Biking the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Towpath

May 2018

Given our previous bicycling adventures in New Zealand and Canada, we decided we should see some of the great bicycling adventures closer to home, and one of the most talked about routes is the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath from Pittsburg to Washington, D.C.  We decided to arrange this trip with a locally favorite company – Wilderness Adventure Travel, who is actually located along the trail in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania.  Our trip started by meeting Julie’s sister and brother-in-law at our home in Alexandria, Virginia where we loaded-up our luggage and drove the 4 hours to Uniontown, PA from which we could visit the National Historic Landmark of Fallingwater – the home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Department Store mogul-family, The Kaufmanns.  This famous home is set over the falls and running river of Bear Run and has hosted over 5-million visitors since it opened for the public in 1964.  The next morning, Sunday, we met our adventure companions at Ohiopyle, and the 11 of us, along with our two Wilderness Adventure Travel guides, Montana & Chris, fitted our bikes and traveled to the Boston, PA. trailhead where our adventure began.

Our Route along the Greater Allegheny Passage Rail-Trail and the C&O Canal Tow-Path


Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater
Fallingwater’s iconic view

Our first day of biking was traveling 57 miles upstream along the Great Allegheny Passage – a converted rail-trail beside the Youghiogheny River.  This route was used by the railroad to transport coal and other raw materials over the Appalachian Divide to the East Coast.  Along the way we saw deer, turkeys, geese and an abundance of flowers.  The wildlife was complemented by spectacular views as we crossed deep gorges, visited trail centers and rode through old coal-mining towns, until we arrived back at Ohiopyle.  After a short visit to the pub for beer and ice, we headed to our first night’s stay and dinner at a mountain-top private lodge – The Trillium.  Showers, drinks and a dinner of BBQ brisket & pork with chocolate cake completed our first day.

Rocky and A.J. on Greater Allegnehy Passage

After a “cowboy breakfast” we re-engaged the trail and continued our climb along the Great Allegheny Passage, 48 miles to the Eastern Continental Divide – the point at which eastern USA waters divide between flowing to the Gulf of Mexico or to the Atlantic Ocean.  Along the way, we crossed some long viaducts and passed windmill farms until we finally started our additional 24-mile descent into Maryland through the Mason-Dixon line to the town of Cumberland. Those at the head-of-the-pack were met with downed-trees from the previous night’s storms which required carrying bikes over them, and those still riding later in the afternoon were met with a new round of thunderstorms.  We checked into our hotel rooms at the Fairfield Inn, and after showers and snacks, went to the Crabby Pig for dinner, before retiring for the night.

Our Wilderness Adventure Bicycling Group
Rocky at the Eastern Continental Divide

The next morning, we awoke to news that yesterday’s storms had brought some severe weather and flooding to Eastern Maryland and some of our 54-mile future route.  Today, we would switch from the Great Allegheny Passage rail-trail to the C&O Canal Tow-path which starts at the historic Western Maryland Train Station.  The C&O Canal was built in the 19th century along the Potomac River and allowed barge traffic to move both ways from Cumberland to the Eastern Seaboard.  The C&O Canal took 35,000 laborers and 22-years to construct and consists of a series of locks, with water fed from the Potomac upstream, and a tow-path beside it that allowed men, donkeys and horses to navigate their way upstream. After a humid and muddy morning, we stopped for lunch, before continuing to the Paw Paw Tunnel.  The Paw Paw Tunnel is an underground 3118’ canal and tow-path tunnel that started construction in 1836 and took 14 years to complete.  It bypasses a 6-mile stretch of the Potomac that contains 5 horseshoe bends and takes its name from the pawpaw trees that grow nearby. The darkness inside requires walking our bikes with care and with a light, but the traverse was incredible, and not much different than that over 100-years ago.  After reaching the town of Old Orleans, we biked the nicest 16-miles of the day along the C&O and detours onto the Maryland rail-trail.  Last nights storms had washed out parts of the Tow-path, but we eventually arrived covered in mud in the town of Hancock, from which we shuttled to the nearby West Virginia town of Berkley Springs for hot showers and a rustic dinner in the Morgan Tavern located within the 1930’s historic Country Inn.

Canal House along the historic C&O Canal
At the entrance of the Paw Paw Tunnel

Wednesday morning started off dreary as we rode 12-miles to the historic Fort Frederick, built in 1756 in support of the French & Indian War.  Then we rode on to Williamsport, MD where we had lunch, before resuming our ride on the C&O tow-path in the pouring rain. From here, we were heading to the Antietam National Battlefield when we encountered an area of the tow-path that had been covered by the rising waters of the Potomac River.  While most of our riders searched for a detour, a few, including Rocky, waded the waters around a bend for ~150’ before the path re-emerged from the flood and the trip could be continued.  Unfortunately, this unexpected hazard scattered our group, and Julie’s brother-in-law, A.J., needed a friendly lift before getting back on route.  From here, part of the group headed to the Civil War Battlefield, and part headed via van directly to the hotel.  After the Battlefield visit, and fixing Rocky’s flat tire, the sightseeing group biked to Shepherdstown, WV., where everyone met up at the Bavarian Inn hotel, and where A.J. also successfully found his way to.  Dinner that evening was in the Rathskeller where we feasted on German beer, sausages and veal schnitzel! 

Fort Fredrick build in 1756 to support the English in The French & Indian War
Visitors Center at Antietam Civil War Battlefield

By Thursday morning, the continued heavy rains had closed much of the next part of the C&O tow-path, requiring us to detour onto the Western Maryland rail-trail – a beautifully paved trail that was welcomed with the continued bad weather.  Despite the rain, we saw an abundance of wildlife along the way, including deer, turkeys, rabbits and birds.  After biking to Harper’s Ferry, we explored the historic town, checked out the still-operating old train station and enjoyed lunch.  From here, we shuttled to the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) trail, passing beautiful wildflowers and scenic views, until we reached the Homewood Suites in Leesburg, Virginia.  Here we enjoyed Happy Hour while playing cards, before leaving for our final trip dinner, consisting of wood-fired pizza at Fireworks Pizza Restaurant.

Examples of the Washed-out Tow-path Trail
The Historic Town of Harpers Ferry
Memorium for Hapers Ferry
Final group dinner at Fireworks Pizza

Friday morning, we awoke to heavily overcast skies, and after a quick breakfast, we departed in hopes of avoiding the impending storm – unsuccessfully.  The rain fell in buckets as we rode the complex, increasingly urbanized W&OD trail.  Today’s journey would only be 37 miles, and after a brief lunch stop at the Herndon, VA golf course, we switched to the Custis Trail to navigate our way to Georgetown in Washington, D.C.  Today was National “Ride Your Bike to Work” Day, and all along the way were corporate sponsors and encouragement groups.  We arrived in D.C., and after crossing the Potomac River to Georgetown, sought out our final meeting place at the Thompson Boathouse.  The weather had gridlocked the Friday automobile traffic exiting town, and our bicycles were a welcomed way to navigate the city’s complicated network of routes.  Upon meeting at the Thompson Boathouse, we took showers, dressed and said our goodbyes to our trip-mates.  From here, Julie and her sister Metro-ed to our Alexandria home, while Rocky and A.J. shuttled with Wilderness Adventures Travel back to Ohiopyle to collect the car.

Julies sister covered with mud

Altogether, we had cycled the ~320 miles from the outskirts of Pittsburg to Washington, D.C. in 6 days under trying conditions of rain, floods, and detours!  Even so, everyone had had a great time, and vowed to start planning our next great bicycling adventure!