There comes a time in bike advocates’ lives where they need to just climb on the saddle and take off. After a summer of only weekend rides, a July of family visits (love you all!), Larry, who was two months into retirement, wanted a Big Trip.
In about a week we organized a trip I’m calling: Bike, trains, and (almost) no automobiles.
In addition to desperately needing a bike tour, we wanted to test out Amtrak’s new bicycle walk-on service, which had been announced to great acclaim at the National Bike Summit in 2014. Rather than having to prep, pack, and check in boxed bikes as luggage, bikes are rolled onto a baggage car, locked to a hook and ready to ride when you get to your destination. Learn all about the service here. http://www.amtrak.com/bring-your-bicycle-onboard
There are a few challenges. It is not available on all trains and at all stations. Space is limited so advance registration is recommended. There are no walk ons in Iowa so we drove to Normal, Ill. to catch the Illinois Service to Chicago and, later that night, the Capitol Limited to Pittsburgh. Our adventures began early on Monday, October 5.
Our goal was the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD, and the C&O Canal Towpath to DC. Both trails are unpaved, although the GAP is crushed limestone and maintained by trail councils along the way. The C&O is a national park and more like a semi-maintained farm driveway. Riding from Cumberland, you pass locks and viaducts built for canal boats, which means that you are going veeeery slightly downhill when you head toward DC. Both trails are heavily used, depending on the time of year, and offer free hiker-biker campsites, as well as trailheads and access to towns along the way.
Our bicycling adventure started in the industrial city of Pittsburgh and wound through several older industrial cities. Fairly quickly, cyclists find themselves in small communities like McKeesport and Dusquene. Check with GAPtrail.org and as you start pick up a handy brochure noting services. The C&O offers an online version with links.
Oct. 5: Left our car at the parking garage at the Normal, Ill., Amtrak station. Picked up the Illinois Service (only a little late), where we rolled off at Chicago’s Union Station. After biking around Chicago for a few hours, we rolled back onto the Capitol Limited to head to Pittsburgh that evening.
Oct. 6: Rolled out of our sleeper at “O-Dark-30,” (5:30 am-ish) in Pittsburgh. Five cyclists loaded their bikes onto the train, which was continuing to DC and points along the way; we later met two of them who had gotten off in Cumberland.
Noon: Stopped for nap at free Dravo’s Landing Campsite. Woke up at 3 pm, ate dinner of tuna and potato chips and put up tent to go to bed properly. Total for the day: 27 mi.
A note about the campsites: Both trails have free hiker-biker sites every few miles along the way. There are other accommodations such as bed and breakfasts and private campgrounds with more services (like hot water for showers!), but the free sites are scenic, with fire rings, firewood, pit toilets, well water. A few on the GAP trail also have lean to shelters.
Oct. 7: Made up for half day ride with 60 miler to Ohiopyle. Anne rode the last 20 miles solo from Connelsville, where we’d stopped for lunch and a bike shop visit. At the trailhead, she chatted with two locals, who asked, “Are you Anne? We were just telling Larry he shouldn’t have left you alone back there. We walk there every evening and we always carry pepper spray for the bears!” Stayed at the Yough Plaza Motel, named for the Youghiogheny River, which it follows at that point.
Oct. 8: Planned an easy day, with another couple, rode 4 miles (straight) uphill to possibly get an outside tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. After slogging up 2 miles, we decided to ride back down to town to hire a driver from the local adventure shop to take us to Kentuck Knob, another nearby Wright design, where we were able to score tour tickets. Afterwards we rode the 11 miles to Confluence. Stayed in a guest house in Confluence, which we found through the manager of the Ohiopyle Falls River Café and Market.
Oct. 9: Waited out a rainstorm in the gazebo at the trailhead in Rockwood. When the rain started we hauled bikes under the gazebo roof, hung a tarp to keep the rain off us and took a nap. Stayed in Meyersdale at Morguen Toole Co., a former industrial building converted to a charming hotel (shared bath), restaurant, and bar (the latter is clearly a townie hangout).
Oct. 10: The 150 mile GAP trail from Pittsburgh ends in Cumberland. Unfortunately, we also arrived at night, on a holiday weekend, during leaf watching season. No rooms at the inn for tired, hungry and not very clean bicyclists. And, just to make things fun, “Gypsy” once again led us around and around and the wrong way down one-way streets until we found the only “campsite,” a park across the street from the YMCA. Dinner was granola bars from the vending machine and what we had in panniers. Anne got a shower before it closed; Larry, who was setting up the tent in the dark, didn’t.
Oct. 11: Woke to a cold, foggy morning in Cumberland. In the daylight, realized we were a straightforward mile from where we’d started looking for a place to stay. And there was a nearby all-night gas station where we could have gotten warm. Highlight was a warm oatmeal breakfast and lots of coffee at Queen City Creamery.
Both trails cover more history than you can shake a stick at. GAP visitors cross both the Eastern Continental Divide and the Mason-Dixon Line. However, the 184.5 mile C&O Towpath, a navigable waterway originally planned to connect Georgetown to the Ohio River, simply oozes history. It was surveyed by George Washington and President John Q Adams broke ground on July 4, 1828. It wasn’t an easy project and by the time construction ended, far short of the Ohio, in 1850, it was eclipsed by the railroad. The towpath closed in 1924 and was established as a national historic park in 1971.
About 40 miles along, as we were starting to look at campsites, a jolly group of three dad-brothers and their eight-year-old son-cousins hailed us. “We have burritos!” they yelled. While only Larry and I took them up on the burritos (and pancakes the next morning, thanks, guys!), Devils Alley campsite was a full house with three additional canoers, and a cyclist.
Oct. 12: Williamsport, a picturesque old town with lots of history, is right on the towpath. Towpath travelers know they’re getting close to a town when dog walkers, runners, bicyclists without baggage, and walkers appear. We rode a bit through town, stopping at a Scheetz gas station/minimart (Larry insists on pronouncing it “shits” and wanted to check out what was inside.) where we struck up a conversation with a woman who was gassing up her car. Asked if she could recommend a place to stay, she said, “My sister has a B&B right around the corner. Should I call her for you?” Candlelight Inn Bed and Breakfast
Oct. 13: One thing about the C&O. It is a towpath, and was built for the mules to pull barges. A bicyclist is close to the earth, and all its roots, rocks, puddles and jarring your bike and wrists.
On this stretch, from Williamsport to Harper’s Ferry, we jumped off the towpath to ride some country roads, which are well-maintained without a lot of car traffic. They are, however, on the edge of the Appalachians. Consider yourself warned. We rode by farms, ranches, and Antietam National Battlefield, stopping for lunch at Captain Bender’s Tavern in Sharpsburg. At this point, having had enough fun hauling a fully loaded bike up hill and down dale, Anne jumped back on the trail at Antietam Creek and Larry continued on the road to Harper’s Ferry. The trail was in better shape and (slightly downhill) at this point. Larry had a short, intense slap in the quads riding to town. Half of Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown conspired to trigger the Civil War in 1859, is a national park. We stayed at the Town’s Inn about halfway up the hill, which also has a, little store, a restaurant and laundry service. Harper’s Ferry is a crossing point for the Appalachian Trail and is accessible from the towpath via a metal circular staircase and pedestrian path on the railroad bridge.
Oct. 14: Our last night on the towpath we stayed at Marble Quarry campground, by ourselves, seeing only a passing cyclist in the morning.
Oct. 15: DC! Amtrak to Philly for the start of the “Daughter Tour.” (We stored our bikes at the Bike Station at Union Station and shipped 3 boxes home from the post office in the basement of the station. We also shipped a 4th box from Philadelphia.) We had a great ending to our adventures riding the Boltbus to NY, Amtrak back to DC, Chicago, and a bus to Normal, IL (turns out the track was closed for two weeks to upgrade the line, which runs from St. Louis. While upgrading to “high speed” track is always a good thing, it would have been smarter for us to have figured it out ahead of time). Home at midnight, Oct. 22.