This year for my birthday the plan was to take a day trip to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, for a relaxing ride on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway. The mountain town was once dubbed the “Switzerland of America” and it is an easy drive from Philadelphia or New York. It attracts visitors for the historic train, outdoor adventures or simply exploring the small downtown area. But it’s also extremely family friendly — and that includes your furry four-legged family members!
History of Jim Thorpe, PA
Time for a brief history lesson! The name Jim Thorpe may sound familiar to some. Born in 1887, Thorpe was a decorated and talented athlete who played baseball, football, and basketball. He was the first Native American to win a gold medal at the Olympics. He placed first in both the decathlon and the pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.
When Thorpe died in 1953 he was to be buried in Oklahoma. There is some disagreement over exactly what happened next and how. But the short version is that Thorpe’s then-wife, his third, made an agreement with the Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk unbeknownst to the rest of the athlete’s family. The towns would build a monument to Thorpe which would house his remains. In addition, they would merge and be named Jim Thorpe.
Jim Thorpe Today
Today historic Jim Thorpe, PA, is a hot spot for those active and outdoor types. The Lehigh River, which runs through the town, is a popular spot for whitewater rafting. And there are miles of walking and hiking trails in nearby Lehigh Gorge State Park.
Even with today’s modernity, the past is still very much present in Jim Thorpe. The historic buildings of the once bustling town are still being used. Many are restored and in rather good shape. Brightly colored Victorian architecture sits next to smart brick buildings. Traces of the old bank can be seen from the street while the county’s former jail sits on a hill overlooking the historic downtown.
Jim Thorpe Downtown Shopping & Restaurants
The historic downtown is rather lively. There are lots of shops lining the streets. Many of these shops are selling handmade items, art objects or antiques. There’s even an independent record store as well as coffee shops.
We stopped in Molly Maguire’s for lunch. The pub has outdoor seating on a deck. Dogs are welcome at the tables out front; they even have a dog bowl if your furry friend is feeling a little parched. The staff are very friendly and the food is really good. I highly recommend the fish and chips!
About the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway
The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway has been operating since 2005. Over the last thirty or so years, portions of the track were acquired to create the picturesque ride that you can currently enjoy.
But the history of these rails goes back much, much farther. In the first half of the 19th century, Jim Thorpe — then Mauch Chunk — served as an important stop as anthracite coal made its way down from the mines to the canals and waterways. A railroad was built to ease the transport of the coal but it soon became a popular tourist destination due to the scenic views of the gorge. As the century progressed, however, coal and the tourists waned. By 1933 the trains were no longer running.
The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway runs recreational train rides from their historic train station in Jim Thorpe. The tracks run parallel to a public trail and the Lehigh River. There are all sorts of train trips that they run. In the fall you can take an extended journey to take in the, no doubt, beautiful autumn leaves. While around holidays like Christmas or Easter you can rub elbows with Santa or the Easter Bunny. Cyclists can even take a special bike train that drops riders off at the end of the trail and leaves them to pedal back.
There are a variety of train cars in the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway collection. During the warmer months of the year, an open air car allows riders to take it all in. The standard coach cars feature working windows and are from 1932. There’s also a bright red caboose for private groups as well as a fully open car for those bike trips I mentioned.
The trains themselves are diesel. Somewhat remarkably, the trains do have bathrooms on board.
Riding the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway
Visiting Jim Thorpe and the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway is like stepping back in time. Beautiful old buildings line the streets of the historic downtown area. The people are all so friendly and welcoming. And that’s before we even climbed aboard the restored 1932 train car of standard coach class for the 70-minute round trip ride.
I picked our tickets up from the small ticket booth located at the far end of the station. The station itself was once the Central Railroad of New Jersey Station. Today it serves as the town visitor center. But the historic touches in the architecture, the paint and the round light bulbs transport you to a long gone era.
A half hour before departure riders are able to board the train. So all of us — my husband, myself and our mini schnauzer, George — climbed up and settled in. We had an absolutely beautiful late April morning so we opened up a window. George was able to stick his nose (and beard) out to investigate everything we passed. (In truth, he ended up napping on the windowsill and enjoying the warm sun.)
Because we rode the train the last weekend of April, not many of the trees were yet in bloom. This actually was a good thing. It allowed us to peek through the bare trees and see the Lehigh River and across it. Throughout the ride, one of the conductors made announcements pointing out things of interest as well as offering a brief history of the train and the area.
The train ride itself is very leisurely. If you’re looking for a fast pace, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But the relatively slow pace is perfect for letting you take everything in.
Jim Thorpe Dog-Friendly Travel Tips
Jim Thorpe is a small town and the historic downtown area is a great day trip that’s dog-friendly. There are sidewalks through the downtown area.
The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway is dog-friendly. Dogs don’t require a special ticket or an additional fee. Simply bring your dog when you board the train.
While you might see public water bowls here and there, they are not widespread. Similarly, there are no free clean-up bags so be sure to come prepared.
Because the area is a popular day trip and active destination, you’ll likely encounter other dogs. So, again, be prepared.
US Route 209 runs through the downtown Jim Thorpe area while PA Route 903 ends in town at Route 209. The town is not far from Interstate 476.
Visitors to the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway or the historic downtown Jim Thorpe have a couple of options when it comes to parking. There is street parking as well as a small lot at the train station. Both have a limited number of spots and are metered. The spots directly in front of the train station have a 2-hour time limit and the meters run from 9 am to 5 pm. It’s something to keep in mind given that the standard train ride is 70 minutes. If you need quarters for the meters, the folks in the visitors center can break bills for you.
There is also a parking lot with a flat fee for all-day parking available.
Thank you to Pocono Tourism for hosting me! All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own.