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  • Wm. Bracknell

Spring Biking in Maryland and Pennsylvania 2015


Rather than drive all the way to the DC/Georgetown area in one day, we set our first day stop a few miles south of Front Royal, Virginia which was just north of the Shenandoah National Park. I had been having some pain from kidney stones and only had about five or six pain pills from an old prescription. We drove to town hoping the VA clinic might be open, but they were closed for Memorial day. This added about twelve miles to the trip. It was 8:30 when we left town and we arrived at the campground at the Shenandoah State Park around 1 pm.

The campground appeared to be relatively new. It looked like the area cleared for the roads and camp spaces had been done in the recent pass. There were a few tall scraggly trees and a number of smaller trees left and a few planted for future shade. In other words, there was not much shade around the sites and it was near 86 degrees. There was a slight breeze, so with the camper awning in place we could relax in comfort.

After setting up, we took a hike on a trail along the river that went to the day use area. On the way, we saw a family group floating down the river in tubes. Near the parking lot area, we took a trail up to the visitor center. I wanted to purchase a state park pin. I am collecting a pin for each Virginia state park we camp in.

When we returned to our site after walking about three and a half miles, we relaxed under the awning – Rhonda reading and me doing crossword puzzles until supper.

The bathhouse was modern and very clean. This is always a nice feature in any campground. When the sun went down, the temperature dropped to a comfortable level. We ran a small fan until the early hours and slept very comfortably.

The next morning we were up, breakfasted, and on the road by 7am to a campground in Montgomery county, Maryland. We took US 340 for eight miles to Front Royal, where we got on I-66. Within an hour or so, we realized that we should have left an hour earlier or an hour later. We rode in creepy, crawly traffic all the way to I-695. I-695 was a whole lot better, but still very congested. We made our way around to I-270 and headed northwest to Clarksburg where we had reservations for two nights at the Little Bennett Campground. The traffic on 270 was mostly inbound toward the beltway and it was also slow and sometimes stopped. We arrived before ten and they let us in and told us we could go ahead and set up at our site if no one was on it.

We quickly unhitched the trailer, plugged in the electrical for the refrigerator and headed out to Georgetown. I just don't know what we would do without the GPS. It possibly would be more map reading than we would want to do. Rhonda does a great job in programing and leading me on the right roads.

Once we got off the expressways and down on the Clara Barton Parkway and Canal Road, there was much less traffic and lower speed limits. For several miles we were actually paralleling the canal and towpath. With the help of the GPS, we got within a block of the actual beginning of the canal and the towpath. It started right at Rock Creek Parkway near US29 and just a short distance from the Swedish Embassy.

We pulled into a unloading area just long enough for me to unload the bike and get the things needed for the thirty-five mile trip to White's Ferry. This included my helmet, gloves, computer, two bottles of water, snacks and lunch, camera, cell phone and a rain poncho. Rhonda pulled out heading to White's Ferry at 11:35 and I rode back down to near where the canal entered the Potomac River and just below lock number one.

From Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland there are 74 locks in the 184.5 mile canal. I had ridden the GAP (Great Allegheny Passage) from Pittsburgh to Cumberland and Cumberland to Harper's Ferry in 2012 with my friend Chuck from Raleigh. In 2013, I rode from Cumberland , Maryland to White's Ferry with a neighbor. On that trip, Chuck joined us in Williamsport. We stopped at White's Ferry because of the rain that soaked us for the 24 miles between Harper's Ferry and White's Ferry. The rain was coming from tropical storm Andrea and the rain was expected for the next twenty-four hours.

For the first block, the very narrow brick path was on the right side of the canal. After it turned to dirt, I failed to notice that it had transitioned to the other side of the canal via a small bridge. When I got to a street to where there was was no trail, I looked across the canal and realized the tow path was clearly on the other side. I had to turn around and go back and crossover. This added three tenths of a mile. After riding a ways on the other side, I went to have a drink of water from the bottle in my front bag and realized my camera was missing. I quickly returned almost a mile to where I had last taken a picture and there it was lying in the trail. There was fair amount of users on the trail, but fortunately, I returned quickly enough to find it before someone else did.

I ate my peanut butter sandwich around one o'clock and not long afterward, my kidney stone pain was starting and by the 13 mile marker, I had to stop and take the pain pill I brought with me. It kicked in after a few miles and all was well again.

Earlier, I had tried to call Rhonda to see if she had made it to our rendezvous point at WF. A message on the other end advised me that the number was no longer in service. It was then I remembered that I had switched phones and Rhonda had her number changed by TRAC Phone when she let the date pass that she had to put more minutes on the phone. I realized I could call someone who had her current number and have them have her call me. Later when I decided to do that I did not have a signal on the phone.

At Great Falls, I stopped and put my bike in a rack and took a quick trip down to see the three sets of falls that passed through Mather Gorge. The largest was beyond Olmsted Island at the end of a twisting and turning boardwalk over the two other falls and some very rocky areas. There you can see the biggest falls; not particularly high but still worthwhile to see and photograph. From that point, one can also see three viewing platforms across the river on the Virginia side. I quickly returned to the bike since I had not brought along any way to secure it.

Back at the canal, there was a restored canal boat in one of the small ponds below lock #20. Also, at the site was a museum, a snack stand, restrooms and a picnic area. “The Great Falls of the Potomac have drawn people to the river's shore for centuries. To Native Americans, it was a gathering place, to George Washington it was an impediment to navigation, to thousands of visitors every year it is an awe-inspiring site. Tourist have been drawn to the Great Falls long before there was a canal.

The Great Falls Tavern carries a long tradition of hospitality for visitors to the C&O canal. Soon after the canal's ground breaking in 1828, construction began on the original lock house. In response to travelers' request for shelter and a meal, the lock tender here at Great Falls, W. W. Fenlon, asked the Canal Company to build the three-story north wing for a hotel. The hotel opened in 1831. The entrance door invited guest into a large, windowed room with fireplaces and a bar. As the inn's first proprietor, Mr. Fenlon presided over lively entertainment like fishing parties, dances and social events in the “ballroom”, in addition to good dinners and a place to sleep. A community of over 100 people grew nearby with shops and a post office.”

Around mile twenty, I stopped briefly and sat on a bench to eat some tuna salad, crackers, and a chocolate coated granola bar. I checked the phone again, but still had no signal.

At the Chisel Branch campsite, I stopped and talked with a group of three riders who were completing the same section due to a rain out the year before. One of the guys was from Manchester, New Hampshire. I slugged down some water before heading on to the destination. The area ahead must have been in the Dulles International Airport's landing approach, because for several miles low flying passenger planes were flying over in this area.

I arrived at White's Ferry around four pm after riding 38 miles. Rhonda was patiently waiting by the truck in the shade reading. She told me the store there by the ferry had cold bottled water for a dollar and a strawberry and milk popsicle for over four dollars, but worth it. I soon had consumed both.

We made our way across the country side on back roads to the campground. Shortly after arrival, I got the mini grill going to cook hamburgers for supper. Along with it, we had mac and cheese and green beans. I had apple sauce for dessert.

Wednesday was a planned day off from riding. I figured I would need it after a long day on the C&O Canal. I decided Rhonda needed to see the Great Falls site, so off we went. I soon realized that my kidney stone pain was returning, so I took two Aleve tablets, but as the morning went on I realized that the Aleves were not going to give me relief, so I pulled out one of the real pain pills. The pain went away shortly thereafter.

When we arrived at the park (Great Falls), there was a school group aboard the restored canal boat and some of the park staff were dressed in period attire, going through their task of preparing the boat to go through the lock and up the canal a ways. It was a very special treat to see this and we felt blessed that our timing was just right.

Once the boat rose to the proper level in the lock, the upstream lock was opened and the mule team was hooked up to a line attached to the boat. The mules were lead along the tow path towing the boat up the canal. A short time later, the boat had been turned around and was being towed back toward the lock. Once in the lock, the downstream lock was partially opened until the boat had been lowered to the downstream level.

I have always had a fascination with transportation. Whether it is trains, planes or boats, I have found the history and current level of technology extremely interesting and many times exciting. Somehow I even feel it akin to the enjoyment I get from using and reading the history of trails, be it hiking, biking, or canoeing. The history of Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail, Sante Fe, Morman, California or Pony Express Trail has been fascinating to read about and visit.

After watching the canal boat operation, we walked over to the board walk area where it lead out to Olmstead Island crossing over and going by two other smaller falls on the way. On this visit, I took more time to look around, because I did not have to worry about my bike being unsecure.

When we returned, we saw the school group disembarking from the boat. We visited the museum (formerly the lock keepers house) and as we headed out to the picnic area for lunch, there was another group on the boat in the lock.

On the return trip to the campground, we decided to find an urgent care facility and see if I could get the pain medicine refilled. Rhonda used the mostly trusty old GPS and found one on our route in Rockville. It took about forty-five minutes to fill out the paperwork and be examined before I could get the prescription. They took a urine sample and confirmed that there was some blood. We then went down the street a short distance to the Save Way to get it filled and to pick up a roasted chicken, a kale salad mix, some potato salad, and some ice. Another thing nice about the little camper over the tent or pod is that it has a small refrigerator, but only has one ice tray. Ice makes water and tea so much better.

Thursday, we were off to another trail destination which started in a northern suburb of Baltimore called the Torrey Brown Trail or the North Central Railroad. It was in Cockeryville near Ashland Road in Hunt valley and a short distance off I-84. We cut across the countryside from Clarksburg to I-70 and went around the west side of town on I-695. It was busy as most outer loops even at 10 am.

On this occasion, I talked Rhonda into taking the camper up to New Freedom, Pa., about twenty miles north. I told her to find a big parking lot once she exited the interstate and wait until I arrived in New Freedom. I would call her with a location that would be easy to park the truck and camper. As it turned out, the town just off the interstate was Shrewberry and was about five miles from New Freedom. She parked in a large lot in front of Target.

Most of the trail went through Gunpowder Falls State Park and followed a creek of the same name with a few small villages sprinkled in along the way, like Phoenix, Monkton, Whitetail, Parkton and Freeland. The trail surface beginning out of Ashland and for about the first five miles, was a very firmly packed surface of crusher run or stone dust and dirt. It was so firm and packed that at first, I thought it was concrete. The further north it went the less it was highly maintained surface. Don't get me wrong, it was still a very good trail. From Whitehall to the Pennsylvania line there was a noticeable up hill grade.

It was around one o'clock when I arrived in town after riding twenty miles. It should have only taken two hours but I stopped to read signs and chat with several folks. There was one place where a trail side resident was selling cold drinks, snacks, and candy for a very reasonable price and it was on the honor system. Right behind the stand was a good sized dirt mound in the yard. It was covered with a ground cover vegetation and scattered throughout were about fifteen to twenty little garden gnome statues.

A little further down the trail was a sign with old photos and drawings telling the history of the town of Parkton. It had once been a bustling town with the rail road as a transit line into Baltimore. After Hurricane Agnes in 1972 devastated the town and many of the bridges on the railroad, the rail service was abandoned and the town went into decline. Near the Mason-Dixon Line and off the trail was the town of Freeland. A sign said it had a number of houses that had been ordered from Sears and Robuck, probably shipped by rail. Just a short distance along was the town of Oakland which at one time had a black power factory and the history narrative said that whenever the train was loading the black power, the school let out early or was closed for the day.

I checked out where Rhonda might park and found a stretch of street with curb side parking. I called her and told her to come into town and I would meet here at Front and Main Street. She said she was just four miles away. After waiting for what I thought was enough time for her to get there, I wandered down the street past the old depot and saw her walking up the street. She had come in from an unexpected direction and found the depot first.

It was past our normal lunch time, so we decided to eat at a local Italian place on the corner of Main and Front Street. We ordered a meat lovers regular Stromboli and a small salad to share. When it came out, the salad was more than adequate for the both of us. We ate about half of the Stromboli and put the rest in a takeout box. I had been quite hungry, but we both could not eat the whole thing.

When we came out of the restaurant, there was a tour bus parked across the street and there was an excursion train loading its passengers. The steam engine was a replica of the engine that pulled President Lincoln's train as he was going to give the Gettysburg Address. He took this very route to get there. The train backed nine miles down to Hanover Junction and after a short stay returned for a total of two and half hours for the excursion.

We visited the gift shop next to the train loading area. I had a nice conversation with one of the volunteers that was working with a group to restore a caboose. He said that when the rail road was in use a hundred years ago, they kept several engines there to help pull the heavy trains up the grade from Whitehall from the south and sometimes from Hanover Junction to the north, since New Freedom was the highest point (a little over 800 feet) between Baltimore and York, Pennsylvania.

From New Freedom, we drove to York to a campground I found on the internet called Indian Rock. I had called them twice to make a reservation, but only got a recording. Since it was Thursday, we figured they would not be that busy. It was not far off I-83 and we discovered that the trail ran right adjacent to the campground and was just three miles from town. It was not a very large campground and we found all the available water/ electric site had reserved signs on them. We found out from the owner that it was for Friday and we were good to stay in one.

On the way to the campground, we had seen signs for fresh local strawberries, so soon after setting up, we drove up to the establishment and bought a quart after tasting one. They were much more expensive than the ones we bought in Florida back in the winter or the one we got in North Carolina two weeks earlier, but they were about the best I have ever eaten. I didn't think I could ever taste any better than berries from Plant City, Florida or Fasion, North Carolina, but these were every bit as good or better. I just can not bring myself to buy those strawberries from Watsonville, California that Walmart sells after eating the best and local.

From the market, we drove into town and found the end of the trail (or beginning). Rhonda dropped me off and I rode the trail back to the campground, so we did not have to do that part the next day.

The next morning, we were back down in New Freedom and I was on the trail back the York County Heritage Trail by 8:30. It was cool and just right for riding. The trail was paved for about a mile out of town and the first little borough was Railroad, where Rhonda, on the way back to York, stopped at the crossing as I got there to allow me to cross. The next borough was Glen Rock. It was located in the broad valley of Codorus Creek. The valley and the town had sustained some significant flooding when Hurricane Agnes came through in 1972.

In Hanover Junction there was a restored railroad station where President Lincoln stopped on the way to Gettysburg. In Seven Valleys there was a very interesting second hand (antique) store that had surprisingly reason able prices and some unique items, but mostly old tools, kitchen and household items, signs, bicycles and such.

Before getting back to the campground, I passed through Gatfelter and Brethart Station; both were minor places along the trail with trail parking. Also, there was Howard Tunnel at mile 15.25.

We were off to French Creek State Park to camp for the next day's ride of the Perkiomen Trail. We had a reservation for three nights. I could not find good camping any closer than twenty miles to Valley Forge. The park was very nice and typical of most state parks.

After eating our left over stromboli and resting under the camper awning, we decided to go to the pool there in the park. The attendant at the campground entrance said we could use our camping permit to get into the pool. It was one of the biggest pools we'd ever seen. Before I got in the water, I saw that they rented the stand up paddle boards. I had, for some time, wanted to try one. I found it to be much easier to master than I had imagined.

Back at the pool, I cooled off and swam a few laps. The pool water was much cooler than the lake water. The day had been very warm and the cool off was great.

The next morning, we were off to Green Lane Reservoir for me to start on the twenty mile Perkiomen Trail along Perkiomen Creek for most of the way. The morning was heavily overcast, but only afternoon thunder showers were predicted. We had to do some exploring around and asking to find the trail head. About half way to Oak where the trail ended and intersected with the Schuylkill River Trail, the sun broke out. This was near Collegeville, the most significant town along the route of the trail. The trail itself was pretty good, but it was apparent that it did not have all the original railroad right-of- way. In some places it was winding to get around private property. There were places I had to slow down considerably in curves because the trail surface had some loose sand and gravel. Because it was Saturday, there was plenty of users all up and down the trail, especially near neighborhoods.

Near the end I stopped by the truck where Rhonda was sitting in the shade. After a cold drink of water, I continued on down where the trail officially ended and where it intersected with the Schuylkill River. The Schuylkill River Trail began in downtown Philadelphia and eventually will go all the way to Pottsville 130 miles to the northwest. The heaviest used section is the 26 miles from Philly to Phoenixville. I rode a few miles of it toward Phoenixville in case the next day's ride brought me that far.

For lunch, I had a hankering for a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich. We asked a local couple in the parking lot where we could find a good authentic one. They directed us to a restaurant just down the road. Rhonda and I split one with mushrooms, onions and green peppers 60/40 along with dinner fries. It was delicious.

On the return trip to the campground, Rhonda wanted to go by a Sheep and Wood business, but it was closed and looked as if had been for awhile. Nearby was a National Park Service site called Hopewell Furnace which had been restored to the 1830's appearance. It actually operated from 1771 to 1883. The iron produced was used to make many items including arms used in the Revolutionary War period and stoves. The air needed to keep the furnace burning hot was provided by bellows powered by huge water wheel that was turned by water from French Creek.

After a snack and a brief rest, we headed back to the pool. When I presented the camping registration to the cashier, he said the fee was seven dollars and that the registration was only good for a dollar off not full entry. I told him that the attendant at the campground gate said it was good for getting in the pool and we were allowed in the day before. He again said it was only good for a dollar discount. I guess we made out the day before. We had camped at Natural Tunnel State Park in Virginia a few years ago and the pool feel was waived because we were camping there. I guess the difference was the pool at French Creek was operated by a concessionaire.

After supper we made preparations for the next day. We both were going to ride the twenty mile Schuylkill River Trail from downtown Philadelphia back to Valley Forge. I had researched information on the transportation system in the area and emailed the customer service office with SEPTA. They responded with information on the bus we should take, where we could catch it, a link to the schedule and with us being over 65, the ride was free.

We arrived at the in the Valley Forge area a little after 8, but it took a little too long to figure out which stop was closest to the trail in the Valley Forge National Park. We just missed the 8:20 bus and had to wait for the 9:40 bus. We met a super nice guy on on the bus that helped us load our bikes and gave us some interesting facts about the areas were passing en route. He also told us the best place to get off the bus and the directions to the art museum to be near the beginning of the trail.

After biking four or five blocks north we stopped at the “Rocky” statute beside the famous steps of the museum. We got a street person to take our picture (I tipped him a dollar although he asked for 10) and headed across the street to the trail. The trail was extremely busy with other bikers, joggers, and walkers. It was only until we were a couple of miles along that the number of users were thinning down.

Along the banks of the river in the first part of the trail was the famous “Boathouse Row”. Its origin was in 1860 and consisted of a row of 15 boathouses housing social and rowing clubs and their racing shells. Each of the boathoused has it own history, and all have addresses on both Boathouse Row and Kelly Drive (named after the famous Philadelphia oarsman John B. Kelly). The boathouses are seen as centers of the rowing community around the US. Rowers from the boathouses compete at every level, including local clubs, high schools, colleges, summer racing programs and international level athletics. They host several major regattas. Local universities such as Drexel, Penn, and LaSalle row out of the boathouses and Villanova and St. Joseph use boathouses along the river not a part of the row. They are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are a National Historic Landmark. We saw teams practicing as we rode along the banks.

In Manayunk, we took the wrong trail for a short ways. I realized it as we were going up hill beside a creek that was feeding into the river. After getting back on route, we had to ride on a sidewalk for a block or two before spotting a sign directing us to the old Manayunk canal tow path between the river and Main Street.

The Manayunk Canal is a remaining segment of a canal system that was once over 106 miles long, stretching from the anthracite region of Schuylkill County down the Schuylkill River into Philadelphia. It was one of the first anthracite canals built to bring coal down through this network, and served as a key component of Philadelphia’s Industrial Revolution while also shaping the evolution of outlying communities; it was a key transportation node of goods up into Phoenixville, Pottstown, Reading and Schuylkill Haven.

The Manayunk Canal was different from most canals of it time because it was comprised of segments of canals, with inlet and outlet locks around difficult sections of the river as well as the slackwater created by numerous dams constructed up and down the river. The first lock was constructed in East Falls at that neighborhood's waterfall. The last construction was of the Fairmont Dam in 1823, the creation of which caused the slackwater to cover the rocks past East Falls. The Manayunk Section was completed in 1818. Most of the use was over by 1913 and was only used occasionally for cargo and excursion until 1947.

When the tow path trail portion merged back to the street, we stopped for water and a snack near Umbria Street. Rhonda was really feeling the heat and exertion. She had not had as much outdoor activity as I had during the spring, but as usual she was a real trooper and hung in there.

We had arrived at the corner at the same time as a man and his son. The man had a law enforcement shirt so I asked if he was an officer and he said he was a retired Philadelphia officer. I told him I was retired from the Raleigh PD. He said he had met some of the Raleigh officers at one of the national events. When his wife arrived to pick them up and he had loaded the bikes, he came back to where we were and gave me a one of the Law Enforcement United medallions. The organization honors fallen officers and supports there families.

We arrived at the Belzwood trailhead at the edge of Valley Forge National Park after passing through the edge of Norristown at about 2:30. It took a few minutes of consulting with other riders and a map to figure out how to get back to our truck. It was over in a huge business park across the river and the US 422 expressway. The river crossing was on an old wood decked bridge with a chain link fence on one side and the traffic of the expressway on the other. It was a bridge my sister Fran would have had real trouble even walking across.

About half way back to the truck, the heat and a good uphill got to Rhonda, She found a shady spot next to the driveway of one of the office buildings and sat down to wait while I went ahead and got the truck. After returning, we went to the park visitor center and then took a ride through the park (in the truck). Valley Forge was the third winter encampment of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War in 1778 and 1779. Washington had 12,000 troops there.

Monday morning we woke to an overcast sky and we headed out with our destination of Harve de Grace, Maryland to visit my nephew, Michael, his wife and 2 year old son. Along the way, we stopped at an Amish fruit and vegetable stand just out of Parkesburg for a carton of strawberries to take along on our visit.

After crossing the Susquehanna River on US1, we went southeast heading to the Susquehanna River State Park to secure a campsite. The sun came and went as we set up camp and ate lunch. We had called Michael and he said to come by around two so they could put Aaron down for a nap.

While Aaron was napping, Michael took us on a bike tour of the small downtown and waterfront where the river comes out into the Chesapeake Bay. A large dark cloud was building as we rode the three and a half miles. Shortly after getting back, a hard shower came through. We sat and talked while waiting for it to subside.

We asked Michael and Christina to pick a place to eat and we would treat them to dinner. The chose an Italian restaurant called Chiapparelli's. It was downtown and not but a few blocks from the water. After saying our goodbyes back at their house, we returned to the park just as it was getting dark. There was more rain during the night.

The next day, we drove back through Maryland and southeast to Cripple Creek with it raining off and on throughout the trip. Praise God we had a safe trip, good weather and no problems; mechanical or otherwise. We traveled 1398 miles. I rode four new trails and finished a fifth one for a total of 123 miles, bring the total to 135 trails.

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