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Story by John Edward Harris

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Forty-four Miles on the GAP

I recently enjoyed cycling a forty-four mile section of the Great Allegheny Passage, my first trip on this iconic rail-trail attraction and my longest ride to date. I met up with my nephew Chris and his friends Keihly and Tyler, all experienced cyclists, at the Youghiogheny Canoe Outfitters & Campground at milepost 114 In West Newton, PA.  They had begun their trip that morning, cycling the 31 miles from Pittsburgh and arriving at the campground next to the trail about forty-five minutes before I drove in.

Dinner at The Trailside Restaurant and Pub After setting up my tent we drove to The Trailside Restaurant and Pub where we enjoyed a great dinner and some cold brews.  I had the Cuban Panini washed down with a couple ice cold Sam Adams Summer Ales. It was delicious.

Back at the campground after dinner we built a fire in the fire ring and enjoyed camaraderie and conversation before turning in around 10:30 PM. The sound of occasional trains rambling up and down the tracks just across the Youghiogheny River was adequately muffled by ear plugs so I could sleep.  A nearby fire siren which sounded at around 11:30 PM and seemed to wail for an eternity, however, pierced the earplugs and woke us all. The 70 degree overnight temperature combined with the lack of a breeze and high humidity made for a muggy sleep outside of my sleeping bag.

After breaking camp the next morning we rode our camping gear laden bikes the three-quarter mile into West Newton where we enjoyed breakfast the Gary’s Church Wagon. I fueled up for the day’s ride by downing a couple cups of coffee and a 2 by 4; two pancakes, two eggs over easy, two sausage patties, and two slices of wheat toast, as well as a glass or two of ice water. 

After our bill was paid the establishment was kind enough to fill our water bottles with ice and cold water. Taking a break at Roundbottom Campground We finally seriously hit the trail around 11 AM and peddled fifteen miles before our first break at mile 99 and the Roundbottom Campground.  After another fourteen miles we took a long break in Connellsville at a trailside Martin’s Grocery store.  Enjoying our purchases outside at a picnic table, with shoes and socks off, I downed 8oz of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, a cold bottle of Dasani, and a peach.  Fueled by our Martins purchase and with clean, dry socks on my feet and sunscreen on my arms and face, we left Connellsville for Ohiopyle, fifteen miles to the east.

A few miles from Ohiopyle we were treated to an outstanding view up the gorge on the inside of a turn, followed a few miles later by double side view of the river as we peddled onto and then stopped on the middle of the trestle just outside of town. Once in Ohiopyle, forty-four trail miles east and 461feet higher than our day’s starting point of West Newton, we paused for a break and snacks at the OhiopyleBakery and Sandwich Shop. Afterward, I bid farewell to my cycling companions and drove home.  They, on the overhand, were going to cycle another eleven miles to Confluence and their reservations at a B&B, and from there, after multiple days on the trail, all the way to Washington, DC.  

Looking upstream from the bridge into Ohiopyle I thoroughly enjoyed the forty-four miles of the GAP that I experienced.  The trail was well maintained, well-marked, and had plenty of amenities.  At times the trail was exposed to full sunlight.  At other times I felt enveloped by the deep mountain laurel, rhododendron and quartzite filled Penn’s woods. As I was enjoying the company and the scenery of the day’s ride I was thankful for the opportunity to experience it and thinking about how I might someday ride the whole trail, including the C& O Trail, from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington, DC.


Story by Rob from Pittsburgh

May 21, 2012


I usually drive to DC but this week I was feeling saucy.

Day 1 (Pittsburgh to Connellsville):

I had never ridden a bike with a trailer before today's trip. I had 335 miles ahead of me on the Great Allegheny Passage and the C and O Canal Towpath. I learned pretty quickly that pulling the fully-loaded bike and trailer was tough. It rolls efficiently, but I must drop several gears to maintain the same cadence I would have with less weight. My average speed is considerably slower with all the extra weight. There were so many things I had originally packed that I left behind and I still over-packed.

I calculated the weight savings each time I ate a yogurt, drank a beer, or lowered the level on my bottle of Bulleit. Today was one of my shorter mileage (roughly 60) days and my bum is already sore from the ride.

The forecast is rain for tomorrow and I have planned to ride 75 miles to Frostburg. 60 miles of the ride will be a slow gradual uphill climb with the last 15 after I crest the Eastern Continental Divide. I feeling like tomorrow will be much more challenging than today, so I need to toughen up a little. I estimate to have about 30 pounds of gear in the trailer, another 25 lbs stuffed in the panniers and the bike weighs another 25 lbs. This additional weight will make it harder to reach my projected daily mileage goals. I will shed more food weight tomorrow and I will not fill up the cooler with ice to help a little.

Today was sunny and I actually rode for a while with no shirt. It felt so great but unfortunately, my back got a little sunburn. I used suntan lotion but I couldn't reach my the middle of my back. There's rain in the forecast for the next couple of days so it was OK that I got a little too much sun today. I had a beer with lunch because I knew that I was only 20 miles from my destination. I will not do that again. I was dehydrated and suffering the last 5-7 miles. I finally arrived at the Rivers Edge Campground, located on the trail just a couple miles north of Connellsville. This place was a nice surprise. They had the cleanest bathrooms and showers that I have ever seen. There were not the typical huge mosquito's covering the walls of the shower and men's room like most campground facilities.


Day 2 (Connellsville to Frostburg):

The rain pounded my tent last night which really helped me sleep. It stopped raining just long enough for me to pack up my campsite and hit the trail. The rain continued for the next seven hours. Riding uphill in the rain with a loaded bike which is sinking into the saturated trail surface was exhausting. It was certainly a moment of accomplishment when I crested the hill at the Eastern Continental Divide.

Borden Tunnel apx. 18 miles north of Cumberland, MD
I captured some video riding through the Big Savage Tunnel but because there was so much moisture in the air, my camera lens became clouded. This was very unfortunate because one of the coolest things of the entire trip happened a few minutes after the Savage Tunnel. I was nearing the Borden Tunnel and I pulled out my camera but I could see that the lens was still clouded with moisture and needed to dry.

It was early evening and the rain finally stopped but the air was wet and the sky overcast. Clouds had formed inside the cooler temperatures of the Borden Tunnel. The only light source was coming from the opposite end of the tunnel which was clouded with a cool fog. The light was being diffused through the fog in such a way that I felt like I was riding through a kaleidoscope. It was a really freaky moment. It was as if I were floating because I couldn't see the ground or the walls of the tunnel, just the diffused light coming from the far end. Pedaling through the tunnel towards the light felt like a sneak peak of Heaven.

I had just finished my wing and salad dinner at Wild Things in Frostburg. I started walking to the men's room and a rat scampered across the floor in front of me. The pub was crowded and I watched as the vermin dodged customers feet and made it's way across the restaurant to hide among the empty booths.


Day 3 (Frostburg to Little Orleans):

I started the day a little hungover. Even though it was complimentary with the room at the Trail Inn, Mary Jane's breakfast was not tasting very good. I rode 15 miles down Big savage Mountain to Cumberland in about an hour. My rear wheel was wobbling from side to side and many of my spokes were terribly loose. I stopped at the Cumberland Trail Connection bike shop where the very efficient wrench replaced a broken spoke, tightened up the other spokes, and trued my wheel. I finished an ice cream sandwich and I was on my way.


I forgot how beautiful the C&O Towpath is. It's much prettier than the GAP. There is mile after mile of flower-lined trail. I spooked a beaver, had a standoff with a huge deer, and was covered in the shadow of a huge bird (6' wingspan) as it flew over me. The bird was really big...probably a turkey vulture.

The lunch stop was the Schoolhouse Kitchen in Oldtown. A group of about 10 people were slowly packing up as I rolled in. I had a big bottle of ice cold Gatorade, a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast and some chips for $4.00. The nice lady at the Schoolhouse topped off my water bottle with filtered water and I was ready to take on the next 27 miles to Little Orleans. I passed the group about five miles south of Oldtown, just a couple miles before the tunnel.

headed south along the towpath inside the Paw Paw Tunnel
My handlebar-mounted bike light must have gotten water logged during yesterday's monsoon because it wasn't working when I needed it to navigate the pitch black path through the Paw Paw Tunnel. I had other lights, but I didn't have the patience to open the water-tight sealed trailer bag to excavate the light. I probably should have opened the bag because the walk through the tunnel is 2/3 of a mile and it's pitch black for a significant distance. You can see the dots of light on each end but you can't see the lumpy, puddle-strewn trail surface, or the walls, or the railing, or your hand in front of your face.

I don't why I was pushing through without a light...it had started raining again and didn't stop until I reached my campsite. After I passed the tunnel, my bike started making a creaking noise which is never good. I stopped a couple times and tried to recreate the noise in hopes of identifying/addressing the issue. I had no such luck.

I was pretty tired by the time I sat on the bar stool at Bill's place in Little Orleans. Bill was too busy trading fishing stories with the two guys dressed in camouflage to mind me. So Bill's daughter, who was working the counter, looked at me and said "burger and fries"? I responded with a confident "yes". The building in the picture right is of Bill's old place. He has since built a newer, larger, "fancier" building across the road.

The climb out of the valley to the campground was too steep to pedal so I had to push my bike for fifteen minutes. The campground is a ghost town. The place is filled with permanent campers but no one is around on this rainy Wednesday night. The only person around is the guy who is installing new tile in the men's bathroom. I could see myself having a little meltdown if the showers were not available. There was no one around so I used the ladies bathroom. It was everything you expect from a campground bathroom...water that smelled like iron and huge 4" mosquitoes covering the walls. I'm looking forward to a day with no rain tomorrow.


Day 4 (Little Orleans to Shepherdstown):

some of these ducks had strange colored heads that look like roosters
I spent another night listening to the rain pound on my tent. In the morning, I was warm and cozy and didn't want to get out of the tent. The sun was finally shining but everything was wet from last night's soaking. I watched the strangest scene play out among the resident ducks as I made breakfast. One duck stood on the other duck's back and repeatedly bit the back of the other duck's neck. At first I thought it some sort of mating ritual but then it seemed more like duck on duck abuse.

I was packed up and rode down the hill to Bill's Place before 8:30 AM where I came across the same guys dressed in camouflage that I saw the night before. I stopped to take a photo and I could hear them talking about where they were going to fish today. Bill was using the same bench to hold his cold Budweiser that I used lean my bike against.

I missed the turnoff by more than a mile for the Maryland Rail Trail which is a paved path that runs parallel to the towpath. I wanted to take the smooth-faster trail because I was 10 miles from the next bike shop and the creaking noise from yesterday grew into a loud, crunching, grinding sound which sounded like my wheel could simply seize up at any moment. I back tracked to the paved trail head so that I could get to Hancock asap.

Dennis, the owner of C&O Bicycle took the rear wheel apart to find that the bearings had become contaminated from riding in the rain for the past two days. He replaced some of the bearings and packed the hub with fresh grease. He also replaced two more broken spokes on the same wheel. The basic rule of thumb is when you break three spokes on a wheel you replace the wheel. I was not planning additional rides pulling a trailer so my thinking was if I can just repair this wheel until I get to DC I won't have to replace it.

The group of people that I passed the day before connected up with me at the bike shop. The fair-skinned girl was lathering up with suntan lotion in front of the shop. It was a welcome sign that the rain had finally passed, but when I looked at the electronic sign in front of the bank, it showed the temperature at a chilly 56 degrees. I was still wearing my light rain jacket that I haven't taken off for three days. One of the guys gave me his water from a gallon jug that wouldn't fit into their water bottles. That was a very nice gesture. I passed that group for the second time in two days within a mile south of town. I pushed a little harder to make up for the lost hour spent at the bike shop.

A couple brief showers and 25 miles later I arrived at my lunch destination of Williamsport. After Alan from the Desert Rose Cafe helped me find a parking space for my 10' long train of rolling gear, he made me a delicious fruit smoothie and fresh chicken salad sandwich. It was exactly what my body needed to prepare for the 27 miles ride after lunch. The owner, Rose, and Alan (who are not a couple) are super-nice people. I had originally planned on camping in Brunswick tonight, but I was changing my plan and shortening the day to around 77 miles. In a blink, Alan had the Trail Guide Book in his hand and both he and Rose were telling me about how Shepherdstown would be a good destination. Thank you both for the advice!

Half way to Shepherdstown is a detour that has been in place for as long as I can remember. They are repairing a section of trail which had been eroded below a steep hillside similar to the one pictured below. The detour is approximately six miles long. The towpath is a bumpy dirt road so when I realized that I had a six-mile stretch of pavement ahead of me I was thinking this would be a nice break. I was wrong. The pavement was smoother but the hills were so steep that I had to get off and push my bike three times over the course of six miles. The sign states that construction will complete summer 2012.


There was a bike shop (Pedal & Paddle) in Shepherdstown who fixed my wheel (yes, again), because I broke another spoke on the stretch between Hancock and Williamsport. I had survived some pretty crappy conditions so I wanted to reward myself with a hotel room, some clean clothes, and a nice dinner. Shepherdstown delivered. Not only was there a nice restaurant where but a selection of restaurants. I had this vision of a nice steak dinner so I chose the Press Room and found a comfortable seat at the bar. I refueled myself with a nice roasted beet salad, a strip steak au poivre topped with a mushroom cream sauce, and a creme brulee. It was perfect.


Day 5 (Shepherdstown to DC):

Got an early start and was on the trail by 8:15 AM. I was still wearing my rain jacket because the temperature was in the low 50's. I kept a nice mellow pace because I had replaced four spokes over the last 274 miles and I didn't want it to happen again. Eight miles down the trail, more spokes broke in my rear wheel. The wheel became so badly out of true that I had to disengage my brake because the rim was wobbling from side to side and rubbing against the brake pads. This was not how I wanted my day to start. I planned to ride 73 miles today to DC so I needed to get my wheel repaired because there was a good chance that it would not survive to DC if it didn't get repaired.

I wobbled 10 miles into Brunswick where I ate a hamburger platter at Mommer's diner for $2.75. The price was commensurate with the food quality. This entertained me while I waited for the only bike shop in town to open. Three Points Cycle had a grand opening banner above their front window. Being the cynic, this made me nervous because a new shop may not have the inventory of spoke sizes to fit my wheel. The owner Keith put me at ease when he produced the perfect size spoke to repair the wheel. He also released some of the tension on the spoke tension explaining that too much tension could be causing my spokes to break. He was right. His wheel magic allowed me to complete the remaining 55 miles to DC without any mechanical failures.

Between Brunswick and DC, the Potomac becomes more turbulent and often has dangerous rapids. There is abundant wildlife along the entire trail, but it seemed like this section had a really healthy bird population. I got tired of counting the number of over-sized egrets in the canal. I spooked one near Harper's Ferry that took off in flight the same direction I was traveling. When the enormous bird realized we were side by side it made a dramatic 180 degree turn which was awkward for such a big creature.

Near White's Ferry I watched a Bald Eagle soar across the width of the Potomac and land in a tree on the other bank. I'm guessing the wing span was between four and five feet. It was amazing to watch.

My body was fatigued and my legs were wrecked as I passed Great Falls. The number of trail users was increasing as I got closer to DC which helped to increase my enthusiasm to reach mile 0. There's still 14 miles to go and that translates into another hour and a half. I passed a couple people that were riding bikes loaded with front and rear panniers. They looked as if they were packed for the ride to Pittsburgh.

I was roughly 10 miles from my goal when the towpath was closed. The detour added two more miles and a set of stairs to my day so I wasn't having it. I decided to take my chances and navigate around the fences and through the construction zone. This was a little challenging but it worked out fine. Evidently, there was major trail erosion so they had to engineer this elaborate drainage solution.

The last few miles into town are exciting because the bike trail is buzzing with traffic. Countless commuters are headed towards the suburbs with their sturdy laptop-holding panniers. There were a couple groups of race teams drafting each other. The number of cyclists in the DC area is awesome. There are a ton of people and there's a fantastic network of paved paths around the city.

I arrive at mile 0 during happy hour on Friday. The weather was perfect and there were hundreds of people along the Potomac Riverfront in Georgetown. I rolled up all sweaty from a long day on the trail. I washed down a plate of spicy chilled shrimp with a couple Coronas and started documenting my day 5 adventure. I made friends with the very nice ladies at the table next to me and eventually joined them. They were very kind and asked about my journey even though they were not very interested in cycling. Actually, that may not be a fair statement, because one of the ladies was quite interested in cycling. She was so interested in fact that she had purchased a bike helmet. There was no real need to own a bike...it was easier to simply to rent one. Plus, if you have a 500 sf condo, what percentage of that space would a bike take up?