Great Allegheny Passage

Starting out at McKeesport. Susan - my girlfriend, drove the car back.

In September 2007, I rode my bike from McKeesport, Pennsylvania to Gettysburg - hauling a trailer with camping gear. Here's the trip report.

September 1 and 2

Visited Pittsburgh on Saturday and Sunday. If you have never been there - forget what you may think you know about this city. It is clean, friendly, and a beautiful place to visit! My girlfriend and I especially enjoyed the view of the city from the incline troll car, the fountains at Station Square, the Duck Tour ride, the National Aviary, and the fountains at the PPG area.

September 3

Started out at McKeesport. I would be traveling alone - the girlfriend isn't up to this kind of bike trip yet - though she is making rapid progress. I came loaded with a single wheel trailer (Nashbar). Loaded on the trailer was a 50L yellow waterproof bag in which I kept all the stuff I really didn't want wet. As it turned out, the weather was clear for the whole trip, but the bag served to keep the dust off my sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, and clothes. I also had two small rear-mounted panniers in which I kept my food and mess kit. Up front was a handlebar bag with my spare tube, tools, sunscreen, insect repellant and a top-mounted transparent map keeper. On my back - a Camelback hydration system filled with water and ice, a first aid kit, and some candy and energy bars. Two water bottles were mounted on the frame. I estimate that taken together, all that stuff was about 50 pounds.

To tell you the truth, the start of the Great Allegheny Passage was a bit of a disappointment. The trail head can be a bit hard to find, and hard to follow, not being quite as well marked as it might be. Still, after a few near-wrong turns, I was on my way. Trail conditions once I got out of town were excellent.

I spent the night at the Roundbottom Campground, Near Layton, PA. This campsite is similar to the HIker/Biker sites on the C&O canal. I don't intend this as a complaint (this is a free camping area, made and maintained by volunteers, after all!) but the hand pump (for water) wasn't working. That wasn't much of a problem, since I had plenty of water with me (the Camelback and two water bottles) - but it did prevent me taking the sponge bath I had intended. As was the case at every campsite I stayed at - I was the lone camper at the site.

September 4

This was a tough day. What strikes me about traveling south/east on the Great Allegheny Passage is that even though the grade is very gentle - less than one percent - it is absolutely relentless. On "normal" bike rides, up-hills are followed by down-hills, or at least level ground, so one has a chance to rest while riding. On this section of the GAP - you pedal, or you stop. Also, riding on crushed gravel is always a bit harder than riding on pavement. That said - the gravel was very well packed, the trail very well maintained, and the environment very beautiful. I stayed at the Husky Haven Campground - a privately owned site near mile marker 43, just outside Rockwood. The camping fee was $10, but that was really a very good deal in my opinion. The camp site was pristine, stocked with firewood, and had a little brook that ran right through it, giving a pleasant gurgling sound. The bath-house was about a 5 minute ride (or a 10 minute walk) away in town. The bath house was freshly painted and very clean, though it oddly had a window near the ceiling that was open to the outside. Since I have a 48 year old male body in not especially well-trained condition, peeping in the window at me carries its own punishment, but ladies might be a little more concerned.

There is a little gas station/convenience store in Rockwood that stocks pre-made Italian sub sandwiches that are the best in the world. Or at least, mine tasted that way, since I was way hungry. But seriously - the bread and the ingredients, including the vegetables, were very fresh - maybe garden grown?

One downside about camping near Rockwood - Trains run through the town. Now trains run along nearly all of the GAP and C&O Trails, but in this case, the trains have to go through town, and that means they have to blow their horns when they cross roads. Honestly - the first time the train ran through, in my fatigue-fogged mind, laying alone in my dark tent, I half wondered if I had somehow accidentally pitched my tent on the train tracks. But believe it or not, I got a good night's sleep anyway.

September 5

This was a terrific ride. The worst of the endless uphill was over, and the rides over trestles were interesting, spectacularly scenic, and... well, just a lot of fun! I had also never seen windmills up close, and you can see 17 of them at a time not far from Rockwood. The Salisbury Aqueduct is a good place to make a cell phone call - strong signal there, unlike most of the trail, which is, for the most part - without signal. Riding through the Big Savage Tunnel is kind of dreamlike - one can see the end of the tunnel and it is lit enough to ride, but the lighting is such that you have almost no peripheral vision as you ride, giving a kind of strange "passing through a dream" effect. There was one somewhat dangerous spot - a bridge that was near Garrett, as I recall. Coming from the West, as I was, I rolled over some orange netting that looked like litter, came across the bridge, and saw that it was blocked off with a barricade. But otherwise the bridge looked fine. I was about to (foolishly) haul my bike over the barricade when some cyclists coming the other way warned me against it, and showed me the detour. From the other side, one can see that there is about a six foot drop from the bridge to the road. I do think that the authorities should better mark the detour, and perhaps use real rope to block the path to the bridge, and direct cyclists to the detour.

Anyway - I was delighted to see the Eastern Continental Divide. Shortly after that, there is a gorgeous scenic overlook, and one can contemplate just how one reached the altitude to appreciate that view! After that, there is about 25 miles of downhill! Near Cumberland, one is riding next to train tracks used by the scenic railway. I am not sure I have ever enjoyed a ride as much as that one.

I stopped at the Crab Place near the junction of the GAP and C&O trail in Cumberland, and had a fish sandwich for dinner. They were nice to me, even though I probably looked like Chuck Manson on a bad day.

From there, I continued on to the Pigman's Ferry Hiker/Biker site. At one point on the C&O I briefly stopped, and I, my bike, and especially my yellow bag were set upon by swarms of mosquitoes. So they served as incentive to keep going! At Pigman's Ferry, several bats put on an acrobatic display to keep me entertained until dark.

September 6

I slept in this morning, and came to regret that later on, as I ran out of daylight before I reached my intended stop at Jordan Junction, and had to stop at North Mountain instead. But all worked out fine anyway.

I stopped at the Old Town School restaurant for breakfast (okay, second breakfast). I always enjoy stopping there - the pictures on the walls are remarkable. They have pictures of all the graduating classes from the 1930s until the school closed. I like to think about all those students, and their memories of going to school in Old Town. One can see the slow evolution of clothing and hair styles, track the baby boom - and wonder if any of the students in one set of pictures are parents of students in another, and so on. Besides, the food is good, and reasonably priced. And convenient too!

I stopped at Bill's Place in Little Orleans for lunch, and the door was locked. The sign said ring the bell, so I did, and Bill came out and let me in. I am sad to report that he was not feeling well, and wasn't looking well either. He couldn't cook me a hamburger, so I picked up a few things from his shop, including a can of spinach. Having no can opener, this was not a good choice, as I had to haul nearly a pound of canned spinach over the Catoctin Mountain the next day.

The paved Western Maryland Rail Trail offered a welcome 23 miles of paved way, as well as a dinner stop in Hancock. I think the WMRT is very likely the finest bike trail in Maryland.

As I mentioned before, I stopped at the North Mountain Hiker/Biker site. That site was a little overgrown, had a few pieces of trash around, and was near some noisy teens across the river that, perversely, were playing the very same loud music (1970s KISS and the like) that I played when I was their age. Some kind of delayed justice, perhaps. In any case, they turned it off when the sun went down, so no harm done.

September 7

I had about 12 miles to ride on the C&O that day - and it was a particularly beautiful area, with part of the trail carved out of rock near the river, and another part passing a historic dam. I left the trail at Williamsport (interestingly, Robert E. Lee took a very similar path when he was moving his army to and from Gettysburg - my destination), and pedaled past a mall through Hagerstown. I had a pleasant encounter with a guy who pulled over in his van, and chatted with me. He was a long-distance rider who had once ridden from Maine to Mexico, and also ridden through Central Europe to Russia. And on a ONE SPEED BIKE no less! Amazing! Anyway, I had to rest about half a dozen times in the 90 degree heat of the sun as I passed over the Catoctin Mountains running through the town called "Blue Ridge Summit" on my way to Gettysburg - where my girlfriend (and my car) were waiting for me.

Oh - a tip... If you see a "shortcut" called "Jack's Mountain Road," or "Anyone's Mountain Road," don't take it. My legs were nearly out on strike by the time I got to the top (hauling 50 pounds of gear, and a pound of canned spinach from Bill's place) through a combination of riding and walking. I was going 40 miles per hour, cooking my brakes, on the way down. At that speed, my orange trailer safety flag was ripped from its staff, and the bike stability with the trailer was a little iffy. But everything stayed upright. Riding into Gettysburg was sweet - another ride accomplished more or less to plan!

Summary

This was a superb ride. The weather couldn't have been better if I had ordered it out of a catalog - sunny, relatively cool and no headwinds. The Great Allegheney Passage and C&O trails are national treasures for bicyclists, and I wish we'd see more people using it! Oh - and bike people are the BEST people! Friendly, helpful, and loving nature enough to get out in it. Riding the GAP and C&O trails are a great way to savor life, and I'd recommend it to anyone - whether you can ride it end to end, or just a few miles on the weekend.

I think this is the Keystone Viaduct

Its a beautiful view anyway - the kind of thing that makes me love bicycling!

A few canoers

Big Savage Tunnel.

You guessed it! The Eastern Continental Divide!

Overlook just past the Eastern Continental Divide.

The orange flag was lost on the last day of the voyage, torn off by 40 MPH speeds on Jack's Mountain Road

This dam was damaged by confederate soldiers during the civil war.

Map of the last day of the voyage - no more flat trails!

 

 

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