This is my personal case for completing C&O towpath resurfacing. An annual case for funding the resurfacing is already being made by the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the C&O Canal Trust. As I discuss later in this article, that funding is not sufficient to complete the resurfacing in a timely way. Yet, there are known safety concerns for the towpath.
The route is very popular among bicycle tourists. Arguably, the route is the longest off-road route in the country. Bicycle tourists often combine the 184 mile C&O towpath with the 150 mile Great Allegheny Passage. That is a total of 334 miles from Washington DC to Pittsburgh.
One reason that the route is desirable is that cyclists do not contend with motor vehicles. In particular, the C&O towpath is entirely within the C&O Canal National Historical Park. The park is well known for its historic sites and for the picturesque Potomac River that parallels the canal towpath.
The accident during my sixth tour on that route from DC to Pittsburgh is my motivation to advocate for completing C&O towpath resurfacing. The tour is an achievement that has always been personally satisfying to me. As I get older, tours such as this become more meaningful and this year I was doing it at seventy five years old.
Early on the fourth day of the tour, I was four miles into the C&O towpath trail when I hit a tree root. This was on the trail between Little Orleans and Cumberland at about milepost 144. The section of trail is well known for hazardous tree roots, rocks, and potholes.
The bicycle and I were flipped to the ground. The accident happened so fast that I have no memory of anything except my head and my helmet hitting the ground. After laying there for a moment and taking inventory, I tried to get up and felt intense pain in my right leg. I was not going to get up. I had a broken femur.
Emergency Medical Technicians arrived about twenty minutes after a fellow rider called 911. They hauled me out of the woods on an All Terrain Vehicle to a waiting ambulance. I was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Maryland in Cumberland, Maryland, on September 15, 2021. Partial hip replacement surgery repaired the damage on September 16. The hospital inpatient rehabilitation unit admitted me for physical and occupation therapy on September 18. I was discharged to return home and begin a long road to recovery on September 25.
The number of injuries sustained by cyclists on the C&O towpath each year is significant according to the Spencer article. “In the past six years [based on June 2018], over 200 towpath injuries were reported, 71 percent of which involved towpath defects such as root exposure.” By my calculation, that amounts to about 24 accidents per year caused by tree roots, rocks, and potholes. That translates to one accident every week during a six month peak riding season.
That accident rate is based on reported accidents. I take that to mean that since they are reported they are also the most severe. In my case, a National Park Service person came to me as I lay in the ambulance to collect my information. Emergency services report all of the most severe accidents to the National Park Service. Anecdotally, hospital staff told me of many patients admitted due to C&O towpath accidents.
Long Term Funding for Resurfacing is Needed
More aggressive funding of C&O towpath resurfacing can eliminate the exposed tree roots, rocks, and potholes that cause accidents more quickly. Funding for towpath resurfacing currently comes from three sources: the National Park Service, the State of Maryland Transportation Alternatives Program, and the C&O Canal Trust. Those sources have supported less than twenty miles of resurfacing per year during the past three years. Each of those segments was funded by separate grants with no commitment for continued support. Spencer also points out the shortcomings of this cyclical funding. Each new year and each new resurfacing phase requires that the C&O Canal National Historical Park request new funding.
If the accident rate was that high on a public highway or city street, there would certainly be a call for funding and corrective action. Instead, this is an off road trail with a small constituency and an appeal for added funding is difficult to support. Funding for the National Park Service or for the C&O Canal National Historical Park is not necessarily a priority for our Government. Still, I add my lone voice as a cyclist to those of the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the C&O Canal Trust to appeal for more funding. I do that as one concerned cyclist of thousands who have toured the C&O and one unlucky enough to be seriously injured.
My Lone Voice as a Cyclist
Some day I may return to confront the trail that put me into the hospital and resulted in months of physical therapy. I would like to know that something has been done to fix this trail, one of the most popular in the country, to make it safe for everybody who uses it. What will it take to get needed C&O towpath resurfacing done? It will take more than my lone voice. In the meantime, when you ride the C&O towpath, be careful to avoid being one of the accident statistics.
My C&O and GAP bicycle tour 2021 ended abruptly on September 15 when I had a serious bicycle accident. It happened on the fourth day of a seven day Adventure Cycling Association tour from Washington DC to Pittsburgh on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage. The day began with the dawn when most of us in our group of 48 riders emerged from our tents to pack up before breakfast. We were camped at the Little Orleans Campground, one of my favorite overnights on the trip because the tent sites are grassy and soft.
The C&O towpath is a little over a mile from the campground and I was eager to get there. Once I was on the C&O, I felt pretty good. On previous days I think that I started with a low hydration level and didn’t have much energy early in the morning. During those days I caught up on my hydration during the early hours and finished strong each day. This day was different and I started the morning ride cranking with good cadence and speed. I was cruising along at between 10 and 15 miles per hour and felt that I could sustain that for some time.
Almost four miles into the trail my front wheel hit a tree root that was wet with morning dew. It crossed the trail at an angle rather than perpendicular so that when my tire made contact it slid to the left, flipping me and my rig to the ground. The accident happened so fast that I do not remember flipping and falling to the ground. I only remember impact when my helmet hit the ground.
I blacked out for a fraction of a second before opening my eyes to see my bicycle on top of me on the ground. After a quick inventory I felt that everything above my waist was alright. The rider who was behind me to witness the event was talking to me and I think that she was advising me to stay still. My first act was to try to stand up. It was not possible since my right leg was not working and was very painful.
I dragged myself to a comfortable position at the side of the trail. Other riders began to arrive at the scene and one of them was trying to call 911. Cell phone connections on the C&O are very sparse, but she was able to get through. I could hear her state the mile marker and the state of the emergency to the operator. Help was on the way.
As I lay there I don’t think that I experienced shock. I was talking with others around me and even had grabbed my cell phone to end my STRAVA ride. Two physicians who were on the tour stopped to help, which I very much appreciated since they gave me some confidence that everything was going to be alright. One of them made the field diagnosis of a broken femur, which happened to be correct. He explained the potential range of medical alternatives.
The Emergency Medical Technicians arrived with a large All Terrain Vehicle. One on them asked if I wanted something for pain. I told him the very short version of how in my thirties I decided to have dental work done cold turkey. Since then I have never turned down pain medications.
They assembled a two-piece backboard under me. My leg was moved to a position where I felt the least pain. The backboard with me on it was strapped to a stretcher. They strapped the stretcher to the top of the ATV. We took the nearly four mile drive to the place where I entered the trail and where the ambulance was waiting.
In the ambulance as I lay there for a few minutes before we began the trip to the hospital, a National Parks Service person came on board to get my information. I am sure that she plans to send me a “get well” card. Actually, I understand their need to have the information. My thought process went further thinking that they have a lot of data on bicycle accidents on the C&O.
During the trip to the emergency room in the ambulance I was in a kind of fog because the pain medications were doing their thing. In the ER they did an x-ray of my hip. As I lay there I thought about doing a video of my experiences during the entire process. I took a selfie in the ER as a starter. I was admitted to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Maryland hospital and moved to the orthopedic wing to await surgery. The surgeon came in to tell me that I was going to get a partial hip replacement the next day. My hip replacement journey had begun.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.