I’ve devoted a lot of space on this blog to travel reports or hiking. But the “pedals” part of Pedals and Pathways is sometimes missing. I ride a bike too, although I am never sure what to call myself: a cyclist? No, I don’t wear those color-coordinated kits and I’m not actually very fast. A biker? That seems more like a motorcyclist.
More often than not, I’ve been a rail trail rider. I dig a good rail trail, and it seems like there’s an ever-increasing amount of them in every state. One of my favorite rail trails is within a couple hours’ drive of my home in Baltimore, MD. The Great Allegheny Passage is a 150 mile rail trail spanning from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cumberland, Maryland. Or from Cumberland to Pittsburgh, depending on which way you decide to go.
I first completed it around 2011, with friends I had previously ridden the C&O Canal with. I had so much fun that I did it again in 2014, with my co-worker friend and her dad. And I recently completed it for a third time just a few weeks ago.
The logistics of starting can be tricky. Short of a generous friend with a day’s worth of free time, many people opt to take a bike-friendly Amtrak train to Pittsburgh from points east and begin the ride at Point State Park, heading toward Cumberland or continuing on to D.C. via the C&O Canal. All three times I’ve done the GAP, I’ve hired a shuttle to pick me up in the early morning in Cumberland, Maryland, and take me about 2.5 hours to Pittsburgh, dropping me off near the Duquesne Incline. Though the trail truly starts on the north side of the river at Point State Park, I’ve come to prefer being dropped off across the river to the south at the Three Rivers Heritage Trail and the Duquesne Incline parking lot. It’s less crowded, avoids the city with complicated parking issues for the driver, and circumvents a complex start that requires navigating city streets before getting back on the actual trail.
We rolled out of Pittsburgh around noon. With the exception of one place in the city where the trail meanders through a parking lot and under a bridge, it is easy to follow. One only needs to continue heading east along the water stay on the trail. For many miles inside and outside of Pittsburgh, the trail is mostly paved with asphalt, making for easy riding except for a few root bumps. On our way out of Pittsburgh, we were surprised to see a herd of “Goatscapers,” fenced-in goats “hired” to eat the overgrowth on the riverbanks. The trail passes a few shopping centers, which would make for an easy stop in case of any last-minute forgotten items. In the suburbs of Pittsburgh, there is a long section of the trail that parallels a train yard and some industry. It’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but it’s interesting.
While some people can do the whole GAP trail in a day, or two, I have always taken four days to do it, averaging about 45 miles a day, and stopping to camp along the route before starting all over again the next morning.
Outside of Pittsburgh, the trail takes the rider through the bigger towns of McKeesport and Boston, with a good break spot near Dravo Cemetery. Not far beyond Dravo Cemetery is the town of West Newton. After a few breaks and some dawdling, we pulled into West Newton on the later side of 4 p.m. West Newton has changed over the few times I’ve seen it. There’s a Fox’s Pizza and a few bars and burger joints. Newer to the town is a bed and breakfast operation spread out over four historic homes right along the trail. Bright Morning looked so inviting that we located the proprietor to ask if there was a vacancy. Alas, it was a popular spot and filled to the brim. We debated over dinner, which didn’t really appeal to us at the time, and decided to continue on to our camping for the night at Cedar Creek. I had been looking forward to pizza all day, until we actually got to the pizza place. Isn’t it ironic that exercise sometimes makes one less hungry?
The hiker/biker camping area at Cedar Creek is unreservable and intended for trail users only. There is a reservable section of the campground for car campers, RVs, and groups. I was annoyed to find upon arrival that the hiker/biker camping field was overtaken up by a large group. I never had any trouble camping at Cedar Creek Trekker Campground before. A local school was seemingly supporting cyclists doing the GAP, so while some of them had ridden the trail that day, others of them (parents and friends, I assume) had driven in with coolers full of food, tables, tarps, and tents. We arrived around 5 p.m. and hastily grabbed the last spot on the field. I thought they probably should have taken the group site, or paid for a paid site, or had the trail users stay on the hiker/biker site and the moms and dads and food and table-bringing people stay on the group site which is just the next field over. As a trail user, arriving to a first-come, first-serve camping area to find out that it has been taken over by about 45 people whose moms and dads drove in with grills and hot dogs can truly muck up an already long day if there are no more spaces left. The Cedar Creek Trekker Campground has a pit toilet and a water spigot, a lean-to (that always seems to be occupied by someone tenting inside–bad etiquette!), and a few picnic tables to mark about six sites.
Because neither of us had been biking much prior to this trip, a 40-plus mile rail trail day just about wiped us out. After munching on various snacks, we retired to the tent to “relax” but soon found ourselves in a deep sleep until the next morning, when we got up and pushed off somewhere around 8:30 a.m., with a goal of reaching Ohiopyle State Park before nightfall.
The second day’s ride passes through the town of Connellsville, which has a Martin’s grocery store close to the trail on the west approach for any emergency needs, and some beautiful art scattered throughout the town along the trail. We didn’t stop for lunch but rather continued on.
Ohiopyle State Park is one of my favorite Pennsylvania parks. Vacationers to Ohiopyle can swim, ride the rapids, and hike, all in close proximity to each other. There’s also a cool little downtown area with a number of reasonably good food places. For visitors who don’t mind a little drive, two of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses are nearby (Falling Waters and Kentuck Knob).
Twice now I’ve stayed at Kentuck Campground, which is on a knob itself, just west of the Ferncliff Peninsula, a major attraction of the park. Bikers who wish to camp at Kentuck Campground must make a site reservation and pay, although I suppose you could just show up and reserve onsite, too; the campground was hardly full. When reserving, I chose a site near the trail from the GAP. The campground amenities include bathrooms, showers, and water. The shower is especially nice after Cedar Creek, which has no shower for trail users. The downside to Kentuck Campground is that campers must ascend a steep three-quarters-of-a-mile trail from the Great Allegheny Passage to the campground. It certainly tests ones moxie at the end of the day, but it is not impossible. The campground and showers make the climb worth it, and what goes up need not come down again until the next morning. For that reason, I recommend that anyone who wants to eat dinner in the town of Ohiopyle do so before climbing to the camp. We found a sandwich joint and washed our sandwiches down with some local beer, then rode a short distance back to the campground trail to begin the climb.
Rain came early that night, and again we were in the tent by 7 p.m. Al was snoring in no time, but I have trouble sleeping when every move I make is accompanied by the sound of the air pad shifting and squeaking underneath me, so I didn’t sleep much that evening. I keep telling myself that I must find a more comfortable sleep set-up. My quality of life depends on it.
The next morning we were out and down the hill by 9 a.m. We grabbed breakfast at the Ohiopyle General Store. It was a Monday and the weather was spotty, so the town was nearly empty in comparison to any other time I’ve seen it.
The third day took us through the town of Confluence, which has a few lodging options and restaurants. Although it was closed at lunch time on our most recent trip, I’ve enjoyed the food at the Lucky Dog Cafe in the past. It’s right on the edge of town near the trail.
Our goal for the third day was the Husky Haven Campground & Guesthouse, ironically not only my favorite campground along the trail, but also the noisiest. Trains roll through Rockwood, Pennsylvania, at all hours of the night and day. When you’re laying there trying to sleep, you’d think they were rolling right through your brain. Husky Haven is a beautifully maintained campground with about 20 or so sites. One must cross to the north side of the river to use the showers and fill up on water, but it’s less than a half-mile’s ride. The campground proprietors provide firewood and fire starter for the fire rings. They sometimes ride around on golf carts with a cadre of friendly huskies. On our trek to the shower house, we were accosted by the cutest little hooligan tomcat this side of the Mississippi, who came running at us while meowing loudly like we were long lost friends. He seemed quite well taken care of, and though it was tempting to think of ways to bring him along, I think he probably has a pretty happy life right where he is. He is, according to the Husky Haven proprietors, always on the prowl for bikers who will have sympathy on him and give him love and snacks.
Just a short distance from the Husky Haven premises is the Rockwood Mill Shoppes and Opera House. It’s a little time machine of a building with ice cream and food, and an excellent stop after getting cleaned up for the day. We ate dinner, then crossed the river back to the campsite, where we enjoyed a light fire and munched on snacks. Soon, we were snoozing in the tent, looking forward to the last day of about 43 miles, which, after a short climb, is mostly all downhill.
On the fourth day we started climbing toward the Eastern Continental Divide. We stopped along the way in Meyersdale for breakfast, where we descended a long hill with a promise of a Shmagel and some Totz at the bottom (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the yumminess that is Sheetz, I highly recommend it for trail junk food whenever available). We stopped at the renovated train station in Meyersdale, where we met the trail’s communications director, and I bought a GAP jersey. I figured I deserved it after my third trip. The train station boasts a museum, a gift shop, and usually a raffle for a Trek bike to raise money for the trail.
Later that day, in a tunnel of green forest, another little fluff ball cat appeared, again running toward us, mouth agape and yelling, and halting our progress on the trail. She let us pet her just long enough for us to be intrigued and then started running up the trail, looking back every few steps to make sure we were following, a true re-enactment of Lassie’s intelligent antics. In a couple hundred feet, we came upon three bowls, all empty, and a sack of cat food, also empty. We were able to give her some cat-friendly food from our stash, and I poured her a fresh bowl of water. She wasn’t far from a farm house that I could see from the trail, but this little lady had really figured out how to play to our soft spot. Adorable though she was, we had to continue on, while she satisfactorily groomed herself and watched us go.
The last bit of the GAP winds through some amazing train tunnels, including the Pinkerton Tunnel (recently re-opened after years of closure) and the Big Savage Tunnel. The tunnels are short enough to be dimly lit by the ambient light from either end, but long enough to give a rider some sense of vertigo unless they are using a lamp. I prefer the floating-in-space feeling, and didn’t use a lamp in the tunnels, but Al turned his on for some sense of depth and direction.
The Eastern Continental Divide can’t really be compared to the Sierra Nevadas or the Rockies in greatness, but it was really exhilarating to finally get there. There is a short underpass and a sign marking the spot. There is a great sense of accomplishment once you realize that it really is “all downhill from here.”
After the divide, the Mason-Dixon line separates Pennsylvania from Maryland and is marked along the trail. We took a moment to put a foot in each state.
The last 20 miles went by really fast. There are a few scenic overlooks and a bypass of the town of Frostburg. The trail briefly follows the Western Maryland Scenic Railway which runs from Cumberland to Frostburg. I understand that it’s a tourist attraction, but I’ve never seen it running.
Finally, we were actually in the town of Cumberland, but getting to the end seemed to drag on forever when we were so close. As we approached the downtown area, there’s a small metal marker in the middle of the trail that delineates the GAP from the C&O. In my book, it’s not officially completed until you touch this marker. 150 miles filled with rain and sunshine, views and tunnels, snacks and mosquitoes, gone and done. And I’d do it again.
Planning Your Trip
The Great Allegheny Passage is a treasure and a joy, and I feel fortunate to have it nearly in my own backyard. Although the trail wasn’t especially crowded, we met people from all over the U.S. and the world, either coming to do the GAP only, or the GAP and the C&O, or using these trails as part of some longer cross-country trek. If you are interested in doing these trails, know that the GAP is overall a smoother ride than the C&O, since it’s a former train line, while the C&O is a canal towpath. The GAP is mostly crushed, pressed gravel with occasional paving, while the C&O is typically dirt. Word on the trail as of June 2018 was that the C&O was suffering greatly from the recent rains, with long sections of it underwater and closed in entirety, although at the time of this writing, I believe many of those sections have re-opened. Other rumors on the trail were that the C&O National Park had received funding to extend parts of the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a paved, 20-mile section near Hancock, MD, to parallel the C&O.
Logistically speaking, the C&O is a much messier trail than the GAP, full of roots and washouts and potholes and puddles, and depending on your level of comfort, you may decide to install fenders to avoid becoming a mud monster. I would also recommend against towing bike trailers on either trail, but if you really prefer a trailer, choose a single-wheeled one, instead of a double-wheeled one. The C&O is a dirt path that often divides into two narrow dirt tracks with a median in the middle, making the towing of a two-wheeled trailer difficult and uncomfortable.
In terms of gear, I find that bikepacking lends itself to more luxury than backpacking. I am able to carry more stuff, and between Al and I, we can bring our “luxury” tent, an REI Quarter Dome 3, instead of our backpacking tent, which is much lighter. I carry my sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and pillow. I aim for a fresh pair of bike shorts for every day, and a fresh shirt, because things can get stinky very fast. I also bring clothes for sleeping, rain gear, minimal toiletries, and food. This time, I brought my Kindle Paperwhite, which was nice for for rainy times and winding down at the end of the day. There is plenty of water along the trail, but it doesn’t hurt to fill up at every opportunity, just in case. Locals seem to appreciate the tourism that the trail brings to their towns and are often very helpful in pointing out water, bathrooms, bike shops, and more.
You don’t need a special bike to do these trails, although you will most likely need a rear rack and some panniers to carry your clothing and gear. Al rode his Surly Travelers Check bike, and I rode my Surly Disc Trucker. It was my first time using this bike for this trail. In the past, I’ve used a vintage Trek Jazz Voltage that I owned since I was eleven. Both bikes were perfectly comfortable. For any biking situation, it is recommended to always carry a spare tube, tire levers, patch kit, and a pump (for flats), a multi-tool (for adjustments), and a spare chain link. We did see one biker whose freehub disengaged and had to be fixed with zip ties, turning his geared bike into a fixed gear and making for what I’m sure must have been a difficult ride. Things can and will happen, and sometimes there’s not a lot that can be done about it.
As for planning, I found this interactive trail map to be very helpful in assessing daily mileages and meals, and it covers both the GAP and the C&O. The GAP Trail site is a wonderful resource with many links to vendors and guides, and the Bike C&O site has many helpful resources as well.
I know many people who have done these trails without camping a single night. There are plenty of hostels, bed and breakfasts, and hotels along the trail if camping isn’t your jive. Don’t let the fear of camping get in the way of riding these beautiful trails. Use the interactive trail map to look for lodging ahead of time.
Finally, my advice to everyone who asks is: just do it! Sometimes trips like these can seem mired in details like where to stay and how far to ride each day. By the time you’ve planned it all out, your enthusiasm for the ride is gone. When I set out to do the GAP the first time, I put the days on my calendar, assembled my most fun friends, made my best guesses about where we would be camping, and then we just got out there and started riding. Sometimes just doing it is the only way to get something done.