As a travel writer, I’ve seen my share of mountain towns. Asheville. Aspen. Jackson. Each has something unique to offer, from art scenes to pristine national park land. I’ll be honest. Pristine was not what I expected when I followed a trail of five-star reviews to Johnstown in western Pennsylvania.
Still, it’s every travel writer’s goal to uncover the as yet undiscovered, so here I am, across the street from one of Johnstown’s claims to fame: the world’s steepest vehicular inclined plane. Once operated by Cambria Iron Company and then Bethlehem Steel, the Johnstown Inclined Plane, situated on a lush hillside, serves as a link to the city’s industrial past and now serves as a centerpiece to its recreational future. A zipline park and a series of mountain bike trails offer hours of recreation from top to bottom, connecting to a web of hundreds of miles of trails, plus ample opportunities to enjoy river sports.
Despite that industrial past – a heritage that remains in its rows of mill buildings and lovingly preserved and reused Cambria Iron & Steel national historic landmark (now the Center for Metal Arts, a production facility and trade school) – the environmental scars have been washed away. This isn’t a place I’d call gritty or even in recovery mode. The city has reinvented itself in a way that highlights its heritage and charms and builds on the natural resources that once drew industrialists’ attention.
The river that separates the hillside from the city and flows toward those industrial spaces is clear and clean, with its own busy fishing dock and input for kayakers. I saw a dozen of them load up and push out downstream in my first five minutes at the Sliver (a riverside park at the base of the Inclined Plane). The Sliver was my first stop this morning, a short walk from my Airbnb in the city’s downtown. An ADA ramp made it a simple stroll down to the waterway with my mountain bike in tow, so I could take in the sights and soothing sound of the river before I grabbed my ticket to the top of the hill.
Pro tip: The Inclined Plane ticket booth is just one way to access the 7+ miles of bike trails. You can also connect to the trails and park your vehicle at the Coconut Place Trailhead nearby. If you’re in for a longer cycling adventure, you can also jump onto a loop of the September 11th National Memorial trail (more than 1,300 miles connecting New York City, Shanksville and the Pentagon) at Coconut Place.
During my ride inside a newly refurbished Inclined Plane car to the top of the hill, I struck up a conversation with a friendly family of five headed to the Inclined Plane Adventure Park, a zipline with a series of 10 stops with stunning views. They were visiting from Cleveland for their second weekend trip here this year.
They highly recommended I give the zipline a try, but I told them that I would have to wait for another day. Thanks to the pass I had purchased (similar to ski lift tickets back in Aspen) I could ride back up as often as I’d like to try another route down the hillside. That’s how I’d planned to spend my time when I was arranging my trip, though the other attractions are tempting (downtown has its share of breweries and music venues, too).
My first trip down the hillside took a solid half hour.
I should mention that the vista from the top of the Inclined Plane, captured so well in picturesque photos, makes the perfect spot for a selfie to document your visit. I snapped one with my new friends from Cleveland and then spent the morning and well into early afternoon enjoying the biking trails, eventually achieving a “downhill” time of 10 minutes.
I have to say, though, I enjoyed slowing down, stopping a few times to enjoy the serenity of the surroundings, Pennsylvania woodlands at their finest. Between groups of cyclists, you can almost forget the busyness and excitement this recreation hub has spurred.
Johnstown might be less well known (for the moment), but I’d get in early if you’re looking for a getaway that offers the best of many worlds: fun for families, an outdoor escape, and a charming, walkable – historic but not stuck in the past.
A few other notes that put the city high on my list of must-visit mountain towns: the signage and pathways are all designed with trail users in mind. From attractive, safe walkways along a bustling highway to murals on the riverwalls, cyclists and hikers will find a haven here, with enough to keep them busy for a few days or more, especially if they’re interested in floating downstream via inner tube or borrowing a kayak to try out the whitewater rapids a few miles away.
Being a history buff, I especially enjoyed the interpretive overlook at the city’s Stone Arch Bridge and a stroll through the Cambria City cultural district. I couldn’t resist one last stop at the Sliver that evening before I headed out of town around sunset. The Inclined Plane was lovelier still, lit in blue LED lights, a few revelers were enjoying another lazy cruise down the river, and hikers who’d spent the day exploring the surroundings were deciding which downtown restaurant to try for a late dinner.
As I’d promised the family from Cleveland, I’ll make sure to be back soon.
Kecia Bal wrote this imagined travel piece, set in 2025, as a way to illustrate the placemaking efforts of many community partners who are working to make the Inclined Plane a hub for recreation – for visitors, residents, and potential residents.
The partners involved in the project include: Community Foundation for the Alleghenies (CFA), Conemaugh Valley Conservancy (CVC), the City of Johnstown, CamTran, Vision Together 2025, Friends of the Inclined Plane Trails, Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC), the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds (FPW), Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Johnstown Redevelopment Authority (JRA), Cambria Regional Chamber of Commerce, Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, Cambria County Redevelopment Authority, Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority, and Headwaters Charitable Trust.