You can travel by bike through small-town America on the Great Allegheny Passage trail

Bridging the gap

Traveling through small-town America, by bike, on the Great Allegheny Passage trail

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Scenic views abound on the bike-friendly GAP trail, a converted rail line running from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. Courtesy of Laurel Highlands Tourism

On a sunny Saturday in June, Ohiopyle is a happy jumble of hikers, cyclists, rafters and kayakers. Located at Horseshoe Bend on the Youghiogheny River, aka “the Yock,” this Pennsylvania town of 59 permanent residents thrives as a jumping-off point for outdoor experiences.

My friends Janet and Margit and I arrive midday, ready to start biking the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail, a converted rail line that now boasts 150 miles of pathways running from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland (there, it joins the C&O Canal Towpath, which goes all the way to D.C.). Our plan is to ride 65 miles over three days on our hybrid bikes, which combine features from road, touring and mountain bikes.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob in Chalk Hill is a one-story home designed on a hexagonal module that appears to be built into the side of a mountain. Photo by AmyBrecount White

We’ve chosen Ohiopyle as our starting point for a reason. Experienced riders have advised us to avoid the westward stretch of trail between Cumberland and Meyersdale, Pennsylvania—unless you’re a masochist or an ironwoman—and a quick glance at an elevation diagram reveals why. That’s where the trail crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, hitting its highest point, at 2,392 feet, and the incline is brutal. While this isn’t meant to be a leisurely girls’ getaway, we don’t want to kill ourselves, either.

We start off easy with a low grade, 9-mile ride on a crushed limestone path under a canopy of mature trees that still afford frequent views of the river.

Minutes in, Margit rides up beside me.

“Are your tires OK?” she asks. “They look flat.”

“My bike just had a full checkup,” I reply. “They must be fine!” Still, my quads are feeling the burn from the slight uphill climb (although it looks flat), and I worry I haven’t trained enough.

Taking our time, we roll into the “trail town” of Confluence, where three bodies of water merge. At Confluence Cyclery, shop owner Brad Smith squeezes my tires, shakes his head and pumps them up. I instantly feel better about the 30 miles we are planning to cover on Day 2.

In Meyersdale, the turreted Levi Deal Mansion offers elegant rooms for overnight guests. Courtesy photo

The hamlets that dot the GAP trail were originally built on coal, coke (a purified fuel made from coal), steel and logging—industries that prompted the creation of the Western Maryland Railway (WMR) to transport valuable goods eastward. (The whole trail combines several former railway beds, but we rode mostly on the old WMR.) Mansions once owned by industrial barons now serve as inns or businesses that cater to trail users, providing a new lifeline for otherwise fading small towns.

With its charming park and Victorian bandstand, Confluence offers more than 20 lodging options for bikers, paddlers and cross-country skiers. After rewarding ourselves with pecan pie and Italian lemon-cream cake at the popular River’s Edge Cafe, we settle into our comfy rental home, Pedalers’ Rest, for the evening.

From 1973 until 2013, when the GAP trail’s full 150 miles opened, various entities—local governments and nonprofit foundations—purchased land or secured easements and converted pieces of the trail through a mix of private funds, foundation awards and competitive state grants. To enhance the visitor experience, several historic tunnels, viaducts, bridges and other railroad artifacts were rehabilitated—or even moved, as in the case of the ornate Bollman iron bridge near Meyersdale.

Writer Amy Brecount White (right) and one of her co-riders,
Margit Nahra, at the Eastern Continental Divide, the GAP trail’s highest point at 2,392 feet. Photo by Amy Brecount White

Pedaling the rail trails offers glimpses of Americana that roads cannot. It’s heartening to see this formerly industrial area now celebrating and thriving on its natural attractions.

Day 2 brings us more immersion in nature. According to the GAP trail guide ($10 in most trail towns), George Washington walked these paths as he and others searched for a westward passage through the Allegheny Mountains. We ride past blooming rhododendrons, gushing waterfalls and over sturdy trestle bridges. Along the way we spot a scarlet tanager and a large turtle as we breathe in the sweet scents of honeysuckle and hawthorn.

The Salisbury Viaduct, a crossing atop a 101-foot-high steel trestle that spans the Casselman River Valley. Photo by Bradley Fisher

In retrospect, I wish I’d ridden the captivating 1,908-foot-long Salisbury Viaduct—a crossing atop a 101-foot-high steel trestle that spans the Casselman River Valley—over and back again, retracing my path. You can’t take in the panoramic vista of farmland and a wind farm, along with the river and train tracks below, in just one pass. It’s common to see or hear modern trains on the nearby CSX line, which now runs on the old Baltimore & Ohio line.

By midafternoon, with some 30 miles behind us, we arrive in Meyersdale, where we are welcomed by a bright mural highlighting the town’s history. We take a tour of the elegant Levi Deal Mansion, then relax on the front porch of Yoder’s Guest House, relishing the fact that we beat the rain.
When we tell our host, Denise Gehringer, about our plan for Day 3 (to head east to the Mason-Dixon Line and then double back, logging 24 miles round trip), she suggests riding the full 30 miles to Cumberland instead. “It’s all downhill,” she says. “Really.”

Her husband, Chuck, who is providing our post-ride transport back to our car in Ohiopyle, agrees to pick us up in Cumberland the next day.

It proves to be good advice. The route takes us through picturesque tunnels originally blasted to shorten train routes, including the cool and spooky Big Savage Tunnel. With its intermittent ceiling lights, it feels like a Victorian prison and seems even longer than its 3,294 feet.

Illustration by Laura Goode

Continuing on, we cross the famous Mason-Dixon Line, which is demarcated by a brick path, and stop at the Eastern Continental Divide to cheer ourselves on, knowing that the rest of the day’s journey is downhill. We can see the college town of Frostburg, Maryland, in the distance.

The Borden Tunnel, just north of Frostburg, is so dark I can’t see my bike; I can focus only on the light at the end of…you know. Emerging from the pitch black, we cycle into a deep mist and miss out on what are surely amazing views. Next time.

Janet, a Peloton devotee who’s left Margit and me in the dust a few times, is skeptical that we can stay on schedule to beat Beltway traffic home (it’s Monday). But we likely exceed the trail’s 15 mph rule as we fly down the steepest stretch of the route.

As we roll into Cumberland right on time, Chuck is waiting, and the now steady rain feels like a baptism of accomplishment.

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