GAP and C&O Tour 2020

On Saturday, 19 September, I returned from another enjoyable trip on the Great Allegheny Passage and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal trails from Pittsburgh to Washington DC. It was a seven day adventure that I really needed after two of my annual fully supported tours were cancelled because of COVID-19. I train throughout the year for long tours and needed the satisfaction of a tour after over 2000 miles of training in 2020.

There were uncertainties for travel on my tour route because of state restrictions. That was the rationale for waiting until just two weeks before my departure from home to make arrangements. After some quick research I found that my planned campgrounds were all open for business and the hotels were taking reservations.  I made rental car and hotel reservations and I was eager to head out, although with some anxiety.

Since I hadn’t done any self-supported tours for five years I had some anxiety about how I would physically handle the load of the panniers. I am 74 years old and I am always concerned about a decrease in my physical abilities. There is no really good way to test that except to hit the road and give it a try. I reason that I could always bail out of the trip at any time. If I find it impossible to ride any further, I could quit and get transportation to someplace where I could rent a car to drive back home.

The first day on the trail resolved all of that and I was pleased with my performance. I knew that there would be some inclines in several places where I crossed the Monongahela River. There was also a short climb from McKeesport to the trail. After the first incline for the first bridge, I realized that I was fine since I geared down and cranked up with little difficulty.

My bicycle for the trip was my trusty Surly Long Haul Trucker that I have owned since 2012. My first tour on the bike was in 2013 and after this tour I have logged just over 20,000 miles on it. I have Tubus racks front and rear that carried four Ortlieb panniers for this tour. I strapped my tent to the rear rack.

Fully loaded touring bicycle ready for travel
This is my rig in the portico of the hotel where I stayed in Pittsburgh just before I departed to the trail

The panniers were packed by function. One of the rear panniers was for clothes and personal gear and the other for camping equipment. One of the front panniers held food and the other miscellaneous maintenance gear and two filled spare water bottles. I had two water bottles on the frame as well.

I am embarrassed to admit that all of stuff that I carried, including the helmet on my head and the riding shoes on my feet, weighed 55 pounds. Some people have the strategy of minimizing weight by minimizing both the amount of stuff that they carry as well as the weight of individual items. My strategy has always been to load things that I think that I will need, eliminating some things along the way that do not have a strong justification for being hauled along, but mostly because they will not fit.

When I purchased many of my travel items I did consider weight and volume. My tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress fall into that category. My bicycle is what it is: a heavy steel frame with fenders and steel pannier racks. I didn’t revisit any of those past decisions since they had worked in the past during several long tours.

After a night in Pittsburgh I was on the road to my first camp at the Uniontown KOA near Connellsville, PA (60 miles). Out of Pittsburgh the trail follows the Monongahela River and in McKeesport the trail joins the Youghiogheny River. The Youghiogheny especially offers many pleasant views and the trail is close to the river.

A typical site for resting along the Youghiogheny River
There are many places like this one along the Youghiogheny River to stop, snack, and relax

As I approached Connellsville, I found a small trailside stand that offered refreshments. It had ice cream, frozen confections, and cold drinks. The refreshments were available outdoors beneath what turned out to be a guest house supported by posts. The owner, Jeff, came out and we talked.

The South Yard Depot on the GAP is a private home whose owners provide refreshments for travellers on the GAP
The South Yard Depot near Connellsville PA has this refreshment stand and B&B beside the private residence of owners Lisa and Jeff

The guest house and refreshment stand were built next to his house. The house had been a railroad station on the GAP, later turned into a church, and  most recently into a home owned by his parents. He has been there since the mid-1980s. He and his wife Lisa call the place The South Yard Depot. I lingered for about thirty minutes before heading back to the trail.

My first camp tested my eating strategy. Most of my breakfasts and dinners were at camp. The first dinner was typical. I ate an avocado, a wrap made with a flour tortilla and hard salami, and some Babybel cheese. Breakfast was orange juice, a peanut butter and honey flour tortilla wrap, and some kind of Starbucks canned drink for my caffeine hit. I replenished the orange juice and Starbucks drink each day when I had an opportunity to stop at a convenience store.

I drank water on the go every ten minutes or so. Every hour I stopped for carbs and ate between 300 and 400 calories at each of those stops.  During those stops I varied my intake among beef jerky, Nutter Butter cookies, Fig Newtons, and dried fruit such as pitted dates. I also tried to have a bottle of chocolate milk with me and sometimes that would be good for as many as two stops. If I happened to be at a location that had a food shop of some kind, I would get an ice cream and replenish my cookie and water supply.

My second day was Connellsville to Rockwood (52 miles). Ohiopyle is a nice stop on that leg. There is a little country store and restaurant just off the trail. The town is a tourist attraction during normal times. I rested a while with a snack at the historic railroad station on the trail.

At the town of Confluence, the trail leaves the Youghiogheny and begins to follow the Casselman River. The trail becomes a little tedious at that point because the Casselman is not as accessible as the Youghiogheny. The trees and the trail all look the same without the visual and audible relief that can be provided by a running river.

Confluence PA where the Youghiogheny an Casselman Rivers come together to form the Youghiogheny
This is Confluence PA on a rainy afternoon, showing where the Casselman and Youghiogheny Rivers merge

The weather was threatening most of the day and a few raindrops fell at times. Closer to Rockwood, however, it began to pour. I anticipated the rain and pulled my rain jacket out of one of my panniers. The rain jacket produced the usual result of causing me to get wet from the inside out from sweat.

When I arrived at the Husky Haven Campground in Rockwood my initial gambit was to try to get into the guest house. I thought that I would have a better chance of drying things out and get the sleeping comfort of a bed. That did not happen because the guest house had been occupied the night before and COVID-19 rules made it necessary to have it empty for a day before allowing another person to stay there. Husband and wife bicycle tourists had another problem: they needed to charge their e-bikes. I stayed at the Husky Haven tent site along with at least five other bicycle tourists. It rained that night, but cleared by morning. I was headed to my hotel in Cumberland and would be able to dry things there.

Husky Haven is a rustic campground on the Casselman River adjacent to the GAP trail
The GAP runs along one edge of the Husky Haven campground, a convenient place to stay the night

I headed to Cumberland (44 miles) after having a sandwich at the gas station in Rockwood.  The Salisbury Viaduct and the Savage Tunnel are my favorite features on this leg of the trip. The viaduct was built in 1912, decommissioned in 1975, and repurposed as a hiking and biking trail in 1998. Just over the viaduct I like to stop at the historic railroad station in Meyersdale and it happens to be about the right timing for a snack stop. The Savage Tunnel was also built in 1912 and is just over a half mile long. Just past the Savage Tunnel there is an overlook with a beautiful view from high above the countryside and it is another good place for a refreshment stop.

The Salisbury Viaduct is a major feature of the GAP
The Salisbury Viaduct is a major feature of the GAP
Historic railroad station in Meyersdale PA
The historic railroad station in Meyersdale PA offers t-shirts, jerseys, and treats and is a convenient place to stop
Cyclists exiting the Big Savage Tunnel toward Cumberland
Two Cyclists exit the Big Savage Tunnel on the Cumberland side
Lookout point near the southern portal of the Big Savage Tunnel on the Great Allegheny Passage
This spot just beyond the Big Savage Tunnel portal gives a nice view from high above the countryside

In Cumberland I stayed at the Fairfield Inn. The hotel is a favorite among bicycle tourists because it is right on the trail where the GAP ends and the C&O begins. The hotel also found a way to serve the complimentary breakfast, working with COVID-19 restrictions.

The Fairfield Inn in Cumberland MD is adjacent to the C&O Canal trail
The C&O towpath trail passes the Fairfield Inn in Cumberland MD, making it a favorite with bicycle tourists

From Cumberland to DC on the C&O, the character and quality of the trail changes significantly. Much of the C&O trail is very rough due to protruding rocks, tree roots, and muddy ruts. I think  that those conditions bother me more than others because I have two bad shoulders. The constant jarring, even with the dampening load of the panniers, causes fatigue and some pain for me. The portion of the trail from Shepherdstown to White’s Ferry has been resurfaced and is a joy to ride. My average speed on that segment was much higher than on other sections of the trail and I was much more comfortable in the saddle. Most of the remainder of the trail is badly in need of resurfacing.

The leg of the trip from Cumberland to Little Orleans (47 miles) follows the Potomac closely until you get to the Paw Paw Tunnel. The tunnel famously almost bankrupted the canal company because it took fourteen years to build, opening in 1850. It is a marvel of ingenuity and persistence, nearly a half mile long, build totally using hand labor, and lined with millions of bricks.

The northern portal of the Paw Paw Tunnel on the C&O Canal
The Paw Paw Tunnel is a marvel of manual labor completed in 1850 and lined with millions of bricks

The Little Orleans Campground was my first overnight on the C&O. It is reasonably close to the trail, but up a steep incline. It is difficult to ascend even on an unloaded bicycle. I pushed my loaded bike up the hill and sometimes resorted to zig-zagging to reduce the slope.

It was a little expensive at $35 when most other campgrounds charged me $15 for a tent site. The manager allowed me to camp in the grass near the pavilion. I kept all of my stuff under cover of the  pavilion. That night the temperature dropped into the low 40s. I carried my down sleeping bag anticipating at least one cold night. I zipped into my cocoon and had the best sleep of the tour so far.

Cold foggy morning after a cold night at Little Orleans Campground
The morning was chilly and foggy after a cold night at Little Orleans Campground
Camping gear sheltered under the pavilion at Little Orleans Campground
The pavilion at Little Orleans Campground was a great place to shelter and organize my gear

The next stop was Cushwa Basin and Williamsport (48 miles) where I would exit the trail for a ride north to the Snug Harbor KOA. On my way to Williamsport I met a fellow bicycle tourist, Rick Steeves, at Fort Frederick and we chatted for some time. I would classify him as an “expert” bicycle tourist, giving him due credit for significant European bicycle tours. I classify myself as an “advanced” bicycle tourist, not quite expert. He was carrying 22 pounds in four modestly sized panniers. He was riding in the opposite direction toward Cumberland where he would complete his tour. He wrote a very good review of his experiences on the C&O on his website.

Small pond fed by the Potomac River near Fort Frederick
This small pond off the Potomac River near Fort Frederick was my lunch stop for the day

I have camped at the Snug harbor KOA in the past, but it was on an Adventure Cycling Association tour and I had no idea what the cost would be. I rolled into the campground and headed to the office to register. The bill would be $55. The justification was that they did not have any tent sites, only RV sites with electric and water hookups. The place was not full and for good will I would have expected a significantly reduced fee for a tent camper on a bicycle who made the trek to the campground. I had a nice site right next to the creek and it is a nice campground, but the price was a bit steep.

Cushwa Basin showing the C&O trail and remnants of the C&O canal
The C&O runs along the canal at Cushwa Basin where I headed north to camp
Snug Harbor KOA campsite beside the creek
At the Snug Harbor KOA I pitched my tent beside the creek

Brunswick and the Brunswick Family Campground was my final camp (51 miles). The ride was great because most of that portion of the trail has been  resurfaced. The ride along Big Slackwater shows one of the amazing features of the Potomac River. It is a long and wide area of the river where the current is attenuated by the size of the body of water. The water is held back by a dam that was built over 150 years ago. Homes and marinas dot the shoreline and the waters support fishing and other water recreation.

150-year old dams back up large slackwater areas on the Potomac River that are available for all kinds of recreation
Dams on the Potomac River, built over 150 years ago, back up large bodies of water that are popular for all kinds of water recreation

As I checked into my last camp at Brunswick Family Campground, the manager recommended food from a pizza place in town, Rasco NY Pizza, that would deliver to the campground. Pizza immediately struck a chord with me and I quickly developed a strong craving. After setting up camp and a shower, I ordered a 14″ cheese pizza with pepperoni, onions, green peppers, and mushrooms. I also ordered a side salad and that was almost too much food.

The pizza came and it was easily the best meal of the tour. My body must have been craving all of the things that make up a pizza, the fat, carbs, protein, and other stuff from the vegetables and seasonings. I ate three quarters of it and turned to the salad where I concentrated on the onions, cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes. I guess I was very hungry because I was able to eat most of it.

The next morning I had leftover pizza for breakfast and that gave me enough energy to make it all the way to DC on my longest day in terms of mileage (62 miles). The final leg has some interesting places, but my favorite is White’s Ferry. There is a building there that houses a small restaurant and sandwich shop. Over the years it has survived many floods on the Potomac that have submerged the building. The building has three high water marks on it well up on the second story, showing the depth of the Potomac during three recent flood events.  I stopped there, enjoyed ice cream, and replenished some of my trail snacks.

The White's Ferry Grill showing Potomac River high water marks
The White’s Ferry Grill has high water marks high on the second floor

Near DC I merged onto the Capital Crescent Trail to Virginia Avenue, taking a right on 23rd Street NW to the Lincoln Memorial. There I crossed the Arlington Memorial Bridge to the Mt. Vernon Trail into Crystal City and my hotel, the Hilton Crystal City at Washington Reagan National Airport. I like the location of the hotel because it is a quick shuttle ride to the airport to pick up a rental car at Avis.

Lincoln Memorial during my arrival in DC on 18 September
My arrival in Washington DC on 18 September

Completing the trip gave me a lot of satisfaction as bicycle tours always do for me. If I did it again self-supported I might not be so lazy and look for alternatives to Little Orleans and Snug Harbor campgrounds. The things I need most from campgrounds are showers and toilets. There must be other campgrounds that provide those comforts at a tent camping price.

In my opinion, Pittsburgh to DC is the correct direction for a fully loaded tour. The 1700 foot rise in elevation from Pittsburgh to the Eastern Continental Divide is almost negligible over the 130 miles compared with a similar rise from Cumberland to the Divide over 22 miles. The grade is 1% to 1.5%, but it will get to you over the distance of 22 miles when fully loaded. I would probably need a carb break every 15  minutes in that direction.

After a tour such as this one I feel a little letdown. The experiences on a tour are always unique and stimulating, even on routes that I have used before. The challenge of preparing and successfully riding 364 miles in seven days is rewarding. It is fun to meet local people and other bicycle tourists who are always eager to talk. If the country remains in some kind of lockdown state next year, I will do more than one tour on my own. Happily I still have the ability to accomplish a tour.

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