Pittsburgh to DC: Riding the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Towpath

I was attracted to the GAP & C&O by the prospect of consecutive days of bike riding without any cars. That dream was destroyed by a Bed & Breakfast in Leesburg, VA called the Leesburg Colonial Inn. But I’ll get to that later.

For the most part, on the crucial point of car-free cycling, the trip delivers. In my case, as alluded to, there were a few miles of riding alongside a no-shoulder highway with cars passing inches away at top speed, but you can avoid these unpleasant brushes with death by either (a) camping along the trail, (b) never, ever trusting the “free” shuttle provided by your lodging, or (c) bringing a jetpack.

I chose to stay in Bed and Breakfasts for one very important reason: I am soft. Whereas I might once have been ready and willing to spend weeks at a time in a tent, my tastes now run more toward a hot shower, a glass of wine, and clean linens. If you’ve read any of my outdoor travel work, particularly the hellish two-week altitude slog documented in How To Mount Aconcagua, you might have some inkling of how I got cured of tents.

Grumpiness aside, there is a lot of excellent scenery along the trail. If you like the idea of wrapping up a beautiful day of riding as birds chirp and flowers bloom in the golden rays, that moment is out there for you. There are lots of interesting animals: turtles galore, black snakes, herons, raccoons. I even heard a barred owl, which means there are most likely at least two out there.

Unfortunately there are also garbage animals like the Canada goose. The riverfront area in Pittsburgh, for example, is a goose poop distribution area second to none. Multiple times on the trail I had to wait while stupid geese and their stupid goslings sauntered across the trail at nearly imperceptible speed, leaving a trail of slick green-black feces behind. I hate Canada geese.

Did you know that JK Rowling has revealed that her Harry Potter Universe character Hagrid only hated one animal on earth and it was the Canada goose? His last words were, “Fuck Canada geese.” It’s true!*

What’s the trail like?

As you know, there are two paths here: the Great Allegheny Passage and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. When I rode them they were very different experiences, but I’ve heard that there are efforts underway to bring the C&O up to be more in line with the GAP.

When I rode through, the GAP was smooth fast-rolling small gravel perfect for just about any bike. You could ride a road bike with typical road tires on the GAP without much trouble. I don’t recommend it, but you could. Here’s a typical section of GAP trail.

Typical section of GAP trail. Around mile 83.

The C&O, on the other hand, especially if there’s been any rain, can be a series of unrelenting mudholes. You’ll want fatter tires here, ideally with some knobs on them, and ideally with some fenders to save you some of the splattering. Here’s an idea of what the C&O can look like.

The C&O after some rain.

There is also the WMRT, or Western Maryland Rail Trail, which runs alongside the C&O between Little Orleans and Fort Frederick if you’re heading east. If you’re slogging along the C&O in this section and you can’t stand one more second of bumpy, splashy mud, the WMRT might be a lifesaver, particularly since by this point in the trail you could be on your second or third day of slogging through the mud. I stayed on the C&O because I’m stubborn, but also because the hot sun on the tarmac makes the WMRT hotter.

There are also lots of tunnels to ride through, so you might want to bring a headlight. And you might want to remember to take off your sunglasses as you ride into the tunnel, unlike me.

A note on resupplying as you ride

If you look at the map of the C&O and observe that it passes a lot of towns, thus meaning resupplying and getting water should be easy, keep in mind that the canal is usually on the opposite side of the river from the towns. In places like Harper’s Ferry or Shepherdstown there are bridges to take you across, but for the most part the C&O is more remote than you might think. This is the case right up until you realize you’re in Georgetown at around a mile out from the end.

As a general rule on this ride, if you’re in a store with access to water and snacks, grab more than you think you’ll need. You’ll thank me.

Much needed provisions.

Should I buy the Trail Guide?

No. It’s dumb. If you relish the idea of paying $10 plus shipping for a book of advertisements, go nuts, but I don’t recommend it. It also weighs about 380g, the better part of a pound in old school terms, so it’s too heavy to bring along.

I say do some research before you leave, and use your phone once you’re on the trail. If you want to support the organization’s conservancy efforts, just give them $10 and forget the guide.

You can donate to the GAP here: https://gaptrail.org/support-the-trail/donate

Granted, the cellular service along the trail is spotty, so you won’t always be able to search using your phone, but when you’re in the no-service sections there’s only one thing to do anyway: pedal. When you’re in town you’ll most likely have signal, which is when you’ll want to do your searching anyway for the most part.

I also found the GAP iPhone app to be useless, but at least it was free.

Which direction should I go?

According to one of my hosts on the trail, most people who are on the trail for their first time go west to east or Pittsburgh to DC, as I did. According to him, most people doing the trail for their second or consecutive times thereafter go the opposite way.

I chose to ride from Pittsburgh to DC because I wanted to end with a dinner at a restaurant I like in DC. And I wanted to do the muddy parts in the middle with the benefit of declining elevation on my side, but the elevation on the C&O section of the trip is negligible.

If you ride from west to east, you start with around 120 miles of uphill grade. It’s not particularly steep, but it is unrelenting from Pittsburgh to Meyersdale. From Meyersdale to Cumberland, once you go through the tunnel at the continental divide, is around 30 miles of nonstop down hill fun.

On the other hand, if you ride from DC to Pittsburgh (westward) you can do all your significant climbing in one day from Cumberland to Meyersdale and then enjoy your last 120 miles on the trail zipping right along. I can certainly see the appeal of that approach, and if I had it to do over again I think I’d start in DC.

Check out some mileage and elevation charts here.

What bike should I ride?

I have been writing about bikes for a long time and I’ve been asked a lot what bike a person should buy. Over the years I’ve settled on this answer: “You should get whichever one you like best.” My reasoning is that a bike you like is a bike you’ll ride, and really, that should be the point: riding the bike. Also, if you think a bike is cool, you’re right. It is. You don’t need anyone else’s say-so.

Personally, I think the best bike for this trip is a gravel/cyclocross or touring type bike with drop bars and a more-or-less road bike riding position. Most of the people I saw on the trail were riding mountain-bike-ish hybrids, usually with a suspension fork on the front, and usually with the rider positioned very much upright. I like drop bars because there are a lot of different places to put your hands which is nice for when they get tired, but I went through the trouble of shipping my bike to and from the trail. That was a pain, but I got to ride my own bike, which I liked.

I personally try not to ride upright like most of the riders I saw because I want my body weight distributed between my feet, hands, and butt. Riding upright means most of your weight is on your butt which means your butt is going to get tired.

I understand, though, that that riding upright feels “safe” to a lot of people. Also, most of the people I encountered on the trail were retirees and it’s possible they aren’t comfortable any way but upright. There’s no wrong way, really. If you’re moving forward, you’re doing it right.

Whatever the case, it is a really good idea to have a professional fit you on whatever bike you get so that you can be as comfortable as possible once you get on it.

I rode my Niner RLT 9 gravel bike with disc brakes, drop bars, and 35c knobby tires. That gave me road(ish) geometry with the ability to splash through the C&O mud holes without any problems. I also had cheap plastic fenders, which saved me a lot of wet, muddy discomfort, and rear rack with two panniers for all my crap.

I shipped my bike to my starting point, South Side Traveler’s Rest in Pittsburgh, a great place to stay, and I was able to assemble it from the box in an hour or two. The brakes needed a little adjustment which I got that afternoon at Thick Bikes just around the corner, but it worked great for the rest of the trip.

What mileage should I ride?

That’s up to you, obviously, but I tried to weight my riding days so I was riding farther when I thought the going would be faster (both ends) with some slow days when I thought the going might be un-fun (the middle). This proved to be more or less correct, although I did have one day with only 25miles to ride when it happened to be dry. I arrived at my BnB for the next night well before lunch, but the proprietor didn’t seem to mind.

My riding schedule looked like this:

  1. Pittsburgh to Connelsville – 59mi
  2. Connelsville to Meyersdale – 58mi (Included stop in Ohiopyle and Fallingwater visit)
  3. Meyersdale to Cumberland – 32mi
  4. Cumberland to Paw Paw – 30mi
  5. Paw Paw to Hancock – 25mi
  6. Hancock to Williamsport – 27mi
  7. Williamsport to White’s Ferry (Leesburg) – 70mi
  8. White’s Ferry (Leesburg) to DC – 35mi

On White’s Ferry near Leesburg.

The trouble with the trail is the most-likely-crappiest parts — where you’re likely to want to have shorter days — are also the most remote. There isn’t much of anywhere to stay between Cumberland and Hancock and that 55 miles of riding through bumpy peanut butter mud is a pretty big ask.

The nice thing about doing the trip the way I did is I always had access to showers, power to charge up devices, clean sheets, and air conditioning. The trouble is that I couldn’t really alter my schedule much. The BNBs have very limited cancellation policies, sometimes as much as a two-week cancellation window.

If I had it to do over again, I might investigate the possibility of a shuttle service. The ideal thing would be to be able to ride longer days when you’re feeling good and/or the conditions are good, but also being able to say “fuck this” when conditions are crap. I’m not sure if that’s possible with a shuttle, because they probably have set in/out points they prefer to use, but there are fairly frequent road crossings so it’s not out of the question.

Obviously, if you’re bike packing you can stop wherever you like, especially on the C&O which has hiker biker campgrounds every 5mi or so, like this one.

The Modern BnB Experience

Something else that’s weird about the BnBs on this trip is some are weirdly empty. Most of the ones I’ve stayed at previously in various countries have had someone, you know, there. Nowadays, though, it seems like BnB operators will meet you at the place to get you in the door and answer a few questions but beyond that you’re on your own in what feels like (because it is) someone else’s house. Some don’t even come meet you. They have apps or codes to get you in the door, or they just leave the door unlocked.

I can understand why that would be appealing to the operators, since it frees them up to live their lives the rest of the day, but it’s not what I’m used to. I have no doubt that if I texted or called those people with any need they’d have helped me out with it immediately (in fact, they did), but there’s still something weird to me about the proprietor of your lodging being totally absent.

Maybe it’s just me.

Quick Reviews of Trailside Towns and Attractions

These are places where I stayed or stopped.

Pittsburgh – Apart from the goose poop everywhere, I liked it. I got yelled at by a driver who was ignorant of traffic laws, but that’s normal for riding a bike in any US city. I hung out at The Carson Street Deli and worked on a crossword puzzle with the rest of the regulars and the bar staff. Also visited Bicycle Heaven, which was a pretty nutty spot. If you like 80s and 90s Schwinns and/or BMX I recommend it. If not, you can safely give it a pass.

Bicycle Heaven upstairs

Connelsville – Not much to say about this town, but the couple who run the Bed and Breakfast are nice folks. I left my phone cord here and they shipped it home for me, which is above and beyond. The lady even mentioned as I was packing up how often people leave their charging cords, probably trying to nudge me in the right direction, but I still managed to be a doofus.

The Gateway to Connelsville

Ohiopyle – A bustling touristy river town. It seems like most of their money is made on people paddling or rafting, but there is a bike shop if you need repairs. I stopped here to eat a sandwich, drink a beer, then drink another beer, tour Fallingwater, then drink one more beer while waiting for a rain shower to subside. Then I rode on.

Lunch beers in Ohiopyle

Fallingwater – The tour of Fallingwater is an interesting stop, especially if you appreciate the tour for what it is: a bit of absurdist theatre wherein the house’s tour guides present a very interesting piece of crumbling architecture while pretending the architect who designed it was not a total asshole, let alone a shitty engineer. Listening them framing Wright’s assholish antics as somehow charming is bizarrely entertaining, especially as you pick your way over and around contemporary efforts to keep Wright’s masterpiece from falling into the waterfall.

Pro Tip for the Fallingwater Tour: As soon as you’ve seen the guest house and pool, the tour is over. Make an excuse to your guide why you need to leave, or just walk away. This way you’ll avoid the poor-taste high-pressure sales meeting with which the tour normally concludes in the house’s former garage. If you don’t skip it, they show you a video of the house you just saw complete with syrupy voiceover, and then, with a straight face, explain that if you give the house $125 to help correct the multi-million-dollars-worth-of errors the architect built into the home, they’ll give you a walking stick. Yeah. A stick. I mean, holy shit. A stick.

Meyersdale – I stayed at a hotel called the Morguen Toole company which had a nice big garage area to store my bike, laundry machines to wash my filthy clothes, cold beer, and excellent barbecue brisket. I had a chat at the bar with a guy traveling on his motorcycle, which was nice. The clothes dryer didn’t work, but I brought a clothesline.

It was the Saturday before Memorial Day which meant that the bar was expecting a big night of partying. So big, in fact, that they’d asked the carpenter working on the deck outside if he’d please put his tools away and continue work as a bartender instead. Nice guy. Didn’t know the names of any beers, but a hell of a nice guy.

A waitress came around as I was finishing my barbecue and asked me for $5 cover charge for the band. I said no, I was going to sleep instead. She gave me a look as if I’d said something rude. But then again she might not have believed me that I was going to sleep at 8PM. The sun wasn’t even fully down. No word of a lie, ma’am, I really am that tired and/or boring.

Main Street Meyersdale

Cumberland, MD – Situated as it is in the middle of the trail and joining the GAP and C&O, Cumberland is kind of a natural overnight spot. Nevertheless, if you can, I’d avoid staying there.

I’m not the world’s most street-smart traveler, but I’ve been around enough to know what someone looking for trouble looks like. Usually it’s the person whose body language is broadcasting, “I’m being totally normal!” rather than not broadcasting anything at all and just, you know, being normal.

One person I asked about this suggested it’s because there are three correctional facilities just outside the town. Or maybe it’s because the area’s two former booming industries, railroad and coal, are no longer booming.

I had the poor luck to stay in a room with windows at street level on Greene St., which is apparently a busy thoroughfare between downtown and some other westerly location. All afternoon and night I got to listen to the shouting conversations of people walking to and from the liquor store. Even people walking alone were shouting conversations.

It’s a shame because downtown Cumberland is an attractive place. You can even get a good espresso at Basecamp on Greene street, or a not-as-good espresso at Cafe Mark in downtown. There’s a cool old theatre and a cavernous bookstore that also sells cigars. Even so: skip Cumberland.

Downtown Cumberland and the GAP/C&O junction

Hancock – Great bike shop and a good restaurant called Buddylou’s Eats Drinks and Antiques. The bike shop is a great spot for stocking up on snacks and cold drinks. Buddylou’s has a kind, welcoming staff and a good chef. I had beef and asparagus, both expertly cooked. I stayed in a B&B just a block or so away which was super nice inside. The photos on their web site don’t accurately portray how nice it is: https://www.riverrunbnb.com/

Resting at Fort Frederick.

Leesburg – Leesburg is a nice little town where you can get great food, craft beer, wine… anything you like. I liked Leesburg a lot. It is not, however, on the trail. The place I stayed in Leesburg, The Leesburg Colonial Inn, solves this problem by offering, they say, a shuttle from White’s Ferry, which is on the trail. They do not, however, offer a shuttle back to the trail. I can only assume that Frank Lloyd Wright designed their shuttle service.

Not only that, they don’t actually pick you up from White’s Ferry. They pick you up from the nearest largeish intersection to White’s Ferry, on highway 15. The driver explained to me that this is because it’s easier for the driver because getting down to the ferry and turning around is a pain for the driver. I can understand that. But riding a bike on no-shoulder roads in rush-hour traffic is also not fun.

I know there’s a shuttle that picks cyclists up from the ferry itself because I saw two cyclists waiting there and I saw a van drive by to go get them.

The Leesburg Colonial Inn realizes that they need to get you physically to their location in order to get money from you, but once it’s the next morning and they’ve charged your card, they stop pretending to give a shit.

My shuttle driver told me the ride back to the ferry isn’t a problem because most of the roads have good shoulders. That’s just flat-out wrong. There are some shoulders, but there’s also a section, namely, the stretch of Highway 15 between N. King Street and the 15 interchange, which is an excellent place for a cyclist to be killed. Then, once you make the turn off 15 toward the ferry, you’re back on zero-shoulder roads until you get to the ferry itself. I can understand how this wouldn’t seem like a big deal to someone who has never been hit by a car before, but I have, a couple of times. It’s not great.

Cars here, as usual, were happy to give me space to ride as long as there wasn’t a car coming the other direction, which would mean the cars on my side would have to slow down. When choosing between a cyclist’s safety and being delayed for a microsecond, drivers will buzz you every time.

If what I’m describing here is exactly the kind of riding you want to avoid, either skip Leesburg (even though it’s nice) or get a better shuttle service to take you where you need to go and back.

If I had it to do over again I’d have probably stayed in Shepherdstown at the Bavarian Inn.

Bridge to Shepherdstown, with Bavarian Inn on the right.

Is this a cyclist’s dream trip?

Eeeeuueuhh… meh. It’s hard to say.

I’ve done a lot of cycling-based trips and had a lot more fun. Mountain bikes in and around Park City, for example, or Ketcham, ID, or riding the Paris-Roubaix route in France. Riding Pisgah, Dupont in and around Brevard, NC. The list goes on.

I think this is a good trip for someone who is willing to be on a bike for a few days, but I’m not sure that person is, exactly, a cyclist. You are going to see lots more cargo shorts than bike shorts on this trip, and lots more bargain-basement hybrids than bikes that someone cares about.

One weird thing about this tour is that although everyone along the way appears to make some or part of their living from cyclists, they don’t seem too much in tune with cycling as a culture. I was one of maybe three people I saw the whole time wearing a cycling kit. Everyone in every town and in every place I stopped along the way stared at me, usually with mouths open. In every little town someone made a joke about me and my outfit to someone nearby.

Mind you, this is a normal reaction upon first seeing a middle-aged fat man squeezed into brightly colored lycra. I am by no means the perfectly-shaped human. Not only am I too fat, the fat I have is getting old. Still, you’d expect people who make their living on bikes to have seen bike kits once or twice. Nope.

There are also very few good places to lock up a bike along the trail. Most of the bike racks you’ll see will look like this:

I don’t know who designed those but, like Canada geese, they’re everywhere and they are useless. Any street sign is a better bike locking location than these joke racks. The only maybe usable part of these joke racks is the end, where you can lock your frame to the rack, not just your easily-removable wheel. Yet still, people buy the joke ones. It boggles the mind.

So, like I said, I don’t think this is really a trip for cyclists as much as it’s a trip for someone willing to be on a bike. It’s physically pretty easy, with lots of scenery, and rolling into DC haven ridden only a bike from Pittsburgh was nice.

I think if you want to do it you should, but as for “the ride of your life,” as the guide bills it, I’m not so sure.

* Not true.

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