Exploring the Horseshoe Curve Near Altoona

Westbound train passing through the viewing area at the Horseshoe Curve.
Westbound train passing through the viewing area at the Horseshoe Curve.

The Horseshoe Curve near Altoona is a must-see destination for train-lovers of all ages!

Considered one of the “engineering wonders of the world” at the time of its completion in 1854, it continues to offer railroading fans an up-close opportunity to experience the thrill of trains passing by along this 2,375 foot-long curved stretch of tracks.

Norfolk Southern engine rounding the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona.
Norfolk Southern engine rounding the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona.

Horseshoe Curve FAQs

Where exactly is the Horseshoe Curve located?

5 miles west of Altoona, along the Veterans Memorial Highway.
How to find the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona Pennsylvania

Can you navigate to the Horseshoe Curve using GPS?

Yes – use GPS coordinates 40.49775, -78.48379 to navigate to the Horseshoe Curve.
Satellite view of the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona Pennsylvania

Why was the Horseshoe Curve built?

To lessen the steepness of the tracks for trains crossing the Allegheny Mountains between Altoona and Johnstown. Rather than try and go straight up or straight down the mountains, the Horseshoe Curve allows for a more gradual ascent/descent.
Westbound train climbing the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.

Who designed the Horseshoe Curve?

John Edgar Thomson, chief engineer and later president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, is credited with designing the Horseshoe Curve.
John Edgar Thomspon was the chief architect of the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona Pennsylvania.

How was the Horseshoe Curve built?

The Horseshoe Curve was built primarily by Irish immigrants using only picks and shovels to carve a ledge into the mountainsides, upon which train tracks could be laid. Mules and carts hauled away the rocks and dirt excavated from the mountainside, and the debris was then used to fill in the ravines on either side of the Horseshoe Curve’s center.
An exhibit at the Visitor Center dedicated to those that built the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.

When did the Horseshoe Curve open to train traffic?

February 15, 1854.
One of the many exhibits inside the Horseshoe Curve Museum and Visitor Center.

What is there to see at the Horseshoe Curve?

The Horseshoe Curve has both a museum/visitor center, as well as the viewing area to watch trains round the Curve itself.
One portion of the Horseshoe Curve Visitor Center in Altoona.

What are the visiting hours at the Horseshoe Curve?

The Horseshoe Curve is normally open to visitors Wed-Sun from 11 AM – 5 PM. Please check the official website for any announcements about closures related to COVID, weather, etc.
Approaching the Horseshoe Curve Visitor Center in Altoona.

Is there an admission fee at the Horseshoe Curve?

Yes – $8.00 per person ages 2 and up.

Exterior of the Horseshoe Curve Visitor Center and museum.

Can you ride a train at the Horseshoe Curve?

No – the Horseshoe Curve is a great spot to watch trains go by and learn about railroad history, but it is not a train station.
Eastbound Norfolk Southern train at the Horseshoe Curve in Blair County PA

Is the Horseshoe Curve considered a historical landmark?

Yes – it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, and designated as an Historic Railroad Landmark in 2004.
National Railway Historical Society plaque at the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.

How do you get from the Visitor Center to the train viewing area at the Horseshoe Curve?

Either by taking the 194 steps pictured below on the left, or by riding the funicular/inclined plane on the right. As of October 2020 the funicular is NOT RUNNING due to COVID concerns, so your only option is the 194 steps.
Looking down on the Horseshoe Curve Visitor Center from the top of the stairs.

How often do trains pass through the Horseshoe Curve?

On average about once every half-hour.
The park-like viewing area at the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona.


The Importance of the Horseshoe Curve

Moving people and freight between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the early 1800s was no small feat. It involved using canal boats and a series of inclined planes to haul those boats up and down over the mountains, a process fraught with danger and difficulties, especially in the winter months.

Old sign on exhibit inside the Horseshoe Curve museum.
Old sign on exhibit inside the Horseshoe Curve museum.

The opening of the Horseshoe Curve in 1854 meant the Pennsylvania Railroad could now move people and goods between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in a mere 15 hours!

The Horseshoe Curve near Altoona as it appeared in 1934.
The Horseshoe Curve near Altoona as it appeared in 1934 (public domain image).

For the times, this was a miraculous achievement, and the Horseshoe Curve was listed alongside the the Panama Canal, the Empire State Building, and the San Francisco Bay Bridge as one of the “engineering wonders of the world”!

While perhaps less important to east-west travel today, the Horseshoe Curve is still a functional, working railroad landmark with many lengthy freight cars passing through every day.

Westbound train entering the Horseshoe Curve in Blair County PA
Westbound train entering the Horseshoe Curve in Blair County

In fact, the trains are so long that a single train often entirely encircles the curve with neither end in sight!

A single train wrapped around the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.
A single train wrapped around the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona

Visiting the Horseshoe Curve

Even someone with only a casual interest in trains will find the history and natural beauty of the place enjoyable.

Train engine on display next to the Horseshoe Curve.
Train engine on display next to the Horseshoe Curve.

At the Visitor Center, viewing the numerous interpretive historical display and collections of memorabilia from over the years is like taking a trip back in time.

Horseshoe Curve memorabilia on display at the Visitor Center.
Horseshoe Curve memorabilia on display at the Visitor Center.

While the park-like setting at the train viewing area is a pleasant place to sit and enjoy the views, even when there are no trains passing by.

The trainspotting area at the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.
The trainspotting area at the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.

As mentioned previously, the funicular/inclined plane that you could normally ride between the Visitor Center and train viewing area is not running due to COVID concerns.

Funicular at the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.
Funicular at the Horseshoe Curve in Altoona.

So you must climb the 194 steps if you want to get to the train observation area – keep that in mind if mobility issues are a concern.

Some of the 194 steps to the train viewing area at the Horseshoe Curve
Some of the 194 steps to the train viewing area at the Horseshoe Curve

Aside from that temporary inconvenience, exploring all the Horseshoe Curve has to offer is an immensely satisfying way to spend an afternoon!

A westbound Norfolk Southern train passing through the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona in October 2020.
A westbound Norfolk Southern train passing through the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona in October 2020.

Nearby Attractions

Chimney Rocks Park in nearby Hollidaysburg offers several fantastic overlooks of yet another great Blair County railroad town!

Autumn in Blair County at Chimney Rocks.
Autumn in Blair County at Chimney Rocks.

The abandoned lime kilns at Canoe Creek State Park were once a destination serviced by the Pennsylvania Railroad, as it picked up lime produced there and hauled it to the steel mills in Pitsburgh.

The abandoned Blair Limestone Company kilns at Canoe Creek State Park.
The abandoned Blair Limestone Company kilns at Canoe Creek State Park.

The ghost town of Scotia near State College was another destination the Pennsylvania Railroad once serviced, as it hauled iron ore mined there to Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills in Pittsburgh.

View from above of the ore washer remains at Scotia.
Ruins of the ghost town of Scotia on State Game Lands 176 outside State College.

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