Biking Great Allegheny Passage

Biking the Great Allegheny Passage

The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is not your average cycling rail-trail, or so I believe. Ever since a cycling vacation in Montreal earlier this summer friends had been pressing for another adventure so we have decided on this route which crosses southern Pennsylvania and into Maryland.

The Great Allegheny Passage is now complete. If you are not familiar with the route it provides 150 miles of rail-trail between Pittsburgh and Cumberland where it joins with the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Canal National Historic Park for a total of 335.

It is open for cyclists, hikers or horseback riders. It promises high level bridges, old rail tunnels, a crossing of the eastern Appalachian Mountains and lots of history in Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. You can order a detailed guide book on the trail website for full details although the online site is pretty detailed itself.

We will be bike camping and it is appreciated that the very informative GAP website provides a list of bicycle friendly campgrounds for tenting although some of the parks feature Yurts, cottages and cabins. We tried to book a Yurt in Ohioplye State Park for the experience but it was sold out. There is also a list of motels, hotels and B & B in towns adjoining the trail which accept cyclists.

Now we will not only be cycling as I see bicycle touring as a way to explore a region and not just add a huge number of miles every day. So we will do some hiking to see the waterfalls in Ohiopyle (a section of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail goes through the park) and perhaps even attempt the white water rafting.

Our plans are to cycle the most dramatic sections of the route in the middle although how far we ride will be decided on arrival. We will be using are road bikes adapted for touring which I always use when bicycle touring. The trail website states that we should not encounter any issues on the crushed limestone surface.

Our small group of cyclists just did some of the more dramatic sections of the Great Allegheny Passage trail. And all of us did it on road bikes although with a hard packed surface a mountain bike would have been more suitable. Don’t have a bike, don’t worry as it seemed every town along the route had one or more bike shops with rentals.

The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is a not a regular rail trail but one with plenty to see over varied terrain. This long distance trail is between Pittsburgh and Washington with the first part for 150 miles to Cumberland where it connects with the historic C & O towpath for a total distance of 335 miles, available for cyclists and walkers only. Some sections are also open to horseback riders.

We stayed in a cabin and tent site in Ohiopyle State Park in southern Pennsylvania with lots of other cyclists at Mile 71 of the trail. There is a bike hike gravel path connecting the GAP with several walk-in campsites and Kentuck Campground.

Although we rode only on weekdays there were plenty of other recreational cyclists and many loaded down with panniers for the longer journey.

Great Allegheny Passage Trip Report

Our first ride was The Classic, so named by the trail association. It begins at the historic train station in heart of the town of Ohiopyle, with signs along the highway providing directions to the large parking lot. The station offered tourist information, rest rooms, picnic tables, a map with a general store, restaurants and several bike rentals and repair places across the road.

We started our ride by riding west a short distance in the direction of Connellsville to see both the High Level and Low Level Bridges over the Youghiogheny River. Below us were the rapids in a deep gorge and Ohiopyle Falls were just downstream. Also we could see you kayakers playing around. This side trip is well worth the detour. If accessing the route from the campground you start right from the High Level Bridge.

Great Allegheny Passage TrailWe then cycled back to the Ohiopyle Train Station and started riding this flat section east towards Confluence. This is not one of your boring rail trails with the Youghiogheny River on your left and where through the trees we could occasionally see kayakers and white water rafters running the rapids. At one point we stopped and took a set of stairs to get a better look with one raft caught up on some rocks. For a week day I was amazed at the number of rafters and kayakers on the river.

It was easy riding for the 10 miles to Confluence with signs detailing the history and other information every so often. Also sign posts count down the mileage.

Reaching Confluence there was a booth handing tickets for a free gift if you visited the local bike store so we rode in town crossing two pedestrian bridges to the town square complete with a gazebo to check out the items in the bike store.

Our picnic lunch was right along the river, and as soon as we settled down a family of ducks came running across the lawn for a hand out clearly used to cyclists. Then it was back to Ohiopyle for us, for a total journey of about 26 miles.

Riding The Divide

We drove to the Meyersdale Train Station located on the edge of the downtown area. Besides washrooms the station has a small museum and train caboose from another era.

Cycling Great Allegheny PassageWe headed west down a slight slope for just over a mile to check out the 1,908 foot Salisbury Viaduct. A lot of other cyclists had the same idea. On arrival we heard a siren and then an explosion followed by a cloud of dust from the quarry we could see in the distance. The viaduct crossed a 4 lane highway and a river while providing a great view or the surrounding hills and wind turbines.

Again we backtracked uphill into Meyersdale Station and kept heading east soon arriving at Bollman Bridge and then the even more impressive Keystone Viaduct. Although only 909 feet long this viaduct it winds over a local road, a river and through the trees as you start to climb for amazing photo opportunities.

Expect to be climbing slightly for the next 8 miles, although remember it is a rail trail. You will also be crossing a series of bridges over Flaugherty Creek. I stoped to take a picture while my friends continued and as I got back on my bicycle two deer leap onto the trail right in front of me. One of them kept nodding his head towards me as if to challenge me before trotting down the Great Allegheny Passage and into the forest..

At “Deal” there is a map and some benches so we stopped for a quick break as things are starting to get interesting on the trail. First up is the Eastern Continental Divide, at 2,392 feet the highest point on the Great Allegheny Passage and we stopped to look at the interesting historic paintings on the sides of the short tunnel and have our picture taken by some walkers. As we cross the divide and we looked forward to 8 miles of downhill riding, however on a slight slope.

The Big Savage Tunnel is 3,294 feet long and a joy to ride, one this hot day I loved the coolness and the fact it had a row of lights. Coming out into the brightness on the far side we rounded a bend on the path and saw and long row of benches, picnic tables with outstanding views of the surrounding countryside including the wind turbines on the hill behind. This was our lunch spot and there were washrooms nearby.

Bicycle touring the GAPContinuing our ride after about a mile we reach the Mason Dixon Line parklet and stopped to read up and take more pictures.

We were not finished with tunnels yet as we are soon upon the 957 foot Bordon Tunnel which is unlit. I had forgotten to take off my sunglasses and could barely see.

The route continues into the edge of Frostburg with a washroom and bicycle art on the hill. We didn’t head into town but turned around and joined some people on horses and a large group of kids on bikes heading back towards Meyersdale.  The total distance was today 36 miles.

I found the Great Allegheny Passage Trail Map to be a good resource in our planning. To check out other area US cycling routes click the link.

The GAP offers a variety of things to see, bike stores if you require help, lots of accommodation options making it the premier long distance trail in Eastern USA.


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