The shadows formed a perfect echo of the long-abandoned railroad that once ran along this path, transporting coal and timber for western Pennsylvania’s thriving steel industry. Today, those tracks are gone, replaced by one of the finest achievements of the nation’s growing rail-trail network: the 141-mile Great Allegheny Passage, or GAP.
Details on biking the GAP and the C&O Canal
We were riding the passage from its western end in Pittsburgh down into Maryland. There we’d get on the venerableChesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, which runs 184 miles more or less along the Potomac River, ending up in Georgetown. Together, and including the GAP’s Montour spur around Pittsburgh, the two trail systems offer more than 330 miles of hassle-free hiking and biking.
Last May, to celebrate my birthday, Rick and I bicycled about 300 of those miles. When I told our friends about our plans, some of them were, well, dubious. I know they pictured exhausting days, hard nights in grungy trailside cabins, cold showers or none at all. “Well, if that’s the kind of thing you like,” they said.
Well, here’s how it turned out: We cycled over the Allegheny Mountains and never broke a sweat. (Let me repeat: over mountains, no sweat.) At least 250 of our 300 miles were totally traffic-free. We saw goldfinches and mud turtles and peacocks, passed small towns and Civil War battlefields and countless waterfalls. We got pleasantly tired every day, and slept every night in comfortable, often charming, inns. We ate so well that Rick gained two pounds. And we wound up by pedaling (triumphantly) off the C&O and right into Bethesda for a family dinner.
Yep. That’s the kind of thing we like.
The C&O has been well known and beloved since 1971, when it was designated a national park after a campaign originally led by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. The GAP, on the other hand, has been cobbled together piecemeal over 30 years out of various abandoned railway beds, with the help of seven trail organizations and dozens of federal, state, local and private agencies.
Two features make the GAP a pretty deluxe ride. First, its mostly crushed limestone surface is bike-friendly and fast-draining. Second, and more importantly, the trail’s railroad grade means that you’re never riding on a hill steeper than a train can climb. In other words, it usually feels almost flat. Though we gained 1,700 feet in elevation over the first three days of our ride, we kept wondering when we were going to actually start going up.