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Pennsylvania to the Bay

150-mile GAP/C&O bike trail offers a watershed experience

  • By Tom Horton on September 08, 2013
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Bicyclists ride through the tunnel marking the Eastern Continental Divide, the spot where a falling drop of water will either flow to the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico, or to the Chesapeake Bay and into the Atlantic Ocean.  (Dave Harp) Gary and Mary Meyers, of Susquehanna Township, PA, look east across the Chesapeake watershed from just below the divide. They were bicycling from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD. (Dave Harp) The “You are here” on the map inside a short tunnel tells [l–r] Gary Meyers of Susquehanna Township, PA, and Beth and Mel Lancione of Fairview Township, PA, that they are at the Eastern Continental Divide. (Dave Harp)

Push on the pedals for one last rise. After that it’ll be downhill delight for the last 20 miles. For two days we’ve been gently climbing for 75 miles from the gritty old western Pennsylvania coal town of Connellsville, which in more prosperous days claimed more millionaires for its size than any U.S. town.

We glide through a short tunnel marking the Eastern Continental Divide. For a few seconds we are suspended — if our dusty touring bicycles were drops of rain we would be poised between trickling back north to Pittsburgh, to the Ohio River, to the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico; or south to Cumberland, MD, to the Potomac, to the Chesapeake, to the Atlantic.

Pedaling or hiking over the lip of the divide brings home the sense of watershed in a way that watching “Entering Chesapeake Bay Drainage” highway signs whiz by can’t. A scenic overlook a little farther Bayward rolls out an inspiring canvas, early sun painting across hundreds of square miles of rolling pastures, farm fields and forested mountain ridges.

I could call that view the highlight of our cruise along the GAP (for Great Allegheny Passage) bicycle trail. But there’s so much competition, like bridging the deepest river gorge in Pennsylvania or tunneling half a mile beneath Big Savage Mountain.

Railroad buffs say the old coal trains for which they built this passage more than a century ago could handle a 1.5 percent climb heading empty from western Maryland toward Pittsburgh. Loaded on the back, the safe limit was more like 1 percent.

Conversion of the rail line, abandoned decades ago, into a bicycle trail has enabled a nearly flat, car-free transit through some of the most rugged and inaccessible mountains and river gorges in the eastern United States.

Almost 40 years in the making, the GAP trail’s completion was celebrated this year. A bicyclist or hiker can now go 150 uninterrupted miles from the forks of the Ohio in Pittsburgh to Cumberland; and another 185 miles down the long-existing towpath of the C&O Canal National Historic Park into Washington D.C.

Elite cyclists can make it to Cumberland from D.C. or Pittsburgh in a day, said Josh Norris, who shuttled me, my cycling companion and our bikes to Connellsville from Cumberland Trail Connections, a bicycle shop located where the GAP ends and the C&O begins.

“But take your time is my advice; enjoy the little towns, [they are] a lot of what this trail is about,” he said.

Indeed, every community I’ve ridden through — and I’ve done all or parts of the GAP three times — is geared to make the ride a great experience. On a previous trip, one bike repairman dropped what he was doing just to get me back on the road. “The trail was controversial at first…we weren’t sure what it was going to bring out here,” said a man sitting on his front porch in Rockwood, PA, “but it’s been real good for us.”

One is never more than a couple of hours’ ride from bike shops, hostels, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and campsites. That said, the distances and facilities are geared more to bicycles than hikers, until one hits the towpath of the C&O.

The trail, with traffic growing now that it’s linking two major destinations, is pumping an estimated $40 million a year in direct spending into local economies along the way. It also accounts for $7.5 million a year in direct employment, according to the Allegheny Trail Alliance, a bi-state coalition that manages the GAP.

Leaving Connellsville in midmorning, we rolled at 10–12 miles an hour on the hard-packed, finely crushed limestone that surfaces most of the trail. Even heavy rain overnight hadn’t affected it. We passed behind an old factory that makes stained glass, one of six such companies left in the country.

This is trail riding at its finest. Forest canopy shades so much of the trail that one seldom needs sunblock. Mountain laurel and wildflowers blossom along the edges. The rushing, rapid-studded Youghiogheny River, which has cut gorges as deep as 2,000 feet, accompanied us all day.

The easy pace and comfortable width of the GAP trail makes conversations easy with other bicyclists. One contingent turned out to be from Hawaii, riding from New Jersey to St. Louis, raising money for Pit bull Rescue of Oklahoma. The trail gathers all types, including cyclists from many foreign countries.

After an hour or so the reds and yellows and blues of rafts and kayaks flashed through the trees between us and the ‘Yough’: paddlers testing some of the East’s best whitewater. We were nearing Ohiopyle, PA, an outdoors destination before the GAP developed.

From here, one could park the bike for a night or three to enjoy water sports, explore 20,000 acre Ohiopyle State Park, two Frank Lloyd Wright homes, hike 25 miles of short, scenic trails — or backpack the celebrated 70-mile Laurel Highlands trail.

Already we’d crossed the first of many wooden and iron bridges that carry bikes across deep and sinuous river gorges. Laid atop mighty trestles and towers built to carry trains, these bridges alone make the GAP worth the ride. Almost none of this can be experienced any other way than via the trail.

Onward, we rode through more miles of forested gorge with few other cyclists, to Confluence, a neat village where the Casselman River joins the Yough. George Washington camped here in 1754 while seeking a water connection between the Potomac and Ohio rivers. He could not have imagined that bikes, not invented until the 1800s, would succeed where he failed.

In Rockwood we showered off 50 miles of trail at the nicest, cleanest hostel you’ll ever encounter. For about $70, my friend Charlie Stek and I rented a “private” room with six bunks. Places to eat are limited and superb — wings at the Rock City Cafe and homemade pizza just up Main Street and next to the hostel were as good as I’ve ever had (maybe riding 50 miles helps).

A local woman, Judy Pletcher, has renovated an old feed mill into specialty shops, an ice cream parlor, gym, cafe; even an opera house featuring dinner theater. The trail in the summer “is 60 percent of my business,” she said.

Rockwood is pursuing a $2.6 million grant for facilities to allow the daily Amtrak train to stop.

Amtrak runs from D.C. to Pittsburgh, following tracks on the other side of the rivers from the GAP trail. For a total of about $75, they will carry you and your minimally disassembled bike; but the only stops where bikes can be loaded and dropped off are at either end of the line, D.C. or Pittsburgh.

We arose early — no problem with all of the freight trains passing through on the other side of the river from the GAP. Breakfast a dozen miles down the line in Myersdale was the goal.

Approaching the “Maple City,” whose groves have been tapped for syrup since Native American times, there’s a singular view. A 1,900-foot viaduct carries bikes 100 feet above a river, a four-lane highway and a railroad. Cornfields lie below, and the forest ridges ahead sprout massive wind turbines — so much information in that scene about the past, present and future.

Over scrumptious hotcakes with maple syrup at her father’s GI Dayroom diner on Main Street, waitress Jody Saler said that more cyclists each year have begun to revitalize her hometown; but it’s not going to replace the factories that milled lumber and fashioned bras and postal service uniforms; “jobs where we made things. You want to see small-town America, these trail towns are it, just common people trying to make a living.”

Soon we’re across the great divide and lunching on a shady pedestrian plaza in downtown Cumberland, MD, having passed 3,300 feet beneath Big Savage Mountain on the way. Nearly $12 million of the $80 million spent to create the GAP went to re-opening the tunnel there.

Our round trip journey, Cumberland to Cumberland, was scarcely more than 24 hours, a refreshing trip through space and time, bridging two great watersheds. For my fellow traveler Charlie Stek, whose Chesapeake Conservancy organization works on public access to the Bay, it was an insight into the power of trails to connect and energize a whole region.

GAP / C&O Trip Guidance

I highly recommend the Allegheny Trail Alliance’s TrailBook—a guide to both the GAP and C&O. It costs $10. The group’s website, www.GAPtrail.org, is updated and excellent for information and maps.

Most any type of bicycle can navigate the GAP trail; but for the C&O, still maintained more as a hiking path, I’d advise against skinny-tired road racers or going in heavy rain.

Bring a good bike headlight or flashlight for the tunnels. You can get disoriented in the unlit ones and crash (I know). And cross wet train tracks slowly and as close to 90 degrees as possible.

The trail’s “season,” when most everything is open, runs April through October.

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About Tom Horton

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is a freelance writer, splitting his time between Baltimore and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Read more articles by Tom Horton

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