C&O Canal Towpath
My ever-evolving plan was to ride for the next few days all the way into Washington, then cross the Potomac River and take the paved Old Dominion Trail to Leesburg, Virginia. From there, I thought, I would take back roads or State Highway 15 to a bridge at Point of Rocks where I could rejoin the C&O and take it back to my car in Cumberland. This plan, if successful, would mean more than 700 miles of riding for the entire tour. But reality can change plans.
The gravel C&O towpath runs between a manmade boat canal and the Potomac River. Before railroads, canals provided the best method of transporting goods over long inland distances. Mules towed narrow cargo boats through a series of locks, sometimes using canals and sometimes using deep sections of an adjacent river, like the Potomac.
In 1785, George Washington’s Potowmack Company began building short canals to bypass waterfalls on the Potomac River and create a route of trade into the Ohio Valley, according to “TrailGuide,” a publication of the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy. This work preceded the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which broke ground in 1828. For the next 22 years, an estimated 35,000 workers — mostly European immigrants — dug the canal and built its 1,300 structures. The canal averaged 50 feet wide and six feet deep.
The canal carried coal, lumber, grain and other products for nearly a century, including goods essential to Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. The developing railroads eventually put the C&O out of business and the land lay dormant until President Richard Nixon signed a bill in 1971 creating the C&O Canal National Historic Park. Today, the National Park Service maintains the trail.
My first day on the towpath was a good introduction to the variety of trail conditions I would face, everything from smooth hard pack to two-track grassy lanes to single track to a muddy quagmire. From Cumberland, the landscape began as a wide-open valley with low mountains in the distance and the river always in view. Then, it began converting into an enclosed tree canopy with a more intimate feel. The canal varied from a dry ditch to reflective clear water to stagnant pools covered in blooming duckweed or choked in lily pad.
In addition to the stunning green scenery, I admired the interesting stone locks and stately old lockkeeper houses. Rather than scarring the landscape like the rusty metal buildings and ugly concrete pads of the modern era, these old manmade structures along the canal seemed to blend into the greenery like ruins from ancient times. The placid scenes reminded me of television shows I have watched from Great Britain, where recreational narrow boats still putter along in a vast series of old transportation canals.
I had heard recent reports that the towpath was closed at the 3,118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel and required a long and exhausting detour that meant pushing rather than riding a bicycle. So, I decided to stay the night at Purslane Run, a primitive campsite about a mile before the detour. This meant I rode a total of 45 mostly easy miles on the GAP and C&O from Frostburg to the campsite.
I set up camp and did the best I could to wash the mud and grit off of me with the old hand well pump at the site. Then, I cooked a freeze-dried Italian dish. The package said it contained two servings, which was about right for one of me after a day in the saddle. After dinner, I strolled down the trail to stretch my legs, which is a habit I have developed to prevent leg cramps on a tour. When I returned to the campsite, a stranger was there, eating his dinner.
He introduced himself as Chris and said he was a geography teacher from Washington, D.C., who had taken the Amtrak train to Cumberland. From there, he set out on a 100-mile hike back toward Washington. He said he was hiking 25 miles a day and his girlfriend would pick him up after four days.
Since he was an expert in geography and had knowledge of the Washington area, I asked Chris about my plan of riding the C&O to the District of Columbia, taking streets to Arlington, riding the Old Dominion Trail to Leesburg and rural roads back to the C&O. He didn’t like the plan, saying there was too much open suburban riding with too much traffic, some with no shoulders or bike lanes. I decided I should listen to my geography teacher and develop another plan. I would simply ride to Washington on the C&O, then turn around and ride the same trail back to Cumberland.
“You can always take the train back to your car,” Chris suggested. “It’s only $28 plus $20 to carry your bike.”
We talked for a while, and I was surprised when a man as young as Chris said he was turning in for the night at only 7:30 p.m. I hung around the picnic table a little longer, but decided an early night was probably a good idea, considering the long detour I faced in the morning.
It rained again that night and soaked my rain fly, tent pad and some of the exterior of my tent. I didn’t take the time to hang everything to dry the next morning. I shook the water off the best I could and packed everything wet, being careful to put the damp stuff in garbage bags so it wouldn’t soak the rest of my gear.
Chris was already gone by this point, but I would see him again down the trail since I was faster on a bicycle. About a mile away from the campsite, I came to the dreaded detour around the Paw Paw Tunnel. The tunnel was still open for viewing, but the trail was closed at the other end where crews were remedying a problem with rockslides. I parked my bike and walked into the tunnel with my headlight.
It was an impressive engineering feat for its time. The canal took up most of the tunnel, with the narrow towpath squeezed against one side. The brick tunnel was so labor intensive that it bankrupted the contractor who built it.
I left the Paw Paw Tunnel and followed the signs to the narrow footpath that would serve as my detour up and over the mountain. One orange detour sign instructed me to dismount and walk my bike, and then added this alarming message:
“The detour is a distance of approximately 1.5 miles of steep and strenuous trail. Follow signs carefully and stay on the trail. Those using the detour should do so with extreme caution.”
I sat on a rock and removed my cycling shoes, which have cleats that snap into my pedals. The stiff shoes are great on the bike, but they are slick and hazardous while walking so I swapped them for my trail running shoes. Then, I pushed my bike across a creek on a narrow footbridge with no rails.
From there, the detour was straight up the mountain through which the canal builders had tunneled. I had to stop occasionally to catch my breath and reduce my heart rate. At last, I reached the peak and then it was straight back down to the C&O. The trail was so steep and my gear was so heavy that I had to use both handbrakes at all times to keep the bike from dragging me down the mountain.
At last, I reached the C&O again and stopped to swap shoes. At some point in the subsequent ride, I noticed one of my front panniers had ripped at the bottom seam and the contents were trying to spill out. I stopped and reinforced the saddlebag the best I could with plastic shopping bags. Although I had brought spare spokes, cables, tire tubes, zip ties and tools, I had forgotten the most important item for any shade-tree bike mechanic — duct tape.
Then, in the middle of nowhere in a spot called Little Orleans, I came across Richard’s Place, a bar just off the trail. It looked like the kind of joint that would have a roll of duct tape. So, I went in, bought some Gatorade and asked the bartender if he had a roll of tape lying around. I said I would buy the whole roll, if he had one.
The bartender consulted with the owner, and they decided I could borrow the bar’s roll of tape, but had to return what I didn’t use.
So I went back outside and wrapped silver duct tape around my damaged black pannier for a rather stylish look. I returned the tape and thanked the bartender. When I got back outside, rain was starting to fall so I walked under a tin-roofed picnic shelter across the road. A few minutes later, a tornado warning sounded on my phone. I glanced around at the ramshackle picnic shelter and then up at the old bar, and decided I was probably just as safe to stay put.
I got as deep under the tin roof as possible while the wind howled and sent sheets of horizontal rain through the shelter. Lightning popped on the perimeter, thunder rumbled through Little Orleans and I remained acutely alert for anything that sounded like a freight train. Even with the peril, I was thankful to be here rather than exposed out on the trail.
Finally, the storm passed and left me alive to fight another day. But rain was still falling, so I rummaged around in the panniers for my waterproof jacket and got back underway.
We cyclists spend a lot of money on rain jackets made of the latest high-tech material. In truth, we are just fooling ourselves into thinking we can stay dry. Rain jackets cause cyclists to sweat three times harder, which means the wearers end up wetter than they would be from the rain. It was steaming hot inside my jacket despite the “breathable” material and various zipper vents. Soon, I stuffed the jacket back into a pannier and embraced the rain.
It didn’t take long for the sun to reappear and heat the atmosphere. I pedaled and slid through mud and walked around mud and had a wreck in the mud — a crash that covered my handlebars and me in a sticky mess, but left me unhurt. The mud cushioned my fall. A few miles down the trail, the cleat on my right shoe came loose. I stopped to investigate and found the cleat stuck in the pedal.
“What else is going to break today?” I asked myself out loud.
The pedals are like a spring trap, which use tension to hold the cleats and shoes in place. The tension is too great to open the mouth of the pedal by hand. This meant I had to dig out my repair kit from one of the panniers. I got the multi-tool out and was able to use the pliers to open the mouth of the pedal with one hand and remove the cleat with my other hand. During this process, however, I dropped one of the two bolts that attach the cleat to my shoe. The bolt, being rusted to about the same color as the soft earth, was sacrificed to the Gods of Mud.
I had almost lost a cleat on a previous tour, and so had learned to pack an extra one along with spare bolts. I dug through my collection of small parts, found the appropriate bolt and reattached the cleat to my shoes. Now, I was really a sweaty, muddy mess, but was back under pedal power.
A few miles later, I came across the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail, which parallels the muddy C&O for about 28 miles. Did I want to continue fighting the mud or ride on pavement? A wild smile crossed my grimy face as I sped down the Western Maryland trail with great glee. My knobby tires functioned like dual mud turbines, flinging muck on everything in their path, including me.
The fun pavement ended about eight miles south of Hancock and I rejoined the bog on the C&O, aiming for a primitive campsite near Williamsport. When I arrived, it was hot and humid, and I found a large bicycle tour group crowded into the small campsite. I was hot and muddy, and in no mood to spend the night with people who probably smelled as bad as me. I was reconsidering my idea of fun. So, I pulled out my phone, tapped the AirBnB app and searched Williamsport. There, I found a room in an old apartment house for less than $40. The choice was easy.
After 57 miles of too much adventure, I was soon taking a hot shower and feeling good about the opportunity to sleep between clean sheets in a soft bed. As a bonus, the apartment building had a washer and dryer in the basement, which meant I could start the next day with clean clothes. I always pack a change of lightweight street clothes for a tour, so while my filthy cycling clothes turned round and round, I put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, and walked downtown to a pizza joint.
Detour to the Montour
I dragged myself out of the tent feeling worn and tired, and worried about winging it for the next couple of days. If I continued northward on the GAP on this third day of riding — a Saturday — I would end up in Pittsburgh on a busy weekend afternoon when lodging is at a premium. My plans to stay free with a Warm Showers host had fallen through. I wasn’t able to find a vacant AirBnB and the downtown hotels were more than I wanted to pay.
So, instead of riding directly into Pittsburgh, I decided to get on the gravel Montour Trail, which loops around the west side of the city and offers three free, first-come campsites. If I camped this night, I would be able to stay Sunday night at an AirBnB in Pittsburgh and possibly see some of the city Monday before leaving.
I set out from Middle Earth in West Newton and continued north on the GAP for about 18 miles until I arrived in McKeesport, where I crossed the Youghiogheny River and took back roads and highways to the Montour Trail. The hard-pack trail provided more smooth riding. Although the scenery was less grand and the trail was more congested, the place still had a wild feel about it.
Several times, the path spit me out onto rural roads where the turns and forks were unmarked and sometimes confusing. A local cyclist out for a short ride invited me to follow him so I wouldn’t get lost, and we talked of our past cycling adventures as we pedaled northward. When the trail forked, my guide went right and told me to go left, suggesting I stop at the Tandem Connection bike shop, where he said I could get a double scoop of ice cream. I carefully followed his directions and chose chocolate swirl.
The 44-mile day ended at the Kurnick primitive campground next to a trail parking lot, which had an Uncle John portable restroom and a water fountain, whose water pressure would not arc high enough to fill my large water bottles. That was OK, however, because I have learned from past experience to carry an extra small water bottle, which I can fill and pour into the larger bottles.
I chose a campsite next to a covered picnic table, which turned out to be important when it started pouring rain. I cleaned the trail grime off my body the best I could with disposable wipes and cooked a delicious and nutritious supper of ramen noodles with an added pouch of cooked chicken.
Despite the rain pelting my tent, I slept warm and dry in the woods that night with no train whistles, amorous gobblers or fellow campers to disturb my slumber. The next morning, I got up a little later than usual and took my time, knowing the ride to Pittsburgh was less than 40 miles and I couldn’t check into my room until 3 p.m.
Taking in strays
I strung up a clothesline made of neon orange parachute cord to hang my soaked rain fly and tent pad, along with the tent, whose exterior was damp around the edges. I munched an energy bar and hung around reading a copy of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley in Search of America,” occasionally making small talk with other trail users until the morning sun dried my equipment enough for me to repack it.
The trek along the Montour Trail continued as I passed through more wild scenery broken up by the suburbs of Pittsburgh’s bedroom communities. The number of local weekend trail users grew steadily as I made my way near the city’s airport and more populated areas. The path terminated north of Pittsburgh, where I crossed a bridge onto Neville Island in the middle of the Ohio River and then followed the streets and highways that would take me toward downtown.
This part of the trip was a bit hairy because of traffic. Although most of the roadways had shoulders and bike lanes, they were littered with glass, debris and potholes, so I rode in the traffic lanes, choosing to avoid flat tires rather than cars. It seems The Steel City invested in safe bicycle travel, but could do a better job of maintaining the infrastructure. While crossing one bridge in the partitioned bike lane, I came across a complete car bumper, which blocked my passage. I was tempted to toss it back into the traffic lane, figuring maybe the street crews would remove it. Instead, I picked up the plastic bumper over my head and tossed it behind my bike so I could proceed.
I arrived in the Deutschstown Historic District too early to check into my rented room, so I stopped at a local pub that had outdoor seating, and ordered a Reuben on rye with pasta salad. It tasted pretty good after ramen noodles the night before.
When check-in time arrived, I pedaled over to my lodging, a one-bedroom apartment inside a larger apartment building dating to the early 20th century. While I was carrying my four panniers inside, I ran into the owner, Don, who told me I could do laundry in the basement. While my filthy cycling clothes tumbled clean downstairs, I took a hot shower and felt like a new person.
Don called me later and invited me to dinner down the street. On past cycling tours, my introverted nature prevented me from accepting such invitations from strangers, but I was determined to open up and change this time. So, Don and I walked down the street to a neighborhood dive and split a pizza. It turns out Don is an old adventurer, too, whose passion is sailing.
We had a great time, and during the conversation, Don encouraged me to stay another day and explore the city. He said he and his two helpers were renovating an apartment upstairs, and if I didn’t mind the mess, I could stay there for free. I quickly accepted his offer.
The next morning, I set out on foot to see the big city. The sites included the Andy Warhol Museum, which led to me rediscovering the influential rock ‘n’ roll tunes of the Velvet Underground. I crossed the Allegheny River on one of those iconic yellow steel bridges and strolled down to The Strip District, a kind of blue-collar Hell’s Kitchen. I had lunch at DeLuca’s Diner, which makes a fine Philly cheese steak sandwich, and only accepts cash.
Afterward, I walked over to the Senator John Heinz History Century, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute — where the exhibits vary from the history of ketchup to Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception. Knowing Don and his crew were still working on the apartment renovation, I stayed gone until 5 p.m. When I arrived, Don was hanging window blinds to block the city lights when I went to bed that night. When he finished, we walked down the street to Legends Eatery.
As we shared our life stories, I learned that Don used to be a minister, which made sense.
I could tell he had compassion for strangers like me with no place to stay. He said he took in his pet dog when she was a stray. One night, when the temperature was about zero, he kept hearing a cat crying outside. He opened the door and welcomed another stray creature into his life. I thought about that Scripture in Matthew: “I was a stranger and you took me in.”
By Scott Morris
A time arrives in every adventure when the intrepid adventurer is done.
Maybe it happens out the gate. Maybe, it occurs at the finish. Maybe, it happens somewhere in between. But when the time arrives, the adventurer says “That’s it. No more. I’m done.”
That time arrived on my ride of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and C&O Canal Towpath.
For several years, my bucket list has included a bicycle tour of these two iconic gravel trails, which connect Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh. The total distance from end to end is about 335 miles. Most people cover those miles one way, — which is a challenge in itself — and then find a shuttle or train back to the start. Of course, I never do things the easy way.
My plan involved parking my car roughly in the middle of the route in Cumberland, Maryland. I wanted to do this because I don’t like the stress of driving and parking in major cities, and because it was a closer drive from my home.
From Cumberland, I would pedal northward to Pittsburgh on the GAP and then back to the car to resupply from the extra food in my trunk. This also would let me decide whether I was done early. If I chose to keep going, I would pedal south to Washington and back on the C&O. This out and back strategy would double the fun to about 700 miles, including side trips.
I planned to camp some nights and fill in the gaps with AirBnBs or hotels. I also joined an organization called Warm Showers, in which fellow cyclists let people stay free in their homes.
I loaded my drop-bar Trek 920 adventure-touring bike with about 42 pounds of gear, food and drinks. The bike and cargo racks weigh about 30 pounds, so my total load was about 72 pounds, plus water. I installed a set of two-inch-wide knobby mountain bike tires to cushion the ride and help me negotiate some of the anticipated poor trail conditions on the C&O.
Immediately after our daughters — the only girls from our group of six children — graduated from college in early May, I set off from our home in north Alabama. I’m not sure if I was running away from something or running to something, but I was ready for an adventure. And after an adventure, I’m always ready to go home.
First, I drove to Staunton, Virginia, where I stayed two nights with Ray and Don Davis. Ray and members of his Team Turtle cycling group — “we’ll get there when we get there” — took me on a ride through the beautiful Shenandoah Valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west. Our jaunt took us to the juncture of the North and South rivers, where the Shenandoah River begins, a fact I would note again later in my adventure.
I said goodbye to the Davises the night before I left their house, planning to wake up before dawn the next morning. I tiptoed out of their home in the twilight and left for the three-hour drive to Cumberland. The city offers free long-term parking for cyclists downtown under the elevated Interstate 68. I unpacked my gear from the car, loaded it on the bike and marveled that something so heavy would actually roll when I cranked the pedals.
A cyclist passes through a tunnel on the Montour Trail, which goes around the west side of Pittsburgh.
Wildlife along the trails include turkeys, deer, rabbits, squirrels, snakes, turtles, beavers, groundhogs and lots of chipmunks.
For most of Day 2, I followed the Youghiogheny as it roared downstream. Fearful I might be called upon to actually say the name of the river out loud, I rode up to a couple who were on bicycles, pointed at the flowing water and asked how to pronounce it.
“Yak-kuh-GAY-nee,” the man answered.
Then, he told me that in 1754, George Washington had camped with his troops at the very spot where we were standing. He said the troops were making their way toward the headwaters of the Ohio River at the time.
A few miles north of Confluence, I stopped at Ohiopyle, home of a state park and waterfalls bearing the same name. Tourists milled around the GAP and connecting trails here, and spilled into the little town. A 620-foot-long bridge carried bicycle riders and hikers across the river. Knowing I would be passing back through here in a few days on the way back to Cumberland, I decided it would be a good place to camp when I returned. Later, I would come to wish I had done more research.
The farther I rode, the more I appreciated the GAP’s smooth, hard-packed surface. The pathway was fast, and devoid of potholes and ruts. In fact, it was smoother than many paved roads. The gray pea gravel snapped, crackled and popped under my wide tires as yellow, violet and white wildflowers framed the picture ahead.
North of Ohiopyle, my tire tread clunked loudly across the wooden deck of the 747-foot Bowest Bridge, which led to a short tunnel. Immediately on the other side, I crossed the 732-foot Dunbar Creek Viaduct. These remnants of the old railroad blended seamlessly into the wilderness landscape and added a fascinating element to the ride.
I passed tiny specks on the map — Vanderbilt, Dawson, Layton, Whitsett and Smithton — on the way to my destination in West Newton, a private campground with a “Lord of the Rings” theme. The 56-mile effort felt difficult after riding so far the previous day, and I was relieved when it ended. A map at the campground displayed Middle Earth with a red star that read “You are here.” I washed off at the campground’s “Hobbit showers” and walked down the street for a smashburger and Cajun fries at an outdoor eatery next to the Youghiogheny.
Back at Middle Earth, I found the campground was pleasant enough, but the active railroad tracks across the river meant a regular parade of train whistles blasting all night, so sleep came in spurts. Assuming if I ever went to sleep for any extended period, I believed a train would serve as my morning alarm clock, but instead a couple of gobbling wild turkeys provided the wakeup call.
Great Allegheny Passage
As is usually the case when I do a bicycle tour, I had planned out the first two days’ ride, including reservations at campgrounds. From there, I would wing it and hope for the best. I’ve come to believe too much planning can ruin a good adventure. I find it better to let the road or trail determine each day’s mileage and lodging. Sometimes that approach leads to great rewards and I’m able to spend more time at special places. Sometimes, it gets me into trouble.
The GAP is a rails-to-trails project, using an abandoned train route. These types of trails are built over the place where the tracks once laid, and use the old trestle bridges and tunnels. From Cumberland, the trail provides a mostly shaded pathway with constant scenery of the Allegheny Mountains. The path is so good that the New York Times named it one of the eight best bike trails in the U.S.
Despite the inspiring scenery, the trail presented an instant challenge out of Cumberland. The first 22 miles provided an unrelenting 22-mile climb to the Eastern Continental Divide, the ridgeline that divides the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay watersheds. The only solace in the long ascent is that the railroads were engineered to provide a gentle grade of climb, a fact that benefits both heavy-laden trains and bicycles.
Along the way up, I stopped briefly outside Frostburg, Maryland. The small towns along the GAP like Frostburg provide picnic tables, water fountains, portable restrooms and information kiosks with tourist information. While taking a break, I talked to a few other cyclists, who varied from local folks who were pedaling for a few miles to people on tour like me. I was surprised at how many rode e-bikes, which deprived them of the full uphill experience.
Soon, the climb resumed and then I spotted the black entrance to Big Savage Tunnel, which is 3,294 feet long — too long to see light at the end of the tunnel. Entering a hole in a mountain that is two-thirds of a mile long concerned me for several reasons. Of primary concern was that my eyeglasses were in dark-shades mode out in the sunshine and it took a while for them to transition to low light.
I should have been thinking about how cool it was to be riding a bicycle through an old train tunnel, but I couldn’t see a confounded thing. The tunnel had dim lights overhead, which illuminated the ceiling. My preference, however, was to see the floor. I imagined all kinds of unseen obstacles ahead, from debris to potholes to rattlesnakes. I reached down and turned on my headlight, but my handlebar bag deflected the beam away from the ground onto the sides of the tunnel. I pedaled slowly and blindly into the abyss and found it disorienting. I didn’t know if I was in my lane, and I kept imagining a head-on crash with another cyclist.
About halfway through the darkness, I noticed a whirring sound and sensed that something was following me. Was it a bear, a mountain lion, a trailside stalker? It was hard to tell. I sped up and the pursuer sped up. I slowed down and the chaser slowed down. This game of predator and prey continued until I finally emerged into heavenly sunlight where I pulled over to turn off my headlight and see what was tailing me. That’s when a dude on an e-bike came around and kept going.
Not far up the hill, I crossed the Mason and Dixon Line, that famous border between Maryland and Pennsylvania that later served as a political division between North and South. It seems we Southerners can never quite escape the Civil War.
A few minutes later when I passed through a mercifully short tunnel at the Eastern Continental Divide, I reached the end of the climb and the beginning of an imperceptible descent toward Pittsburgh. The beautiful views continued as I passed by more mountain scenery along with the small Pennsylvania towns of Meyersdale, Garrett and Rockwood.
While I was stopped for a short break, a local rider, unencumbered by the weight of saddlebags stuffed with camping gear, asked where I was headed for the night.
“The campground at Con-FLU-ence,” I answered, with emphasis on the second syllable of the town’s name.
“It’s CON-flu-ence,” he responded with a gentle correction to my pronunciation.
And so, I followed the roaring Casselman River down to CON-flu-ence, where the Army Corps of Engineers was holding my campsite in reserve. I paid $5 extra for a spot with electricity so I could recharge my phone and Garmin device. Keeping these electronics charged is a regular concern on an extended bike ride even though I carry an extra battery pack.
The pleasant Outflow Campground was just below a dam and the corps was spilling excess water through a chute, which created a soothing sound much like a waterfall. I pitched the tent and inflated my air mattress, which I placed on top of a foam mattress for a little extra cushion on the hard ground. A refreshing warm shower perked me up as did a freeze-dried dinner of Thai food heated on the camp stove. I felt great even after climbing about 1,800 feet and riding 63 miles on the first day.
That night, I sat at the picnic table under a full moon and called Jenny to catch up on our day’s events and to fulfill our nightly ritual of playing Wordle together. Yes, we belong to Wordle Club, and we try to avoid any hints or outside discussion of Wordle throughout the day so as not to influence our word choices. The first rule of Wordle Club is “you do not talk about Wordle Club.”
It was a chilly night in the mid-40s so I went to bed wearing my street clothes and lightweight down jacket. I pulled my goose down camping blanket tight around me and slept pretty good for an extra large man on the extra firm ground. I woke up the next morning ready to see where the trail led.
Three restless bodies of water — Casselman River, Laurel Hill Creek and the Youghiogheny River — converge at Confluence. Natives and settlers called this the Turkeyfoot Valley because of its three-pronged shape.
81 miles of trouble
The next morning, I left early to beat the rush hour traffic. I crossed the Allegheny River into downtown and took the Three Rivers Trail to Point State Park, the northern terminus of the GAP trail. Across the river, I could see the home stadium of the Steelers and their Terrible Towels. I rejoined the GAP and headed south back toward Cumberland, Maryland. With cars speeding by on all sides, the trail sneaked its way along the river under and over interstates, beside the interstates and through a concrete chute into the protected median of an interstate.
Eventually, I crossed the Monongahela River on the Hot Metal Bridge and pedaled through the backyards of heavy industry with the sounds of steam blasting, metal grinding, and machinery banging, clanging and hammering.
Soon, I met an unexpected challenge. The GAP was flooded. A makeshift 12-inch-wide boardwalk made it possible for me to keep my feet dry while pushing the bike next to me through the water. Eventually, however, the boardwalk sank into the drink. I was able to hop across to the adjacent railroad tracks and push my bike along the railroad until I passed the flooded section.
The rusty steel landscape finally started surrendering back to nature as I made my way toward McKeesport, where I had detoured off to the Montour Trail two days before. I crossed the Monongahela one last time and rejoined the banks of the Youghiogheny River.
Today was going to be a long one, and more challenging than I imagined. Since I was now retracing the same route I had ridden the week before — only in reverse — I was determined to cover the 157 miles back to Cumberland in just two days. That meant today, I had to pedal more than 80 miles to Ohiopyle State Park. That’s a long haul on gravel with 72 pounds of bike and gear.
About 40 miles into the ride, I stopped for a break at the welcome center in West Newton. When I returned to the bike, I noticed the rear tire was flat. I was prepared with three spare tubes and tire-changing tools, but when I removed the wheel, I discovered a bigger problem. A large glass shard had severed and ruined my tire. This was bad. Sometimes, it’s possible to make an emergency repair by placing a folded dollar bill inside the tire over the cut to keep the tube from spilling out.
As I tried to decide what to do, a local cyclist stopped to offer help and gave me some great news. He said a bike shop was just about 50 yards down the trail. I could see it from where I was standing. Fortunately, the shop had a new tire that would work. While a mechanic changed the tire and tube, I walked over to a sandwich shop and had lunch.
I was lucky with the tire problem, but the issue cost me more than an hour on a day when I had little time to spare. I rode as hard as I could go the rest of the day and spent too little time admiring the beautiful scenery.
Later, I came to a nice, clean and free trailside campground, which had an upscale grocery store a few hundred yards away. I bought a few supplies at the store and then lingered at the campground, which featured wooden Adirondack shelters where campers could stay off the ground without pitching a tent. I was tired and it was tempting to stop short of my goal and camp here. Eventually, though, I decided to keep going, a decision I would later regret.
It was late in the evening and I was exhausted when I reached the narrow footpath that connects the GAP to the Kentuck Campground in Ohiopyle State Park. The next challenge was unimaginable. The footpath required pushing my heavy bike up a hill that rose 400 feet in just four-tenths of a mile. My heart was pounding in my throat and I kept thinking that riding 81 miles on this day was nothing compared to this hike. When I finally arrived at the top of the trail, I had to remount my bike and struggle another mile uphill to the campground office. I was kicking myself for not camping at the nice, flat campground 20 miles or so back.
Another stressor also entered the situation. I couldn’t get my phone to work and had no way to tell Jenny where I was and that I was OK. I finally decided there was no phone signal in this remote area. While I was setting up camp, however, I heard the neighboring camper merrily chatting on his phone. I walked over to investigate and discovered we use the same cellphone carrier. Finally, I remembered the first question that every IT technician asks: “Have you tried turning it off and back on again?”
The off-on strategy worked for my phone and I was able to call Jenny. I had paid extra for an electrical hookup and was able to recharge my almost dead phone and Garmin device. I was so tired that I slept good that night, but I woke up the next morning worried about trying to ride 75 miles to Cumberland after the previous day’s exhausting effort. I knew the final 22 miles would be downhill, but I would arrive late in town with no reservations for lodging and no campground.
I pedaled the best I could and tried to solve this puzzle until I remembered reading about an inexpensive hostel for cyclists in Frostburg, Maryland, about 15 miles before Cumberland. I was able to get enough phone signal to make an online reservation for the hostel, which cost $30 plus tax. As I climbed back to the Eastern Continental Divide, my legs felt the pain from the previous day’s long ride.
I was thankful to cross the divide and begin the fast and easy descent to Frostburg. But wouldn’t you know it? The day ended in yet another vertical hell as I had to make my way up a series of gravel switchbacks to the hostel at Trail Inn. Since it was a weeknight before the summer season, I had the hostel to myself, along with a hot shower and a real bed. In fact, I could choose between eight empty beds. I selected a lower bunk next to an electrical outlet where I could recharge my phone.
I left early the next morning for the short ride into Cumberland as fog draped the surrounding Allegheny Mountains. Groups of people were traveling next to me on pedal railcars. A company in Frostburg rents the pedal cars, which go downhill on the railroad tracks that run adjacent to the GAP here. A small engine pulls the pedal cars and their passengers back up the mountain to the Frostburg Depot.
I witnessed a derailment of this amusement ride when one pedal car stopped at a road crossing and the car behind crashed into the rear, knocking the cars off the tracks. The passengers, apparently unhurt, got off the cars laughing and put their wheels back on the tracks.
When I arrived back at my car in Cumberland, I left behind some gear to save weight and loaded food for the next leg of my journey. Back on the bike, I rode to the end of the GAP and started southward on the 184-mile C&O Canal Towpath toward Washington, D.C.
Great Falls to Washington
After waving goodbye to Chris and Ed, I coasted down the mountain through town to the Appalachian Trail footbridge and pushed my bike back across the Potomac River to the Maryland side. With no Si in sight to help me carry the loaded Beast down the stairs, I removed the panniers and took them down first. Then I climbed back up the stairs and retrieved the bike.
I planned to ride as close to Washington, D.C., as I could get today so I could spend the following day exploring the National Mall. After so much mud and hardship on the C&O, I had decided not to turn around in Washington and endure the same path 184 miles back to my car. Instead, I reserved a seat on Amtrak.
Trail conditions south of Harpers Ferry were much better than I had experienced in recent days and I made good time over the firmer surface. When I arrived in Brunswick, I detoured through town to a Dollar General to buy cold Gatorade.
I had been drinking out of the hand well pumps that are scattered along the C&O. These pumps are essential to trail users in such a remote area, and the National Park Service treats the water with iodine to make it safe to drink. But by this point I had drunk so much treated water that it became repulsive. My water filter didn’t remove the iodine taste and powdered sports drinks didn’t mask it. I knew I was drinking less than I needed simply because of the taste.
The remainder of the day’s ride was surprisingly remote to be so close to the nation’s capital. I didn’t pass any other towns after Brunswick, just the occasional primitive campsite or closed ferry site. Then, I entered a stretch where the previous days’ storms had blown down trees across the trail. I would ride a short distance and then have to work my way through, around and over fallen trees. One spot was so thick, I had to remove my panniers so I could lift the bike over a downed tree. And yet the scenery — with the placid canal on the left and the swift Potomac on the right — inspired me to keep going and see what waited around the next bend.
At one point, a man in a work truck coming from the opposite direction stopped me and asked if I had seen any downed trees that needed to be removed. I told him about the tree carnage behind me.
I was winging it again today as far as lodging. I didn’t intend to seek an AirBnB or hotel in Washington, knowing they were expensive. The map showed a last-chance primitive campsite at Swain Lock, about 16 miles before Washington so I thought I would stay there on this final night. The National Park Service also rents some of the old lock houses in this area for lodging.
Each set of locks along the C&O had a house for a lockkeeper and his family. The lockkeeper received a modest salary and enough land to grow vegetables. In exchange, the lockkeeper operated the gates to lower or raise the water levels in the locks for cargo boats.
I didn’t plan to rent a lock house, but I had sent a message to a Warm Showers host earlier in the day. I had heard no response, however, so I kept rolling toward the campsite. Although it was late in the day, I didn’t stop when I arrived at the campsite. I just kept riding for some unexplained reason. I arrived at Great Falls, one of the most spectacular features of the entire trip.
At the falls, I called the Warm Showers host whom I had messaged earlier and she answered. She said she was just getting ready to respond, and I was welcome to spend the night. This meant I would have a shower, a home-cooked meal and a real bed, and would escape the looming thunderstorms on my last night on the trail. The host lived just a few miles away and she encouraged me to hang around Great Falls Park and hike down the Billy Goat Trail to Mather Gorge.
The wide and powerful Potomac River spreads out into multiple small branches of roaring waterfalls here. The different branches of the falls are so far apart that one branch may not be visible from the next branch. Because of recent flooding, the waterfalls were caramel colored as they roared between the boulders in a land where the bright green flora and lichen-covered rocks looked different than any place I had seen during the trip. I could have devoted an entire day to exploring this spot on foot.
Eventually, I walked back to my bike, which I had locked to a tree, and got underway. A few miles down the C&O, I called up Google Maps’ bicycle mode and followed the directions across the canal on a side trail. Soon, I was riding on a bike path parallel to Macarthur Boulevard to my Warm Showers accommodations in Bethesda, Maryland. My hosts, Jim and Marcy, opened up their home and fed me well. Marcy was getting ready to leave for a bicycle tour from Washington State to Alaska.
Somehow, I had made it two weeks without watching television except for snippets of a 30-minute national newscast on the last night. As a journalist, it’s strange that I had barely read the news or looked at my phone, except for navigation or to communicate with home. I welcomed the two-week break being unplugged from stressful times and partisan bickering. Soon, however, I knew I would have to rejoin the “civilized” world.
The next morning, I said bye to my hosts and headed toward the busy heart of partisan bickering in the District of Columbia. It was a short 11-mile hop and I rode around the back of Thompson Boat Center in Georgetown to touch the granite zero mile marker for the C&O Canal Towpath. Then, I followed the paved Rock Creek Trail around to the Lincoln Memorial.
It was chilly and drizzling rain, but I pedaled and walked around the National Mall and the Tidal Basin to visit the major monuments. After lunch at a crowded Mexican restaurant, I found Union Station and hung out there until my train departed. The three-hour train ride back to Cumberland covered the same territory I had been riding for the last few days, and I could look out the window and see the C&O towpath, locks and lock houses.
I was a little disappointed in myself for not riding the towpath back to my car, as planned, but after 561 miles of gravel trails on a bike, I was done.
As the miles clicked and clacked by under the train wheels, I thought back to the challenges I had faced on this tour — a cut tire, broken pannier, loose cleats, brutal mountain detours, an 81-mile day in the saddle, mud, downed trees, rock slides, banks of driftwood and a tornado warning — and realized everything had worked out OK. I had enjoyed miles of beautiful scenery and met some wonderful people along the way who took in a stranger and treated him like an old friend. Yes, I was done — done a little sooner than expected — but I felt happy, blessed and ready to go home until the trail calls again.
The next day of the great gravel grind began with a mixture of anticipation and angst. One of the things I had most looked forward to on the C&O was staying in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. But today was Saturday, a busy day in the small historic town, and I had no place to stay. I was winging it a little too closely. I tried Warm Showers hosts, a KOA campground and AirBnBs with no luck. Finally, I found a vacancy at the Quality Inn on the outskirts of town and reserved the room.
Now I could enjoy the ride to Harpers Ferry without worrying about accommodations. But a new day always presents new challenges. I would end up walking a lot today because sections of the trail were impassable.
The first challenge was a long and hilly detour on rural roads. At least they were paved. When I wound my way back to the re-entry point on the trail, a construction worker stopped me. A crane was lifting giant floating containers off a truck, over the trail and placing them into the Potomac River in a project to repair a damaged section of riverside towpath. With the containers offloaded after about 30 minutes, the worker flagged me onto the trail.
The Potomac River had flooded before my trip and left destruction in its wake. A two-foot-deep carpet of driftwood and logs covered some concrete sections of the towpath directly on the river. One point included both a rockslide and a logjam. I would ride a short distance along the river unencumbered and then encounter driftwood so thick that I had to get off and push the bike, or lift it over logs.
The trail was much muddier in this area, too, and some sections required getting off and pushing the bike through the muck. After I negotiated these obstacles, I stopped, removed my shoes and cleaned around the cleats so they would snap into my pedals. Later, one of the cleats starting coming loose again, so I stopped and tightened it back to the shoe. I made a mental note to add a drop of Loctite to each bolt when I returned home.
The National Park Service is renovating the C&O in 25-mile segments each year to make it smoother and more enjoyable like the GAP, but still has a way to go, especially along the flood-prone Potomac south of Williamsport.
Somewhere along the way, I talked to another rider who asked where I was heading. When I told her I was staying in Harpers Ferry, she showed concern.
“You know the only way to cross the river into Harpers Ferry is on the Appalachian Trail footbridge,” she said. “It doesn’t have any handrails.”
She said if I had good balance, (I don’t), I might be able to cross if I removed my gear and walked it across first, then went back and carefully pushed my bike across. This caused me great concern. I imagined a narrow, wooden plank footbridge with no handrails suspended high above the Potomac. Could I keep my balance with all that extra weight? Would I plunge into the roaring rapids below?
She also told me the trail would get much less muddy ahead with more gravel to make it firmer, but I would run into several washboard areas. The rough areas were sometimes hard to spot in the camouflage of the shade. The Beast shook and bounced over the bad places, and one spot was so rough I stopped and walked across it.
I kept riding and came across an area called Falling Water where the Yankees could have possibly ended the Civil War two years sooner if their generals had been more aggressive. Fleeing Gettysburg, the retreating Confederates were trapped here in July 1863 by the flooded Potomac River. After seven days, they built a pontoon bridge and escaped into West Virginia.
After 44 miles of riding, walking and worrying, I finally arrived outside Harpers Ferry and was relieved to see the scary sounding bridge was actually a sturdy old iron railroad span. It was plenty wide enough for my bicycle. The only way to fall into the Potomac here was to climb the trestle and jump.
The only problem was the steep and winding stairs up to the bridge deck. I’m not strong enough to push or carry my loaded bicycle up stairs, so I resolved myself to removing the panniers and taking them up. Then, I would walk back down and carry my bike up, trying not to slip and slide on the iron stairs in my stiff cycling shoes.
That’s when an Appalachian Trail through hiker who looked like a character from “Duck Dynasty” offered to help me carry the loaded bike up the stairs. I accepted this offer, and we carefully lugged The Beast to the top. I gave a friendly fist bump to the hiker with the spectacularly long white beard.
“Thanks so much! What’s your name?”
“Si,” he said.
We parted ways at this figurative halfway point on the Appalachian Trail and I rolled the bike across the crowded bridge into the historic site of the former federal arsenal and setting for John Brown’s failed slave rebellion. The town of 300 people teemed with thousands of weekend tourists speaking many different languages.
I attached my phone to the handlebars and called up GPS directions to my hotel. The ride from here was up a long hill and along the shoulder of a busy highway. I checked in and asked if I could borrow the hotel’s garden hose to wash my muddy bike and panniers before bringing them into the room. The hotel clerk seemed to think this was a good idea, and I suspect she wanted me to hose myself off while I was at it.
When I got to my room, I remembered my tent and rain fly, soaked from a rain two nights before, were still packed tightly in the tent bag on my rear bicycle rack. I unfolded them and draped them over the shower curtain bar and clothes bar to dry. Later, I hiked into lower Harpers Ferry to find dinner at Coach House Bar and Grill. While waiting for my food, I also started wondering how I could spend the entire next day visiting the historic sites in town.
I contacted a Warm Showers host, who graciously agreed to let me stay Sunday night, which meant I would have the entire day to see the sites.
The next morning, I dropped off my bike and gear at the Warm Showers house where I would be staying and started my big day out on the town. I visited the John Brown Museum and other historical sites. Eventually, I ended up following the Appalachian Trail up steep steps through downtown, past the Catholic church that once served as a Civil War hospital and out to Jefferson Rock.
Thomas Jefferson stood at this same spot in 1783 and admired the spectacular scene below where the white waters of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers rushed together at the base of the mountains.
“This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic,” Jefferson said.
That evening, I returned to my Warm Showers host accommodations and got to know Chris and Ed, who used to operate a bed and breakfast out of their stately old rock house. We sat on the sprawling back porch and admired the view of the valley below, where Chris spotted a bald eagle landing on its nest. The men are touring cyclists in their own right, and Chris is an Appalachian Trail section hiker. We talked of his upcoming hike on the trail in New England.
They were wonderful hosts and we had a great vegan dinner and a big healthy breakfast the next morning. I left Harpers Ferry, vowing to return some day with Jenny and take the official National Park Service guided tour.
HOW TO GO
Navigation: For $10 plus postage, Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy offers a trail guide complete with a water-resistant paper map of the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath. A phone app, C&O Canal Explorer, available for 99 cents, shows water stops, campsites and other services in relation to a rider’s current location. The National Park Service provides detour alerts and other information about the C&O.
Transportation: Bicycle shuttle companies offer transportation for bicycles and/or luggage along the trails. AmTrak’s Capitol Limited provides daily service between Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., including space for bicycles. Seats and bicycle space on the train can fill up on busy days, so it’s a good idea to make reservations at www.amtrak.com. Bicycle lanes and paths marked on Google Maps make it possible to pedal from major airports in Washington and Pittsburgh to the GAP and C&O trails.
Lodging: The bicycle-centric services and towns along the trails mean riders can choose from a variety of experiences, from self-supported touring and roughing it at free primitive campgrounds to staying in hotels and B&Bs and having a shuttle transport their gear. Several bicycle touring companies will do all the planning, make all reservations, and provide meals and shuttles..