Rail Trails Rock

C&O canal group

The Rails to Trails Act of 1983 may rank as the best thing to happen to American cycling in the last 25 years. Technically section 8(d) of the National Trails Systems Act, this landmark legislation greases the skids for the conversion of abandoned and unused railroad corridors into recreational trails. According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, America’s rail-trail count currently stands at 1,534 open trails for a total of 15,346 miles. It’s refreshing to know that even Congress can occasionally knock one out of the park.

Certainly, I appreciate the utility of my bicycle for everyday commuting. And the highlight of my week is often a blissful moment spent piloting my mountain bike through the local woods. However, there’s something special about the long and winding rail trail. There’s an epic adventure waiting to happen—just add biker.

Case in point: last spring Franklin Jefferson Wuerthele and I cranked out a 267-mile self-supported tour along the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Trail from Southwestern Pennsylvania to Washington, DC. Except for a short segment of pavement at the beginning, and a short mid-ride detour, we rode on a relatively-level, car-free trail all day long. Amid spectacularly scenic surroundings that blended nature and history in an tasty mix.

Without further ado, I present the following travelogue in the hopes that it will inspire you to discover a rail trail near you, and punch your own ticket to an epic journey, complete with memories to last a lifetime.

Franklin Jefferson Wuerthele at the trailhead in Somerset, PA. The wet snow did not dampen our enthusiasm as we began our journey:

somerset, pa

First night tenting in the snow at Husky Haven campground was quite cozy, thanks to the ample supply of firewood that’s provide at no additional charge with your camping fee. We got our money’s worth:

husky haven

husky haven

The 1908 ft. long Salisbury Viaduct (insert Marx Brothers routine here) crosses the Casselman River valley west of of Meyersdale. PA (it crosses CSX tracks and U.S. Route 219). The entry is a great photo op:

salisbury viaduct

When I said "relatively-flat" I was conveniently ignoring the fact that the Great Allegheny Passage gradually climbs the Allegheny Mountains and peaks at an elevation of 2392 ft. near the town of Deal PA, just shy of the entrance to the 3294 ft. long Big Savage tunnel (a stone’s throw from from MD border). Here’s a self-portrait of Franklin and me smiling as we emerge from the tunnel (with the climb behind us) and we get a our first glimpse or Maryland countryside:

big savage tunnel

My first visit to the beautiful mountain town of Frostburg, MD—where our friends at Adventure Sports bike shop hooked us up with crash space for the night:

frostburg, md

At Cumberland, MD the two of us met up with a couple dozen other riders who were on the annual C&O Canal ride (a.k.a. CANDO) organized by Maurice’s brother Michael Tierney. The group is a rolling party on two wheels. Our CANDO group camped at primitive sites along the C&O trail. Huge honking campfires and sing-alongs were the order of the day, er, night:

campfire action

sing along

Camping is great, but… One of the conveniences of rail-trail touring is the fact that the routes often roll through small or medium sized town and, with proper planning, you can pop into town for meals, beer or emergency needs. Is it just me or does Sheetz deli food really taste four-star good after pedaling all morning? While most nights our dinners were "pack and cook your own," the CANDO crew took over Bill’s Place in Little Orleans, MD (very near our campsite) for a "dinner night out" party:

bill's place little orleans, md

bill's place little orleans, md

They say the Paw Paw Tunnel is made of 6 million bricks. That’s impressive:

paw paw tunnel

An "oldie but goodie" dam along the Potomac:

dam on potomac

Franklin Jefferson and I made the mistake of sleeping late to "wait out" the rain on what was the longest-mileage day of the trip. We were still a couple miles from the camp when the sun went down. Oh, well it made for a great self-portrait as the dim orange sun set over the Potomac:

sunset on the potomac

Here’s a shot of me with the Novara Randonee touring rig (read the review here) that I rode during this excursion:

Novara Randonee

The C&O trail ends in the Georgetown district of Washington, DC. By this time, the temperatures had warmed and the sunshine made thing feel milder than they did during our snowy start:


Are you feeling inspired? I hope so. Or maybe you’ve already completed your own epic excursion and you’d like to share? Please use the comments field below to share your thoughts. See you on the rail tails!


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