A Ride on the Wild Side: Carving Curves Through Central Pennsylvania

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
Hex signs like this were added to barns, especially by the Pennsylvania Dutch, to keep evil spirits away. Photos by the author.

Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was established by logging, matured under manufacturing and has been revitalized by natural gas, but it’s probably best known for kids playing baseball. As the hometown of the Little League World Series, this city of 29,000 in central Pennsylvania attracts global attention each August as eight teams (four U.S. and four international) of 11- and 12-year-olds compete in a tournament for the title of Little League World Series Champion.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
State Route 144 crosses the West Branch Susquehanna River into South Renovo, and then becomes the Elk Scenic Drive.

Owing to a resurgent downtown that offers charm, history and amenities, Williamsport also makes a great base of operations for motorcyclists who come to explore roads that wind through the sparsely inhabited forestlands nearby, a region known as the Pennsylvania Wilds. On the way to Williamsport, I connect with my buddy Steve. When we arrive, we find a few dozen other riders who share our goal for the long weekend: to explore great roads by day and a fun town in the evening.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
This early in the morning, there’s no one but us at the Waterville Tavern, which was built in 1825 by Abraham Harris.

Steve and I set off in the morning at first light to seize the day’s best riding conditions. Our route takes us north out of town on U.S. Route 15 and soon turns onto Lycoming Creek Road. In Watson Township, a right turn puts us onto serpentine State Route 44. With the bright morning sun now peeking over the hilltops, we pull over for a photo op right in front of the historic Waterville Tavern, built in 1825.

Our route parallels Pine Creek for a ways, then cuts west and north along state game lands and the Sproul State Forest. When William Penn arrived in 1682 to develop his colony in America, forests covered about 90 percent of what is current day Pennsylvania. Over the years, many towns grew around logging and sawmills, and huge tracts of land were cleared. With conservation and land management, Pennsylvania now has more forestland than a century ago.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
On our ride west to Williamsport, we stop in Nicholson, Pennsylvania, for this view of Tunkhannock Creek Viaduct. When built in 1917, it was the largest concrete structure in the world. It’s 240 feet high, 2,375 feet long and still carries train traffic.

Other than the road and occasional scenic vistas, there are few signs of humankind out here. There are few signs of enforcement, too. We dial up the pace, but sight lines are short on these curvy roads through dense forest, so we keep it reasonable. This approach turns out to be wise as we see lots of deer. It makes us wonder how many deer we don’t see.

Beyond Bohunk Hollow, a right on State Route 144 starts a loop to the north. We are briefly on U.S. Route 6, a highway that somehow earns accolades in guidebooks for motorcyclists. This section is a rather uninspiring thoroughfare, but we’re only here because it gets us back to Route 44, where we turn south at Sweden Valley. That road snakes through the Susquehannock State Forest and soon I’m back in that zone where my mind, body, bike and the road function as an integrated system.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
In the Pennsylvania Wilds we find smooth roads that curve and curve and curve….

Where Little Kettle Creek flows into Kettle Creek, a right on Route 144 follows the creek to Cross Fork and on to Renovo. There we cross the West Branch Susquehanna River and continue to a section of Route 144 called the Elk Scenic Drive. If you’re lucky you will see herds of elk at the scenic vistas along this route. Careful, though, because these enormous creatures go where they want and sometimes find their way onto the road. Motorcyclists can expect to lose badly in a collision with an elk.

At Moshannon, the route turns back east on West Sycamore Road, then onto a series of secondary roads that keep us largely north of (and off) Interstate 80. At a gas stop in the curiously named hamlet of Jersey Shore, I inquire with the clerk how a town some 240 miles from the shore of New Jersey got its name. Though she’s lived here her whole life, she admits she doesn’t know.

Turning north onto State Route 554 soon takes us over the West Branch Susquehanna River back to Williamsport.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
Across the river in South Williamsport you’ll find the home of the Little League World Series.

There’s just one quick trip to make before calling it a day: back over the river to South Williamsport to see the home of the Little League World Series. Though we can’t get into the main ballpark where the LLWS championship is played, we can enter the grounds and see the park where preliminary games are contested. The facilities are impressive, with turf that looks so good it could be at Fenway Park. What a thrill it must be for kids to play baseball here.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
At Market Street and 3rd Street, 10 bronze statues are situated around the four corners of the intersection, like a baseball diamond. They’re frozen in time with “Bases Loaded.”

Since the first LLWS games were played in 1947, the tournament has seen some incredible performances, including a pitcher who threw a perfect game and a batter who hit five home runs in five official at-bats. Little League first allowed girls to play in 1974, and since then 18 girls have played in the Little League World Series.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
With the crack of the bat at home, the runner at first base is off. From this angle you can’t see the runner’s ponytail. Little League first allowed girls to play in 1974 and since then 18 girls have played in the Little League World Series.

Back in Williamsport, we put our sidestands down for the day and then walk a couple blocks for some beers, dinner and a look around downtown. At Market Street and 3rd Street we encounter 10 bronze statues of kids playing baseball. They’re situated around the four corners of the intersection, like a baseball diamond. It takes a second look for me to realize that the scene captures a moment in time: the bases are loaded and the batter is smashing a hit. Sculptor Matt Glenn aptly named his creation “Bases Loaded” and included figures that represent different eras and milestones in the history of Little League.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
Kyri Hall of Williamsport died of a heart attack at age 14 in 2006 while playing in a high school basketball game. Mural artist Michael Pilato depicted Hall as an angel hanging out with his favorite musician, blues legend B.B. King, who is making his guitar Lucille sing.

Another must-see attraction in downtown Williamsport is a mural next to Bullfrog Brewery. “Inspiration Lycoming,” created by artist Michael Pilato, is reportedly the largest portraiture mural in the world, with some 400 people depicted. There are a couple of motorcycle riders among them, including one on a Flying Merkel. After a good long look at this intriguing work, we connect with other riders for dinner at the brewery.

Next morning, we decide to wait as an intense shower passes through, but we still get out pretty early. This time we point our bikes north and east along delightfully curvy State Route 87 through the valley formed by Loyalsock Creek. At Forksville, we turn right on State Route 154 and then right again across the covered bridge for a stop at the Forksville General Store & Restaurant. It’s a great place for breakfast or to grab deli goods to eat later. Say hello to Big Mike, the owner, whose establishment brings a taste of Philly to the mountains.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
Another early start will get us home before the afternoon’s scorching heat. By 8:00 a.m. we’re already in Susquehanna.

After crossing back over the covered bridge we continue on Route 154. A right on County 3009 takes us alongside Nettle Ridge to High Knob Road. Our objective is High Knob Overlook, which offers an expansive view of the Loyalsock State Forest. On a clear day like today the view includes about 90,000 acres of state woodlands. The road to the top is a hoot, all smooth and curvy, but there is no centerline, no edge lines and sight distances are short, so we’re on high alert for oncoming traffic.

After backtracking down County 3009, we continue on Route 154 to Laporte. By heading north on U.S. Route 220 to Cherry Township and then west on State Route 87 we complete a loop back at Forksville. We’re on Route 154 again, this time heading west, all the way to Cedar Ledge where we make a left onto State Route 414. The afternoon’s landscape includes forestlands, farms and small towns, but little in the way of population density. There are few other vehicles on the roads and drivers frequently wave us around…thanks! Perhaps they know that places to pass safely aren’t that common out here.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
The view from High Knob is great. So is the winding access road that gets you there.

We’re in Slate Run when growling stomachs signal lunch. Beyond Wolfe’s General Store, Steve suggests a right turn over the bridge. He remembers Hotel Manor as a great spot for lunch and his memory proves accurate. We sit outside on a large deck overlooking Pine Creek, where some people are fly-fishing and others are paddling. After some tasty barbecued beef sandwiches we go back over the bridge, return to Route 414 and ride through Pine Creek Valley to the road’s terminus in Waterville. After a left turn onto Route 44, we pass Waterville Tavern again, but unlike yesterday morning the parking lot is absolutely packed. Maybe that’s why these roads have been so empty today.

Near Tomb we turn off Route 44 and onto State Route 973. A ways down the road, along a sharp curve, we come to one of the many barns in Pennsylvania adorned with a hex sign. This one is pretty cool so we stop for a closer look. Hex signs were added to barns, especially by the Pennsylvania Dutch, to keep evil spirits away. Steve and I were not kept away so their effectiveness remains in doubt, but they still are fun to admire. A right turn in Hepburn Township sends us on the last leg back to Williamsport.

Central Pennsylvania motorcycle ride
Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

This evening we walk to the laidback Moon & Raven Public House to investigate a friend’s recommendation: an appetizer called Irish Nachos. The dish is delicious and so rich we don’t have room for dinner. Somehow we do manage to find room for a couple beers, and several riders join us to trade stories from the day. While most of us have come to Williamsport from New England, others rode from as far as North Carolina and Ontario. All of us agree that this region’s best roads are worth the trip—and that Williamsport makes an ideal base for moto touring. We’ll be back to ride the Pennsylvania Wilds.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Just a comment about the symbol on the barn. That is a barn quilt. These have been added to barns all over the midwest and northern states. The symbols don’t mean anything, they are just for decoration.

    • Thanks for that point of detail, Rob. Looks like barn quilts are a relatively new concept, with multiple sources saying they originated in 2001 in Ohio, and have spread across the US and 40+ countries. It seems they’re always square, unlike old-fashioned Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs which are always round. Both are nice to look at, but neither was much good at keeping Steve and me away!

  2. Did some of these roads myself last year. Seems like it was hard to pick a bad route! I ventured a little further west of Coudersport to take in the Kinzua Bridge. A bit out of the way, but worth the travel.

  3. Nice to see a write up about my stomping grounds.
    Last year most of my day rides were in far N.E. Pa and just West of the Catskills around the resevoirs.

  4. Next time come farther north into the real “wilds” . There is the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania near the town of Wellsboro. There are two St parks off Rt6, Leonard Harrison and Colton Pt. Rt.6 out of Wellsboro going west will take you thru some small towns like Gaines and Galeton with interesting places to eat and stop for exploring on the way,like the Lumber Museumn.

  5. Grew up in Wellsboro PA. These roads are my old stomping grounds! Wife and I still go back from NJ just for the riding, seeing old friends also ;).

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