The only sound in the crystalline mountain air was the crunch of our bicycle tires on the crushed limestone path. We’d pedaled around a bend, leaving behind the frothing Youghiogheny River and its whitewater rafters. Now, as we paused to split an orange, my husband and I looked down the path ahead of us, through the springtime trees just beginning to leaf out. The morning sun slanting between their narrow trunks striped the trail with parallel bars of light and shadow.
“Look,” Rick said suddenly. “What does that remind you of?” I saw what he meant, and laughed: “It’s the train tracks!”
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.
Instead of pedaling into and out of valleys, we glided over them on steel trestles — from the cast- and wrought-iron Bollman Bridge, an architectural artifact just a few dozen yards long, to the 1,908-foot-long Salisbury Viaduct, a modern span over the Casselman River valley. And instead of laboring over mountain peaks, we went through them — most memorably the 3,300-foot-long Big Savage Tunnel, just north of the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Claustrophobes, take note: That’s a long way to pedal underground, even though the tunnel is lit.
(Even spookier is the C&O’s 3,118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel, where the path is not only unlit but runs alongside the murky waters of the canal. Puny bike lights hardly make a dent in the profound darkness, and even though there’s a railing, most people walk it. )
Given the part of the country you’re biking through — settled by Europeans hundreds of years ago, crisscrossed with roads and peppered with towns — you might expect to see more civilization. Instead, you usually feel separated from it, riding through what’s been described as a “green bubble” through overdeveloped America. Only a few miles off to the side, you might find freeways or strip malls; but all you actually see, for hours at a time, is serene, wooded countryside, rarely spectacular but often beautiful.