The intrepid reader (all one of you) will recall that last summer my wife of 25 years (as of day two of that trip) and I rode from Buffalo to Seneca Falls, mostly by way of the Erie Canalway Trail. We rode the longest continuous off-road segment between Lockport and Newark (85 miles), then on- and off-road segments at the beginning and end.
The intrepid reader will recall that we had fun, despite stiff headwinds, March-like temperatures, and, of course, rain. But we were ready for a better experience. That trip and this trip were done in-transit to picking our son up at college in Philadelphia. Both years, we finished our own teaching, frantically graded tests and papers, assigned grades, and leapt in the car to drive far enough to make it possible to ride on Monday-Thursday, before picking the son up on Friday.
This year, the logical trail to try was the Great Allegheny Passage, which runs continuously from Cumberland, MD, to just south of Pittsburgh (soon to be all the way to Pittsburgh). A former rail route, the GAP was reputed to be well-maintained, very scenic, with ample places to stay and dine along the route. Because the Pittsburgh segment is not quite done, we chose to make the northern terminus in or near McKeesport.
The original plan was to end there. In fact, here is the complete original plan. (Do not pay particularly close attention to this, because it changed at the last minute.)
Turn in grades on Saturday, jump in the car on the Saturday evening, drive to, oh, say, Cleveland. Sunday, drive to McKeesport (remember: just south of Pittsburgh), pick up a U-Haul truck. Park the car in McKeesport (where? That was something that needed figuring out), load the bikes into the U-Haul, drive to Cumberland, turn in the U-Haul, spend Sunday night in Cumberland, and begin riding north on Monday. First night, Meyersdale, second night, Ohiopyle, third night Perryopolis, reunite with the car on Thursday. Luckily, that plan did not come to pass. Why luckily? That first day would have been a problem. Stay tuned for the reason.
Instead, here's what we really did: Turn grades in on Saturday, take a bunch of deep breaths, start thinking about packing, load the car on Sunday, read the papers, have a leisurely lunch, leave for Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon. We even had dinner with our son Sam in Ohio on the way. We stayed in a nice Hyatt Place hotel near the Pittsburgh Airport.
And here's where the plan changed dramatically. Rather than leave our car, rent a truck, drive to Maryland and bike back, we reversed it. We left our car and biked south, having reserved a truck in Maryland to drive back to our car.
And where did we leave our car? In reading blogs and discussion groups, it became clear that the best place to leave the car was in the Boston (that's PA) trailhead lot, a few miles south of McKeesport. Free parking, patrolled by police. In fact, when I contacted the Allegheny Trail Alliance (the official umbrella organization of the GAP), the nice woman gave me an email address of someone who would let the police know that the Michigan van was legit.
So that's what we did. No exhausting driving back and forth to position cars prior to the trip. Just park and go.
So there we were, on the trail again after exactly one year. For the gear-heads out there (well, considering the odd gear, I don't suppose real gear-heads would care), but here's how we were outfitted:
Same bikes: 27-year-old Trek 620 with, basically, no original parts other than the cranks and the rear brakes (700C wheels outfitted with 38mm Kenda Qwik Roller tires; full fenders, front and rear racks with Wald baskets, Rivendell shop sacks in each basket, clamp-on handlebar bag, trekking handlebars mounted on a high stem + extension), and a cheap Trek women's hybrid, which, although costing less than $400, has been a completely adequate bike. Cindy's bike had 37 mm tires and a rear rack with a large rack trunk.
One last gear comment: The Rivendell shop sacks in baskets are, ahem, a unique way of carrying gear, but it works beautifully. The baskets and racks are completely rigid, so there's little swaying, even though the gear is up high, and the Riv sacks can simply be popped out of the basket and carried in to the inn or B and B at the end of the day. A large and a small Shop Sack (plus Cindy's rack trunk) carried all our clothes for four days.
|Getting ready to go at the Boston trailhead|
(About the weather: Although we had a nice time last year in the windy cold drizzle, we didn't really want to do it again. It has been a cold rainy spring, so we were watching the weather carefully the week before we were scheduled to ride. In fact, we didn't book any reservations until the Friday before we left, when we were sure that the weather was going to cooperate. As if to make up for last year, the weather this time was perfect: Four days of sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s. The last day was very warm at lower elevations, but we were at the high point of the trail, so it was delightfully cool. Despite a rainy spring, the trail surface was dry and firm, with only occasional ruts left from previous muddy rides; clearly, the trail handles rain well.)
|Between Boston and Perryopolis|
|Rarely was the trail this primitive.|
On this sunny Monday in mid-May, we saw quite a few people using the trail, particularly at the beginning, within 10 miles of the greater Pittsburgh area. Beyond 10 miles, the traffic thinned quite a lot. We didn't see any touring bikers at all this day. In general, the traffic on the trail seems to be quite light this time of year. Overall, we only saw a handful of through-riders going either direction. In the summer and fall, I think trail use is much heavier.
|The first of many benches on which we rested.|
I must say, I was lukewarm about the trail at this point. I had a headache, which the scenery and trail were not enough to make me forget. It was not much different from riding along the Erie Canal.
We were headed for Perryopolis, which is located just off the trail. It doesn't even show on the map as being a trail community. To get there, we had to push our bikes up a very steep hill and ride about a half mile. What we found was a tidy little town of small, well-maintained houses, a small downtown with a "wagon-wheel" layout (designed, the visitor is told many times, by George Washington, who once owned all the land on the which the town stands), and a healthy looking school complex filled with healthy looking students. The town doesn't offer much; we had to walk way down state route 51 to CoGo's gas station to buy a state map, but it seems like a nice little town.
|The Inn at Lenora's in Perryopolis|
Day Two, Perryopolis to Ohiopyle, 31 miles
The day started with a lovely downhill run back to the river along a road different from the one we came in on. We almost got to go through a little tunnel until we discovered that the tunnel led to a bridge over the river—and, as a result, over the trail. Instead, we detoured around the small ridge through which the tunnel runs, descending down to the river's edge, where we found the trail. (Actually, I made a quick trip through the tunnel just to have a peek.)
|The tunnel on the road from Perryopolis|
The scenery improved dramatically on this second day. The first twelve miles to Connellsville were nice (much like the previous 25 miles had been). But starting in Connellsville, the trail follows the Youghiogheny up into Chestnut Ridge and the mountains proper. The river narrows, speeds up, and gets noisy. The river valley has steeper sides with frequent rock faces with small waterfalls tumbling down them.
|Between Perryopolis and Connellsville.|
|Man towing a raft on a trailer north of Connellsville|
|The trail goes along city streets in Connellsville.|
Connellsville is the last major city until Meyersdale, 58 miles away. We shopped at a nice grocery store right next to the trail, on the north side of town. The trail goes right through town, along city streets, before emerging into the suddenly beautiful Yough valley south of town. There was some evidence of soft trail conditions in the past (primarily tire and water flow ruts), but by the time we got there, the trail was hard and dry.
|South of Connellsville, the start of truly spectacular scenery|
We met a group of school children wearing shirts that read "Biking 34 Miles for Cystic Fibrosis." Obviously, they were Connellsville children biking the 17 miles to and from Ohiopyle. There were a lot of them. I was glad they weren't going our direction. It would have taken a while to pass them.
|Looking upstream toward Ohiopyle|
|The first Ohiopyle bridge|
|View from the first bridge|
Our lodging this night was the M******* Guest House, which shall go unnamed. It was, basically, a flop house, an old family home in which the owners (not living there any more) were renting out rooms. The front door is always unlocked, so we just let ourselves in. Each bedroom had its own lock and key. We only caught a brief glimpse of our hostess as she dropped off slices of cake-like strawberry bread for breakfast. Otherwise, there was a refrigerator full of bottles of expired orange juice, and a container of stale Maxwell House coffee next to a coffee maker for our breakfasting pleasure. There were also some frozen blueberry muffins. It was hot upstairs, there were no screens in the windows (most of which didn't open anyway), and the toilet broke. Oh, and I spotted a cockroach scurrying under the baseboard. It wasn't as bad as it sounds (and Cindy wasn't as critical as I was), but it was only a place to sleep, nothing more. We were glad we didn't need to share it (and its two bathrooms, one of which was attached to the kitchen) with anyone else.
The area around Ohiopyle is lovely. We took a long hike around the peninsula and then around the rapids. It's easy to see why tourists flock there in summer.
Day Three: Ohiopyle to Rockwood, 31 miles.
|Early morning between Ohiopyle and Confluence|
|Stopping by the Youghiogheny south of Ohiopyle.|
|The confluence of the Youghiogheny and Cassellman Rivers|
|Between Confluence and Rockwood|
The trail continued its steady but slight climb, which started in Connellsville. Although we knew were going up, it only slowed us (or tired us) a tiny amount. This steady climbing over two days was going to pay off big on our final day. On this stretch we were passed by a south-bound biker for the first and only time.
|Bridge over Cassellman River|
|One of the regularly spaced covered picnic tables|
|A closed tunnel that the trail goes around|
We arrived in Rockwood at 2:00. (We easily could have gone another 10-15 miles, but this was where the lodging was.) We had milkshakes at the ice cream store in the old mill (and opera house), then found our lodging for the night, The Gingerbread House, just south of town, right next to the trail. We were the only lodgers there, too, but at least it didn't feel like we were living in a ghost house. In fact, it was lovely. Very pleasant room, nice house, even a place to stash our bikes. We met the B&B keeper, arranged for breakfast in the morning, and relaxed for a while.
|Gingerbread House B&B in Rockwood|
At 5:00 or so, we walked into town to the Rock City Cafe, basically a bar serving food. But our Berk's Burgers (conglomerates of everything under the sun) were tasty, and my draft beer cost a buck. Sleep that night with a window open, listening to a rushing creek.
Day Four, Rockwood to Cumberland (44 miles)
This was payoff day. We would climb another 500 feet in 20 miles, and then plunge 1600 feet in 24 miles. We needed to get to Cumberland by 3:00 to get our U-Haul. We were hoping that we hadn't lost the reservation, since U-Haul had had no way to call us to confirm. (Although the Rockwood visitor's center at the trailhead has a cell-phone signal booster, it only works for Verizon and ATT, not T-Mobile. Grr. So we had our fingers crossed that we wouldn't be stranded in Cumberland.
|Salisbury Viaduct, north of Meyersdale|
|South of Meyersdale|
|The highest point in the trail|
As we were planning, it seemed reasonable to make this the longest day of the trip. We knew that it would end with 24 miles of downhill, but we didn't really know how much down it would be. I mean, I sort of knew, and I read the altitude tables that showed that we would lose the altitude we had gained over three days in 24 miles, but I didn't dare think that it would be ALL downhill, as in glide for 24 miles.
But that's what it was. If it had been paved, we literally could have glided for 24 miles, except for one tiny uphill bump near Frostburg.
We felt giddy. We flew along at 15 mph with virtually no effort, just pedaling to give our legs something to do.
|The descent begins|
|This graphic says it all. Notice Mckeesport (right) and Cumberland (left)|
|Big Savage Tunnel, 3294'|
|Benches and view south of Big Savage|
|Welcome to MD|
|The trail runs alongside the scenic railway tracks going into Cumberland.|
|Arriving in Cumberland|
|The end of the trip.|
We arrived in Cumberland at 2:00. We found our way to the U-haul pickup point (they nearly gave our truck away when they couldn't get hold of us), loaded our bikes in, and roared off for McKeesport, 119 miles away. We dropped the truck off at a transmission shop right next to the trail, unloaded our bikes, and rode the final two miles back to our car, which was where we had left it, no tickets, no dead battery. We loaded our bikes in and drove off. The trip was a success.
What I learned on this trip:
1. Warm sunshine beats cold rain and stiff headwinds.
2. Travel north to south on the GAP unless you want to start with a 24-mile climb. (This wouldn't be impossible. In fact it would be like riding into a 15 mph or so headwind for 24 miles—we've all done it. But it was more fun going down.)
3. Don't use close-fitting fenders. (We both had our fenders nearly torn off when they picked up sticks. See my separate post.)
4. Make reservations. This time of year, it's easy to find lodging. In summer or fall, not so much.
5. Don't try to do the GAP in two days. Take time to putz and enjoy the view. Sit on the benches. Look at the water. Watch the trains go by. Go for a hike in Ohiopyle. We wanted to see Kentuck Knob (Frank Lloyd Wright house not far from Falling Water), but we couldn't figure out a way to get there that didn't involve biking up the steep hill out of the river valley on a busy road.
6. Don't plan on cell phone service. I never had any beyond Connellsville (using T-Mobile, at least). Two of our inns had wi-fi internet. The scary place didn't.
7. Ride the GAP trail. Everyone who can ride a bike should do it.