saddle sores and numb hands from the at-times rough trail. As with any tour, make sure your bike is in good working order. Despite several trail-side bike shops, their selection of replacement parts is limited and their short hours may leave you stranded for a night.
Having camped along the C&O on numerous overnight trips, I was interested to see how the trail fared further west of the DC metro area. While the scenery and wildlife along the C&O are great, at times it can be difficult to enjoy while having to constantly pay attention to rocks, roots and holes along the rough trail. The Capitol Crescent Trail leaving DC and the Western Maryland Rail Trail passing through Hancock, MD offer nicely paved parallel trails to the C&O. While often crowded, they make for a much smoother ride.
Food stops along the trail are sparse, with the real treasure of the trail being the plentiful campsites along the way. Spaced every five to ten miles, the sites are rustic with only an outhouse, fire pit and water pump. The great thing is it’s easy to ride until you start feeling tired or it starts getting dark, and simply stop at the next site. Pack light though, much like most National Park areas, you need to haul your garbage with you. Also, be sure to bring toilet paper and bug spray in the summer months.
The completion of the C&O in Cumberland, MD didn’t end with the trumpets, parade and key to the city that I had envisioned, but did offer good signage and an easy connection to the next leg of the trip along the Greater Allegheny Passage (GAP). The GAP trail couldn’t have been any more opposite than the C&O with few campsites, and even fewer free ones, but it offers impeccable grading, particularly on the recently completed section from Cumberland to Frostburg. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that the worst section of the GAP trail is better than the best part of the C&O.
Just outside of Deal, PA, and shortly after passing over the Mason-Dixon Line and Eastern Continental Divide the trail gives a nice view of dozens of wind turbines along the ridgelines making the slight, though largest, climb of the trip rewarding. Further along, the trail runs alongside the Youghiogheny River and passes through the towns of Confluence and Ohiopyle, both of which could make for great overnight or weekend getaways by bike from Pittsburgh.
Like the C&O, the GAP ends unceremoniously, this time in McKeesport, PA. From there it’s a manageable, but definitely unfriendly ride into Pittsburgh. Though I feel the same sense of disgust at the sight of bikes strapped to cars as I do seeing animals locked in small cages at the zoo, if you can arrange a drop-off/pick-up there I’d recommend it.
Despite the hype, Pittsburgh did not disappoint. Yeah, there was the good cheap food, fun nightlife and burgeoning art scene that I had anticipated. What was not expected was the way young people were taking ownership and charge of their city. I met lots of people doing great things to improve their communities, and most all of them got around town by bike! I look forward visiting again in the future.
After four days in Pittsburgh, with cabin fever setting and the siren call of my own bed, I was back on the bike, making the trip home. Five days up gave way to four days back. That’s the downside of this trail system. Just how I always look out the window on the way to New York City, but never on the way home, once you’ve completed it one way the excitement for the adventure wanes, and it becomes just another transportation corridor. Though one that only has bikes.