Okay, thanks to an article from Adventure Cycling, four of us investigated and then set out on the approximately 320 mile trail from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. Here is our story...
Saturday, June 28th, 2008 (McKeesport - Connellsville)
The trail from Pittsburgh to McKeesport is not yet finished. That part continues to move back and forth from trail to road. As a result, we started at McKeesport. We arrived here in a Honda CRV, with two bikes (front tires removed) inside and two in a Rocky Mount rack on top. A friend (RH) dropped us off, will drive to Connellsville, drop his bike there at River's Edge Campground, drive to Hancock, leave the car, take a shuttle to the Amtrak station, the train back to Connellsville and then get a ride back to his bike. Very convoluted, but there is a reason to his madness.
We spent a considerable amount of time configuring the bikes, sorting out which bungees would work best with which baggage/racks and which small bags were unneeded. Starting time was approximately 11:30am.
It is possible we did not start in the right place in McKeesport, but the marina in which we started was not bicyclist friendly. There appear to be only two bike trail parking spaces, no bathrooms and no water. A few miles down the trail in Boston was a park which made up for these deficits. The trail here is moderately well marked, though we chose the GAP trail (East side of the river) instead of the Youghiogheny which would have taken us across the river. No big deal, but we may have had a slightly nicer trail on the other side.
We lunched at West Newton in the Trailside restaurant/bike shop, as it conveniently rained during our meal. There were three men there, a father and two adult sons, who were en route to California. They were shunning the Adventure Cycling route so they would be novelties. The journey is to promote the active participation of fathers in the lives of their children. They were plotting and watching the weather via an armored laptop.
As we left, two women on the deck above poured water down on us from above, oblivious to the fact that the deck was not solid and was situated above a bike rack. A little funny; at least it was not soda.
At the River's Edge Campground (6:00), the only reason we realized we had arrived was that my rescue bike, which RK is riding, was locked at the side of the trail. If he hadn't locked it there we would have passed by and needed to double back. It rained on and off, but EK (14 years old) had managed to put the tent up in between. We ordered food from a pizzeria, showered and did laundry. Setting a clothesline was a waste of effort- we had to take it all down and use a dryer. At about 11:00pm one of the owners/managers went to the Amtrak station and brought RH back. I thought this was truly amazing kindness. Trains come through on the other side of the river about every 2 hours.
Sunday, June 29th (Connellsville - Rockwood)
River's Edge was just a hop/skip from Connellsville's town center. We found a diner almost immediately. Stares accompany our cycling shorts, though with the trail running right through town one would think people would be used to them. EK is not wearing cycling shorts. The plink/snap noise I heard yesterday is more pronounced since adding the equipment RH had brought in the car for us (sleeping bag, pad, tent). I stayed behind in Connellsville to await the 11:00 opening of the bike shop, while the rest went on to Ohio Pyle. The owner showed up a little early. He took apart my axle (I have broken one before with the same resulting noise), replaced the cones and bearings, then tightened down the spokes. It was probably the spokes. He didn't want me to pay him... hmmm. I caught up with the gang at Ohio Pyle; the GAP trail is all crushed limestone, very smooth and well draining.
We stopped in Confluence, which does a very good job of encouraging cyclists to come into town. Each town has a Welcome map, pinpointing where services and sights are. Very cute town.
The Pinkerton tunnel is probably permanently closed and a trail goes the longer way around the hill. It was on this part of the trail that we were struck by a total 30 minute downpour. Our stopping point was Rockwood, but since it was 7:00, the B&B's were filled or closed and the campground was $10 per person for no local water, pit toilets and no local hot showers. Some ammenities were available across the river in town. We finally settled into the campground's "bunkhouse", a full house with a full kitchen and 3 bedrooms, tv, pool/ping pong tables and internet capable computer, but for $160. Sometimes a roof over your head and a dry bed are worth more than at other times.
We washed our clothes by hand as it rained quite a bit more. Dinner was partly an MRE (meal ready to eat) left over from some government mission, chicken wings from town, grapes and jarred pesto on rolls (from a Confluence grocery) and dried fruit. The trains did not keep us awake.
Monday, June 30th (Rockwood - Evitt's campsite just past Cumberland)
Just past Salisbury we crossed a huge viaduct, under which I saw a deer on a deer path. You are so high up here it is a little like riding in a helicopter. RH later looked up the difference between a viaduct and a bridge- reportedly a viaduct is a series of different spans all tied together. Probably many of what we call bridges are actually viaducts. Windmills abound on the two ridges.
We breakfasted very late in Meyersville. Again, excellent signage/map encouraged us to go down a steep hill to a diner, something we would have been unlikely to do if we had not know the diner was definitely there.
The Keystone viaduct spans a valley through which a river, railroad and road all travel. This day probably held the largest quantity of interesting things to see. Just short of the Continental Divide we passed a tractor mower, who did his best to avoid catching up to us when we stopped. This included stopping for pictures at the divide, where there is a bridge he passed under as well.
The Borden tunnel is unlit, though moderately short. RH failed to remove his sunglasses before entering and so followed me closely through. I had also forgotten, but managed to take them off while riding. Hmmm. Why are we so opposed to stopping?
Savage tunnel is lit and long, with a long smooth downhill ride alongside a scenic railroad track. In the Brush tunnel, you actually share the tunnel with the scenic rail, but that train does not run very often.
In Cumberland there is a nice visitor's center and a grocery which was off the beaten path. Several cyclists passed through here while we plotted and we met two men also going to DC.
We never saw them again.
At Evitt's hiker/biker campsite, there was already someone in the site and only one table, so we illegally camped in the day use picnic grounds. The pump at this site and one other might have been impossible to get water out of if you only had one person working it. We cooked dinner and hit the hay. The trains were almost on top of us, but we were so tired we slept pretty well anyways. In the middle of the night there was an incredible BOOM, which at first seemed to be thunder right above us, but must have had something to do with the idled train starting up on the hill next to us.
Tuesday, July 1st (Evitt's campsite - Hancock)
The C&O is much rougher than the GAP, with the surface constructed from dirt overlaid with gravel. Of the four of us, three have road bikes. Additionally, the towns along the trail are generally smaller. We were to stop in Old Town for breakfast, but missed it, so we left the trail and traveled the under 1 mile to PawPaw for a lunch of pizza. Since it had been raining, we were quite a mess, but the owner didn't blink at our muddiness. We did our best to rinse/refill our water bottles and selves. It was 11:00.
A National Parks crew was working on the PawPaw tunnel. They were working on the all brick interior (the portion under the towpath), but when we went through they were eating lunch. Again, this tunnel is unlit, but the towpath is very uneven, requiring us to use flashlights. A family came through after us without any lights at all, but it is creepy and you don't get to see the details. The towpath is moderately narrow and passing just a few people on bikes coming the other way requires hugging the wall. As we emerged it started to pour, so we drew back inside. EK's helmet fell in the canal inside the tunnel; he fished it out with a clothesline and a hooked bungee. It is fortunate it floats.
We passed several primitive campgrounds, all on the Potomac side of the trail. It rained on and off, making the trail mucky and finally it poured on us long enough to soak us. The trail was a mess by this point and we mostly gave up trying to avoid the puddles and mud. We saw a huge spider on the trail. Its body was the size of a quarter. If anyone knows what kind of spider this is, please leave a comment.
Eventually we hopped on the Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT), which seemed cheating, but it was paved and sooooo pleasant to our rears to be on something so smooth. This trail exactly parallels the towpath for a while.
In Hancock, the C&O bike shop was very easy to find and right next to the WMRT and C&O. At the bunkhouse we hosed our bikes, panniers and pretty much everything else. Dwight and Rick showered while Dennis, the shop owner, fixed EK’s shifter, which was slipping constantly, and tightened the front derailleur cable so EK could use his granny gear. The granny gear would turn out to be essential for the hills on the detour and our side trip to Antietum.
The compound is ultimate funk and very cool; the yard, enclosed by a 6’ fence, is bounded by outhouses and outdoor shower stalls, as well as a “bunkhouse”, which is probably an old lumber shed/lean-to screened in. As a guess, the shop and the yard were probably a hardware and lumberyard in a previous life. 8 bunk beds were built in and closed cell pads were provided. Altogether it is a fine place to “camp”. RH and I compared the bunkhouse to a chicken coop or a dog kennel, but you didn’t feel caged when inside. Dinner was at Weaver’s. The food was basic, but pies are their specialty.
Wednesday, July 2nd (Hancock - Horseshoe Bend campsite just short of Sharpsburg)
RH left us at this point to go to BWI and take a flight to a family party. DK’s phone, which took a beating by getting soaked on Sunday now turns on and has graphics on the screen, but the whole image is upside and backwards as if your were viewing it in a mirror and the picture’s colors are inverted… very funny, but it seems to function fine. We continued for 10.7 miles on the WMRT and returned to the C&O. The rail trail is marked by hand printed signs where you need to exit it, for the rail trail has a dead end spur beyond that.
At Fort Frederick we stopped for bathrooms and water but didn’t enter the fort. At Williamsport we trekked uphill to a mini-mart and bought supplementary food to eat w/the rice and beans we’ve been carrying: salsa, Combos, cookies and doughnuts for the morning. We also went into the canal museum and played a “build the cheapest canal” game. EK constructed a model suspension aqueduct.
The first of the two detours (called the extended detour) around the collapsed towpath takes you around some rough ground, which sandy patches and gravel, some of which needs to be walked. The second detour is unavoidable. It follows country roads and is very hilly.
The next possible hiker/biker site when returning to the trail was taken by an SUV with Virginia plates (more on this later). The subsequent site was 3 miles further and the pump handle had been removed due to water quality. We ended up taking that one (Horseshoe Bend) and sharing it with Jim, a retired dairy farmer, Wendy, a 27 year old from Beaver Creek, PA and 3 young men from Boston, PA. I went back to the Big Woods site for water- the pump gods were with me for this one could be operated by one person, then returned for a dip in the Potomac. It is very difficult to get into the water, for the mud is 2 feet deep at the edge.
Thursday, July 3rd (Horseshoe Bend - Calico Rocks campsite just past Point of Rocks)
We left moderately early, but the 3 young men beat us out. I was commenting that I would need to have my bike tuned before my next trip, to have everything tightened from the rattling it has gotten on this trail, when I looked down at DK’s bike and noticed that he had lost the bolt which holds his rack and fender on. The only reason I looked was because I had lost this same bolt a couple of years ago on a bone shaking gravel campground drive. We used a cable tie, which turned into a permanent fix. Hardware stores are hard to find.
We had to backtrack a little to exit onto the roads for Antietum. This brought us into contact with the same vehicle which had parked in the Big Woods site. I commented that she had forced 7 people to move on to share a site with no water. She claimed she was supposed to be there, worked for the Parks service and had a permit/key. To me it was irrelevant, for she took a hiker/biker site with her car.
Moving on to Sharpsburg for breakfast, we began our detour to visit Antietum. Not unusual, the “diner” was a store/gas/diner shop. A clerk scrounged around and gave us a bolt which might fit DK’s bike- very sweet and resourceful.
Most people on the roads were exceedingly cautious around us and our bikes. The car tour of Antietum was hot and hilly but interesting. It was nice to return to the shade of the trail. There was a curious man-made tunnel/cave, but we never found out what its purpose was. The main tunnel had been deliberately filled in, but someone had dug out the fill of a smaller, secondary tunnel and it was open near the top.. too creepy for EK and I.
At Harper Ferry, the Appalachian trail joined us for a while. Trail traffic steadily increased between this point and DC, though the only place it really caused us trouble, in hindsight, was near Great Falls Park. We stopped at Calico Corners campsite and asked to share with some people who had hiked the ½ mile from the Point of Rocks access point. There was also an older cyclist with a hammock tent. After putting up the tent, we returned to Point of Rocks and got some grill food, potatoes salad and coleslaw, at which point we were joined by Gene from the campsite. He is retired and cycles everywhere. Now living in Florida, he is cycling the whole C&o and Gap this year. He does about 70-90 miles per day. Returning to the camp, we jumped in the Potomac, again knee deep mud. The other group there was building a bonfire. Later they were on the phone giving friends directions to the site and I had visions of loud drunkards, but those never became reality. They were moderately quiet and turned in around midnight.
Friday, July 4th (Calico Rocks - DC)
I got up in the middle of the night because it had started to rain; rescued the clothesline items. I thought it was just a passing shower, but at 6:30 it was still raining. The same car with the Virginia license plates came down the road, so the driver was probably not lying, but no uniform, special license or signage. We packed inside the tent and by the time we were finished the rain had stopped.
Continuing on to White’s Ferry, we encountered the same diner/store/gas shop combo and ate breakfast. I believe this is the last ferry across the Potomac and it continues to run on a cable to keep it from drifting downstream with an engine pushing it across.
Several cyclists crossed to our side. It is probably popular to come up from DC on the Virginia side of the Potomac to White’s Ferry or Harper’s Ferry and then return on the Maryland side.
Great Falls Park is very beautiful.
The river there is reminiscent of something out of Algonquin Provincial Park, with huge rocks and unusual habitats for the region. There is a really nice boardwalk out, but the place was very busy due to the holiday. Many people use the trail from here to DC and we saw lots of families, joggers with dogs and people fishing. Despite the fact that the population density is quite high in this area, the trail continues to be secluded from surrounding development and sheltered from noise. Even as we approached downtown DC this continued to be the case.
Unfortunately, we needed to get up onto the Francis Scott Key bridge and most cyclists seem to carry their bikes up a set of stairs. We could probably have gone further and ridden up a hill on our bikes, but it turned out to be not as impossible as I thought it might be. We ended our tour quite muddy in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Arlington. The weather the last two days cleared up and became quite muggy, but the heat was kept at bay by the river and the shaded path. Tomorrow RH will return from the airport with my car and we will go home on Monday.