Last year, a pal from college days introduced me to the joys of long-distance biking by guiding me on a 10-day tour through the rolling hills of Tuscany. This year, I told him we didn't have to go nearly as far to find a beauty of a bike trip. We decided to check out the Great Allegheny Passage, 150 miles of wide, gentle trail running from Cumberland, Md., north to Pittsburgh.
Not only was it scenic and close, the GAP, as it's called, was a lot easier on my AARP-qualified lungs and legs. None of those miles-long, quad-burning Tuscan hills. No sharing narrow roads with speeding Italian drivers while trying to enjoy the eye-candy countryside. Instead, we pedaled a peaceful, vehicle-free route through the hardwood forests and river valleys of Western Pennsylvania.
The GAP is smooth and easy because it follows a railroad right-of-way abandoned in the early 1970s. Towns on the trail are an easy day's ride apart, with B&Bs and decent places to eat. If you'd rather save money and throw your tired cyclist body in a tent at night, you can camp at sites along the way. Outside the towns, the trail runs for miles without road crossings. It was the perfect long trip for two guys who wouldn't have to train too hard. (My idea of "training" is a 15-mile ride followed by a beer.)
And if you're feeling adventurous, you could hook up with the C&O Canal Trail in Cumberland, biking 185 more miles to Washington.
In early May, we drove to the end of the GAP at Cumberland, hopped aboard Amtrak with our bikes just after dinnertime, and were in Pittsburgh by midnight. The next day, heading south, we'd have four days and 125 miles of slight but steady uphill to the Eastern Continental Divide, elevation 2,390 feet. From there, it would be 25 miles, all downhill, back to our car.
The GAP's northern third takes riders through the coal and steel country that helped make America an industrial powerhouse. On the edge of Pittsburgh, the trail crosses the Hot Metal Bridge, which once shuttled rail cars with red-hot iron across the Monongahela. Now it offers a great upstream view of the downtown skyline.
The gigantic Homestead Steel Works is gone; the trail there skirts a tidy collection of big-box stores and office buildings, complemented by a row of the mill's smokestacks.
Farther out, areas once scarred by coal operations are reverting to forest — just a few miles outside Pittsburgh, there's a bald eagle nest along the trail.
Beyond the Mon Valley, Connellsville is the largest town on the trail, with B&Bs, restaurants, and a century-old library with a pleasant cafe.
The GAP's middle section — heading through Ohiopyle State Park — is the bike trail equivalent of wilderness. For about 15 miles along the Youghiogheny River, there's not a single road crossing. It felt as remote as any place I've explored on the East Coast.
If you plan ahead, you can take a short side trip to Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous home, Falling Water.
Heading south on the GAP's final third, we enjoyed more miles of quiet riverside forest, with riffles of whitewater humming in the background. The views are especially good from Salisbury viaduct, a century-old railroad trestle, 101 feet high and 1,900 feet long, carrying riders over the Casselman River Valley.
Rehabbing that rusting viaduct was one of the many expensive pieces that were cobbled together to make the GAP. The trail was built over decades, section by section, thanks to a loose amalgamation of volunteers and government officials.
The first piece of abandoned railroad right-of-way was acquired in 1978, and the first trail section, in Ohiopyle, opened in 1986. After 27 more years and $80 million, all the bridges, trestles, and tunnels had been rehabbed or built, allowing the trail to run, uninterrupted, for its full 150 miles.
The GAP is traveled by a range of bikers — local day-trippers, speed demons doing it in two days, campers towing gear, and leisure riders such as us. Townsfolk are helpful and happy for the business the bikers bring.
Black bears inhabit the woods along the trail, but the only remotely hostile encounter we had — natural or human — was with the Pennsylvania state bird. A mama ruffed grouse tried to block the trail, strutting belligerently, presumably to distract us from plundering her nest. We laughed and wondered how tasty fried grouse would be.
The last night of our southbound trip, we reached Meyersdale, once a prosperous coal and timber town, 32 miles from our car in Cumberland. But overnight, an all-day monsoon moved in, so the long downhill and wide vistas we'd anticipated for four days would be a foggy, soaking disappointment. We caught a surprisingly affordable shuttle van back to Cumberland and made plans to finish the trip in the fall.
In mid-September, we headed back to Cumberland and Meyersdale. Coming up to the continental divide from the south — a 1,700-foot elevation gain — required 25 miles of steady uphill and several rest stops. This part runs mostly through woods, but several clearings offered expansive views. The highlight was the Big Savage Tunnel; traveling the damp, dimly lit, 3,300-foot passage on a hot fall day was like entering a refrigerator.
At Cumberland, the GAP links up with the C&O Canal Trail for its run to Washington. Other bikers told us the C&O was rougher, with tree roots, narrower tracks, and muddy spots after rain.
The GAP is better maintained, a tribute to the many groups that care for it. If you want a scenic, not-too-strenuous biking adventure within a day's reach of Philadelphia, look no farther than the GAP.
IF YOU GO:
Get the $10 "Official Guide to the C&O Canal and the Great Allegheny Passage." It has a mile-by-mile guide, maps, planning advice, the trails' history, and directories for each town, with lodging options, restaurants and services.
Cumberland, Md., is probably the best place to start. The trailhead has free parking, and Amtrak's walk-on bike service is available in either direction. Van shuttles, listed in the guidebook, offer options for one-way bike trips on the two trails. Camping and B&Bs are available along the 335-mile trail system, but make reservations in advance.