Suggested Trip

The Swatara Water Trail: A Paddler’s Backyard Gem


The Swatara Water Trail offers South Central Pennsylvania paddlers a unique opportunity: the ability to enjoy the water without the need to drive very far. With over 60 miles of paddling trail available, many users will find a public launch within a few miles of home. I recently took advantage of this opportunity myself and had a view of the South Central PA everyone should experience.

The Swatara Creek, known locally as “the Swattie,” is often lost in the shadow of the much larger Susquehanna River. But if you are looking for a diverse and easy-to-access paddling adventure, you will find this little package offers big potential.

The Swatara Creek flows southward from Schuylkill County to the Susquehanna River in Middletown, Dauphin County. Along the way it covers over 60 miles and touches parts of four counties and passes through some of the area’s most scenic landscapes. The Swatara Water Trail is a 42-mile section of the creek running from Jonestown in Lebanon County to the PA Fish & Boat Commission’s Middletown Access Area. The water trail allows users the opportunity to float through an ever-changing landscape, including the Union Canal Locks, abandoned railroad bridges, Amish farmlands, and even the state’s only lava deposits.

Thanks to the abundance of access points, users are able to enjoy many different potential trip plans that are as short as one or two hours and as long as two to three days. Although the Swatara Creek is generally a slow moving, shallow water with few dangers and suitable for all levels of paddlers, there are some points of concern including two dams (just below Union Deposit and the PA Turnpike). Both dams must be portaged and can be very dangerous when water levels are higher than normal.

I choose to start my trip at the Swatara Park in South Hanover Township, as it is located just below the upper dam and provides a short carry down a wide, flat path when launching. This section provides an easy two to three mile per hour float along primarily tree-lined shore, with few direct reminders of the civilization that is only yards, sometimes feet, from the river’s edge. Although you will occasionally find the sound of traffic brings you back to modern life, especially when you pass under the numerous highways that crisscross the area, it does not take long to drift back into a relaxed, no worries state. Water conditions are perfect and other than an already bright, hot sun overhead there's little cause for concern.

Swatara Park river access

Although I see the occasional angler along the shoreline and pass one or two kayaks with rods sticking out, I chose not to fish today. Many of the deeper pools in this section do offer the chance to catch numerous warmwater species, including smallmouth bass and catfish, better fishing can be found further downstream. Another trip for a different day. If you’re interested in learning about kayak fishing, Kayak Fishing on the Chesapeake Bay is a great place to start. 

Approximately 45 minutes into my trip I approach the Hanover Street Bridge and adjacent Hummel Nature Trail. Located next to Hershey Park Drive in Hummelstown Borough, this tiny park/hiking trail/ waterway access provides the perfect combination of easy access and parking. On other days I have called this the end of the line, but today I am continuing further downstream, so I take a short break and chat with some other paddlers before moving on.

Nature Trail Approach

The final section of my trip takes me into the upper portion of the lower section of the Water Trail, which ends at the PA Fish & Boat Commission’s Middletown Access. This section is the prime location for those wishing to mix kayaking and fishing and promises a wider selection of warmwater species in greater abundance. I find myself wishing I had brought along at least one rod with which to target some of the bass I see swimming next to me. Maybe next time. For now, I am content with soaking in the sights, sounds, and beauty of “the other South Central PA” – the one that is accessed by the Swatara Water Trail, and not the numerous interstates that roar nearby.

I soon find myself at the end of the trail. I have reached Fulling Mill Road and, hopefully, my shuttled vehicle parked along the dead-end road above. Although some paddlers continue past this point, and many others start their trip at this point, the experience changes as you move through the more industrial lower section. I think that this is a perfect place to stop, soak in the memories and enjoy a few last moments on the water before heading back.

For additional information, including a map of the public access and links to area USGS water gauge points click here.

Those using PFBC Access Areas to launch or retrieve their watercraft will need either a launch permit or boat registration. For additional information, as well as boating safety tips, click here.

If you will be fishing make sure you have a valid fishing license and follow all PFBC regulations pertaining to season, sizes and creel limits. Check out the blog that details all you need to know about kayak fishing and the best places to do so.

Always paddle safe – scout the area, wear a PFD,  have a float plan, and inform others about your plan.

Swatara Creek Water Trail

Do you want to combine water, good food, recreation, open space, history, culture, scenic beauty and geology into one day-trip? The Swatara Creek Water Trail has you covered.

Tom Burrell

Tom grew up exploring Pennsylvania’s waterways, fishing and paddling the Pocono waters surrounding his childhood home. He was able turn his passion for being on the water into a livelihood, first with the US Coast Guard and later as a conservation officer. For the last 22 years he has patrolled and protected the waters of Southern Pennsylvania, including the Susquehanna and its many tributaries. When not fishing or boating, he enjoys spending time with his wife and three children, including passing along his passion for the outdoors.

September 17, 2019

Main image: Swatara River, Tom Burrell photo
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