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A Peaceful Way to Ride the Rails

By Eric Vohr
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 1, 2007

The nation's railway system was once a symbol of man's desire to find a faster way to travel. Today, those same tracks are helping people enjoy a slower pace of life.

Nearly 13,600 miles of inactive railway corridors have been converted to multi-use trails, according to Susan Weaver, development and communications manager of the Northeast Regional Office of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which works with communities to transform unused rail corridors into trails.

Thanks to the December completion of the Great Allegheny Passage, bicyclists can ride from the nation's capital to the outskirts of Pittsburgh avoiding most automobile traffic.

The passage is a 132-mile bike path that stretches from McKeesport, Pa. (18 miles from Pittsburgh), to Cumberland, Md., where it connects with the 184-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, providing a 316-mile trail to the nation's capital. To celebrate the trail's completion, 500 cyclists will make the Greenway Sojourn, biking from Georgetown to McKeesport June 23-30.

The passage is the product of seven trail-building organizations that began working together to join sections of the trail in 1995, says Linda Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA). The process started in 1980 when the Ohiopyle State Park began developing what had been a section of Western Maryland Railroad track along the Youghiogheny River into a multi-use path.

"When the path was completed in 1986, it became an immediate hit," Boxx says. Before that, biking in that region of Pennsylvania was challenging to even the most athletic. "Many of the roads in this region have no shoulders and lots of hills," she explains. "In contrast, the trail is level and wide, providing safe and accessible recreation opportunities for everyone."

The success of that trail inspired six other organizations to develop other sections of adjoining abandoned railway. With help from the Allegheny Trail Alliance, the efforts combined to create the passage.

And the work goes on. By Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary in 2008, the trail is scheduled to extend to Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh.

There is no fee to use the trail, and there are a number of campsites along the way. For those who appreciate a little comfort, hotels and restaurants can be found every 35 miles or so, which is an easy day's ride for a reasonably fit person.

"The trail is for nonmotorized uses like walking, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, horse riding, in some sections," Boxx says. "But biking makes up over 90 percent of our use."

The trail is relatively flat. Because the surface is predominately crushed stone, an ultra-thin road tire might not be your best bet. Most people recommend a hybrid or mountain bike, but any road bike will work, assuming you get the right kind of rubber tires.

Referring to a "big, hairy, audacious goal," Weaver, of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, says that "by 2020, 90 percent of Americans will live within three miles of a local network of public trails created from former rail lines and connecting corridors."

While taking in breathtaking views of the Potomac, Casselman, Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers and the Allegheny Mountains of the Eastern Continental Divide, the only stress you'll experience will be in trying to keep your eyes on the trail ahead.

ALLEGHENY TRAIL ALLIANCE 888-282-2453.http://www.greatalleghenypassage.org.

CHESAPEAKE & OHIO CANAL NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK 1850 Dual Hwy., Suite 100, Hagerstown, Md. 301-714-2214.http://www.nps.gov/choh.

GREENWAY SOJOURN June 23-30. For information, e-mail Pat Tomes of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy atpat@railstotrails.org.

RAILS TO TRAILS CONSERVANCY Northeast Regional Office, 2133 Market St., Suite 222, Camp Hill, Pa. 717-238-1717.http://www.railstotrails.org.

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