridge, The Heritage Discovery Center, the Flood Museum, and of course, the Johnstown Inclined Plane. I mean, how can you not think of the Inclined Plane? It’s the most visible attraction in the City and it’s right downtown. Today, you can add another attraction to that list, and it’s, literally, right next to the Inclined Plane on Yoder Hill. What we’re talking about are the Inclined Plane Hiking and Biking Trails.

While the trails have been getting an increasing amount of attention in recent years, they actually have a history that goes back several decades. The trails were initially built in the late 70’s and utilized an old rail bed, an old road that led to Blair Street in Westmont and saw new trail construction that linked those two sections together and tied them to the upper Inclined Plane Station. In 1989 they were in the limelight again as several sculptures by world renown artist James Wolfe were placed along the trail to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the 1889 Johnstown Flood. However, the years following saw the trails fall into a state of disrepair. Trees frequently fell across the trails and several landslides plagued the loose soil on the hillside.

Local resident, Michael Cook, was spending his lunch break going for runs up the trails. Over time, he noticed that when a tree fell, no one was removing it. At the same time, his friend, and mountain biking enthusiast, Dave Rasmussen, asked why no one ever opened the hillside up to biking. “This was something that I wanted to see happen for a long time and I had to be part of the effort,” Rasmussen said.  It was Dave’s opinion that world class downhill trails could easily be built on the hillside in Johnstown.

It was around this time that Vision Together 2025 was being created. Cook and Rasmussen saw the Vision program as the perfect mechanism to establish a trail system and formed the Inclined Plane Trails Project capture team. Under Vision Together 2025, Cook and Rasmussen developed a project proposal and presented it to the City. In brief, the proposal said that the capture team would take care of the existing trails as long as they could build some new, mountain biking only, trails as well. The City approved the proposal and work began in the Fall of 2017.

Since the start of the project, the team constructed 8 new trails. They utilized micro grants through the Visions project to purchase tools and supplied and labor was provided by a number of volunteer groups in the community. Trail team member Don Forster remembers, “I found out about the trail project from Facebook. I was curious what type of trails could be built on the hillside so I decided to volunteer for a day and see what it was all about… After seeing what was being done on the hill and meeting some of the people who showed up, I kinda liked the community aspect of it. I made a few friends along the way and found that I enjoyed being there working on the trails.”

“The amount of community buy-in has been unbelievable,” said Cook. “We’ve had volunteers from all walks of life help out. Greater Johnstown graduate and Eagle Scout Chris Cashaw designed and built a water remediation project for us, we had service fraternities from UPJ help dig trails, a local business gave employees a half day off if they came out and volunteered, and the probation office helped to clear a clogged drainage pipe. We also had local businesses donate chainsaws, drainage pipes, and other supplies.  I really think that folks see the value that a project like this can bring to the area.”

“…I feel that there are more organized grassroots efforts like the Inclined Plane Trails because there are so many more volunteers that see the same vision,” Rasmussen said. “Additionally, all of these groups support each other which builds a sense of a recreational community.”

Johnstown Mountain Bike Trails
What other cities have amazing single tracks right downtown? Best part is you can take the inclined Plane right back up the hill and do it again and again. Second best part is when you’re done, you can grab some pints downtown.

In the spring of 2019, the team suffered a major setback. Over the previous winter, they completed a new trail that they named J-Line. Before they had a chance to debut the trail, a tornado hit the hillside. It touched down at the top of J-line and ripped straight down the new trail, dropping more than20 trees on the new trail. “It was devastating,” recounts Cook. “When we hiked in to survey the damage I just wanted to quit. All of that hard work was wiped out in one afternoon.” But the community came to the rescue. Over 25 volunteers came out for several days straight, chain sawing the trees out and rebuilding the trail. Two weeks later, J-Line saw its first mountain bike tires.

Through nothing but social media and word of mouth, the popularity of the trails has been exploding. On any given weekend, riders are coming to Johnstown from Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, State College, and all areas in between. In one weekend, the Inclined Plane sold 300 trips up the tracks because a bike shop in the Pittsburgh area organized a huge group ride of the trails. Forster adds, “It’s fun to find out where people you meet on the trails are from and how they found out about the trails. Word of mouth is huge in the biking and outdoor communities. If people like what you’re doing or building, they will tell their friends and anyone else who will listen.”

One of the more unique aspects of this trail system is that riders get the ski resort/bike park experience without having to pay the lift pass cost. A ride to the top is only $3, and CamTran has created a $15 day pass for riders where they can ride the Incline as many times as they can get down the hill in one day. Also, this is the only trail system in the country that is serviced by public transportation, so by buying a pass, riders are helping to forge a private/public partnership. Rasmussen said, “Mike and I had some discussion how underutilized this hillside was and the opportunity to leverage the Inclined Plane for a lift to the top. We had been to many lift access bike parks over the years and wanted something like that close to home.

Beginning in the summer of 2021, the Inclined Plane is going to be closed due to renovations, so riders will have to set their own shuttle, or peddle back up to the top, either via Millcreek Road or through Brownstown. This is going to give the trail crew an opportunity to widen the existing trails, create a new bi-directional trail on the 10 acres bordering Millcreek Road, to create a new trail from Coconut Place to the lower station as part of the 9/11 Memorial Trail system, and to work on tying the Inclined Plane Trails into the trails at Stackhouse Park, and a new trail system that will loop around Hinkston Dam via the Honan Ave trail. The creation of a riverside park and an ADA accessible ramp will be completed at the lower Inclined Plane Station.