Sublime Spring Rails-to-Trails Cycling
By Cele & Lynn Seldon
Spring is the perfect time of year to welcome the long-awaited warming temperatures and magical reawakening of Mother Nature. One way to get closer to both is to head to the great outdoors on two wheels with a multi-day, 148-mile bike ride through the Appalachian Mountains from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, along the rails-to-trails Great Allegheny Passage, or GAP as it’s known
in cycling circles.
Rail-trails are typically abandoned railroad tracks that have been converted into multi-use paths, and usually offer hiking, biking, and possibly even horseback riding. Often running alongside rivers and creeks, these former railbeds generally offer varied stretches of pavement, crushed rock, or cinder, which traverse small towns and cities — just like the trains did — making amenities like food and lodging readily available for cyclists on multi-day tours.
There are organizations that can help plan multi-day bike trips, starting with TrailLink, the trail finder app through the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, whose mission is to help build a nation connected by trails that get people walking, biking, and being active in the outdoors.
There are also many bike companies that put together guided and self-guided multi-day bike trips across the country, including the GAP. However, if independent biking is preferred, it’s relatively easy to create your own itinerary with the help of many resources, including TrailGuide, published by Great Allegheny Press, or, alternatively, purchasing a “blueprint” for the ride from Noble Invention Bike Touring. A digital itinerary service that uses Noble Invention’s curated bank of knowledge and expertise from their many self-guided tour options, the blueprint provides recommended routes, accommodations, transportation and luggage shuttle services (Sunshine Luggage Shuttle comes highly recommended), dining, and practicalities along the way.
With the GAP being a linear trail, coordinating a shuttle from the end point (Cumberland is the preferred ending location for GAP cyclists) to the beginning of the trail in Pittsburgh is necessary — about a three-hour drive. There are several to choose from, including a shuttle offered by bike store, Wheelzup Adventures, in downtown Cumberland. After some exploration and a Pittsburgh overnight, the trail starts at Mile 148 at riverfront Point State Park.
Following along the Monongahela River, the trail passes many of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, bridges, and remnants of its steel industry history before diverging into more rural territory and onto the Youghiogheny River in McKeesport at Mile 132. The next 20 miles are more typical of what’s to come on the GAP with former mills, remnants of small coal company towns and settlements, and lots of wide-open spaces. The small bike town of West Newton at Mile 114 is the perfect stop for the night, with biker-friendly B&Bs, restaurants, grocery stores, bike shops, a post office, and even a brewery.
The next 25-plus miles pay homage to former coal mining towns and remnants of coke production facilities (a valuable industrial fuel), as the trail heads towards Connellsville at Mile 88, once home to more coal millionaires than any other U.S. city of its size. Sporting a thriving business district, Connellsville is a perfect respite for a mid-day meal (don’t miss the creative salads and sandwiches at Kickstand Kitchen) or an overnight.
Once rejuvenated, it’s just 16 scenic miles to the outdoors Mecca of Ohiopyle, the midway point for the GAP and home to whitewater rafting, Ohiopyle State Park and Cucumber Falls. A bustling tourist town, Ohiopyle offers plenty of accommodations, restaurants, shopping, and outdoors-oriented outfitters to pick from. If there’s time, it’s fun to spend a few nights and enjoy a whitewater rafting trip with well-respected Wilderness Voyageurs or arrange for a shuttle to one of two Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces — Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob — that are just a few miles out of town.
If you’ve added on a day in Ohiopyle, a leisurely ride to Confluence, just 10 miles away, is perfect for the next stop. Named for the confluence of the Casselman and Youghiogheny rivers and Laurel Hill Creek, the working-class community — complete with town square and Victorian bandstand — has several B&Bs, a few restaurants, along with a local grocery store for a comfortable stay.
Once fully rested, the easy 30-mile ride to Meyersdale features several railroad tunnels, a fossil quarry, lots of farmland, wind farms, and the Salisbury Viaduct, a 1,908-foot-long steel trestle that is one of the most distinctive structures along the trail. The highest point of the GAP, Meyersdale is one of the larger towns along the trail, with plenty of restaurant options (you can’t go wrong with dinner at The White House Restaurant), along with B&Bs for everyone’s taste and budget.
The final 32 miles of the GAP features some of the most interesting landmarks of the trail, including the Eastern Continental Divide at 2,392 feet, the 3,300-foot Big Savage Tunnel, the Mason-Dixon line and the college town of Frostburg, Maryland. From there it’s all downhill as you sail the final 15 miles to the finish line in Cumberland, Maryland.
Once in Cumberland, be sure to add a day or two to recover and explore this historic town including: one of the few passable natural cuts in the Allegheny Mountains at the Cumberland Narrows; the National Road, which was the first major improved highway in the U.S. and the main transport route for settlers heading West; George Washington’s Headquarters; the terminus of the Western Maryland Railway and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal; along with a robust downtown featuring museums, art galleries, and a pedestrian mall with shops and restaurants.