On the C&O-GAP bike trail from DC to Pittsburgh, May 2015

Posted on

Follow me this week (May 16-20, 2015) on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal – Great Allegheny Passage bike trail. I’m riding from Washington DC to Pittsburgh PA to visit old friends, and meet up with Beth and our daughters to drive to Eli’s graduation at Oberlin College, near Cleveland OH.

Download any of these photos from my Flickr Album

My post-trip reflections for anyone who is thinking about biking all or part of this trail, and you should, because it’s a wonderful journey:

  • Decide how much to see, and in which direction. I rode west on the full DC-to-Pittsburgh trail (336 miles) plus an extra 20 miles for side trips in 5 full days, averaging about 70 per day. I had planned to do it over 6 days, but the weather changed my mind, as explained below. Most people would prefer a week to do the full trail. If you don’t have that much time, consider a shorter segment from Pittsburgh to Cumberland (the GAP portion, which is the prettiest, in my opinion), or DC to Cumberland (the C&O Canal portion, which also has its charms). Note that the C&O portion follows an old towpath which varies from a single-track dirt trail to a wider crushed stone trail. It’s relatively flat, and has hiker/biker campsites with water pumps (most work, but not all) about every 10 miles or so. By contrast, the GAP portion is a well-maintained and wider crushed stone trail, but rises in elevation from about 600 to 2400 feet. I had no choice but to ride the C&O portion first, and I’m glad that I did because it got the rougher (muddy) portion out of the way first. Order the Trailbook, which includes a waterproof map.  See a handy route guide with elevation that Matt Black uploaded to Ride with GPS.
  • Do you prefer to camp and/or lodge? I rode with full gear and alternated between camping and staying in a bed and breakfast. On the trail I met some who camped only, and others who only stayed in B&Bs. Prices and experiences will vary during the season, but I camped for free (or $10 in Cumberland) and found space without reservations in very nice B&Bs in Hancock and Confluence, MD for $75/night. My strategy provided maximum flexibility, but required me to carry extra weight on my bike. If you stick to a firm schedule and accurately estimate your pace, you could do the whole trip with reservations at carefully-placed B&Bs (or maybe AirBNBs).
  • Rain and mud may slow you down. While I dodged two big storms, it wasn’t possible to avoid rain-soaked trails (aka very long puddles) that they created. For me, the biggest surprise of this trip was how much energy it took me to slog through muddy trails. My touring bike has 1.5 inch tires, and I’m used to riding it on pavement at 13 to 15 mph when touring. But a day after a serious storm, the muddy path slowed me down to 7 to 10 mph, and clogged my brake pads and brake lines. You can definitely ride the trail on a hybrid bike, but if the forecast calls for rain and you have access to a mountain bike, take it instead.
  • Make time to talk with folks along the way. A friendly smile can be a great way to start a conversation. Not everyone wants to talk; some people wish to be alone or are in a big hurry. But I had a wonderful time meeting up with some fascinating people.

Day 0: Connecticut to DC

Rode every form of mass transit to haul my bike (in the green suitcase) and my gear (in the red backpack suitcase, which I stole from my daughter Eva — you’ll get it back soon!) from West Hartford CT to my in-law’s house in Chevy Chase MD. Caught the #62 bus ($1.50) down Farmington Ave to the Hartford bus station. Switched to the #30 Bradley Flyer bus ($1.50) to the airport, which I’ve never taken before. About a 45 minute ride, picking up workers in downtown Hartford and dropping them off around Windsor Locks and the airport. Flew on Southwest Airlines ($5, thanks to my frequent flyer points) to BWI Airport. Rode the free BWI-Amtrak/MARC shuttle, then caught the MARC train to Union Station in DC ($6). Rode the Metro red line to Bethesda ($3.75), then walked the last mile to the Rose’s house. A little over 6 hours door-to-door.

  • Geared up for the trip


Day 1: DC to Harper’s Ferry, WV

From the Rose’s house in Chevy Chase, MD, about 10 miles downhill on the Crescent Circle trail to the Georgetown area of DC, where the C&O Canal trail begins, then another 62 miles to Huckleberry Hill biker/hiker campsite near Harper’s Ferry, WV. Lots of joggers, kayakers, and families on the trail and in the Potomac River on this beautiful Saturday, until a big thunderstorm rolled in, which I dodged by hanging out in the Beans in the Belfry cafe in Brunswick (their paninis and chocolate milkshakes are highly recommended). Things that happened too quickly for me to photograph: two Great Blue Herons swooping down the canal, and several White-Tailed Deer jumping across the towpath, including one about three feet in front of me. Funniest moment of the day: biking next to a guy named Mike, who happened to mention that he grew up in Whitesboro in Upstate New York (about 25 miles from my hometown of Morrisville), and that his brother went to SUNY Morrisville, and also that Mike was stationed during his Navy years in Whidbey Island, near Seattle, where I biked last summer. Small world on the bike trail.

  • Photo bombing the famous 1954 hike by Justice Douglas to preserve C&O Canal

  • In the park with David Rose before my trip

  • Set up my tent at Huckleberry Hill bike/hike campsite, then discovered the water pump was broken. Oh well, maybe the rain will solve that problem.

  • Eunice (an emotional support dog) and Virginia (carrying a GPS tracking device) accompanied some hikers I met where the Appalachian Trail merges with the C&O bike trail.

  • My turtle buddy and I slogged our way through post-thunderstorm puddles on the C&O bike trail

  • The C&O Canal bike route includes these impressive old aqueducts, now dry, where engineers routed the canal to cross over rivers

  • Beans in the Belfry Cafe in Brunswick MD is a popular bike stop.

  • On the C&O bike trail I met Mike, who happened to grow up in Whitesboro NY, about 20 miles from my hometown of Morrisville.

  • Baby goslings along the canal bike trail

  • Enjoying the water along the canal bike trail

  • Next bike trip, bring the kayak. Lots of folks at Great Falls today

  • Starting at mile 0 on C&O Canal bike trail in Washington DC

  • Father-in-law David tried to catch a ride on my bike trip, but I didn't have room. Need another bungee cord.


Day 2:  Harper’s Ferry to Hancock, MD

Today’s theme was mud. While I dodges yesterday’s late-afternoon thunderstorm, I couldn’t avoid that dirt trails of the C&O canal towpath had transformed into long patches of mud, interspersed with a stretch of crushed limestone, then more mud. Steering and pedaling my way through this slop with my bike and gear strapped was a physical challenge that slowed me down to 8-9 miles per hour (compared to 13-15 mph on pavement) and strained my leg muscles. After 40 miles to the Williamsport historic park, I took a nap on a shady picnic table bench in the shade (rather than on the grass with the Black Snake who greeted my entrance to the park). For the next 15 miles, the trail to Hancock was a more consistent stretch of limestone, then for the last 10 miles I rolled on the glorious pavement of the Western Maryland Rail Trail. Never before had asphalt looked so beautiful. Decided to check into the River Run B&B in Hancock for the night to clean up and rest. It’s been two days without a shower and even the dogs were beginning to howl and hide their noses as I rode by. I borrowed a hose to wash the mud off of my bike, then crawled into the shower to wash it off of me.

  • Was drawn to this restaurant in Hancock MD by their bike on the roof

  • A Black Snake greeted me at Williamsport Historical Park, so napped on picnic table rather than grass.

  • At the Farmers Market in Shepherdstown, I met Rudy the Great Dane, who is deaf due to inbreeding, say the owners. Will be an emotional support dog for the elderly.

  • Took a bike detour into Shepherdstown WV

  • Some obstacles on the bike trail. Maybe I can learn to jump these?

  • My bike travels led me to the Farmers Market in Shepherdstown WV

  • Followed Kristen Nawrotzki's advice to hang my food bag with fishing line to avoid raccoon problems I had on a previous bike trip. The digital history geek bag was all I had around the house


Day 3: Hancock to Cumberland, MD

The day started with a smooth roll along with (paved) Western Maryland Rail Trail out of Hancock, parallel to the (gravel and muddy) C&O towpath. A pleasant break from yesterday’s mud bath, at least for my first ten miles or so. Rode along with some cyclists and discovered some funny coincidences. Drew Tappan happens to share the same last name with the Oberlin College square where Eli will be graduating next weekend (long story) and he also might have known my sister-in-law Becca at Earlham in the early 1990s. I also rode alongside Pamela and Jess, who are celebrating their honeymoon along the bike trail on their way to visit family in Pittsburgh, and saw that Pamela carries a Mark Twain House coffee mug from a visit to Hartford years ago. Also met a friendly pair of hikers, Valerie and Rick, who helped me get a water pump flowing. This particular one was a two-person job, which I couldn’t have managed alone.
As I huffed and puffed my way along the trail on a fairly hot and humid day, imagine my delight as I descended into the mouth of the Paw Paw Tunnel (3,300 feet long), which felt like I had stumbled into a giant air conditioner. Turned on my big light and walked my bike, rather than ride through the tunnel, due to all of the puddles and potholes, and well, because I wanted that feeling to last as long as possible. Later on the trail I took a nap on the front porch of an old canal lock keeper’s house, and further down the trail I found another porch to dodge a rainstorm. But that storm meant the last 20 miles turned into another long series of mud puddles on the C&O canal towpath. My bike and my legs have told me that they’re done with mud for this week. Had a pleasant night camping outside the Cumberland YMCA (five stars, if you don’t mind trains) and am looking forward to some solid trail (though uphill) as I switch over to the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP).
  • Peaceful night in the bike campground at Cumberland YMCA, as long as you don't mind trains.

  • They got creative with the numbering system out on the C&O canal / bike trail

  • On the bike trail I met Drew Tappan, who might have known my sister-in-law at Earlham College

  • We walked our bikes through the 1/2 mile Paw Paw Tunnel

  • Took a bike siesta on the porch of an old canal lock tender's house

  • Valerie and Rick are hiking the bike trail, and helped me out at the water pump (this one was a two-person job).

  • Riding with Pamela and Jess, on the bike trail for their honeymoon. (Pamela's coffee mug was from the Mark Twain House in Hartford. Small world.)


Day 4: Cumberland, MD to Confluence, PA

Compared to my post-rainstorm experience of the muddy C&O Canal, Cathy from North Carolina told me, “the GAP trail is a superhighway for bicyclists.” I wholeheartedly agree. The Cumberland-to-Pittsburgh GAP trail is a well-packed and wide crushed stone trail. Much smoother sailing than the on-and-off mud (mostly on) that I slogged through these past few days, which is fortunate because today I had to climb one big long hill, from Cumberland (about 600 feet) to the Eastern Continental Divide (about 2400 feet). No big deal compared to the West Coast hills I biked this summer, but was thankful that this route was on solid ground.

Met several friendly folks along the way. Terry from West Virginia and I cycled together for several miles on our climb out of Cumberland. At one point he leaped off his bike, pointed to the ground, and declared “that’s a red salamander in the eft stage!” Turns out Terry is a licensed West Virginia naturalist, who kindly pointed out several aspects of the terrain that I never would have noticed. Farther up the trail, at the Mason-Dixon Line between MD and PA, I stopped to chat with Cathy and Tom from North Carolina, and we compared notes on different bike tours we’ve done or have fantasized about in the future. Riding through Big Savage Tunnel (another natural air conditioner during hot noon hour) and reaching the Eastern Continental Divide were milestones of the day, then it was all downhill (gradually) into Confluence PA (a very nice spot to visit, if you really want to get away from AT&T mobile phone service and internet connections).

In Confluence I checked into a cute B&B on the river’s edge (Beth would love it here) to clean up, since I’ll be camping tomorrow night and don’t expect to find a warm shower until I reach Pittsburgh on Thursday. Ate dinner with Linda and Terry, a friendly couple from Smyrna, Delaware, who consider Confluence to be their second home and brought their bikes to ride a portion of the trail. Halfway through our conversation, I mentioned that I grew up in a small town in New York State. ” I recognized your Upstate New York accent!” exclaimed Linda. (She’s not the first person to have told me this, but I’ve never been able to detect this accent in other people, or hear it in my own voice.) Turns out that many moons ago, Linda had been a guidance counselor in Lafayette NY (about 30 miles west of my hometown of Morrisville) and also Solvay NY (closer to Syracuse). Once again, a small world on the bike trail.

  • I wouldn't have seen this red salamander on the GAP bike trail if Terry the naturalist hadn't pointed it out to me

  • Lynn Wollenberg Poland made me eat this, in Confluence PA.

  • Hard to take a good selfie inside the Big Savage Tunnel on the GAP bike trail

  • Tom and Cathy (from NC) standing on the PA and MD sides of the Mason Dixon line on GAP bike trail

  • Terry the naturalist from West Virginia pointed out several creatures and land features as we rode together

  • Very cool wind-powered bike art on the GAP switchback side trail up to Frostburg MD

  • I love these Road Runner cartoon-style signs to avoid trains in tunnels along the bike trail

  • The famous Cumberland Bone Cave along the GAP bike trail

  • Made it through the toughest part of my bike trip. All downhill from here!


Day 5: Confluence, PA to some campsite about 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh PA

Around 4:40pm I finally placed the call, and my spirits brightened when a familiar voice picked up on the second ring. “Hey Myron,” I asked, “how would you feel about me coming into Pittsburgh a day early?” He kindly agreed. I bought a couple of dark chocolate bars to fuel my decision to ride an additional 36 miles, on top of the 54 I had already pedaled, for a 90-mile ride from Confluence PA to their downtown Pittsburgh neighborhood. This was not the original plan, nor one that I had even considered throughout the day. But the overnight forecast called for mid-40 degree temperatures and rain the next morning. The Dravo hiker/biker campsite looked very peaceful, but that’s because it was also an historic cemetery. The only bed and breakfast in the region charged about $145 and didn’t offer Wi-Fi. So pushing on to Pittsburgh made sense, and the timing worked out to arrive before dark at the house of my old college friends Nancy and Myron, before their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Peggy went to bed.

I was impressed by the GAP bike trail along the Monongahela River through the Steel Valley section and into downtown Pittsburgh. Some folks prefer riding in the woods, but I also enjoy urban biking trails to see both abandoned steel mills and repurposed waterfront districts. While a couple of sections are on road, most of the GAP creatively winds its way on bike/pedestrian paths and bridges. Lots of walkers, joggers, and bikers shared the trail with me, as the evening hours were the warmest part of that particular day.

On Thursday, I rested my legs and walked around downtown Pittsburgh, then departed Friday morning on my bike to visit other friends in the city. At Carnegie Mellon University, I lunched with Wanda Dann, my former high school chemistry teacher in Upstate New York, who is now a professor of computer science and director of the Alice Project, an innovative way to teach object-oriented programming through animated visualization. I had not seen her since the mid-1980s, but looked her up a couple of years ago on Ada Lovelace Day to thank her for helping me learn a bit about coding. Then I biked to our friend Faith’s house in the Edgewood/Swissvale neighborhood, just outside of Pittsburgh, to meet up with my family and enjoy a fabulous meal to end another fabulous bike adventure. Early Saturday, I loaded my bike and gear into the trunk of the car, and we drove to the Cleveland area to meet more family for Eli’s graduation weekend at Oberlin College.

  • Biking around Sonke's old neighborhood

  • Wanda Dann, my former HS chem teacher, now a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon

  • Jack, Peggy, and Nancy for story time

  • Peggy loves to ride her bike

  • My bike trip ends at Nancy and Myron's house in downtown Pittsburgh, arriving before Peggy's bedtime

  • Riding the GAP bike trail along Fort Pitt Bridge into downtown Pittsburgh

  • Mother Goose and goslings (and a freight train in background) and I share the GAP bike trail in Pittsburgh

  • The GAP bike trail winds its way out of the woods and into Steel Valley, near Pittsburgh.

  • Rather than camp a cold rainy night at Dravo (a cemetery!), I pushed further on the bike trail to Pittsburgh.

  • Stunning bike route along the Youghiogheny River, with white water rafting below, Ohio Pyle PA

  • Best damn restrooms on the C&O-GAP bike trail in the Ohio Pyle PA depot.

  • Coolest water tower murals on the GAP bike trail

  • Thinking of my sisters on the bike trail. Ordered the #2 special: two poached eggs on English muffins, with homefries.

Published by

Jack Dougherty

Jack Dougherty writes about cycling adventures, advocacy, and his growing appetite at JackBikes.org.

One thought on “On the C&O-GAP bike trail from DC to Pittsburgh, May 2015”

Comments are closed.