Gibraltar Bridge to Union Meadows
Difficulty: Easy. Travel time: 2 to 3 hours, plus shuttling of vehicles. Water Level at USGS gauge #01471510 (Reading): Min. 2.5 ft; Good 3.1 ft.
From the Exeter Scenic Trailhead parking lot, it’s an easy downhill carry on a gravel path to the put-in below Gibraltar Bridge. Once underway, you’ll find this peaceful stretch of mostly flatwater feels remarkably remote, even with PA-724 just out of sight on RR and Business US-422, eastern Berks County’s stop-and-go main artery, only a mile north on RL. Still very much the “Hidden River” here, only a few minor riffles and a rumbling train or two will interrupt your next four miles into Birdsboro, so this may be the time and place to slow down and soak in your surroundings. Look up and you might spot an Osprey or Bald Eagle circling overhead. Along the riverbank, a Great Blue Heron might be standing guard or an American Mink could be scampering by. Or you could catch a glimpse and splash of a startled Carp darting through the clear water and flowing grasses right beneath your boat. And you might want to pause for a moment at the mouth of Heister’s Creek (RM 65.2, RL) to consider that, in the 1730s, Abraham Lincoln’s great-great-grandfather Mordecai built and lived on a farm less than half-a-mile up this tiny, winding brook.
A mile downriver, when you first see the arched concrete railroad bridge (at RM 63.8), you’ll need to decide if you are going to stay in the main channel of the river or try the “secret passageway” affectionately known as the “Tunnel of Love.” The TOL is a narrower channel on the RL side of an island that starts at RM 64.0. To enter the TOL, stay RL to look for the opening. It can be difficult to spot. Then make the hard left turn into the channel and the bouncy little rapid that sweeps you from left to right into a pleasant, fully-shaded “tunnel” of trees that takes you under both the railroad bridge and the new Birdsboro (PA-345) Bridge at RM 63.6 with the quiet hamlet of Birdsboro, once a booming steel town, across the river.
Just past the bridge, you can go on either side of the downstream islands, but the RL channel typically has more water. Also on the RL side of those islands is quiet water and a river-rock beach (at the right water levels). A good spot to rest and stretch your legs.
At RM 63.0, a mile-long series of islands begins. The right channel is better when water levels are lower. The left channel is a little narrower, includes a couple riffles, and also has a “secret” little island picnic spot (RM 62.4). Enjoy it, but please clean up afterward.
Your take-out is just ahead on RR at Union Meadows Park (RM 61.7), a former Schuylkill River Project impounding basin. In addition to the boat ramp, parking, and pavilion at the landing, the park also features a well-maintained gravel loop trail on the basin berm that connects to the larger Schuylkill River Trail, a riverside hiking trail, and flush toilets (in season).
(For more than these excerpts and website provide, see A Paddler’s Guide to the Schuylkill River Water Trail.)