Less than a mile or two from where I’m living now is a rails-to-trails path called the Greater Allegheny Passage. It’s an old railroad line that now serves as a bike path stretching 150 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD. It connects with a further trail named the C&O Towpath that goes a further 250 miles to Washington DC. Ever since my folks moved out to this area, I’ve enjoyed walking on this trail. The nearby section follows the Casselman river, and is lined with trees and filled with scenic vistas. For years I’ve thought “One of these days, I’d love to bike the entire GAP trail. Finally this summer, I pulled out that “round tuit” and biked the GAP.
I am not a great cyclist. You won’t find me training for the Tour de France anytime in this lifetime. I’ve ridden off and on over the years, but never with any prolonged intensity. The idea of riding 150 miles, even over several days, was something I did not take lightly, and so I did put in hundreds of miles in training this summer, and picked a date in the fall when the weather would hopefully be decent and the leaves would just be starting to turn.
Logistics alone were a challenge. Getting a ride from bike companies from one end to the other was prohibitively expensive for a single traveler. There is a train, but it gets into downtown Pittsburgh at 11PM. No buses available either. So I drove to Cumberland, rented a car one way back to Pittsburgh with my bike aboard, and caught a bus from the airport that took passengers and their bikes to the trail. Whew. Thankfully, I only had a few miles to go for the first day.
The northern terminus of the trail begins at Point State Park, nestled in the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers which create the Ohio river. The trail follows south along the Monongahela through the city through parks and trendy commercial areas, tucked away out of Pittsburgh traffic.
My first stop was Homestead, less than 10 miles from the start. My aim was to keep things relatively simple, so I stayed in a hotel. After putting in over 170 miles of driving, I kept the biking mileage light, and my hotel appeared on the trail before I knew it.
Continuing south the next day, the trail went along roads and followed train tracks past steel mills and other industrial areas. While the factories aren’t exactly scenic, their sheer numbers do give an indication of how Pittsburgh was built. There’s a reason their football team is called the Steelers.
Further along, the trail goes behind Kennywood amusement park. This park began in 1898 and has been giving Pittsburgh residents vertiginous thrills for over 120 years. My grade school days were mostly spent in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and in days long past, towards the end of the school year they would pack us youngsters in buses and let us run amok all over the park. We would spend the day going on all the roller coasters and other rides that our youthful bodies could manage. Kennywood was the essence of summer vacation for us, as much as Otter pops, sparklers, and freshly cut grass.
Moving along from old memories, I followed the trail over old metal bridges into McKeesport, where the Youghiogheny (pronounced yock/i/gainey) river meets the Monongahela. The trail then goes southeast along the “yough” river to Boston. Boston, Pennsylvania, that is. Unlike the big Boston, little Boston is a sweet little town with parks, baseball fields, a welcoming visitor station and an old railroad car on display. There are old mills from earlier times that are no longer running, and one can imagine what the town was like in its heyday.
The trail continues through a wooded path along the river. My stop after 50 miles was in Connellsville, after riding along the river and through sleepy small towns that time forgot. Connellsville was the site of a camp for British General Edward Braddock during the French and Indian war. Included in his troops at the time was the young George Washington. Things didn’t go well for General Braddock, but George Washington fared a little better, I think.
The next morning I headed further through Ohiopyle State Park, a haven for kayakers, river rafters, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The welcoming town has a plethora of restaurants, shops and inns catering to visitors, and the waterfalls in the park are a must-see.
I stopped after nearly 40 miles to rest up for the final day. From Pittsburgh to Connellsville, the trail is pretty flat, but then it picks up steadily in elevation gain past that. While the grade isn’t more than 2%, a bit past Ohiopyle one really starts to notice it. So on the last day, I climbed steadily for 30 miles, past forests and farmlands, over viaducts and bridges upwards toward the Eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of 2,392 feet. By the time I made it I was questioning my sanity in doing this trip, but then the elevation and my mind state changed course. After the divide, there is an elevation drop of over 1500 feet in the course of 23 miles. Not roller coaster worthy, but still fun to do on a bike. I enjoyed riding through the well-lit Big Savage Tunnel, past the Mason-Dixon Line, and all the way into Cumberland. There may have been a few moments in which I did an impersonation of the Geico pig, but there were no witnesses to confirm or deny that event.
If you asked me that day when I had just finished if I would do it again next year, you may have received an icy stare. But now that the body has recovered (or forgotten)… well, I might. But after nearly ten years of saying “someday”, I’m glad I found that round tuit.