A Biking Adventure on the GAP and C&O Canal
Pittsburgh to DC Bike Ride
Sept. 12 to 20, 2021
I met Don at the Popular Camp Circle K on I-77 fourteen miles from our house at 7:15 on Sunday morning. After putting my gear in the back of his truck, I mounted the bike on the rack and we were off to meet Don's sister, Susan and her husband, Bill in Hagerstown, Maryland. They lived in Annapolis, Maryland.
I got to know Don Smythe through the AT maintenance club. We have worked on my section and several projects together and I found Don to very congenial and hard working. He had also hiked the entire Appalachian Trail a few years earlier after retiring.
I had a desire to bike a long trail totally self supported and Don seemed to fit the bill as a great companion in taking on the challenge. I presented the idea to him and he was immediately receptive. We began making preliminary plans.
We stopped for lunch at a sub shop in Breezewood, Pa. At the junction of I-70 and I-76 and reached at our destination of Point Park at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers at 3:30. We changed in to our biking attire at the truck and headed over to the large fountain in the park so Susan to take a photo of our beginning spot. We said our goodbyes and were off to the first destination of the Holiday Inn Express in Homestead nine miles away.
After weaving our way along the bike path adjacent to the Monongahela River, we arrived at the hotel a little more than an hour later. In some places, we had to stop and make sure we were on the right route. We checked in, secured the bikes in the room, and went down the street to find a restaurant to have supper.
The next morning, we ate a big breakfast at the hotel and were on our way by 7:20. We got on the trail right at mile marker 140. Our destination for the day was Cedar Creek Park south of the town of West Newton. It was a little overcast all morning as we passed through the towns of Duquesne and McKeesport. In McKeesport, the trail began following the Youghiogheny River through Boston, and Buena Vista.
South of Buena Vista, we stopped at the Red Water fall (it's actually kind of orange-gold). It gets it name from the acidic and iron rich water that flows out of the mountain as a result of coal mining operations around 1900. Acid mine drainage is a major source of water pollution and the cause of extreme stream degradation and environmental damage.
We met a very nice fellow biker from Saratoga Springs, New York at the West Newton depot. His name was Dan Lynch and he was planning to go to the Round Bottom campsite. We had Cedar Creek Park as our day's stop, but being as it was only noon when we got there, we decided to go on to Round Bottom with Dan. It was located at Milepost 99.6; giving us 40.4 miles for the day.
The guidebook said that there was no drinkable water at the campsite, so we stopped at a park in the community of Whitsett and filled our water bottles and the two collapsible water containers from a faucet in the park.
We arrived around two o'clock and spent the afternoon lounging, setting up camp, and collecting a little firewood. It was a very nice camp site built by a boy scout troop. The Youghiogheny River was on the back edge of the campsite. There were three Adirondack type shelters and two picnic tables and fire pits along with a pit toilet.
As we talked, we found out that Dan was 72 and had been in the navy as a radio operator on a destroyer and an aircraft carrier and spent twenty years in the army reserves. His civilian career was in insurance and after retirement he ran a bicycle touring company. He is currently vice president of a group called Bikeatoga. Their mission statement says the are “dedicated to pushing for a better future by making functional cycling more convenient, accessible, and safer in and around Saratoga Springs, NY.” He also teaches a couple of fitness courses for seniors at the “Y” in the winter when he is not in Florida. He is married and has a adult daughter.
The next morning, we had breakfast and were on the trail by 7:20 and stopped briefly in Connelsville (mp88.8), where Dan picked up some fresh fruit and a few other meal supplies. He did not bring a stove so all his meals we ready to eat. One of the things he got was a fruit drink by Naked called Blue Machine. The flavor was blueberry, blackberry, banana, and apple.
The town had a population of about 7200 people. At one time it was served by five railroads. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was known as the coke capital of the world due to the quality and amount of coke produced in the city's beehive ovens.
A little further down the trail, Dan took off and we did not see him again until just before Ohiopyle (mp 71.9) Later we asked if the “Blue Machine” gave him a spurt of energy to take off down the trail. He later said he developed that habit when he was bicycle racing. His coach would tell him if he saw a group of riders up ahead, he should sprint to them and then set his sights to another group.
We stopped in Ohiopyle outside the state park of the same name for lunch. I realized that I had lost one of my water bottles. It must have been back in Connelsville where there was some bumps in the trail from roots under the pavement.
The campground at the park state park was originally on our itinerary for the overnight stop, but we were now a little ahead of schedule. There was an open-air eatery there and the prices were high. Back at Cedar Creek park there was a food trailer selling hot dogs for $4.50, which I thought was high, but here they were eight dollars. The wraps were fourteen dollars. I decided I would eat lunch from my bike bag.
While sitting beside the river having lunch, Don decided to add some air to his tire, but instead of inflating, he almost completely deflated it and he discovered that his pump was not working. Dan had a pump that inflates tubes with peseta valves and soon had him back up to the right inflation (my pump was for the Schrader valves).
There was a noticeable incline from Ohiopyle all the way to Confluence. At Confluence, we secured a campsite at the Outflow Campground at Youghiogheny River Lake. It was a Corp of Engineer lake so I was able to use my Senior Passport discount card. The site was twenty five dollars and with the discount we got it for 12.50 and split it three ways.
The campground was right on the trail. The tent pads were plenty big enough for two tents and the picnic table. There also some very nice showers. I was able to wash a pair of socks and a pair of undershorts. Don and Dan rode into town (not much of a town) and short time later they returned with Dan carrying a salad for supper. He did little, if any cooking.
We were in the sleeping bags by nine and up the next morning by six and out by 7:15. This was our usual routine each day. It was very foggy as we left the campground and didn't start to clear until we were down the trail a ways..
Rain was predicted for the afternoon and we wanted to get to the camping location in Myersdale before it rained. It was only going to be a 30 mile day. Meyersdale was at milepost 31.9. The camping in Myersdale was in a town park called Maple Festival Park. The Pennsylvania Maple Festival takes place in early spring at the height of the maple syrup production season. The park had a number of covered shelters and a stage that was used for vendors and the entertainers during the festival. We figured they'd make a good place to cook, eat, and pack up if it rained.
Before reaching Rockwood, we rode through the 849 ft Pinkerton Tunnel (milepost 51.9). When I rode the trail back in 2012 the tunnel was closed because much of it had collapsed. There was a detour trail around it. There was a bridge over the Casselman on both side of the tunnel.
At Rockwood (mp 43.8), we met a bikers with a tour group coming through. Dan said his goodbyes to us here, because he had reservations in Cumberland and had about 44 more miles to go and we only planned to go 19 more miles. He had been a great traveling companion for two days. He was very congenial and had good biking and life stories to tell.
Rockwood is a the foot of the highest point in Pennsylvania, Mt. Davis, 3212 ft. In town, you’ll find B&B’s, a hostel, a pizzeria, an antique shop, and a café, as well as a small-town shopping district. It has a population of 802.
Before arriving in Myersdale, we stopped and took pictures at the Salisbury viaduct https://gaphistory.org/point_of_interest/salisbury-viaduct/.Salisbury. The viaduct spans the Casselman River valley. It was build in 1912 by the Western Maryland Railway for its Connellsville extension. It was built to accommodate two tracks, but only one was ever installed. It was decommissioned in 1975. In 1998, after being modified for use as a rail trail, it opened to pedestrians and cyclist as a part of the GAP .
We arrived in Myersdale just before lunch after completing 32 miles for the day. After looking around the visitor center which had been the old railroad station, we went down to the park and set up the tent to claim a spot. Don called the number on a poster to let someone know we were there and needed to pay the fifteen dollar camping fee. The lady on the phone said she would come by later in the afternoon to register us and collect the fee.
Next on the agenda was lunch. We went down the street a couple of blocks to a little diner called Donges Drive-In. We biked in. Don had a chicken wrap and I had a sloppy Joe with macaroni salad (I actually ordered potato salad). Because the waitress botched the order, the blueberry pie was on-the-house. I insisted that wasn't necessary, but rather than persist, I concurred. Afterward, we stopped at Sheetz to get a few things to augment breakfast. The grocery store for the town was too far to ride.
When we returned to the park, I gathered up some clothing of mine and Don's and walked up the street about five blocks to the laundromat. I talked to Rhonda on the phone while waiting.
During the afternoon, two riders heading to Pittsburgh and a single rider going in our same direction arrived at the park to camp. The two weren't very friendly or talkative, but the single rider whose name was Stan was a full time RVer and had retired a few years earlier from the accounting office at UNC-Chapel Hill. His RV was parked in Cumberland and he had taken the train with his bike to Pittsburgh and was now back in route to Cumberland. From there he said he was going to ride to DC and take the train back to Cumberland. Since he had retired he had worked as a seasonal at Glacier National Park.
The lady came around before supper and collected ten dollars from everyone. It was a great price to have a shelter and nice showers. They even had shower gel and shampoo if you needed it.
Just after we got in the tent for the night, there was a brief shower. In locating a place for our tent earlier, we were primarily concerned about even ground and drainage. We did not realize that a somewhat bright night light was going to be on all night. It didn't bother us too much since we were tired and fell asleep right away.
The next morning we were up at six as usual making and eating breakfast and packing up. It was heavily overcast again as we headed up the trail head to the Big Savage tunnel ten miles away at the Eastern Continental Divide (elev 2392 ft.) Stan had left ahead of us, but saw his bike parked at trail access next to a trail toilet. I yelled out his name as we passed.
We hung around the tunnel for a bit and Stan soon arrived and took our picture for us. I called my friend, who had biked the trail with me in 2012 and told I was back at the Big Savage tunnel.
From the Divide, there was 22 mile downhill into Cumberland. We passed others going in the uphill direction. Many of them were with the touring company “Adventure Cycling” and nearly all of them were seniors. We crossed the Mason-Dixon Line clearly marked with three foot concrete cubes, each having a letter that spelled out the words “Mason-Dixon”.
There were also people riding the excursion rails right beside the trail on special two or four seater rail carts. The rail carts appeared to have been towed uphill to a point and the riders got on board and rode back down. The details on the website says “railbikes” are electric pedal–assist. It runs from Frostburg to Cash Valley, a distance of about 10 miles. The cost is $89 for a two seater and $149 for a four seater. The company called Tracks and Yaks calls it railbiking. There was a heavy drizzle part of the way down and some of the riders weren't prepared and looked a little uncomfortable.
In Cumberland, we went over to check out the museum and visitor area but it was closed due to Covid. Don checked for the location of a grocery store on his phone and headed that way. We had to walk the bikes up through a outdoor pedestrian mall. On the way, we spotted Stan's bike and then Stan sitting at a table in front of the Baltimore Grill. He invited us to stop and have lunch with him, so we did.
After lunch, we went to the grocery store and by the bike shop just at the beginning of the C&O Canal trail. Don needed to pick up a replacement tire pump. I looked at the padded pants, but did not want to pay $69 for the cheapest pair. My derriere was becoming more and more uncomfortable and I was worried that I might develop a serious blister or the nerves become painful enough that I would have to stop riding.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, abbreviated as the C&O Canal and occasionally called the "Grand Old Ditch," operated from 1831 until 1924 along the Potomac River between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Maryland. It replaced the Potomac Canal, which shut down completely in 1828, and could operate during months in which the water level was too low for the former canal. The canal's principal cargo was coal from the Allegheny Mountains.
Construction on the 184.5-mile canal began in 1828 and ended in 1850 with the completion of a 50-mile (80 km) stretch to Cumberland, although the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had already reached Cumberland in 1842. Rising and falling over an elevation change of 605 feet (184 meters), it required the construction of 74 canal 11 aqueducts to cross major streams, more than 240 culverts to cross smaller streams, and the 3,118 ft. Paw Paw tunnel. A planned section to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh was never built.
As we left town on the trail, I saw, what I thought was Stan's RV(motor home). He had described the location where he had left it in someone's backyard just off the trail. It wasn't far from lock 74, the last lock on the canal coming from Georgetown.
Our initial plan was to ride about four and a half miles to the first biker-hiker campsite at Evitts Creek, Milepost 180. The length of the trail was 184.5 miles and as on the GAP Trail, we would be counting down all the way to where the canal begins on the Potomac River in Georgetown.
We didn't even stop at Evitts Creek and the next site was Iron Mountain at 175.6. It was a very nice site, feature wise, but it was too close to a highway and a railroad going into the yard at Cumberland. We decided to move on to the next one which was Pigman's Ferry at mp169.1, but when we got there, we discovered that the pump handle was missing, so there was no water available.
The next site was Potomac Forks (mp 164.8). After passing Old Town, I discovered that my waist pack was missing. I had some of my snack and lunch supplies and my camera in it. I could not remember it coming lose. I recalled a big bump back at Old Town so I thought it might have come lose there. I yelled for Don to stop and told him I had to go back to find the pack.
Don rode with me to Old Town, but it was not there. I told it wasn't necessary for him to ride back further with me and told him to go on to the campsite and I would return if I found the pack or not. I was out of water, so he gave me what he had left of his and hoped there would be a working pump at the campsite. I rode back to the Pigman's Ferry campsite. On the way, I met a lady riding the trail and asked if she had seen the pack along the trail. She had not. I also said I was out of water and she poured some of her water from her bottle into mine. She said she lived close by and was just out for a short ride.
When I got to the Pigman's Ferry campsite I found the pack. We were there earlier, my bike had slipped on some loose gravel on a downhill slope going into the campsite and I fell off. The pack must have come loose then.
On the return trip I met the kind lady and told her that I found it. The total extra distance to retrieve the pack was six and a half miles. Making my mileage for the day almost sixty miles. Our itinerary had us going about 36 miles for the day. but the Potomac Fork campsite at 164.8 making it a 52 mile day plus the mile or so in town.
We shared the campsite with Robert from eastern Maryland. He was riding the GAP and the C&O up and back in eight days; twice what we were doing in the same amount of time. His mileage was around 82 miles a day. He was another very interesting character. He had all kinds of knowledge about fitness, burning calories, and equipment. I asked his age to get some idea of his conditioning in that time of his life. He said he was 48. He said he had to be back to work on Monday – this was Thursday.
Friday morning we were out on trail about our usual time of 7:15. Nine miles down the trail, we came to the Paw Paw tunnel detour. Beyond the tunnel there had been a number of rock slides on the trail so a major project to improve this area was being undertaken.
The detour meant we had to push our bikes up a hiking trail for about six tenths of a mile and back down a rough vehicle road for about eight tenths with an elevation change of 375 feet. The alert said to allow for one and to two hours. It took us about fifty minutes even with a snack and water break at the top. As many thing,s it wasn't nearly a bad as we had anticipated.
A little further down the towpath, Don spotted a Paw Paw, AsiminaTriloba lying on the ground. We looked beside the trail and found the tree an picked several. A ripe one is very soft and difficult to hold and eat without becoming almost mushy. Don had one that he could peel and slice with his knife. The one I chose was very soft. A rider came from the other direction and we told him what we had found and picked one for him.
The taste is much like a banana, pineapple, or a mango combined. I saved some seeds from one and maybe I can get one to grow in the yard. I read that it takes seven years for it to produce fruit.
We stopped at the Ten Mile creek campsite for lunch. The pump handle was missing here also. We needed to refill our water bottles, but none was to be had. The clouds looked like we might get some rain so we moved on. Also the mosquitoes showed up and we were ready to get away from them. We put in 40 miles and got all the way to Hancock, which was between mile post 125 and 124. This put us about a half day ahead of schedule.
The bike shop was the first business you came to after exiting the trail and crossing the canal on a small bridge. We went in to check it out. I looked at the padded shorts again and the least expensive were still $69. We looked at the freeze-dried meals, but decided to look elsewhere. Everything in the shop was expensive like most bike or specialty shops.
We went outside and I called the Super 8 motel located off US Highway 522 just down the street a ways, but had no rooms available. Don called several B&Bs, but was not able to talk to anyone. I went back in the bike shop to ask if they knew of a hostel or bunkhouse for bikers and the lady told me they had a bunkhouse area out back of the shop. I went around to take a look and came back to tell Don. I told Don we found just what we needed for just $15 a night. He checked it out, agreed, and went inside to pay.
There was a screened shed with sixteen bunks, a table and a curtain dressing area. Outside were two Porta-Johns and two homemade shower units. There was also a beat up old sink and a water hose to clean off bikes. Under the shed and beside the screened area was a refrigerator with free bottled water. I guzzled one bottle down right away.
We pushed the bikes and gear around and commenced settling in. We chose our bunks and then walked down to the Dollar General but they did not have much suitable for lightweight camping. We got some fruit juice, canned fruit, and spam for breakfast. I also bought a package of kitchen sponges to pad my two sore spots.
When I got back to the bunkhouse I pulled off the scrubber side so I would have it ready to the next morning. When the bike shop closed for the day, they locked us in the compound and gave us the combination to the lock so we could get out and lock up when we left.
We cleaned up and headed down to a restaurant called Buddy Lou's. They had inside and outside dining. The decor was sort of like Cracker Barrel. Their curtains were flannel long sleeves from shirts. The menu was varied, I chose pan-seared salmon, roasted potatoes, asparagus and a great tossed salad. Don got barbecue, baked beans and mac and cheese.
On the walk back, we saw that a food trailer across and down the street had an entertainer, so we stopped and sat on a bench an listened for awhile. He was a good singer and had quite a large repertoire of songs. We could still hear him for a couple of more hours after we got back to the “bunkhouse”.
No one else came to stay in the bunkhouse. We camped at three different biker-hiker campsites and we were the only campers except for Robert the night before. It appeared that most through bikers were staying at motels inns, and B& Bs.
Saturday morning, it was overcast again and like the other mornings the temperature was right at 60 degrees, After breakfast and getting everything loaded on the bike, I got the two sponges positioned as best as I could to pad the very sore spots. I was very concerned that I was going to get a blister or a painful pinched nerve.
Our plans were for another 40 mile day. The sun came out before we got to Williamsport. We stopped briefly at Williamsport mainly for me to catch up.
Williamsport is the only place in North America where visitors can view a variety of canal features in one place, including a lift lock and refurbished lock house, a railroad lift bridge, a Bollman iron truss bridge, a canal turning basin and warehouse, and now a watered aqueduct.
At milepost 89 and lock 42 there was an unexpected detour. It was on the website alerts, but we didn't realized it. We had to make a three mile detour on county roads. As we started the detour, we came upon a very clear swift moving creek near the entrance to a farm, so we decided to fill up the two collapsible plastic water bottles and our drinking bottles since the pump situation was so unpredictable. Don had a filter and a two part chemical treatment solution.
While we were getting the water, another biker came up to me and said some with a strong accent and I did not understand him. Then he asked if I was Don and I responded “no” and pointed to Don who was getting water out of the creek and said “that's Don”. The man had seen my biking shirt that had a Florida trail and a map of Florida on it. He had been down in Juipter, Florida riding with Don's brother. Don's brother had told him that Don had plans to ride the GAP and the C&O. When he saw my shirt and took a chance to ask if I was Don. I took a picture of him and Don on Don's phone and he sent it to his brother in Florida. What are the chances?
We re-entered the tow path at McMahon's Mill, milepost 88. Two ladies were there and we chatted for a few minutes. They were headed for Shepardstown for their evening lodging. One of them commended us for riding the trail self-supported and camping each night. The stretch just ahead was a viaduct (concrete sidewalk) that was built about ten years earlier.
Before reaching the day's stop,we passed quite a bit of riverside development in the form of cottages and campers at Taylor's Landing. We arrived at Big Woods campsite and did not see a pump and realized we could not stay there, but as we left, we saw the pump down on the trail a few yards and not right at the site like the others. It had a handle. We got to thinking that the parks service may have removed the handles from pumps that had water that was non-potable and the normal treatment method did not correct it.(I later found a list on the NPS website for the C&O showing which ones were out of commission).
There was a young female biker there with a loaded bike and appeared to be only making about twenty miles a day. She said she planned to go on to Pittsburgh, then to Chicago, St. Louis, Colorado, and eventually San Deigo. Don and I both wondered about the ambitious goal and if she could do it before the winter. She was a real free spirit to say the least.
We stopped at Horseshoe Bend campsite just before milepost 79 after riding about 47 miles. The pump did work, but the site was downhill and had steps or a very steep slope to get to it. It was a very poor design for a loaded bike.
There was also a very steep embankment down to the water and it was very muddy right at the water's edge. Someone had put a rope on the sloped path but it wasn't worth trying to get down to wash up a little. I went up to the pump with a gallon zip lock bag and got water to wash off the best I could. It took several bag fulls to get the job done.
Sunday was a busy day on the trail. Right after starting out, we passed the highway to Shepardstown and Antietam Creek and the battlefield. In the same area was a large camping area and it was quite full. I noticed one good size youth group (maybe boy scouts) going about the morning task of cleaning up after breakfast.
At Harper's Ferry, we stopped along the trail for a break and snack. We stopped again at the Brunswick Family campground to get some water and use the Porta-John. We again filled the water containers just to be on the safe side for camping.
The lunch stop was at lockhouse 28. The lockhouse there was one that could. be rented for an overnight stay. Someone must have stayed there the night before, because there was a commercial cleaning crew there.
We arrived at the Marble Quarry camp site (milepost 38.2) after riding 41 miles and spent the afternoon resting, setting up camp, collecting some firewood and washing up a bit. We saw a few kayakers and canoers going by on the river.
We were getting low on our second can of fuel, so we used it cautiously so we would have enough for breakfast. After using the allotted hot water for my normal supper meal, I heated some more water over the campfire to fix some instant mash potatoes and the dried soup mix I had made at home using fresh vegetables from the garden and my dehydrator. I would hated not eating it after going to all the labor to dry it.
Monday morning was our final day. The campsite was west of White's Ferry. I told Don that when we got to Great Falls, I would stay with the bikes for him to go out and see the falls rather than have to lock them to something. I had seen the falls in 2013 when I rode from Georgetown to White's Ferry to finish the trail from our 2012 rain out trip.
Before we got to the Great Falls area, Don had gotten a bit ahead of me and when I arrived, I did not see him up around the lock. I stopped and look around and then continued on down to the access area of the falls. Just as I got there he appeared from the right and said to me, “guess who is here” and I immediately thought of Dan or Robert, but it was Stan. I asked him how did he get ahead of us. He said he took the train from Cumberland to DC, got a hotel room and rode a few trails. He was now headed back up to Cumberland to where his RV was parked.
I stayed with the bikes and had a snack and some drink mix while he and Don when over to look at the falls (actually more like big rapids). After they returned, we said good-by for the final time and headed off in different directions.
At about mile 7, my rear tire went flat. I had to stop and get out my pump and Don had it pumped back up to a decent pressure and we were on our way again. I sort of expected for it to need pumping up again, but we made it all the way to the end.
When we got down to the busy area of the university, we had to figure out where the trail crossed over the canal to reach milepost 0. After crossing a pedestrian bridge the trail was so narrow it was difficult to ride. We got down to the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway and still had not seen milepost 0. Another biker on a recumbent directed us over to the Thompson Boathouse and we found it where the first lock and canal came out into the Potomac.
Don had called Bill and Susan earlier to give them our progress and then called again to let them know we would be waiting at the boathouse. In the meantime, we took documenting photos at the Mile 0 post. I then went inside and refilled our water bottles while we waited.
Bill arrived a short time later with Don's truck and Susan arrived not long after. Bill had brought sandwiches and beverages for lunch and we ate together on the tailgate. Afterwards, we were on our way out of town after thanking them again for all they had done for us to facilitate our wonderful adventure. Soon, we then were heading south to Virginia and the rendezvous with Rhonda at Popular Camp (exit 24, I-77).