An Adventure on the Great Allegheny Passage
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
For many bicyclists, the Holy Grail of bike trails in the eastern U.S. is the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP). It spans 150 miles between Cumberland, Maryland and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and crosses the Eastern Continental Divide at 2,392 feet above sea level. It is mostly unpaved and located in the heart of the beautiful Allegheny Mountains. It follows an old C&O railroad line through deep stretches of forest, across nail-bitingly long and tall bridges, through mountain tunnels, next to breathtaking rivers and streams, and past a variety of picturesque towns and villages that offer lodging, food and supplies to the thousands of trail users that pass through each year. It is truly a bicyclist’s paradise.
In early October of 2022, my son, James and I rode the entire length of the GAP in three days and three nights, culminating with a train ride back to our vehicle (and starting point) on the fourth morning. Both the trail and train ride were made even more dazzling by the vibrant fall colors on display in the region, not to mention the equally colorful towns and hotels we stayed in.
Source Maps: Google Maps, Gaptrail.org and The C&O Canal Towpath Trail and Great Allegheny Passgae from Bike C&O.
Trail By Fire
I imagine there are many ways to ride the GAP. Technically, the GAP connects to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail in Cumberland, making it possible for trail users to bicycle from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh, only rarely leaving a designated trail. This is a distance of about 335 miles combined. However, out of the two trails, the GAP is considered far superior, largely due to the scenery and communities it passes through.
Depending on where you live, you might start the GAP in Pittsburgh, finishing in Cumberland (or D.C.), or vise-versa. Some people start in the middle of the GAP, which, in hindsight, as we’ll see, might make a lot of sense. Some people ride the trail in late spring to see the beautiful wildflowers and budding trees. Others enjoy riding in the summer heat, or, like us, when fall foliage is at peak and temperatures are tolerable.
James and I continue to learn the ins and outs of long-distance cycling, often on the fly, and often through trial and error. This trip was no exception.
For starters, while I swore I chose to start in Cumberland because it was the “easier” side of the trail (meaning, it started off with the least incline and resistance), I was wrong.
The trail is shaped like a classic playground slide (see above). I thought that by starting in Cumberland we would slowly climb the “slide” part of the trail to the top, rather than immediately climbing straight up the “ladder.” I had somehow misread the altitude chart!
On the morning of Oct. 5, a beautiful, blue sky day, James and I woke up before dawn, packed our mountain bikes in the back of my truck, and drove six hours to Cumberland. The fall scenery made the car ride pass quickly, especially upon entering the Appalachian foothills and then the mountains. We arrived before noon.
In downtown Cumberland, beneath a highway overpass (located at 16 Howard St.), is a free overnight parking area that’s used almost exclusively by cyclists. It’s located several hundred feet from the start of the GAP trail, making it very convenient.
After parking there and unpacking our bikes—and making sure we had everything we needed in our backpacks for three days on the trail—James and I set off on our adventure.
Remember, at this point, I still thought we were going up the easier side of the trail. I was prepared for a mostly leisurely day of cycling. It wasn’t until I saw a large map of the GAP on a wall near the trailhead that I realized we would be starting our trip with an unrelenting 22-mile, 2,000 foot climb up and over the Eastern Continental Divide.
To say the least, it was brutal. But it did contain some amazing tunnels and bridges and beautiful mountain views, not to mention a great challenge to overcome.
Luckily, since we were getting a late start on our first day (due to the driving time), we only planned to cycle 31 miles. This would get us to the small village of Meyersdale (on top of the mountains), where we would stay the night at the Morguen Toole Hotel, which is located next to a small diner where we’d fill up on hot food and then go to our room for a much-needed good night’s sleep.
A Giant Bicycle Party
James and I have enjoyed several overnight bicycle trips together. This includes the North Bend Rail Trail in West Virginia, the Cardinal Greenway Trail in Indiana and the Great Miami Recreational Trail and Little Miami Scenic Trail in Ohio. Our typical overnight trip involves 30 to 40 miles of cycling each day, with a hotel somewhere in the middle. The GAP would be our first multi-night trip, and our first time riding 60 miles in one day, which we would do twice.
We both wear backpacks that contain a change of clothes, toiletries, and snacks and water, and we stock up on supplies as we move down the trail to keep our load light. We also look forward to eating at interesting restaurants near the trail and exploring the many parks and attractions found along the way.
During these trips, and even when James and I were completing all 15 of the Miami Valley Trails, we would often only see a handful of other bicyclists on the trail. On the North Bend Rail Trail, for example, we never saw another bicyclist, only a few hikers!
The GAP is much different. It’s like a giant bicycle party with bikes, helmets, brightly colored spandex, sunglasses and tents everywhere! Sure, there are long stretches of the trail where you don’t see another person for a long time, but for the most part, it’s a group experience. This was a nice change of pace for James and me. We met interesting people around every corner, from a recently retired college professor who was riding the GAP to celebrate his milestone, to other fathers and sons who recognized our similar adventure, not to mention the mothers and daughters who recognized the same thing. There were groups of friends, families, couples, solo riders, grandparents with grandchildren—you name it. This was a place of Bucket List checkmarks and memory making, and everyone seemed very happy to be here.
It was also safe and convenient.
On the North Bend Rail Trail, and several others, I often worried about popping a tire, breaking a chain, or having something else go wrong. There were maybe one or two bike repair shops along the entire 72-mile North Bend trail. On the GAP, they’re everywhere, as are convenient stores, restaurants, water fountains, benches, rest areas and, of course, campgrounds, hotels, Air BnBs and everything else you might need.
For cyclists who are able to carry their own camping equipment, there are dozens of campgrounds next to the trail. Some are official and cost money while others are makeshift and are free to use. Some places even rent out camping equipment, or provide little wooden shelters to put your tent in, as seen below.
In terms of indoor lodging, styles and prices run the gamut, with some hotels and rentals costing less than $100 per night, and other more “luxurious” establishments costing $300+ per night, plus a nice mix of everything in between. You’ll also see motor homes parked next to the trail that people charge a small fee to stay in. They’re listed on AirBnB.
The Morguen Toole Hotel in Meyersdale (pictured below left) is one of the many businesses on the trail that caters directly to bicyclists and where we found ourselves on our first night.
The hotel describes itself as a “boutique hotel.” Most rooms are located on the third floor of the four-story late 1800s building, which is located in the heart of this quaint town. The rooms are eclectic and charming. There is no receptionist or check-in area. Cyclists pay online and receive two codes for whatever time they arrive. The first code provides access to a garage on the first floor of the building (where you can safely store your bike and equipment for the night), and the second is a code to your room inside of the hotel.
Although it wasn’t open during our visit, the hotel has its own Italian restaurant.
Just down the road from the hotel is the Levi Deal Mansion Bed & Breakfast, a Victorian home that also caters to bicyclists.
In fact, everyone along the trail caters to bicyclists. An entire economy is based on the GAP, which makes it a treat for cyclists and certainly the most user-friendly trail James and I have ever experienced. For example, dozens of homeowners put coolers filled with bottled water and sodas (honor system) in their backyards, and some host cookouts, sell snacks and offer trail-side bicycle repair services. In short, you’re almost always in good hands on the GAP, including in Meyersdale.
Maybe the most important thing about Meyersdale, and why it has so many lodging options, is that it is located next to the Salisbury Viaduct, which spans 1,908 feet at a height of 100 feet above Casselman River. It is the longest trestle on the GAP (seen here in the fog).
A Beautiful Day
Since we had fallen asleep early from exhaustion the night before, we woke up before dawn on the second morning and, feeling surprisingly refreshed, got back on the trail.
The Salisbury Viaduct is located just northwest of Meyersdale, so we reached it quickly. It is probably the GAP’s most famous landmark. When we arrived, a heavy fog blanketed the river valley and engulfed the bridge, obscuring the view of the ground and mountains. This explained why so many cyclists were hanging around on the sides of the trail near Meyersdale that morning. They were waiting for the fog to lift so they could see the viaduct in its full glory.
It would have been nice to see the bridge without the fog (even though it was stunning with it), but we had 61 miles to ride and a certain amount of daylight to do it in, so we kept going.
Our destination for the day was the town of Connellsville, where we booked a Comfort Inn that sits directly next to the trail. The hotel serves trail users almost exclusively. Rooms are bicycle-friendly, with a hose and towels provided outside of the lobby area to clean off your bike before taking it to your room for safe keeping. In the morning, along with breakfast, each cyclist is given a complimentary goodie bag filled with snacks and water to go.
This brings me to a point. Due to the popularity of the GAP, hotel rooms and Air BnBs fill up quickly, especially the most convenient properties. If possible, book your rooms in advance. However, while this method secures your lodging for the evening, it will also lock you in to a riding schedule, which might be too constrictive for some cyclists.
The second day of our trip was our favorite. We had conquered the massive climb over the continental divide and were softly making our way “downhill” toward Pittsburgh, often following the Casselman River on flat terrain through thick forests and past numerous waterfalls.
This brings me to another point. Even though much of the GAP is unpaved, it is perfectly suitable for street bikes and mountain bikes. On some rail trails, due to the rough surface, only mountain bikes can be used. On the GAP, it appeared that about 90 percent of the riders were using street bikes and having no problems whatsoever.
We were traveling about two-and-a-half times faster than our first day and were well on our way to making it to Connellsville before dark. This left us plenty of time to sightsee along the way.
Some of the highlights included the town of Rockville (which has a hostel for cyclists to stay in, plus the Trailhead Brewing Company and Rock City Café to enjoy), the Pinkerton bridges and tunnel, a stop in the river town of Confluence and, best of all, lunch and sightseeing in Ohiopyle and Ohiopyle State Park, which were both very lively and friendly places.
At the end of our second day, we had traveled a total of 91 miles and were ready to finish the final leg of our journey in the morning. It would take us to the heart of downtown Pittsburgh and a Drury Inn hotel that’s located 700 feet from a train station that would get us back to Cumberland the following morning.
An Urban Experience
After Connellsville (traveling northwest), the scenery along the GAP becomes less attractive, eventually moving into completely industrial areas. The charm of the mountains and streams are gone, replaced by an urban experience that can be challenging, but that also comes with a few rewards.
At about mile marker 125, the path becomes paved and remains so into Pittsburgh. After being on a dirt path for so long, this is a nice change of pace, and much easier to ride on.
The paved trail passes through several memorable towns and cities, including West Newton and Mc-
Eventually, before reaching Pittsburgh-proper, cyclists are required to use a series of industrial roads as the path. The roads are shared with a parade of dump trucks that are working in the area, so be careful. This doesn’t last too long though, maybe a mile or two.
The next challenge is a series of ramps that zigzag through massive train yards and industrial areas around Pittsburgh. The downward slopes make it easy to build up a lot of speed, so, again, be careful.
At the Pittsburgh corporation limit, the GAP turns into the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which then crosses the Monongahela River via Liberty Bridge, leading into the heart of the city, and very close to the Drury Inn. There, a complimentary dinner to celebrate a successful completion of the GAP—and a short-night’s rest—awaited James and me.
An Early Morning Train Ride
The only train available from Pittsburgh to Cumberland on Saturday mornings departs at 5:20 a.m. I had secured two passenger tickets for that train plus two storage tickets for our bikes and purposely booked the Drury Inn because of its close proximity to the train station and bike trail.
We woke up early and walked our bikes through the city with the glow of the skyscrapers above lighting our way. It was a quick and easy walk, and before we knew it, we were on a passenger train chugging through the same mountains we’d just cycled through on the GAP, slowly but surely making our way back to Cumberland.
As the sun began to rise, the orange glow of the mountain foliage immersed our train car. We ate some snacks from the dining car, watched the scenery go by and enjoyed the fact that we could just sit there on thick, soft cushions relaxing for the next four hours.
Even better, the train station in Cumberland is equally close to the underpass where my truck was parked, which made it easy to get back to, thus completing our journey in one piece.
We packed up our bikes, jumped in the truck and quietly drove home, still happy to be sitting down and feeling pretty good about completing a 150-mile bike ride over the Appalachian Mountains.
While I wouldn’t trade in the experience that James and I had on the GAP for anything, if I were to do it again, I would go about it differently.
For starters, I would take five days to ride the trail, not three. Three was too much, too fast. We didn’t have enough time to enjoy some of the highlights on the trail, such as the bridges and viaducts, and by the end of the day, we were too exhausted to explore the towns we stayed in. It took all the energy we had just to walk to a nearby restaurant, let alone sightsee!
I would also ride the trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, rather than the opposite direction as we had done. This would make the climb to the continental divide much more tolerable. Pedaling uphill for 22 miles on our first day was not fun. But going down this section probably is. It’s also a more scenic ending to the trip, compared to ending in Pittsburgh.
Finally, in order to fully enjoy the trail without worrying about schedules and reservations, it seems to me that camping is the best option for lodging. While hotels and bed and breakfasts fill up quickly (and therefore can’t be relied on without reservations), the number of campgrounds and camping areas is almost endless. When in doubt, many cyclists simply put up a tent or hammock on the side of the trail, free of charge.
Instead of worrying about train schedules, a popular option for getting back to your vehicle is using Uber. The going rate is about $100 from any point along the trail, which is about what it costs for two cyclists to ride the train with their bikes.
There are dozens of websites dedicated to the GAP, but the best is gaptrail.org. It has everything you need to plan your trip, from hotels and restaurants next to the trail, to itineraries and trail conditions.
Overall, if you’re looking for a bicycle experience that is challenging yet convenient, beautiful yet rustic, and adventurous yet peaceful, the GAP might be just what you’re looking for.
Learn more HERE.