By Adam Newman
It seemed like a terrible idea at the time.
The plan was to ride 350-some miles from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. for the National Bike Summit along rail trails that would likely be soft and slushy, while facing weather from sun to snow and probably everything in between. Oh, and we were going to do it in three days.
Naturally I signed up right away.
The idea was hatched last fall, but finally came to fruition this past weekend, as Bicycle Times Editor Karen Brooks and I tackled the Great Allegheny Passage Trail and the C&O Canal towpath in three long days. Thankfully the mild spring co-operated and blessed us with wonderful weather and allowed the volunteers along the trail to open the Big Savage Tunnel early, just in time for our passage.
While I couldn’t stay in Washington, Karen will be attending the Summit this week, then lobbying members of Congress before making the return ride along the same route with other members of the Bicycle TImes crew.
Here’s a quick recap from our trip:
Pittsburgh in the early morning light. We "officially" began our trip on the Hot Metal Bridge.
Sunrise just east of McKeesport, Pa.
This was our view for most of the day.
Arriving in Connellsville, Pa.
Where we were greeted with our very own St. Patrick’s Day parade!
Despite the lack of leaves on the trees, temperatures were in the 70s. We ate lunch in Ohiopyle where we chatted with a couple cruising around on their motorcycle for the day. "Do you wear those butt pads?" he asked. Yes. Yes, we do.
Almost to Confluence, Pa. Still relatively clean at this point…
The Pinkerton Tunnel is closed, so the trail winds its way around the mountain.
Our campsite at the Husky Haven campground in Rockwood. I can’t tell you how great this place is. They have a guest room with Wi-Fi, books, and games, plus showers, tons of free firewood and a great staff. Bring some earplugs though, the trains that roll by are LOUD.
Day two started with cloudy skies but warm temperatures. I didn’t mind being out of the sun.
By the time we made it to the Eastern Continental Divide, the trail was soft and our pace was slow. At least it was all downhill from here! Once over the top, the trail drops off much more steeply than on the western side. It started to rain, but we didn’t mind, we were still going nearly twice as fast as on the way up.
The 3,300-foot-long Big Savage Tunnel is closed in the winter, but thanks to a mild spring, we made some phone calls and learned it was to be opened just three days before our passage.
From there we plunged down the mountain, across the Maryland state line, and into Cumberland.
As we rolled into town, the rain dried up and we dried off, stuffing our faces at Cafe Mark & Jennifer’s Desserts. We were quite a site for the after-church crowd.
The GAP trail ends in Cumberland, and the C&O Canal towpath begins. A National Historic Park, the canal was once the most accessible means of transportation from Washington to to the West, but it could never compete with the speed and convenience of the railroads.
Some of the canal remains filled with water, while most of it is being slowly reclaimed by nature. The trail runs along what was once the towpath. Despite a reputation for being slow and bumpy, we found the conditions were excellent, with a firm surface that helped us keep moving quickly. The scenery is much different from the GAP too. While the railroad ran through towns and villages, the canal followed the Potomac River, and signs of (modern) civilization are few and far between.
There are 74 locks along the canal, most of which are still intact in one form or another. Each one is an impressive sight, though more impressive still would be to see it in action at its peak.
The bikes took a real beating on the gravel trails, though we made it through with zero mechanical issues or even flats. Just a little chain lube was all it took.
Trains, both cargo and passenger, are a familiar sight along the way.
We saw two of the giant snapping turtles at different points, both just after sundown. This "little" guy was right in the middle of the trail, cruising along, maybe headed to Pittsburgh. He was at least 18 inches wide and 24 inches long; an impressive sight.
Many of the lockhouse structures along the canal have been restored. Pictured here is an example of the type of passenger boat that would have been used along the canal.
Many parts of the Potomac River are unnavigable, which is why the canal was so important for traffic in the 19th Century.
Some of the wooden structures at the locks are still intact.
We needed to stop at a bike shop, and right along the trail in Georgetown is Cycle Life, where we picked up some stuff and refueled at their beautiful cafe. We were especially excited to see a poster from our sister magazine, Dirt Rag, on the wall.
And so we rolled into downtown Washington, which was packed with tourists enjoying the perfect weather and beautiful cherry blossoms. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I had to shoot across town to catch my train ride back to Pittsburgh.
If you’re wondering, my bike computer counted 364 miles from my door back to my door, with more than 30 hours in the saddle in three and half days. Hurts so good.
Stay tuned for more from the National Bike Summit and Karen’s trip back home. You’ll read about it here and in our magazine, so subscribe today!
Update: The train ride home
Several readers have asked about the return trip via Amtrak, so I wanted to share my experience here.
After dropping Karen off at the hotel and saying goodbye, I raced the mile or so to Union Station in DC for the trip back. I had purchased a ticket ahead of time, but from the number of empty seats on the train, it’s not likely they fill up on weekdays. At first I wasn’t sure where to go, standing around outside in my full bike kit, still dirty and stinking from three days on the trails. Finally I just said "whatever" and walked my bike right into the station, which if you haven’t been, is more like a shopping mall than train station. No one batted an eye.
At the ticket counter they checked me in all the Amtrak employees were extremely helpful. There was another young woman with a bike already boxed, and I got the feeling they see bikes come through all the time. I paid $20 for one of the Amtrak bike boxes, which are much larger than a traditional bike box and met the attendant on the opposite side of the station by the baggage carousel to pack it.
I started to get a little worried when I couldn’t get one of the pedals off, but after removing the handlebars from the stem, the bike slid right in the box with one pedal still on. I wasn’t allowed to stash stuff in the box with the bike, but you can get extra cardboard boxes to use for your checked baggage if you have panniers or anything.
The ride itself was great. If you’ve never ridden a train, it’s not quick but it’s very relaxing. You’re on your way with none of the headaches of air travel, and the ride is extremely comfortable. The seven hour ride was over before I knew it, and I was ready for a shower.
In Pittsburgh, they dropped off the bike in the box right in the station where I put the pedals and handlebar back on, handed them the box for recycling and was on my way. I’m definitely going to consider Amtrak for many of my future travels.