This route is familiar to me since I have done it once from Pittsburgh to DC self-supported and three times from DC to Pittsburgh with Adventure Cycling. One of the tour staff asked my why I like the route. There are two answers. First, at 73 years old this ride is one of my benchmarks. From year to year I am able to complete the ride and my performance on the ride is similar each year. Performance is something that I measure each time that I ride, including average moving speed and elapsed time. Moving speed is the best performance measurement for me and I have been consistent year after year, averaging nearly 11 miles per hour. Decreasing elapsed times only indicate that I am less interested in the stops along the way and more interested in riding.
The second answer is that it is a beautiful route and is almost completely off-road on trails, even accounting for the poor quality of the C&O trail in many places. The route follows the Potomac, Casselman, Youghiogheny, and Monongahela rivers all the way to Pittsburgh. Most of the route is quiet and heavily wooded with the only sounds being the wind and the running water. The exception is the occasional sound of the CSX trains running on the tracks that parallel the trails. With Adventure cycling we also stay at some wonderful campgrounds, including the Brunswick Family Campground, Snug Harbor KOA, Little Orleans Campground, Husky Haven Campground, and the Uniontown KOA.
The Adventure Cycling tour began on Sunday and that left Saturday for me to accomplish something that I have tried and failed on previous trips. That is to ride the Mount Vernon Trail all the way to Mt. Vernon and back. One year the attempt was interrupted four miles into it by a call from my wife asking me to come home because we had a flood in the basement. Another attempt was interrupted within two miles of the objective by a heart arrhythmia event that I have since brought under control.
The Mount Vernon Trail is a mixed bag of features. Much of the ride is a lovely route along the Potomac. As many trails, however, this one is in disrepair along several long sections. Tree roots and frost heaves make it a very rough ride in spots. On the plus side, you go through Old Town Alexandria and end at Mt. Vernon. The ride through Old Town Alexandria is on road, but the distance is short and it is reasonably safe for bicycles. The end of the trail at Mt. Vernon has plenty of place to lock the bicycle while touring the park. I spent over an hour there walking the grounds and watching the people. The ride to Mt. Vernon from the Hilton in Crystal City and back was a little over thirty one miles.
The Adventure Cycling tour began on Sunday and the weather was beautiful all the way to Pittsburgh. There was one small detour on the first day due to the Potomac River and tributaries flooding the previous year. The detour was a short walk down to a creek bed, over the creek on a temporary wooden bridge, and back up the other side. In general, the C&O is in surprisingly good condition given the flooding last year.
The Western Maryland Rail trail was a welcomed stretch of paved trail parallel to the C&O that took us over 20 miles on the third day to our camp at Little Orleans. The trail has been extended about five miles since the last time I rode it. It is always a treat to get off the bumpy C&O for a few miles. I pushed my speed a little to hard on this stretch and needed to deal with some leg soreness for the next two days.
The worst part of the C&O in my opinion is the forty mile section from Little Orleans to Cumberland. While it didn’t deter my speed, it has many bumps from tree roots, muddy holes, and uncomfortable dips that are sometimes difficult to detect. For me it is a tedious stretch of bad trail. It is surprising that the National Parks Service has prioritized resurfacing on southern sections of trail. It is surprising because most bicycle tourists ride from Cumberland to DC rather than DC to Cumberland. Their first experience with the C&O is on that rough section of trail. It would be a better strategy to give riders a good experience for the first forty miles rather than a bad one.
Cumberland to the Continental Divide is a 1.4% grade for twenty two miles. Riders on the tour anticipate this grade with some anxiety, although that is unfounded. The advice is always to find a comfortable pace that you can maintain for that distance. Very few people actually struggle when they finally ride the grade. It is not that bad. The reward is that once past the summit it is mostly downhill to Pittsburgh.
The final fifty six miles from camp near Connellsville to Pittsburgh also gets people nervous, but nervous about the timeline rather than the grade. The goal for Adventure Cycling is to depart Pittsburgh at two in the afternoon for the trip back to Crystal City. Most people use Crystal City as the final end point for travel back to home. If you average ten miles per hour and leave Connellsville by 7:30 AM and if you do not stop along the way, you get to Pittsburgh at about 1:00 PM. You will probably want to stop at the two rest stops along the way for hydration and some food. Those stops begin to cut into your one hour margin.
Riders use a number of personal strategies to get to Pittsburgh in plenty of time. One of them is to get driven to or from one of the rest stops by the ride staff. The first time I did the ride with Adventure Cycling in 2015 this approach led to an interesting situation.
That year I left camp in Connellsville at about 7:45 AM and I thought that I left a few riders behind at camp. At the first rest stop I passed another rider or two. At the second rest stop I passed at least two more riders. When I was about ten miles from the end in Pittsburgh, Don, the Adventure Cycling sweep rider, caught up with me. I was the last rider on the trail!
This year I arrived in Pittsburgh at about 12:50 PM and when I arrived I noticed riders who were already there that I had left at camp. After changing clothes in the changing tent that was set up in the parking lot I called Uber for my ride to the airport to pick up my rental car ride home. I locked my bicycle to a guard rail in the parking lot, picked up my rental, and returned to get my bike.
For me, every multi-day tour that I complete is an achievement. My Surly Long Haul Trucker established another mileage milestone on this tour, passing 17,000 miles as I rode toward Pittsburgh. I have recorded every mile ridden on that bike since I began touring on it in 2013.
The familiarity that I have with this route from DC to Pittsburgh is somewhat satisfying. For that reason I have a feeling of loss when the tour comes to an end. It has repeatedly been a memorable experience for me and I highly recommend the route for bicycle touring.
For more details on the route, see my YouTube GAP and C&O Towpath Travelogue.