GAP and C&O trail vacation (PA, WV, MD).
Sept and October, 2017
About our trip
Sue came up with the idea of a vacation doing some riding on the Greater Allegheny Passage trail GAP) after reading about it in a magazine. Often, people ride their bikes from one end of the GAP in Pittsburgh to the other end in Cumberland, MD, which is somewhere around 150 miles. Some people continue on the C&O Canal Towpath trail, which connects from Cumberland MD, to Washington, DC, which is another 185 miles long. We weren’t going to do either of those.
We have been riding recreationaly for 20 plus years, mainly rails-to-trails and towpath trails, so the GAP and C&O trails would probably be similar to what we were used to, but we probably average 20-30 miles round trip on our typical rides, and that is normally just on the weekends. We were not ready for a long, multi-day trail ride, possibly carrying our gear on our bikes.
What we decided on is to do some “circuit rides”. Our rides would consist of riding parts of the trail, maybe 10 to 15 miles in one direction, then riding the opposite direction back to our starting point. Those rides would be more comfortable for us and involve less logistics then an end-to-end trail ride. We would stay in hotels close to the trailheads and either drive or ride our bikes from the hotel to the trailhead, depending on the distance and traffic situations.
There are lots of camping, B&B, and hotel options in and around the trail towns. We opted to stay in traditional hotels. Our hotel selection was based on segments of the trails we were most interested in seeing first. Each hotel stay would be for two nights. The general plan was something like this: Arrive at the hotel in an evening. Ride north from a trailhead near the hotel, turn around and ride back to the trailhead then stay overnight. Next day, ride south from the same trailhead, turn around back to the trailhead, then stay overnight again. Pack up and move to the next hotel. Repeat.
About our bikes:
We both have Trek Comfort bikes that are about 11 years old. These are sort of a mix between an inexpensive mountain bike and cruiser, but closer to a mountain bike. Wheels are 26 inch with 1.95 inch tires. Tires are pretty smooth in the center, with knobbies on the outer edges, which work very well for packed limestone trail riding. Seats are a little wider, handlebars have a little rise in them, suspension forks, 21 speed, standard rim brakes. I did make some baskets mounted on the rear racks to store layered clothing, purchases, etc while we were out on the trail.
Two nights at the Quality Inn hotel Friday, Sept 29 and Saturday, Sept 30. We checked in as soon as we arrived in Frostburg.
Hotel is outside of town and a little too far to walk, and I thought a little too much traffic to ride the bikes, so we drove into town.
Frostburg is a town built on the side of a mountain. It’s a small town, but lively with lots of local shops, restaurants, theaters and plenty to do. Frostburg State University probably has a lot to do with energetic atmosphere around here.
Dinner at bar on the main drag - basic pizza and salad and we realized while waiting that this place seemed better suited to catering to the college drinkers than us.
After dinner, we walked around town a little. This is a pretty hoppin place on a Saturday night. Lots of the small shops were open and there was several bars and restaurants with live entertainment.
The time was heading toward dusk, we wanted to checkout Frostburg trailhead. The road down to the trailhead is steep and windy. There are two levels down. The first one, about 150 feet lower than Main Street in downtown Frostburg, has a parking lot for the train depot, which is currently the end of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad that comes from Cumberland. At this level, there is also an antique carriage museum which seems to be open at times when the train pulls in. Another 100 or so feet down is the trailhead. There is a tight bicycle switch back trail that can be taken from the upper parking lot down to the trailhead, or you can drive to the lower parking lot and unload there. Below is a map, and elevation chart, but you really have to see it to appreciate the change in elevation. There are a few pictures below of the train depot and sculptures along the switchback trail.
At the trailhead, there were still people on the trail and heading back to the trailhead. We ended up talking with a guy riding from Pittsburgh to DC that lives in Stow, Ohio and works at Stark State University. Stow is about 25 miles from home, and Stark State is about a 10 minute drive for us. He and a group of other guys were riding electric assist bikes and their wives were driving their gear between hotels. Small world.
Map from downtown FrostBurg to the GAP trailhead.
Elevation chart from downtown FrostBurg to the GAP trailhead.
FrostBurg, MD to Meyersdale, PA.
Saturday, Sept 30, ride Northeast to just past Meyersdale, about 20 miles each way.
We drove to the FrostBurg traihead and parked in the lot at the same elevation as the trailhead.
We picked this ride as the first of the trip because this section of the trail has the most “features” we were interested in.
The overall ride consisted of an uphill section, at about a 2% grade, for about 8 miles to the Eastern Continental divide, then downhill, at about an average 1% grade, from there to the Salisbury Viaduct, just past Meyersdale, PA. Riding up hill at that grade, we probably averaged about 7 or 8 mph, but we made a lot of stops for photo opportunities.
Below are some of the features along this leg of the trip
The Borden tunnel is an old train tunnel now used on the GAP trail. The tunnel is 957 feet long and unlit. We stopped at the tunnel entrance for some selfies. We could see from end to end when entering the tunnel so we decided we didn’t need the bike lights and hadn’t taken them out of our bags and mounted them on the handlebars yet. Big mistake. When you get into the tunnel, you still can see the light at the other end, but other than that, it is pitch black in there. We went slow and made it out without incident, but we unpacked the lights and mounted them after that.
Mason Dixon line.
The Mason Dixon line was the line related to a disputed land between Maryland and Pennsylvania a few hundred years ago and is now the actual border between the states. You can google it for specifics. As it relates to the GAP trail, there is a nice little park with some granite monuments and the actual line on the ground being decorated. Again, another good spot for a break on the uphill ride and some more photos.
On our drive into Frostburg, we were amazed by the lines of windmills on the hilltops in PA. On the Gap between Frostburg, MD, and Meyersdale, PA, there are several sets of windmills that cross the trail. On the ridge over the Big Savage Tunnel, there are about 30 wind turbines. Just to the north east of that, probably on the same ridge is another 38 wind turbines. Closer to Meyersdale, the Meyersdale Wind Plant has 20 turbines. Those are the ones that can be seen from the trail.
Big Savage tunnel
The Big Savage Tunnel is a former railroad tunnel under Big Savage Mountain. The tunnel is nearly 3300 feet long and lighted. Without this tunnel as part of the GAP trail, the trail teraign would be a lot rougher and steep in this area, or a lot longer to get around the mountain. The tunnel has been restored as part of the GAP trail project because the people behind the GAP trail say that without this tunnel, the trail wouldn’t exist.
Eastern Continental Divide.
The Eastern Continental Divide is the high point (in elevation!) on the GAP. Also, it is the divide between the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico watersheds. Everything east of the divide flows into the Atlantic Ocean, and everything west of the divide flows to the Gulf of Mexico.
The marker for the divide is a tunnel under Mckenzie Hollow Road. Both ends of the tunnel have murals depicting historical events. Inside the tunnel is this helpful elevation chart. It's all downhill from here.
This is a picture of part of the elevation chart from inside the tunnel:
The Keystone Viaduct is another great old train trestle repurposed for use as part of the GAP trail.
This is an old railroad steel truss bridge that was moved several times prior to being relocated onto the GAP trail to cross over Scratch Hill Rd, east of Meyersdale, PA.
Lunch in Meyersdale PA.
We arrived at Meyersdale around noon and took a short ride into town before stopping at Joe Green's Fresh Eatery for lunch. After lunch, we went through the Myersdale Area Historical Society, which is located inside of of the old Meyersdale train depot. This is where we took pictures of the caboose and model train displays.
We rode a little further north east from Meyersdale so we could see the Salisbury viaduct, an old train bridge, with a span of over 1900 feet, crossing over the Casselman rifer and US route 219. This is the longest bridge on the GAP trail.
My goal for the day was to get to the other side of the Salisbury viaduct and turn back toward Frostburg since we had already ridden almost 20 miles. On the other side of the Salisbury viaduct was a farm with a family cemetery close to the trail where we took a couple photos.
Ride back - uphill, downhill.
The ride back to Frostburg was going to be a challenge compared to what we are used to. The next 11 miles were going to be all uphill, but not as steep of a grade as uphill section we rode from Frostburg to the Eastern Continental Divide. After that, the remaining part was all downhill, at a pretty steep grade to the Frostburg trailhead. We were back to the car by mid afternoon and ready for some relaxation time. In the end, this was the longest and most challenging ride of the season.
Total ride distance: about 40 miles.
Dinner was at the Draft Sports Bar and Grill in Frostburg. Excellent food an service.
Map of ride from Frostburg, MD to Myersdale, PA
Elevation of ride from Frostburg, MD to Myersdate, PA
Pictures of ride from Frostburg, MD to Myersdale, PA:
Pics of the area around Myersdale, PA.
Frostburg, MD to Cumberland, MD.
Sunday, Oct 1, 2017.
After breakfast at the Frostburg Quality Inn, we packed up the car and drove to the upper lot of the FrostBurg trailhead, by the train depot and rode the bikes down the switchbacks to the trail.
The temperature was a crisp 36 degrees in the morning so we dressed in the warmest layers we had with us, including double layers of gloves for me.
The ride from FrostBurg to Cumberland is all downhill for about 17 miles at a grade of about 2% most of the whole distance. We could generally coast at a speed of 10+ miles per hour, but leisurely peddled part of the way to keep up a faster pace.
A couple miles into the downhill trip, it became apparent that Sue's freewheel was acting up. When coasting, it wasn't "free", causing the chain to slack. I had a similar problem earlier in the year and thought I could do a field repair to reduce the likelihood of throwing a chain. In the meantime, I encouraged her to keep peddling a little to take up the slack while coasting.
About 9 miles southwest of FrostBurg is the Brush tunnel. This is a 900 ft lighted tunnel that is shared by the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and the GAP trail. We hung around the entrance taking selfies long enough that we were there when a train from Cumberland came through the tunnel. Check it out in the group of pics below.
Helmsetters curve around valley
Helmsetters curve is a big horseshoe curve in the railroad around a valley that makes or great photos when there is a train on the tracks. Unfortunately, we were in the area during a time when no trains were going to be coming along.
Bone Cave is a cave found during the building of the railroad in 1911. Many species fossilized mammal bones were found in this cave, some dating back a couple hundred thousand years, and some from now extinct animals. Today, the cave would be easily missed if it weren't for the placard and fence to to keep people out.
-- Pics of rail from Frostburg on the way to Cumberland. - Separate out!
Welcome to Cumberland, MD.
Now that we rode our bikes to the bottom of the a 17 mile long hill, we have to think about getting to our car, which is back up that 17 mile hill. We don't have to think about it because I already bought tickets to the train to take us and our bikes back :). Its a little before noon, and the train doesn't leave until 2PM, so we have a couple hours to explore Cumberland around the train station.
Right behind the train station is where GAP trail meets up with the and C&O canal towpath. We were able to check out the local bike shop, grab some snacks and souvenirs from the gift shops, and eat a makeshift lunch on the train platform.
The train ride from Cumberland to FrostBurg back up the hill was a relaxing hour or so. Once back in Frostberg, we disembarked from the train, an retrieved our bikes from the boxcar. We then watched the engine turn around on the turn table, which was pretty cool to see.
-- Pics of Cumberland. Separate out!
Total ride distance: a bout 17 mils.
Map of the ride from Frostburg, MD to Cumberland, MD:
Elevation of ride from Frostburg, MD to Cumberland, MD
Pics of our ride from Frostburg, MD to Cumberland, MD:
After the train ride back to our car in FrostBurg, we drove to Shepherdstown, WV, about an hour and 45 minutes southwest.
We stayed two nights at the Quality Inn.
Super old town
on Potomac river and C&O trail
Field fix for freewheel
Dinner was at the Devonshire Arms Pub and Café, a small local place with decent food in the historic town.
Walk around town. Most shops closed early.
Anteitam Battlefield, and national cemetery in Sharpsburg, WV
Monday, October 2, 2017
Walked bikes through woods.
Lunch at market a little like Erik's Grocery Bag.
Drove to Antietam National Cemetery.
Back to hotel mid afternoon.
Total ride distance: about about 2.5 miles.
-- Pics of Antietam and National Cemetery.
Pics from Antietam Battlefield and National Cemetary in Sharpsburg, WV:
Map of short ride around the Antietam Battlefield
Post Antietam short ride, late afternoon, Monday, Oct 2, 2017
After our visit to Antietam battlefield and the Nation Cemetery, we drove back to the hotel and unloaded the bikes. From the hotel, we rode into historic Shepherdstown to visit the Shepherdstown Pedal and Paddle.
We left the bike shop, rode though part of Shepherd’s University toward the C&O trail. We entered the C&O trail at the Lock 38 trailhead, rode north for a little while just to check out the trail and turned around after a few miles. The introduction to the C&O trail led us to the conclusion that it is not the well maintained, fairly smooth crushed limestone surface we are used to at our home trail, and on the GAP trail. The C&O has lots of exposed tree roots, sharp rock outcroppings, and some soft spots and a little mud. But, I had already anticipated it would be rougher than the GAP from other reading on the internet.
Rode back to the hotel, keeping the route through the university and town to minimize contact with heavier traffic. The total afternoon ride was roughly 15 miles.
We walked from the hotel to a plaza across the street for dinner at Fox’s Pizza.
Map of short post-Antietam ride on the C&O trail, north of Shepherdstown, WV:
Shepherdstown, WV to Harpers Ferry, WV
Tuesday, Oct 3, 2017.
After breakfast, we packed up the car, checked out of the hotel and headed to the C&O Lock 38 trailhead parking lot, also in Shepherdstown, WV, where we left the car for the day.
The plan was to ride south to Harpers Ferry, WV, tour the historic sites and town, check out a bike shop, and eat lunch before heading back north to the car.
About the C&O trail
The C&O trail is the old canal tow path which was used by the mules to pull the boats up and down the canal. We ride very similar trails around home along the Ohio and Erie canal, running North-South in north eastern Ohio. The biggest differences is in the trail surfaces. Our home trails are manicured crushed and packed fine limestone for the most part. The C&O path is a more "natural" trail. There are lots of exposed tree roots and outcroppings of pretty sharp rocks (buried boulders or ledge?). There was some places where a light layer of gravel was sprinkled on the path, but it otherwise was just dirt. When we were on the trail in early October, it was relatively dry, but any amount of rain would quickly turn much of the trail into mud. We have 26x1.95 tires so most of what we encountered wasn’t much of an issue, but I wouldn’t recommend bikes with dainty tires.
Heading south on the towpath, the the C&O canal is on left. The canal itself is still in pretty good condition. Lock structures (less gates) are intact. We saw an example of a locktender's house at lock 37. The canal for the most part is dry, with grass growing in it, at least when we were there during the dry season.
On the right side of the towpath is the Potomac river. For most of the 12 mile or so section of the Potomac river we rode next to, it was pretty obvious that this river was never used for large boat traffic. The river is scattered with large rock outcroppings. In some places, the rocks are scattered across the river in such a way that it seems like a long jumper would be able to cross the without getting wet. Also scattered through the river were old pilings, probably from abandoned railroad bridges.
To get to the town of Harpers Ferry from the C&O trail, you have to climb a spiral staircase. Also, unless you are brave enough to leave your bike locked on the trail, you have to carry your bike up the spiral staircase to the bridge across the Potomac. We carried our bikes with us because we wanted to ride around the town and were not willing to leave them on the trail. We had heard mention from other riders that stuff left with the bikes is frequently stolen.
I’m a casual fan of history, so I found Harpers Ferry fascinating but there is a lot of information about Harpers Ferry on the web, so you can google it rather than me rehash what is readily available.
After checking out the historical sights in lower Harpers Ferry, we hit Harpers Ferry Outfitters and Bike shop, checked out a couple of other shops, then stopped at Potomac Grill for a great lunch. The kids working at the restaurant were playing a Tom Petty marathon. We didn’t figure out that Tom Petty had just passed away until after we got back home. It was cool of them to play the tribute, but it would have been nice to know the circumstances at the time.
After lunch and catching a couple more small shops we headed out of town and back north on the C&O trail.
About a couple miles north of Harpers Ferry, I noticed that my rear tire was getting really soft. I used the frame pump to pump it back up. I normally run about 60 PSI, but I figured I was able to get only about 30 in with the hand pump. I was cautious with the trail considering all the rock outcroppings and exposed tree roots, and quickly became aware that it was taking a lot more effort to ride, and watched as the tire again became soft during the next couple of miles. I decided then that it was time to attempt a field repair or we would have to walk the 8 or so miles back to the car, which translates to almost 3 hours pushing the bikes. And it was about 2:15 in the afternoon, then we had to drive to Connellsville, PA.
I carry a spare tube, patch kit, and tools for just this type of incident so I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal. I found the hole in the tube, probably a wire, thorn, or really small nail puncture. I examine the tire real carefully to make sure that the offending debris wasn’t still in there. I didn’t find any foreign objects stuck in the tire, but I did find that the sidewall had a worn through spot, but with the cords still intact. Might have been from pinching the tire on a root or rock. Fortunately, I also had some old scrap tire tube that I cut up for a patch and glued that to the inside of the sidewall. Again with the frame pump, as I put as much air into the tire until my arms were about to give out. Still lower PSI than I usually ride on, but if the patch holds, it would get us back to the car. The patch held and it seemed like a good repair job for both the tire and tube. Back at the car, I plugged in the 12v inflater and put 60 lbs in. As it turned out, the pressure held for the rest of the trip.
From there, we drove a couple miles to the site of the Burnside bridge that crosses Antietam creek. Burnside bridge is a recently reconstructed landmark and site of one of the famous battles of Antietam.
Next stop is Connellsville, PA for the next leg of out trip. The drive from Sharpsburg to Connellsville takes roughly 2 hrs and 45.
Map of ride from Shepherdstown, WV south to Harpers Ferry, WV
Elevation of ride from Shepherdstown, WV south to Harpers Ferry, WV
Pictures from our ride from Shepherdstown, WV south to Harpers Ferry, WV
About Connellsville. About Cobblestone Inn.
Super night for a mid level hotel.
Walk to dinner at Buds?
Phone started working again.
Ohiopyle, PA to Confluence, PA
Wednesday, Oct 4, 2017.
Drive to Ohiopyle, PA.
About Ohiopyle, PA.
Walk around town, visit bike shops, outfitters.
Ride south (miles?) on GAP. Ride map.
To Confluence, PA.
About Confluence PA. Map.
Visit bike shop. Chain of Shame.
Lunch at dinner.
Ride back to OhioPyle.
Drive back to Connellsville.
Ride south a ways from Cobblestone inn (few miles?).
Visit bike shop.
Dinner at Italian Oven.
Map of ride from Ohiopyle, PA south to Confluence, PA
Elevation of ride from Ohiopyle, PA south to Confluence, PA
Pics from ride from Ohiopyle, PA to Confluence, PA:
When we got back from our drive to Ohiopyle, we took a short ride south on the GAP trail through Connellsville an stopped at a bike shop we saw while driving into town.
Cobblestone Inn south for a short while.
Connellsville, PA north on the GAP trail
Thursday, Oct 5, 2017
After breakfast on Thursday, October 5, 2017, we checked out of the Cobblestone Inn. The plan was to get one final ride in before we drove home. We started out from the hotel parking lot and rode north on the GAP trail. The Connellsville city parks at the beginning of the ride were really nice. There is also some adirondacks and camping facilities for cyclists doing the GAP trail ride. We stopped at the visitor's center, which is a decommissioned caboose next to the camping facilities. Riding north, the Beehive Coke ovens can easily be seen in the hillside on the west side of the trail.
About 12 miles into the ride, something wasn’t feeling right on in my bike’s drivetrain. Kind of a grinding while pedaling. We stopped to check it out. Since the pedals weren’t making any sounds on their own, and the grinding only occurs while pedaling and not coasting, I figure the bottom bracket was going bad. I was leery but continued on for a few more miles and then called it. We turned at about 15 miles into our ride.
Aside from the bottom bracket trouble, my body was feeling the effects of six days in a row of riding. My but and legs were definitely ready for a rest. The whole ride back to the car, the grinding continued, but nothing broke. Total ride for the morning was about 30 miles.
Back at the hotel, we used their public restroom to cleanup a bit before driving back home, a four hour drive with a stop for lunch and fuel.
Pics from our ride from Connellsville, PA north on the GAP trail:
Total trip miles ridden: about 160.
Back home, clean up bikes, start finding repair parts - Bottom bracket, freewheel, new chains, bearing balls, rear axle cone.
Sue’s thinking she wants to ride end to end, or at least go back for more circuit rides.
Map of ride from Connellsville, PA north on the GAP trail
Elevation of ride from Connellsville, PA