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  • C Bracknell

The Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal Ride

June 2 – 9, 2012

As a collector of rail trail rides, this trip was an experience for which that I had been hoping for a long time. Besides adding another trail to my total inventory and mileage, the GAP is also one of the twenty-five Hall of Fame trails. The Great Allegheny Passage and the C & O Canal is a total of 325 miles. The Rails to Trails Conservancy had offered the Pittsburgh to DC as a “sojourn” back in 2007. This year, when they announced that they were offering it again, it started me to thinking more about making the ride. When they posted the details, it really sounded good except for the 975 dollar fee that the contracted outfitter was charging. I called the outfitter with a couple of questions about how late I could decide to sign up and if their planned camping sites would accommodate my wife and my teardrop camper.

My long time friend, Chuck in Raleigh had expressed a desire to ride the trail so I gave him a call to see if he wanted to sign up for the sojourn. He was born in Pittsburgh and lived there until he was in high school. He confirmed that he wanted to make the ride and after some discussion, we decided to plan the trip ourselves and save some money. Being retired, my calendar was open so it was Chuck's decision as to when we would go. I wanted to go before it started to get too hot so we decided to go on the first week of June. I worked out an itinerary with miles to be ridden each day and camping spots and we tweaked it several times before the trip date. The one great thing about planning a trip like this is Rhonda's willingness to be the support person; the SAG wagon, but more than that.

We got permission to park Chuck's car in the US Forest Service parking lot in Roanoke. This allowed us to rendezvous at a convenient location with us coming from southwest Virginia and Chuck coming Raleigh. We met at 9:30 on Saturday morning and headed toward Confluence, Pennsylvania where we planned to ride 11 miles to Ohiophyle State Park for our evenings camp. Confluence is 90 miles from Pittsburgh. We decided to use the first day as a warm up and a preview of the trail. The day was absolutely perfect. The most difficult part was the strenuous climb up the access trail to the campground. When we arrive at the reserved site, Rhonda was there with the camping pod and had already put up the ten by twelve by herself, but she waited for me to back the back the pod into the site.

We had a good supper, a good nights rest and after breakfast, we headed to the south side of Pittsburgh. We arrived in the vicinity of the trail, but the GPS keep sending around the block. We examined the map again and figured out that we were still on the wrong side of the river. We crossed the river, stopped at a gas station to use the facilities and see if they knew where the trail head was located. Rhonda soon deposited us in a parking lot where we saw the trail, but after we got on the trail we realized that we were a block or so south of the actual beginning. We rode up to the start, took a few pictures and began the ride. We had set a meeting point with Rhonda about 33 miles down the trail past West Newton.

We stopped at a picnic shelter in Blythedale and ate some cheese, beef stick, tuna salad and crackers. Later, just before reaching West Newton, we spotted an ice cream stand about a 100 yards off the trail. There was no question that a stop was in the cards. It was just a short ride down to the trail town of West Newton and they were having a trail festival at the old depot. We stopped to have some free hot dogs, chips and soda for riders using the trail. We both bought some GAP souvenir from the depot gift shop.

After thirty-two miles, we arrived at our meeting point with Rhonda around 3:30 near I-70 at Smithton. We decided it was too early to stop and we felt good enough to ride for another couple of hours, so we checked the map, pick another rendezvous point, refilled water bottles, and headed out to a little place called Adelaide north of Connelsville 17 miles away. We had planned to stay in a motel in Smithton, but when I called them they did not have our reservation. With all the planning, I may inadvertently failed to confirm. Since we were further down the trail than planned, we decided to go back to the Ohiopyle State Park.

The next morning started our biking from the campground headed back through Connelsville to Adelaide, about twenty miles away. It was another perfect day and trail was in great shape. The trail went through heavy forest and was parallel to the Youghiogheny River. When we got to Connelsville, we could clearly see that they take pride in the GAP trail. There were signs and amenities all around. Rhonda picked us up a few miles beyond town and we headed back into Connelsville for lunch.

After lunch we headed back to Confluence for our afternoon ride of 18 miles to Rockdale. At Confluence, the trail left the Youghiogheny River and began following the Casselman River. This part of the trail was in Forbes State Forest. Along the way, the trail took a short detour around Pinkerton Tunnel which had collapsed years before. We arrived in Rockdale with Rhonda waiting at the trail head parking across from a bike shop with rentals. We loaded the bikes and drove a few blocks to an old building in town that housed a coffee/gift shop with bike tee shirts and other related souverniers. It was a small town with no camping except for a primitive site next to the trail, so we drove eight miles away to get a motel room in Somerset. After settling in and securing the bikes we walked across the street to a nice little local restaurant called the Pine Grill.

The next morning, we were back to the trail early with a destination of Cumberland, Maryland which was the end of the GAP trail. It was overcast and there was rain in the forecast, so we made sure we had our rain gear. We had been on a slight uphill grade since we left Confluence. We would continue uphill for 10 miles until we reached the 1900 ft. Salisbury Viaduct over US 219 and the Casselman River where we stopped and took a self photo. The clouds were getting darker as we arrived in Myersdale at the old train depot. We stopped to look at the displays and I bought a GAP sticker and a cup of coffee.

It was sprinkling as we rode out of town. We passed a group of retirees out for a group ride. The rain picked up as we stopped briefly to put on ponchos. Later down the trail we stopped at a picnic shelter. A man and his wife stopped also. We snacked on Nabs and Granola bars as we talked to them. They had started in Pittsburgh and were going to Cumberland. They were carrying the basics in their bike bags and were staying in bed and breakfast inns along the way. They planned to stay in Cumberland overnight and get a couple of good meals and then head back to Pittsburgh. It was a round trip of about 285 miles on the trail.

After leaving the shelter, we finished the climb to the Savage Tunnel at the Eastern Continental Divide (elevation 3294). We parked the bikes and hung out in the tunnel hoping the rain would stop. We got the couple we'd met down the trail to take our picture with the tunnel opening as a backdrop. When the rain got lighter, we left for a lunch rendezvous with Rhonda at the trail head in Frostburg, Md.

A short distance down the trail, we stopped at a overlook spot with a bench that had a tremendous view to the south into the mountains of Western Maryland. I contacted Rhonda by cell phone to let her know we were getting close to her location. A little further along we passed a sign indicating that we were crossing the Mason-Dixon line at the Maryland border. When we arrived at the trail head in Frostburg, she had all the fixing laid out for a good sandwich lunch. We took a quick look around town and stopped at McDonalds for a big tea and an email check. Afterward, Rhonda dropped us back at the trail and we headed out for the final leg to Cumberland; a distance of about 15 miles.

There was an active rail line beside the trail. It was used for the Western Maryland Scenic Railway, which was a excursion train that ran from Cumberland to Frostburg and back. The trail crossed the rails several times during our wonderful descent down the hill. We had to put on the rain gear briefly as another shower passed by.

In Cumberland, we reunited with Rhonda across from the old train station. There was a marker in the pavement to indicate the zero mile of the GAP trail and an overhead sign showing the beginning of the C&O Canal and tow path. It was a good feeling to have done the GAP trail (a most wonderful trail). We secured the bikes on the van and looked around the NPS visitor center for the C&O Canal, picked up another map and browsed in a bike shop before heading out of town to camp at Rocky Gap State Park.

We checked in and picked an excellent campsite near the bathhouse after moving from a site that looked as if it might have drainage issues if it rained. It was slightly overcast, but there was no rain in the forecast for several days. Chuck and I set up the tent over a nice bed of pine needles and I gathered some small pieces of wood from around the area for a campfire. Rhonda fixed a good supper and we each had a great shower in the very nice bathhouse.

Wednesday morning, we had breakfast and headed back to Cumberland to start the ride of the C&O Canal towpath. The Cumberland end was at mile post 184.5. It was an absolutely beautiful day; sunny, cool, and sharing it with a great companion. We set our days end at the Little Orleans area so Rhonda could program it into the GPS device later. In a short distance, we stopped briefly from some pictures around a restored, well-defined lock and lock keeper's house. This was lock 74, the last lock coming from Georgetown.

We stopped at the Spring Gap campsite for lunch where several guys had already stopped after coming from the other direction. We had a great afternoon of riding (43.7miles). This section has the most impressive engineering feature on the canal, the Paw Paw tunnel. Located between mile 155 and 156, the 3100 foot long tunnel was constructed between 1836 and 1850 and was the final link joining Cumberland to the Chesapeake Bay. The decision to build the tunnel was made over several other options to traverse the shear cliffs in this area along the Maryland side of the river. One idea was to dam the river thus creating a lake for barge traffic, however this still required blasting a towpath into the cliff walls. Another option was to create a series of aqueducts to cross back and forth between the Maryland and West Virginia sides. The tunnel option was eventually chosen mainly because it was expected to be completed in about 18 months (the actual time of construction took 14 years).

Once entering the tunnel, it was very dark, but you could see the opening at each end. I tried to ride through, even though it was discouraged. The path has a rock wall on one side and the canal on the other side with a pipe guard rail. About half way through, the trail surface became very bumpy, making it difficult to ride in any sort of straight line. I had brought a wooden train whistle with me and just had to give it several long train whistle-like blast while in the tunnel. Rhonda met us at the Little Orleans and Fifteen Mile Creek area of the trail and we headed back to camp at the state park.

The next morning, we returned to the trail and headed to Hancock, Maryland for a lunch stop. A few miles down the trail my rear tire went flat. We stopped and I took it off the bike, patched, inflated and mounted back on the bike. It wasn't too far down the trail the tire was flat again. I couldn't figure out what was causing it. Fortunately, another bike came by in a group that was riding a hybrid with the same size tires and had a new tube. I paid her what she paid for it and soon was on the way after replacing the defective tube.

We arrived in Hancock and had lunch out of the van in a parking lot between the river and the towpath. There was a bike shop just up the street so I headed there to buy one for a spare. They had the same brand that I had gotten from the lady on the trail. Also, while in town, we saw the four army guys coming from the Subway where they had just had lunch. We had seen them back down the trail earlier. They were riding the entire trail three days.

Our stop for the day was at Williamsport for a total of 41.4. Around mid-afternoon we came upon Rhonda near the Fort Frederick Park entrance sitting in a fold-up chair reading. Fort Frederick State Park was used for various purposes between the French and Indian and the Civil Wars. Today, it provides several recreation facilities including boat rentals and a launch. Big Pool Lake, just west of the park, was constructed to reduce the amount of digging required for the canal basin. The single arch Licking Creek Aqueduct claims title as the largest stone arch in the U.S.

When we arrived at the Williamsport parking lot, Rhonda was waiting there with some mint chocolate chip ice cream. The ice cream shop was a few blocks down the street and she had timed it perfectly so the ice cream would not be melted. We also hit our arrival prediction within five minutes of when we said back at Fort Frederick. We decided to use a discount coupon for Red Roof Inn after we did not find any camping facilities within a reasonable distance of Williamsport. After getting a room and securing our bikes and the pod, we headed out to find a place to eat. Chuck and I were plenty hungry and it wasn't hard making a decision when we spotted a steakhouse buffet restaurant.

We went to McDonald's across the street for a quick breakfast the next morning, and headed back to the trail. Since we would be riding the towpath at mile marker 88, we had to take an approximately seven mile detour. Instead of digging out the canal between mile 84 and 88, the builders instead routed canal boats onto the river, with the towpath built along the river bank. Dam # 4 created the area known as Big Slackwater that made this possible. Over time, river erosion caused the towpath to disintegrate. Thus for many decades, the Big Slackwater section was impassible, requiring this lengthy on-road detour, adding about 6 miles to the trip. The paved country roads with several ups and downs was quite different from the dirt towpath we had been riding.

At mile 72.8, the towpath crosses under the Route 34 bridge. The bridge crosses the river and gives access to Shepardstown. We took the opportunity to make it our lunch stop. We rode down the main street of German Street, surveyed the possibilities, and settled on the Old Pharmacy Cafe & Soda Fountain, located at the bottom of E. German Street. It was one of the places recommended by one of the on-line guides. It was an old landmark of the town. Chuck and I both had cheeseburgers with all the fixings and shared some fries.

After lunch , we were soon back across the bridge and on the way to our day's destination of Harper's Ferry. Other than the big curves, there was not very much of interest along the towpath. The Killiansburg Cave, located about 50 feet above the towpath at mile 75.7 provided shelter to the town folks during the Antietam Battle. The foliage is fairly heavy in this section which makes it seem quite remote, however it also makes this section quite cool this time of year. Despite the remote feel, access points are fairly common.

On the west side of the towpath is the Antietam Battlefield. The Battle of Antietam also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, particularly in the South, fought on September 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland and Antietam Creek as part of the Maryland Campaign was the first major battle in the Civil War to take place on Union soil. It was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with a combined tally of dead, wounded, and missing of 22,717 men.

We ended the trip at Harper's Ferry at mile post 60.6, which was a 39.1 mile ride. With both trails, we had ridden approximately 280 miles, including side trips. Rhonda was waiting for us there, but had to park a few blocks away. I rode the bike up to get the van and returned for Chuck and Rhonda. We made a brief stop at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy office to look at the displays and then returned to the motel in Williamsport where we had left the pod. We had decided the day before not to ride any further east on the C&O, but to go back over to the Hancock area and ride the 22 mile Western Maryland Rail Trail. Before leaving that morning, we asked the motel manager if he would give us the same discount for the second night even though we did not have another coupon. He said that is way no problem and we could stay another discounted night.

That evening, we decided to go to the all-you-can-eat buffet at Cici's Pizza. After a good day of riding, I would say we got more than our money's worth. We hooked up the pod when we returned so we would be ready leave the motel right after breakfast.

Breakfast was at the Waffle House across the parking lot, afterward we were off to ride the rail trail. Rhonda dropped us off about eleven miles south of Hancock. When we reached town, Rhonda was coming up the street right at the same time we got to the intersection of the trail and S. Pennsylvania Ave. She had been to a yard sale in town and picked up a few items. We soon were off again to finish the remaining half of the trail. It was Saturday and the trail was very busy with bikers, joggers, walkers and moms with strollers.

At the trail's end parking lot Rhonda was faithfully waiting. We had completed 305 miles in the seven days. I used the pod to change my shorts and we had a quick sandwich and snack, before we pulled out for the three and half drive to Roanoke where Chuck left his car. Again, it was one of the best bike trips I've taken, especially because I got to do it with my old long time friend.

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