ACA C&O Canal and GAP Tour 2015

Copyright 2015 Ed Wojtaszek

Photo Album

My trips on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Great Allegheny Passage have been enjoyable. My first self-supported tour of the GAP was in 2013. Last year, 2014, was the first time that I made the self-supported trip the full distance of both trails from Pittsburgh to Georgetown. This year I decided to try the fully supported experience using Adventure Cycling Association and travel in the opposite direction.

My bicycle for this trip was my Surly Long Haul Trucker. It has a Brooks B17 saddle, Shimano A530 clipless pedals, and Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires. I use a Garmin Oregon 450 to record my tracks and provide a trip odometer. My LHT had about 6,500 miles on it as of the start of this trip.

The trip started in Arlington, VA, at the Hilton Crystal City. I arrived late on Friday, 18 September. The hotel cost that night was mine since the tour started on Saturday with check-in. The rate was $129, which is low for Crystal City. After breakfast on Saturday my first activity was to return the car that I rented near home to the rental place at Reagan Airport. The base cost of the one-way rental from Avis was $119, keeping my transportation costs low.

People who arrived early enough were able to participate in a bicycle tour of the National Mall, a nice way to spend the day. I checked-in and had my bike inspected by the tour mechanic, Don. Everybody had their bike inspected and some minor repairs were made as a result.

Dinner on Saturday was catered at the hotel by Culinary Insider, Inc., the company that provided all of our in-camp meals as well. After dinner we had our first map meeting where the Sunday route and the general tour operating procedures were reviewed. The daily schedule was set: coffee service in camp starts at 6 AM, breakfast at 7 AM, leave camp by 8AM, two water stops at predetermined locations, dinner at 6 PM, and map meeting at 7 PM. Culinary Insider did a great job of providing breakfast and dinner with tasty variety. In the evening there were complimentary cold drinks and an honor bar where we could purchase a beer or a glass of wine for $3. By the way, they offered some nice craft beers besides the usual stuff. Riders were responsible for making their own lunch sandwiches and the lunches were transported to the water stops for us.

Part of the morning routine was to put luggage on a tarp so that it could be loaded into the luggage truck. Luggage was available for us when we arrived at the camp site each day. Some people stayed in hotels, bed and breakfasts, and guest houses along the way and ACA dropped their luggage at those places in the afternoon as well.

This tour can accommodate up to 80 riders. We had 39 riders, the Event Director, Mechanic, and five staff. Of the 39 riders, there were two recumbent bicycles, one recumbent trike, and a recumbent tandem. The rest of the bikes were all types, including road, hybrid, touring, and mountain bikes. The ACA people all had opportunities to ride when they were not running the water stops or the luggage truck. One ACA person always rode mid-sweep and sweep to be sure that everybody was safe and that riders successfully made it to camp each day.

We were briefed, we had our map sheets, and we were ready to go on Sunday morning. The first trail that we would ride would be the C&O from Arlington to Cumberland. The C&O is a relatively crude trail that is mostly dirt with a lot of single track and two track segments. It also has many tree roots and rocks that cross the trail and make the ride bumpy. Rain can make it very muddy and fortunately we did not have enough rain to experience that feature.

The GAP from Cumberland to Pittsburgh is mostly stone dust that is well packed. It is a comparatively easy ride and moisture sometimes helps to decrease the rolling resistance and dust. The trip from Arlington to Pittsburgh is somewhat better than the Pittsburgh to Arlington because the last three days of the ride is on a much better surface.

We were excited to get started.

(Sunday, Arlington, VA, to Brunswick, MD: 61 miles, 10.2 mph)

We started our trip from the hotel at 8 AM, 20 September, riding to the Lincoln Memorial for a group photo. After that we were pretty much on our own. The day went from partly cloudy to cloudless in the mid-70s, perfect for riding.

There was an event in Washington DC, so that there was some congestion on the trail getting out of the urban area. Once we were past that, it was striking that we were soon on a trail that is isolated from traffic and the city hubbub. It would be this way most of the way to Pittsburgh.

I had fun visiting some of the places that I visited last year, this time in the sun. The best stop on this day was Great Falls. I did not walk the full length of the trail at Great Falls last year because I thought that it was a walk in the woods on a nature trail. This year I followed the crowd to the end, which was an observation spot where you can see the Great Falls at its greatest breadth. It was impressive and the crowd was entertained by the kayakers in the rapids far below.

After Great Falls we passed Swain’s Lock, the first hiker-biker campsite on the trail north of Georgetown. I rode down to the Potomac to visit the site where I pitched my tent last year. Swain’s was my last stop when I rode from Pittsburgh to Georgetown last year. It was a good memory to revisit.

The trail was very busy for probably the first forty miles out of Washington DC. It was Sunday and there were people walking dogs, hiking with children, riding bicycles, and running. There were even people using the water in the canal, kayaking and paddle boarding. Personally, I wouldn’t trust the water quality. The water does flow near Georgetown, but it is still full of weeds and what appears to be algae.

Our overnight was at the Brunswick Family Campground. The location adjacent to the C&O Canal Trail makes it convenient and the trail actually shares the road with the camp entrance. It was easy to find a great place to pitch a tent in the thick grass. Grass is my favorite ground covering for a tent because when there is good grass cover, you drag less dirt into the tent. There were showers, but they were not convenient because it was difficult to prevent your change of clothes from getting wet since there is no good place to hang it or get it out of the way while you shower.

While I was setting up camp, I noticed that one of the campers, not one of ours, pulled out a cordless drill. He drilled holes in the tree trunk near his tent. There were three holes for dowels that held flags, one for the American flag, one for a POW/MIA flag, and the last one for a Confederate flag. When he noticed my interest he gave me a “thumbs-up”.

I wasn’t ready for the commotion in the middle of the night. On the opposite side of the trail from the camp ground, there is a railroad switching yard. They were evidently putting trains together. There was some squealing sounds of metal against metal. The most jarring sound was that of the locomotives taking the slack out of the string of cars. Each time the slack came out of a coupling there was a loud “clang”. There was a “clang” for each car in the train, “clang, clang, clang” and so on for what sounded like fifty cars in the otherwise still of the night.

That happened maybe twice because I may have slept through more instances of it. Railroad noises at night are prevalent on this trip and they generally don’t bother me. Some people needed ear plugs.

After riding 61 miles, I fell asleep quickly and slept well except for the two switching yard events.

(Monday, Brunswick, MD, to Williamsport, MD: 41.9 miles, 9 mph)

Today we had the opportunity to have a guided tour of Harpers Ferry as a part of our bicycle tour. The tour was about 90 minutes long, constrained by our need to get to camp at a reasonable time. Our tour leader in Harpers Ferry, Jim, was a bit wordy, but I learned a few things that I didn’t know. The story of abolitionist John Brown was especially interesting. John Brown and his small band of about 40 people had a plan to raid the town, take hostages, free some slaves, and spread the abolitionist philosophy (September, 1859). The plan broke down, John Brown was captured and executed.

It began to rain after Harpers Ferry. I was upset that I opted to leave my rain jacket in the luggage. It was chilly and the rain made it worse. That was motivation to crank a little harder to keep warm.

It stopped raining while I was at the first water stop. That was a positive thing that inspired me to ride the alternate route to the Antietam National Battlefield. It was a good choice. The visitor center has a unique approach to make the battle easier to envision. The ranger presentation is made in a room that has windows overlooking most of the battlefield. This allows the presenter to point to the areas where action took place. The battlefield has also been preserved in a state very close to the state that existed during the Civil War.

The riders who chose to ride the trail experienced what I call the “Great Wall of the Potomac”. There is a 2.7 mile section of trail that is a concrete deck constructed in the rock wall along the river. It was funded by economic stimulus money in 2010 and completed in 2012. I guess I enjoy government money when it benefits me and it is an impressive bit of engineering.

It rained lightly as I rode into the Snug Harbor KOA Campground and set up my tent. The campground has a lot of the usual KOA features. It was a very nice setting and I set up camp next to a creek. The tent sites fell short since they didn’t have much grass. The only reason that I didn’t have a muddy mess inside my tent was because I was careful when I got into it and I didn’t leave it during the night.

The rain became heavier later in the evening during dinner. It was a nice night for sleeping. I enjoy the sound of rain on the tent.

(Tuesday, Williamsport, MD, to Little Orleans, MD: 46.4 miles, 11.4 mph)

It was a beautiful day to ride. The temperature was in the low 70s and cloudy. The clouds were unfortunate because there were several photo opportunities that could have been better with some sun.

The first such place was Dam Number 5. The site features the dam itself that backs a large slack water area that once was the source of water for the C&O Canal. There is also a lock and lock keepers house there. From the shore near the dam you look south toward the rapids below the dam that are broken by several little green islands. Upstream there is a wide, deep body of water that supports water sports today. A small hydroelectric plant is on the far side of the river adjacent to the dam.

Our next stop was Fort Frederick, built during the French and Indian War and restored in the 1930s as a part of president Roosevelt’s programs to put people to work. It is said that the French and the Indians never attacked this fort because it was viewed as impregnable. Many other forts were built of wood and could be breached by burning them. Fort Frederick had stone walls that were four feet thick. During the Revolutionary War it was used as a prison for captured British soldiers. The only time it was actually involved in battle was during the Civil War.

Many of us took the opportunity to follow a paved alternate route on the Western Maryland Rail Trail. It was 21 miles of smooth riding that took us through the town of Hancock where we had our second water stop. There was a slight uphill grade, but I preferred the break from dirt and tree roots.

For some of us the ride for the day ended at Bill’s, a small bar at the bottom of the hill where our camp site was located. Those of us who stopped for a beer were treated to a shuttle ride up a 15% grade to the camp ground. Our bikes were on racks at the top of the Adventure Cycling Association van.

Our overnight was at the Little Orleans Campground. This has a grassy meadow for tents and the bathroom facilities were clean and well organized. The hill to get there can be intimidating, but it is a short run and the campground would be worth the climb even if I had walked it.

I had no trouble sleeping after a busy and eventful day.

(Wednesday, Little Orleans, MD, to Cumberland, MD: 45.6 miles, 9.8 mph)

Fifteen miles into our ride to Cumberland today we went through the Paw Paw Tunnel. A park ranger met us at the southern portal to explain the features and history of the tunnel. She was very knowledgeable. The tunnel is a little over 3100 feet long and it was completed in 1850. It was an ill-advised feat of engineering that took too long (18 years) and cost too much. It bankrupted the C&O company.

We walked through it and all of us had some kind of light. It is very dark inside and the towpath is uneven. One woman fell and skinned her leg slightly when she missed a step on the way through.

As you walk through you can’t help but marvel at the millions of bricks that line the tunnel. Over all of the years since its construction it has only required minor maintenance. Water manages to seep into the tunnel, but the brick lining has prevented rock falls. On the outside rock slides are common along the towpath in the rock walls that lead in and out of the tunnel at both ends.

A little farther up the canal the now unused railroad grade can be seen following the canal path. There are places where wooden and stone retaining walls prevent the grade from sliding into the canal. Telephone and telegraph poles still stand, many with the green glass insulators in place.

At Indian Creek there is a privately owned toll bridge across the Potomac. It is a busy place. While I stood there appreciating it a large tractor-trail or, a motor home, and a half dozen cars paid the toll and rolled across.

There are many sections of the canal that appear dead. They are filled with algae and other plants that sap the life out of the water. That doesn’t prevent hundreds if turtles from making it their home. It was difficult for me to get a picture of them because the minute I stopped to grab the camera, the turtles slipped off of their logs and disappeared into the green water.

The canal trail opens at Cumberland. On the way into town you are struck by the mountain ridges. Those ridges made transportation of goods difficult. The canal and the railroad followed the Potomac through them to open new trade routes in the 19th century.

Our overnight was at the Fairfield Inn where I have stayed several times in the past. It is a very bicycle friendly hotel with a bike wash area near the trail. They have no problem with cyclists rolling their bicycles into their rooms.

ACA ran a short art tour that was very good. We visited a small gallery, two furniture builders, and a digital artist. Afterward several of us went to The Crabby Pig near the hotel for dinner. From there we walked to The Queen City Creamery for ice cream. ACA had given us $20 dinner vouchers that were good at three local restaurants and a voucher for ice cream at Queen City. Now it was time for sleep.

(Thursday, Cumberland, MD, to Rockwood, PA: 44.7 miles, 9.3 mph)

We left our comfortable hotel in Cumberland for the ride to Rockwood. About half of the riders chose to depart a little later and take the tour of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church. The church has Tiffany stained glass windows.

I dreaded the 23 mile climb with the 1.5% grade that started as soon as we left Cumberland. I got into a cadence that was good until I was 11 miles up the trail. I downshifted and worked hard to maintain my cadence for the final four miles to our first water stop in Frostburg. There were two or three nice overlooks where I stopped for short breaks to take pictures and enjoy the scenery. Those were nice short rest stops that overlooked farms, fields, and small communities in the lowlands below.

After Frostburg we traversed through the two great tunnels on the south side of the Eastern Continental Divide. The first was the Borden Tunnel, about 1000 feet long and dark. The second was the Big Savage Tunnel, 3400 feet long and dimly lit. In both tunnels it helps most people to use some kind of light to get through safely and see the trail.

These tunnels were engineering achievements during the construction of the railroads through the Allegheny Mountains in 1911. To me they are a major feature of this portion of the ride. Some people are put off by the length of the ride through them and the darkness inside them. In my case they get my imagination going and I like to think about what it was like to ride a train through them and along the ridges on their approach grades.

About a mile from the Big Savage I reached the summit and the Eastern Continental Divide. From there I was on a roll to Meyersdale, our second water stop and lunch. It is significantly downhill all the way to Connellsville. Another rider I met at Meyersdale commented that once he crossed the divide he felt like he was twenty years younger.

After Meyersdale I came to the Salisbury Viaduct, another favorite attraction of mine. At 1400 feet long it spans a local road, a four lane highway, an active railway, and the Casselman River. I always linger there to appreciate the structure and the countryside.

Rockwood and the Husky Haven Campground was our final stop for the day. You can’t miss it because it is right on the trail. This is the third time that I’ve stayed at Husky Haven. The owners provided a vehicle to haul luggage from the trail to the campsites that were down a slight grade. On previous visits I stayed in the guest house, which is a very good deal for a small group of up to eight people. Some of our riders were using the guest house, but I decided to try the campground.

The campground has chemical toilets and the tent sites are very crude. I pitched my tent in a bed of stone dust. For me the problem with stone dust is that it can be sharp and abrasive, even when using a ground cloth for the tent. I worked hard to keep it out of my tent so that I wouldn’t cut some small holes in the floor of my tent. The showers are on the opposite side of the river. Some people walked, but I found it faster to ride over there. There are plenty of shower stalls and they are very well organized and spacious.

After dinner we had a blue grass-style guitar artist entertaining us around a campfire before sleep.

(Friday, Rockwood, PA, to Connellsville, PA: 48.3 miles, 10.1 mph)

Today was the best day on the trail because the scenery was beautiful. The sun came out at the correct times to light the rivers, valleys, and trail perfectly. That’s one advantage of doing a trip like this more than once. You may miss some things or see them differently depending on the sun, the cloud cover, and the rain.

Soon out of Rockwood we traversed the Pinkerton Tunnel, opened within the past several weeks after being closed for many years. It is a disappointment compared with most of the other tunnels on this trip, mostly because it is very short. At the other side of the tunnel we crossed the Pinkerton Viaduct with a great view of the Casselman River in the morning sun.

I was excited to get to Confluence, twenty miles into the ride for the day. My plan was to go to Sisters Café to get something to eat. I ate lunch there on past trips, so I wasn’t sure what I would order.

The waitress was delighted that there would be no long contemplation of the menu. I needed a chocolate milk and some kind of sweet roll. She offered the cinnamon bun. It came covered with sugar frosting. I ate, tipped her generously, and got back on my bike so that I could ride some distance before the sugar buzz wore off.

I flew into our only water stop for the day in Ohiopyle. Our riders were congregating there for a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. I had toured it once before and I didn’t stay there long. I grabbed my sandwich, an apple, and a snack pack of cookies. There is a place on the trail a few miles from Ohiopyle with a great view where I wanted to eat.

Since there was a beautiful view of the Youghiogheny River, I was joined by some interesting people. When I first arrived a young mechanical engineer who worked in oil and gas exploration in Pennsylvania was there.

My next guests were three African American men. Actually, one of them rode up and sat down. He was complaining that his friend conned him into thinking they were going to ride ten miles. Before he knew it he had ridden 15 and complained to his friend that now he would need to ride back another 15 miles to get to where they started.

“Here they come,” he says. Two other guys rode up, one of them in his twenties. My first guy called him “nephew”. He gave the other two a ration, telling them they were slow and that their bikes sucked. It was all in fun and very entertaining.

Next a young couple from Denver arrived at my lunch spot. They had rented a car in mid-July to get to Seattle. From there they toured the northwest before turning east along the Northern Tier. They took excursions from the Adventure Cycling route to see some additional things along the way. In Pittsburgh they turned south on the GAP and C&O with a final destination of Washington DC. There they planned to hook up with her parents for the drive back to Denver.

I finished eating and resumed my ride to Connellsville and the River’s Edge KOA. I arrived there at about three and set up camp. This is also the third time that I have camped at the River’s Edge. It is one of the best campgrounds that I have experienced in my travels. There are great showers, laundry room, a store, a small shop that serves simple meals like hot dogs, and grassy tent sites. It is right on the trail and the tent sites are near the Youghiogheny River.

Just after dark, I headed for my tent: I needed a solid night of rest before the “sprint” into Pittsburgh the next day.

(Saturday, Connellsville, PA, to Pittsburgh, PA: 55.5 miles, 11.8 mph)

During the final leg of the tour the landscape abruptly changes from country to city as quickly as it changed from city to country six days earlier when we departed Arlington. Before that happens there is more wooded trail and final views of the Youghiogheny River. Along this part of the GAP there are coke ovens in the hillside and water laced with iron oxide leaching out of abandoned coal mines and running into the river to remind us of the big steel days.

McKeesport south of Pittsburgh seems to be the dividing line between country and city. You pass buildings of both abandoned and active industries. In places there are condominiums, apartments, and shopping centers where the steel mills once stood. The shores of the Monongahela River are dotted with rusted remains of structures that once were the tools of the steel industry. The Pittsburgh skyline is visible soon after McKeesport.

Some of the riders felt the urgency to get to Pittsburgh since there was a timeline for departure back to Arlington. There were only three of us who left the ride in Pittsburgh. The plan was to load the bikes onto the luggage truck, load the luggage onto the bus, and depart at 2:30. I was the last rider and I rolled into the parking lot at 1:15, so everybody made it in plenty of time.

I checked in with the tour director and loaded my panniers for the short ride to my hotel. I stayed at the Station Square Sheraton, about 200 yards from the parking lot where the ride ended. I rolled my bike into the hotel and wasn’t sure what to expect. I checked in and asked them how to handle the bike. They said that I could take it to my room and that people did that all the time. I appreciate a bicycle-friendly hotel.

Before dinner I wanted to take a trial ride to the Avis rental place near Point State Park. I got back onto the GAP and rode north where the trail looped around to cross the Fort Pitt Bridge. From there the trail drops into the park and the rental agency was just two or three blocks from the park. The ride took 20 minutes with stops to admire the park.

Hard Rock Café Pittsburgh was a short walk from the hotel. That was a no-brainer for a dinner venue. They gave me a good table with a great view of the music videos that were playing and I enjoyed one of their signature hamburgers and some sangria.

After dinner I headed back to the hotel to get to sleep so that there would be no problem getting to the rental place by 9 AM.

This was a great ending to a great trip that I highly recommend, provided you are fit and have the appropriate equipment. Bob, the Event Director, Don, the Mechanic, and staff members Chris, George, Karen, Sue, and Val all did a great job in making this a memorable tour. We rode 342.3 miles in seven days. The level of support and the food were excellent. The campgrounds each had enough charm to make them acceptable. The daily distances are not a challenge. There were interesting added excursions along the way to make things interesting beyond the daily challenge of the ride. This is another good way to support bicycle touring and the Adventure Cycling Association as well as spend a few days outdoors.