An Almost Traffic-Free Bike Trip Between Pittsburgh, PA and Washington, DC
It must have been my destiny to take this trip at this time—late October 2003. After delaying the trip because of record spring rains that continued though the summer and fall I finally headed towards Pittsburgh, PA to cycle the trails back to the Washington, DC area. I am a trail rider but the local trails have become all too familiar. I frequently cycle the Washington and Old Dominion Rail Trail, the Mount Vernon Trail, the Capital Crescent Rail Trail, the Rock Creek Park Trail, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail. Not that I am adverse to road riding—in 2002 I cycled across the United States—I just like car free cycling.
Even as I traveled to the rental car facility to pickup the 4-door sedan that was to carry my bike and I to Pittsburgh I still had doubts. The possibility of rain showers still existed and I knew it would be colder in the Allegheny Mountains than in the DC area. However, when the rental car agent told me that the car I reserved was not ready and asked if I would mind a RED CONVERTIBLE instead, I knew that I was going! I always have been a sucker for red convertibles. It didn’t matter that the convertible’s trunk was much too small to fit my bike. I reasoned that I would somehow get my bike, panniers, and other equipment packed in the car.
It took only 5 hours to drive the red convertible 300 miles to the western side of Pittsburgh where I planned to start my return trip. Based on information gleaned about the trails from the Allegheny Trail Alliance (at http://www.atarail.org/) I estimated my return trip to be about 360 miles and take 6 days of cycling.
The days before I started cycling were “convertible weather,” however on my first day of cycling I encountered rain showers and 50-degree temperatures. I was starting on the Montour Trail—a rail trail around the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh. My first day was to be an easy day taking me from the Cliff Mine trailhead to the town of McKeesport. Despite the rain, the trail portion of the ride was nice. The trail surface consists of a fine and well packed gravel and took me through mostly rural areas, through restored railroad tunnels, and over some long trestle bridges. It was easy cycling on my road bike even with its smooth tires (700x37). However some of the sections of the tail were not completed and the route around those sections was not well marked. Thus my “car free” ride became an adventure.
My first detour occurred when I came to the site of the former 967 foot McDonald Trestle. While I knew the trestle was not open I did not see any warning signs telling me that I was nearing it. Thus, I had to backtracked and get off in Venice, PA. To add to my confusion, after riding to the other side of the trestle, I didn’t see any way to get back on the trail. Perhaps my rain-drenched body had other ideas than continued cycling. In Venice I found a dry haven by the name of Muck’s Lunch where I was served a hot breakfast and local hospitality. After about 90 minutes the rain let up and I got back on my bike.
While there were several other sections of the Montour Trail that were not completed the one that I found most challenging was at the town of Large. The trail map available on the Internet showed that the trail ended at PA Route 51. Rather than cycling on the busy and shoulderless Route 51, I headed up Old Clairton Road. Little did I realize that this road was an endless climb; challenging me to peddle my loaded bike to the top. My next choice was either cycling 6 miles to McKeesport on another busy and shoulderless road (Lebanon Church Road) or cycling 12 miles in a circuitous route on country roads (Routes 885 and 837) and the Steel Heritage Trail. I chose the longer route and arrived in McKeesport about 5 p.m., after 68 miles of cycling. Despite not having an easy cycling day, I enjoyed the challenge of finding my way. Subsequently, I was told that an easier street route through this section did exist and was marked with “bike route signs”. Perhaps I’ll find it on the next trip.
In McKeesport a convenience store clerk directed me to the closest motel about 3 miles away. While it was actually 5 miles away and mostly up hill, a hot shower and clean sheets were worth the extra effort. However the motel would not rate even a half of a star. Because I did not see any alternative, I checked into it with great trepidation. The clerk would only accept cash and the door to my room looked like it was recently broken into—I envisioned a TV scene from “Cops” taking place the night before. After a shower and a quick dinner, I barricaded the door and slept despite the constant activity and noise around the motel. On the positive side, I looked forward to starting the morning with a great 5 mile down hill ride to reconnect with the trail.
The next day I was on the first leg of Youghiogheny River Trail heading toward the town of Ohiopyle. My first stop was in Boston, PA were I had a great breakfast at a local eatery called Cheapskates. After that it was easy cycling to Connellsville. Near there I encountered snow flurries and colder weather which provided a good excuses to stop for lunch. After leaving Connellsville I met another cyclist named Ted. Up until then, I had not seen any other cyclist on the trail and just a few walkers. Ted is a tail monitor and was checking the condition of the trail for the park authority. He was my first company on this trip and we cycled together for about 10 miles.
About 5 miles outside of Ohiopyle I met up with Wade who was riding a mountain scooter pulled by two Husky dogs. After chatting awhile I decided to go ahead but the dogs thought that I wanted to race. No matter how hard I pushed I could not gain on the dogs. They were having fun but I was quickly wearing out. Rather than lose to the dogs, I cycled beside Wade the rest of the way into town. After finding a hotel and taking a long hot shower, I found the only pub in town and had a few 75-cent beers. The beers and a 65-mile day were all that I needed for an early night’s sleep. On my next trip I plan to see the nearby home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright called “Fallingwater” and enjoy the white water rafting that is available in the summer.
The following morning I left the warmth of my motel at 7 a.m. and quickly regretted this decision. The temperature was in the low 30s and I was frozen. I cycled 10 miles to the town of Confluence were I could smell breakfast being cooked. Following my nose I cycled through the town until I found Sisters Café. It took me about an hour to warm up and fill my belly. By 9 o’clock the sun came and I was back on my bike. Near the town of Garrett I saw 5 large wind turbines used to generate electricity. Road signs pointed the way to get closer to the wind turbines but since it was up hill I decided that I preferred the vista view over a up close look. Leaving Garrett I head for Meyersdale.
For years Meyersdale had been the end of the completed trail. When I took this trip the section to Frostburg was closed while the Big Savage Tunnel and connecting trail was being restored. Several of the folks I talked to around Meyersdale said that the trail was “unofficially” open all the way to Frostburg, MD. They suggested that I “sneak” through the remains of the construction and stay on the trail. I had visions of cycling further on the trail only to be turned back so I chose to take the highway route to Cumberland. The first 5 miles were on disserted county roads before reaching the highway (PA Route 160). When I reached it, I decided to take a break and observe the traffic which seemed light. After cycling a couple of miles and walking up one large hill I saw a sign that said, “9% downgrade next 5 miles”. I thought that I died and went to heaven. A truck driver checking his breaks at the top of the hill told me that I would easily beat him to the bottom and boy did I fly! Even after the steep downhill was completed the road continued downward. I began to wonder about the horrible climb that must lie ahead. However, none existed and I coasted all the way into Cumberland—a 15-mile downhill ride. At Cumberland, MD I would leave the Allegheny trails that took me through Pennsylvania and Maryland and connect with the C&O Canal Towpath Trail toward Washington, DC.
POSTSCRIPT: In the fall of 2007 I cycled the “missing” section of this trail. With several friends we climbed to Big Savage Tunnel from Cumberland. While it took us several hours for the trip the climb was very gradual and the return trip easy.
According to the tourist bureau, Cumberland has two downtown places to lodge--a motel and a B&B. When I got to the motel I was told that it was booked solid. It seemed that lots of folks were there to see the leaves changing color and were spending the weekend in Cumberland. (Just two blocks from the motel is the historic railroad station where Fall Foliage Rail Excursions emanate.) The motel clerk told me that I would find other motels out on the Interstate Highway. I must have looked forlorn when I told him that I already biked 67 miles that day and was not allowed on the Interstate Highway. The clerk turned into an angel when he “looked again” at his computer and found me a room.
The next morning I got on the C&O Canal Trail heading towards Hancock, MD. The trail was not as smooth as Youghiogheny River Trail but I enjoyed the change in scenery and the challenges of the rougher ride. Because the weather was warmer and it was Saturday, I met many more trail users than I had on previous days-- including a father and daughter out for her first long bike trip. They were cycling the 60 miles between Cumberland and Hancock. Nearer Hancock I met two Germans that were traveling from Washington, DC to Pittsburgh and a woman who was on a solo tour of the East Coast. I stopped for lunch at Bill’s, a café in Orleans, MD. Bill’s Café has lots of local flavor and based on my short time there, it is frequented by locals, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. The food was good and the company fine. By the time I left it had gotten warm and I stripped down to my bike shorts and long sleeved shirt. The weather was much different from what it was just a few days ago when I was clothed in winter/rain gear.
About 12 miles west of Hancock I left the canal trail and got on the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail that parallels the C&O trail. This trail extends on both sides of Hancock for over 20 miles. I arrived in Hancock after cycling 59 miles. While it was still early I checked into a motel and ate dinner at Weaver’s, a family bakery and restaurant. I had another excellent meal. Thanks to cycling I can eat well at interesting places and not put on any weight.
The next morning I was off to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, about 66 miles away. However, my day’s ride stopped as quickly as it had started. Before I left the motel parking lot I had to fix a flat tire, my only one on this trip. Changing the tire made me realize that I was already over dressed for the warmer weather. It was only 7 a.m. and I stripped off several layers before proceeding on the eastern leg of the Western Maryland Rail Trail. I went about 10 miles before it ended and returned to the C&O Canal Trail. I met more folks including a group of about 15 people from Washington, DC that were riding from Hancock to Harpers Ferry where they were to pick up their cars for the drive home. I also met a self-described transient named Bob. Bob said that he rode his bike all over the United States, sleeping wherever he could find shelter, and depending on the charity of others for his meals. As we shared my lunch, he told me where I could find free meals further down the trail.
Between Williamsport and Harpers Ferry the Canal trail had been washed away (many years ago) where it ran along a section of the Potomac River, requiring a sort detour of about 5 miles on country roads. There was no traffic and just a few minor climbs before I got back on the trail. Near Harpers Ferry I stopped for lunch at a real “mom and pop” establishment called Barrons. Barrons is on a hill overlooking the trail and is a combination of gift shop, outfitter, and café. Mom and pop were out raking leaves when I pulled into their lot. After greetings they escorted me inside and mom took my order—grilled cheese and Campbell’s tomato soup. Pop got me a candy bar and soda while we discussed the weather and trail conditions. He also told me that I could camp in an abandoned-bauxite mine just outside of Harpers Ferry. I had to tell him that I only carried a tent for emergencies and that I already had reservations at a hotel.
The final leg of my journey was to be a 60-mile ride from Harpers Ferry on the canal trail to Whites Ferry where I would cross the Potomac River into Virginia. On the other side of the river I would ride on Route15 through the town of Leesburg and connect with the Washington and Old Dominion Rail Tail that would take me to my home in Falls Church, VA. However, the weather took a turn for the worse with heavy rains and strong winds. I knew that the C&O trail would deteriorate quickly and rationalized that I would have difficulty with my road bike and its smooth tires. Since I had done this ride before, I further rationalized that a ride home in a SUV would be safer than cycling. It only took my son an hour to come and get me. It was tough not finishing this ride but it gave me reason to do it again when it is warmer and I have more time to “smell the roses” along the way.