Ohio River East-Pittsburgh to Cincinnati – Overview and Itinerary

This second “road” segment of my Washington D.C. to Kansas City, Missouri ride is down the remainder of the Ohio River from the Cincinnati, Ohio area .

From the 21st to the end of the month of August I’ll be riding what I am calling the Ohio River East” segment.  This part of the trip will see me cycling down one or the other bank of the Ohio, staying as close to the river as pavement will allow,  This turned out to be the most difficult of the trip’s various segments to plan, as high-speed roads that are not particularly cyclist friendly have all but obliterated their two lane predecessors in several places in this narrow valley of the upper Ohio River.  This situation is the main thing that will keep me switching from side to side of the river, which I will cross 11 times in the 483.1 mile/777.5 kilometer length of my route between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.  I’ll be at various times in four different states:  Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.

The Ohio River is the largest tributary of the Mississippi River, and is the tenth longest river in the United States at 981 miles/1,578.8 kilometers.  It drains an area of 204,000 square miles/529,000 square kilometers.

Ohio River Drainage 600 px

It has the third largest outflow at its mouth at Cairo, Illinois of the rivers in the U.S., 308,400 cubic feet/8,733 cubic meters of water per second, surpassed only by the Mississippi and St. Lawrence Rivers.  It discharges over four times the amount of water into the Mississippi as does the Missouri, and at Cairo its flow exceeds the Mississippi’s.  For a river that is so large, the Ohio has a remarkably short drop from its source in Pittsburgh to its mouth at Cairo: just 419 feet/127.7 meters.  This is a little less than six inches per mile/around eight centimeters per kilometer.  The river is navigable for its entire length due to a succession of 19 locks and dams operated by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.  Because the drop along the entire river is so minimal the dams do not impound the rivers flow as lakes.  Rather, the Ohio tends to look pretty much along its length exactly like what it is: a big river.  The valley that it runs through for almost its entire length contributes to this as well.  This valley is cut through the limestone that underlies much of the Midwestern U.S. and generally has a narrow floor with alluvial deposits creating narrow strips of land on one or both sides of the river and steep sides that often, especially in the valley above Cincinnati, take the form of rock cliffs.  The sides of the valley are fairly uniform in height along upper three quarters of the river, reaching between 100 to 300 feet/30 to 90 meters above the water.

Along the way down the Ohio on this segment there will be ten overnight stays, not counting the one with a Warmshowers host in the Cincinnati area.  I’ll stay in three state parks, three municipal campgrounds, and with a Warmshowers host in Ashland, Kentucky.  I’ll also spend an overnight in Powhatan Point, Ohio, but as this is written I don’t know whether that will be in a municipal park with permission or with a local area host (the extremely kind Assistant to the Mayor offered to let me camp in her yard if the village council is not forthcoming with permission to stay in the park).  Two days, the 18th and the 23rd, will be rest/slack days.

I’ll ride distances ranging from the longest at 65.5 miles/105.4 km between Maysville, Kentucky and Cincinnati and the shortest at 38.5 miles/62.0 km between Marietta, Ohio and Forked Run State Park.  My average distance over the eight riding days will be just a bit more than 60 miles/97 kilometers each day.  The terrain, like I said about my Mississippi River ride last fall [link], is downhill all the way (hey!- I’m riding down a river, remember?) except when its not.  In Pittsburgh as I stand with my bike at the point of Triangle Park I’ll be just above 710 feet/216.4 meters above sea level and just south of Cairo when I reach Fort Defiance at the southernmost tip of Illinois I will be a little above 290 feet/83.4 meters in elevation.  The elevation of the Ohio in Cincinnati is 455 feet/138.7 meters, about five-eighths of the river’s total drop.

OR at Cincinnati

The largest hill on the segment, around 500 feet/150 meters in elevation gain, is on the first day of the segment when I have to climb out of the river valley up to Tomlinson Run State Park.  That will be a challenge after all the easy hill climbing days since the start of the ride, and it is likely the biggest climb I will make the entire trip.  The rest of the hills over the course of the segment are nothing to write home about- the tallest are 250 to 300 footers/75 to 90 meters high.  In rural areas, though, roads up them can be quite steep as grades can approach and sometimes exceed ten percent.

I’ll be populating the individual day’s itineraries with information on an ongoing basis over the next couple of weeks, so if you are reading this before August 21st you should come back by or before that date to see the itinerary in a complete form.  This will allow me to get all the remaining itineraries up and then work on them at my leisure before I start riding the segment in a few weeks.  Thanks, as always, for following along

OR East All

Ride with GPS route [link].

Day 13 – Tuesday, August 21, 2018
Pittsburgh [notional] (Mile 334.8) to Tomlinson Run State Park Campground (Mile 390.7+3.7 miles off route)

OR East 13

59.6 miles/95.9 km.  Ride with GPS route [link].  Last day in Pennsylvania, first day in Ohio

Day 14 – Wednesday, August 22, 2018
Rest/Slack Day at Tomlinson Run State Park Campground

Day 15 – Thursday, August 23, 2018
Tomlinson Run State Park Campground (Mile 392.9+3.4 miles off route) to Powhatan Point, Ohio [notional] (Mile 447.8)

OR East 15

58.3 miles/93.8 km.  Ride with GPS route [link].

Day 16 – Friday, August 24, 2018
Powhatan Point, Ohio [notional] (Mile 447.8) to Washington County Campground (Mile 509.8+1.9 miles off route)

OR East 16

63.9 miles/102.8 km.  Ride with GPS route [link].

Day 17 – Saturday, August 25, 2018
Washington County Campground (Mile 509.8+1.9 miles off route) to Forked Run State Park Campground (Mile 547.2+0.6 miles off route)

OR East 17

38.5 miles/62.0 km.  Ride with GPS route [link].

Day 18 – Sunday, August 26, 2018
Forked Run State Park Campground (Mile 547.2+0.6 miles off route) to Krodel Park Campground (Mile 606.2+1.0 miles off route)

OR East 18

60.7 miles/97.7 km.  Ride with GPS route [link].

Day 19 – Monday, August 27, 2018
Rest/Slack Day at Krodel Park Campground

Day 20 – Tuesday, August 28, 2018
Krodel Park Campground (Mile 606.2+1.0 miles off route) to Ashland, Kentucky [notional] (Mile 668.9)

OR East 19

63.7 miles/102.5 km.  Ride with GPS route [link].  Last day in West Virginia, first day in Kentucky.

Day 21 – Wednesday, August 29, 2018
Ashland, Kentucky [notional] (Mile 668.9) to Shawnee State Park Campground (Mile 708.4+5.2 miles off route)

OR East 21

44.7 miles/71.9 km.  Ride with GPS route [link].

Day 22 – Thursday, August 30, 2018
Shawnee State Park Campground (Mile 708.4+5.2 miles off route) to Maysville River Park Marina (Mile 753.2+2.4 miles off route)

OR East 22

52.5 miles/84.5 km.  Ride with GPS route [link].

Day 23 – Friday, August 31, 2018
Maysville River Park Marina (Mile 753.2+2.4 miles off route) to Cincinnati, Ohio [notional] (Mile 816.3)

OR East 23

65.5 miles/105.4 km.  Ride with GPS route [link].


As I go over my Washington D.C. to Kansas City route mile-by-mile to create the itineraries, I have found a couple of little glitches and other tiny improvements that I could make.  And, one by one as I work my way east to west, I address them.  Here’s one I found this morning in connection with creating the Ohio River East segment itinerary.

Marietta Route Before

This is a portion of my route through Marietta, Ohio, where my plan was to cross the Muskingum River on the Putnam Bridge.  Somehow on my first couple of passes I missed the Harmar Bridge- an old railroad bridge that has been converted to pedestrian/bike use.  It doesn’t show up as a bike route in the Ride with GPS “Bike Paths” overlay, which is probably why.

Marietta Route After

So I moved the river crossing onto the Harmar Bridge and the rerouted bit is marked in blue.  This dropped the overall trip mileage from 1932.1 miles (3,109.4 km) to 1,930.9 miles (3,107.5 km).  No big deal, but then I had to go and update six maps that include the route change.  Another hour gone, and I only have about 100 of those left before I have to head out for the airport.

move on pilgrim

The GAP – The Itinerary

I’ll be on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) rail-trail for five full days starting mid-August on the 16th.  This translates out, given its almost exactly 150 mile/250 kilometer length, to notional 30 mile/50 kilometer days, depending on the availability of overnight camping opportunities.  As you will see, this is just about how it worked out.

MapOut GAP Segment with Overnights 180727-01

A significant difference between the GAP and the C&O Canal Towpath is that, unlike the Towpath, the GAP passes through a number of cities and towns that offer places to eat and to buy groceries and supplies.  The frequency of these places grows as the trail approaches Pittsburgh.  Where I might have had one opportunity in a day to eat at a restaurant or cafe along the Towpath, now I will have at the least two or three, and later along the way many more.

Day 8 – Thursday, August 16, 2018
Evitt’s Creek Hiker/Biker Campground (Mile 180.0) to Maple Festival Campground (GAP Mile 32.0/Mile 216.7+0.3 miles off route)

MapOut GAP - Day 08

Four and a half miles ’til breakfast!

Sausage biscuit

There’s a McDonald’s just off the end of the towpath in Cumberland, Maryland so I’ll be able to start my ride up the GAP properly fueled with sausage-egg biscuity goodness.  I’ll take a few minutes to stop at the Visitor Center there as well, as it sounds like there’s a nice exhibit area covering the GAP and the Canal and Towpath.

With breakfast out of the way and the end of the Towpath in my rear view mirror I will start up the GAP.  And “up” in this case is very apt.  For the next 23.5 miles I will climb about 1,800 feet/550 meters up to the Eastern Continental Divide, from which rivers flow to the east out to the Atlantic Ocean and to the west down to the Gulf of Mexico.  When I complete this ride I will be able to say that over two seasons I will have followed that flow down to the Gulf, in that this year I will ride along the length of the Ohio River and a couple of its sources from here to Cairo, Illinois and last year I rode, as part of my ride down the length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to Venice, Louisiana out on the delta [link], from that city out to that river’s mouth.

But back to up.  I’ve addressed why this isn’t really quite all what it seems in my overview of the GAP segment [link].

GAP Elevation Profile - Full

The 36.8 miles/59.2 kilometers I’ll ride today will head relentlessly but gradually up for about two-third of that distance.  I’m sure that I’ll be going more slowly than my usual ten mile/16 kilometer per hour pace while I’m touring, but that will just give me more time to see the really sights the day has to offer.  On the way up I’ll pass Bone Cave [link], where a cut into a hillside created during the construction of the Western Maryland railroad exposed a cavern filled with prehistoric fossils, iconic Helmstetter Curve,

Helmstetter Curve wsig 999px.pngBase image Credit: jpmueller99Flickr: Helmstetter’s Curve

914 foot/278.6 meter long Brush Tunnel, 957 foot/291.7 meter long Borden Tunnel, the Maryland Pennsylvania border and Mason-Dixon Line, and finally, just before reaching the divide, the 3,294 foot/one kilometer long Big Savage Tunnel.

I expect to reach the divide- the crest of the Appalachian Mountains in this area- around mid-afternoon.  From there it will be a nice gentle downhill run the remaining eight and a half miles/13.7 kilometers into Meyersdale, Pennsylvania and the city’s Maple Festival Campground.  On the way down to Meyersville I’ll cross the 909 foot/277 meter long Keystone Viaduct and the Bollman Bridge [link].

Bollman Truss DetailImage credit: Library of Congress, U.S. Government work

Here’s a summary of the day’s highlights (trip mileage is second figure):

  • Cumberland, Maryland/Visitor Center (GAP Mile 0/Mile 184.5)
  • Bone Cave (GAP Mile 4.1/Mile 188.6)
  • Helmstetter Curve (Gap Mile 5.5/Mile 190)
  • Brush Tunnel (GAP Mile 6.5/Mile 191.0)
  • Frostburg, Maryland/Depot and Roundtable (GAP Mile 15.7/Mile 200.2)
  • Borden Tunnel (GAP Mile 17.9/Mile 202.4)
  • MD-PA border/Mason-Dixon Line (GAP Mile 20.8/Mile 205.3)
  • Big Savage Tunnel (GAP Mile 22.1/Mile 206.6)
  • Eastern Continental Divide (GAP Mile 23.9/Mile 208.4)
  • Keystone Viaduct (GAP Mile 30.0/Mile 214.5)
  • Bollman Bridge (GAP Mile 30.6/Mile 215.1)

Day 9 – Friday, August 17, 2018
Maple Festival Campground (GAP Mile 32.0/Mile 216.7+0.3 miles off route) to Outflow Campground (GAP Mile 61.6/Mile 247.5+0.1 miles off route)

MapOut GAP - Day 09

My second day riding the GAP will start with a quick look around Meyersdale and maybe a bite of breakfast if I see somewhere that appeals.  I will ride all day pretty much right alongside the Casselman River to its mouth on the Youghiogheny, which I hopefully will have learned to pronounce correctly by the time I get there.  A few miles out of Meyersdale I will cross the river to its south bank on the 1,908 foot/581.6 meter Salisbury Viaduct, and ride on that side the rest of the day.

Salisbury Viaduct 02 wsig 999pxBase image credit: Public domain

I’ll pass the small towns of Garrett, Rockwood and Markleton across the Casselman: there are bridges to get to each, but I probably will just enjoy the view from the trail unless I spot or hear about something in any of them of particular interest.  Sometime in the afternoon I will reach the 849 foot/258.8 meter Pinkerton Tunnel, which was restored and opened for trail use just a few years ago.  Just about exactly 30 miles/50 kilometers down the GAP I will roll into the city of Confluence, Pennsylavania, where I will grab some dinner and then set up camp for the night at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Outflow Campground just after crossing the Youghiogheny for the first time.

These are today’s points of interest:

  • Salisbury Viaduct (GAP Mile 33.6/Mile 218.3)
  • Garrett (GAP Mile 36.6/Mile 221.3)
  • Rockwood (GAP Mile 43.9/Mile 228.6)
  • Markleton (GAP Mile 50.0/Mile 234.7)
  • Pinkerton Tunnel (GAP Mile 51.9/Mile 236.6)

Day 10 – Saturday, August 18, 2018
Outflow Campground (GAP Mile 61.6/Mile 247.5+0.1 miles off route) to Stewart’s Crossing Hiker/Biker Campground (GAP Mile 89.6/Mile 275.5)

MapOut GAP - Day 10

My third day riding on the GAP is also my last day in the Appalachian Mountains, more specifically here called the Alleghenies, which I will formally leave heading to the west at Connellsville, Pennsylvania, my destination for the day.  The ride all day is along the west bank of the Youghiogheny River (truth be told there’s a brief foray onto the east bank just after passing through the village of Ohiopyle via the Low and High Bridges),

Ohiopyle Topo Detail 700px

which I’ve learned the local folks just call the “Yock.”  That’s fine with me, as who has time to learn how to pronounce Youghiogheny?

So the Yock provides some excellent scenery along this stretch, flowing in a deeply carved gorge much of the way, with just enough room alongside for the GAP and the CSX tracks on the other side of the river.

Topo Map Yock Inset

Satellite Map Yock Inset

Yep.  Just me, my bike, the Yock and a 200 car freight train.  Just sayin’.

Yock up close

The highlight of all this beauty is Ohiopyle State Park, which is centered around the town of the same name.  Hmmmm… Ohiopyle.  Wonder if there’s a short name for that?

There’s plenty of info on the Internet about this amazing place, so I won’t repeat it here.  The state of Pennsylvania’s official site is a good place to start [link].

Ohiopyle Falls wsig 999pxBase image Credit: Kathy from just livin’ in a small town in SW PA, USA (Creative Commons 2.0)

So today’s ride should be 28.1 miles/45.2 kilometers of pure scenic pleasure.  I’ll grab some breakfast in Confluence, Pennsylvania on the way out of town and then have dinner in Connellsville on the way in to my hiker/biker campground just past the city center.  Particular points of interest are:

  • Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania/Ohiopyle State Park (GAP Mile 70.9/Mile 256.8)
  • Low Bridge (GAP Mile 71.0/Mile 256.9)
  • Ferncliff Natural Area (GAP Mile 71.1/Mile 257.0)
  • High Bridge (GAP Mile 71.3/Mile 257.2)
  • Jonathan Run Falls trail (GAP Mile 74.3/Mile 260.2+0.2 miles off route walk)
  • Sugar Run Falls trail (GAP Mile 74.4/Mile 260.3+0.2 miles off route walk)
  • Yough River Gorge Overlook (GAP Mile 76.1/Mile 262.0)
  • Bowest Junction/Sheepskin Rail-trail (GAP Mile 86.0/Mile 271.9)

I’ve talked with Katie at The Bike Shop in Ohiopyle [link] and she indicated that I could park my bike securely there while walking around the village and the adjacent Ferncliff Natural Area trail.  You encounter the greatest folks on rides like this.   My wife has pressed me to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece Fallingwater [link], which is almost four miles off the route at Ohiopyle, but that’s unfortunately unlikely.

Fallingwater 999pxBase image Credit: Public Domain

Aside from adding an additional eight miles/13 kilometers of pedaling to a day that already looks pretty busy, about a mile/1.6 kilometers of that extra riding is up a ten percent grade, and it’s almost as bad on the way back.   Just to look at the place costs ten bucks, as well.  So, I guess you always wind up leaving something for the next time you’re through the area.  So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Day 11 – Sunday, August 19, 2018
Stewart’s Crossing Hiker/Biker Campground (GAP Mile 89.6/Mile 275.5) to Dravo Landing Hiker/Biker Campground (GAP Mile 122.7/Mile 308.5)

MapOut GAP - Day 11

Day four on the GAP will find me out of the mountains and cycling through the heart of America’s coal country south of Pittsburgh.  The mines here were largely worked out by the mid-20th century, leaving behind a lot of historical evidence, including the abandoned rail corridor that became the GAP.  My 33 mile/55 kilometer ride today will start with a couple of sausage-egg biscuits at the Connellsville McDonald’s, conveniently located near the trail,

Sausage biscuit

and I will then then get back to working my way up the west bank of the Yock, which I will have just over my right shoulder all day.  All the little cities and towns I will ride through are former “coal patch” company towns, developed along with the mining operations to provide housing and services to the workers and owners.  I’ll see the ruins of many of these mines along the trail, and the “beehive ovens” that were used to turn the coal into coke, an almost pure form of carbon that was then taken by rail down to Pittsburgh and the blast furnaces of the steel mills there.

Coal and Coke Area 700pxImage Credit: Public Domain

Mid-morning I’ll likely go briefly off-route and cross the river to look at community of Dawson, which is designated a National Historic District for its well-preserved 19th century central business district and surrounding residential area.  I’ll also take a brief off-route excursion into the community of Perryopolis, which has a “wagon-wheel” central city layout designed by George Washington.

Perryopolis 700px

There’s also a restored grist mill built by Washington (or more likely by people who worked for him) on the road into town.  I’ll take a look at that as well.  Later in the day I’ll ride through West Newton, a larger city, and pick up an early supper and, if I need them, any replacement supplies I might need.  I should reach the hiker/biker campground where I’ll stop for the night by mid-afternoon, which will give me time to walk around the adjacent Historic Dravo Cemetery [link], where veterans of the War of 1812 and of the Civil War are buried.

  • Adelaide, Pennsylvania (GAP Mile 91.1/Mile 277.0)
  • Dawson, Pennsylvania (GAP Mile 93.5/Mile 279.4+0.2 miles off route)
  • Perryopolis/George Washington Mill (GAP Mile 101.0/Mile 286.9+1.2 miles off route)
  • Whitsett (GAP Mile 103.1/Mile 289.0)

Day 12 – Monday, August 20, 2018
Dravo Landing Campground (GAP Mile 122.7/Mile 308.5) to Pittsburgh [notional] (GAP Mile 149.0/Mile 334.8)

MapOut GAP - Day 12

My last day on the GAP will be largely spent in the greater Pittsburgh area.  The trail becomes, once I reach McKeesport, Pennsylvania, more or less an urban bike path through a predominately industrial area.

Industrial Area 999px

I’ll eat breakfast somewhere in McKeesport- more or less whatever I spot along the trail that looks good.  The Youghiogheny Yock empties into the Monongahela River here, and I’ll be in sight of the latter and cross it several times on my way to its confluence with the Allegheny River and the beginning of the Ohio, which marks the start of the next segment of my ride.

The day, at 26.3 miles/42.3 kilometers, is the shortest mileage on the GAP and also the shortest that I have planned on the whole ride.  I figure that, because the trail here is often paved, that I’ll move right along, but I hope to have some time to look around downtown Pittsburgh at the end of the day.  There’ll also be plenty of post-industrial era landscape to take photos of.

IndustryBase image Credit: Public Domain

Right before I arrive at the downtown I’ll cross the Monongahela on the Hot Metal Bridge [link], a cool artifact of a former day when Pittsburgh was the steel capital of the world.  Seventy-five years ago up to 180 tons/163,000 kilograms of molten iron an hour, 24 hours a day, were carried across the Monongahela in crucibles over the bridge.  Now it carries the GAP.

I’ll be staying with a Warmshowers host in Pittsburgh, so my planned end point for the day at the tip of Triangle Park at the beginning of the Ohio River is notional.  I likely will ride there, take some photos, and then on to my host’s home for the night.  We’ll see.

  • Hot Metal Bridge (GAP Mile 144.4/Mile 330.2)

In the morning, the 20th of August, I’ll be back on pavement and starting the third segment of my ride: The Ohio River – from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati.  That’ll be next coming up on the blog.  Thanks for stopping by.

The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) – A Brief Overview

Wheel full 70pxAfter riding the last four miles or so of the C&O Canal Towpath into Cumberland, Maryland the morning of August 16, 2018, the eighth day of my trip, I will start immediately on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) rail-trail to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here’s what that looks like on a map.

MapOut GAP Segment with Overnights 180716-01

Wheel full 70pxMeasured on Ride with GPS the GAP is 150.2 miles/241.7 kilometers from its seamless start at the end of the C&O Canal Towpath in Cumberland to the tip of Triangle Park in front of the fountain at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers forming the Ohio River in Pittsburgh.

GAP ends hereBase image credit: Public domain

I say measured on Ride with GPS because the Great Allegheny Press’s “Trailguide” [link] says that the GAP is 148 miles/238.2 kilometers long.  I’m going to go with the longer figure, as the Trailguide’s number may well be based on the trail ending at a… well, gap that has only recently been completed along downtown Pittsburgh’s Monongahela riverfront.

Wheel full 70pxThe GAP and the Towpath’s differing current condition reflects their different origins.  Where the Towpath is largely a compacted dirt path that sometimes looks like a one lane road with grass growing in the middle and is made up of level stretches between short inclines at the locks the GAP is a typical rail trail- a repurposed railbed with a rideable gravel surface- often “crusher run”- with an up and down elevation profile.


Looks like up and down. right?

Wheel full 70pxWell, just like you can lie with statistics, you can also do that with elevation profiles. That horrific looking shark-fin of a climb between Cumberland and the Eastern Continental Divide is, in actuality, a gentle, steady just slightly less than two percent grade all the way up.  That’s because the Western Maryland Railroad, the tracks of which became the GAP in this area, had a controlling grade- in other words the maximum allowed- on this line of two percent.   The reason it looks so daunting on the elevation profile is bcause the “distance” axis is 150 miles/250 kilometers long while the elevation axis is only 2,000 feet/600 meters- four-tenths of a mile/two thirds of a km- tall.  The profile thus exaggerates the vertical axis by a factor of about 125 times.

Wheel full 70pxBut just because the upgrade is two percent doesn’t mean that cycling this part of the GAP is the same as riding on a nice flat parking lot.  That’s a rise of two feet/60 centimeters for every 100 feet/300 meters that you ride.  How hard in general is that?  I’ve long used in discussions of grade and bicycling a chart put out there by the Bike Hudson Valley club on its website [link], as it strikes me as describing pretty much the way hills affect me.


So another way of look at what is said here is that, over the 22 miles/35.4 kilometers of the 1,800 foot/550 meter or so climb between Cumberland at about 600 feet/180 meters above sea level and the summit- the Eastern Continental Divide- at about 2,400 feet/730 meters in elevation, the effort required will be equivalent to a 44 mile/71 kilometer ride on the flat.  That’s not insignificant, and when you take into account that the climb is both relentless- there’s no breaks- and is on an unpaved albeit decent surface, well… you get the picture.  There’s always the roughly 75 mile/120 kilometer downhill after you reach the divide to look forward to.

Wheel full 70pxAs was the case with my discussion of the history of the C&O Canal and Towpath in a previous post, I’ll touch on a few high points and leave it at that, as there is a fairly comprehensive presentation of this information in the TrailGuide.  The Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad was the first to build trackage through the Cumberland-Pittsburgh corridor, completing it in 1871.  About ten years later the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie (P&LE) Railroad built a spur paralleling the B&O from Pittsburgh to Connellsville to carry coal and coke to steel mills from large deposits found along the Youghiogheny River, which flows through the area.  In the early 20th century the Western Maryland Railroad laid tracks over the crest of the Appalachians between Cumberland and Connellsville, connecting to the P&LE there.  By 1975, though, there was not enough freight traffic to sustain both the B&O, which would a decade later become CSX, and the Western Maryland/P&LE line, in that the tracks of each were along most of the route just a few yards/meters from the other.  The Western Maryland began abandoning sections of trackage first.  The P&LE followed in the the 1980s following the closure of the last large coal mine in the area.  By 1991 all of the Western Maryland and P&LE lines had been abandoned.

Wheel full 70pxThe creation of the rail-trail that ultimately grew into the GAP began on the late 1970s with the private purchase of 27 miles/43.5 kilometers of abandoned Western Maryland right-of-way followed by ts subsequent donation to the state of Pennsylvania.  Construction of the rail-trail began in the state’s Ohiopyle State Park and, by 1986 the first nine mile/14.5 kilometer stretch opened between the park and the north side of Confluence, Pennsylvania.  Groups urging construction of more trail mileage were formed along the length of the abandoned lines and began purchasing additional parcels of the right-of-way.  In 1995 all the groups merged into the Allegheny Trail Alliance.  There was steady progress on assembling the land needed and then building the trail.  The Trailguide states that over eighty million dollars has been raised and spent to bring the GAP, less a short section along the Monongahela River waterfront in Pittsburgh, to completion, which was officially declared in 2013.  This date marks the opening of a now continuous off-road cycling route from downtown Washington, D.C. to downtown Pittsburgh via the C&O Canal Towpath and the GAP.  I’ll note that the state of Pennsylvania and City of Pittsburgh stepped in to build that last piece: the Mon Wharf Ramp, which maintains the GAP off-road around the spaghetti tangle of freeway ramps along the Monongahela just south of the city center.  It opens this year.  The year 2018 also marks the 40th anniversary of the first acquisition of land for construction of the GAP

Wheel full 70pxI’ll spend more time describing the various tunnels and high viaducts that are found along the GAP when I complete the daily itinerary that will be posted on this blog shortly.

Salisbury Viaduct 999pxBase image credit: Public domain

Suffice it to say for now that there are incredible things to be seen along the length of the GAP in addition to the tremendous physical beauty of the area through which it passes.

Wheel full 70pxThe surface of the Towpath, as noted, is generally small gravel or crusher run, solidly compacted.  There are a few asphalt sections, particularly as the trail nears Pittsburgh.  Nothing I have read gives me any concern that the GAP will present any particular challenge to my loaded touring bike.

Wheel full 70pxAs is the case with the C&O Towpath, there are fairly evenly spaced opportunities for the bikepacking cyclist to camp along the Towpath.  Along with several commercial campgrounds there are a couple of no-cost “Hiker/Biker” primitive campsites.  Once again these latter sites are first come-first served but the etiquette of cyclists making room for a later arrival reportedly holds true.  I plan to stay at a municipal campground, an Army Corps of Engineers campground and two Hiker/Biker sites as I ride my five days along the GAP, plus with a WarmShowers host in the Pittsburgh area.

RwGPS GAP Segment with Overnights 180716-01

Wheel full 70pxIf you draw a straight line between Cumberland and Pittsburgh it heads in an almost perfect northwest direction.  This distance crossed by the line is 85 miles/136.8 kilometers, so you can see that, at almost twice as long between the two cities, the Gap winds around a bit.  In Cumberland I will still be on the east side of the Appalachian Mountains.  The Gap leaves the North Fork of the Potomac River almost immediately then climbs along small streams to the Eastern Continental Divide 23.5 miles/37.8 kilometers past Cumberland.  Coming down the other side the GAP follows Flaherty Creek to Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, then runs along the banks of the Casselman River for just over 30 miles/50 kilometers to Confluence, Pennsylvania, then along the Youghiogheny for about 40 miles/65 kilometers to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, then finally along the Monongahela River for 15 miles/25 kilometers to its confluence with the Allegheny River just past downtown Pittsburgh.  The Appalachian Mountains are left behind at Connellsville, Pennsylvania at the 90 mile/145 kilometer point, although the terrain around the river valleys is anything but flat along the remaining distance.

Wheel full 70pxA great online resource to accompany the TrailGuide is the Great Allegheny Passage website [link].  Finally, here’s an area map of Pennsylvania and surrounding states with the route of the Gap highlighted in blue.

Rand McNally GAP Segment 180724-01© 2018 RandMcNally, fair use asserted

Wheel full 70pxNext up:  My itinerary for the first segment of the ride down the Ohio River- from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, along with some pre-ride comments.

The C&O Canal Towpath – The Itinerary

Wheel full 70pxAs I’ve previously noted I’ll spend six riding days and the smidgen of a seventh on the C&O Canal Towpath from its east to its west end at Cumberland, Maryland. Here’s the entire towpath

MapOut C&O Segment with Overnights 180714-01

and here’s each day’s ride:

Day 1 – Thursday, August 9, 2018
Washington, D.C. (Mile 0) to Chisel Branch Hiker/Biker Campground (Mile 30.5)

MapOut C&O Canal - Day 01

Wheel full 70pxThe Canal and Towpath begin in the Georgetown area of D.C.  Several sources I have looked at say that finding the actual start of the Canal is a bit “tricky,” but I’ve found the the Great Allegheny Press’s “Trailguide” [link] to be a great resource in that regard.  On page 96 of the 14th Edition it notes:

From the C&O Visitor Center near Lock 3, walk or bike on the brick sidewalk with the canal on your right.  After 29th Street the brick path ends at Rock Creek Parkway Trail.  Turn right onto the asphalt sidewalk.  Cross the entrance ramp of the Whitehurst Freeway; pass underneath K Street; then cross the exit ramp.  At the Thompson Boat Center sign, turn right into the parking lot.  Cross Rock Creek Bridge.  Bear left around the Boat Center and pass between the boat house and river.  Pass around a stockade fence.  Cross over the inlet lock footbridge to reach the granite monument marking Mile 0.

Sheesh!  I’ll have to pack a lunch just to get to the start of the ride!

Wheel full 70pxThe Trailguide also provides a map, which would appear to me to make everything pretty straightforward.

Georgetown detail map 999px

© 2018 Great Allegheny Press, fair use asserted

Wheel full 70pxI want to make sure everyone understands that there’s no intent to leech off all the hard work that the Great Allegheny Press folks have put into the Trailguide.  In fact, if you plan to ride the Towpath or GAP, you really need to buy a copy buy a copy [link].  In addition to providing really useful information like the above, the purchase of the Trailguide as the proceeds are reinvested in the Towpath and GAP trail.

Projects like helping with rockslides at Paw Paw Tunnel and near Sutersville, PA, signage, rehabbing the Pinkerton Tunnel to eliminate a detour, help with resurfacing the towpath near Hancock, a few bike repair stations, and a blueprint for improving the towpath were funded with proceeds from this publication.

Trailguide, 14th Edition, p. 9

Wheel full 70pxBack to Georgetown.

Georgetown 1915 map 999px

I have two days to ride around Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia- the 7th and the 8th– before I start the ride.  One thing I plan to do is ride the Towpath in Georgetown so that I can take the several hundred photos that I know I will want to take of this incredibly historic and scenic area.  Bonus: I’ll scout out the start of the Towpath so I can get an immediate start on the 9th.

Wheel full 70pxOnce out of Georgetown I’ll pass a number of “must see” scenic and historic sites.  These include

  • The Potomac Gorge (Towpath Mile 2)
  • Maryland State Line (Towpath Mile 4.7)
  • Cabin John Bridge (Towpath Mile 7.7)
  • Carderock area (Towpath Mile 10.8)
  • Great Falls area and Overlook (Towpath Mile 14)
  • Seneca Creek Aqueduct (Towpath Mile 22.8)

Wheel full 70pxI’ll say a few words here about the Bike Washington C&O Canal Towpath web pages [link].  While the Trailguide provides an excellent overview of the Towpath’s route, the Bike Washington site is where you should then go for detail.  It provides mile by mile info in a handy form [link].

Bike Washington Mile by Mile Example 800px

For iPhone users like myself a lot of Bike Washington’s info is available on an app [link], so it can be easily accessible on a ride.  A huge amount of work has gone into putting all this together and kudos are well deserved by all involved.

Wheel full 70pxThis first day on the Towpath includes a C&O Canal and Towpath major scenic highlight: the Great Falls of the Potomac.  Starting at around Towpath Mile 12, the Great Falls area presents incredible natural beauty and a stunning illustration of the sort of challenges and obstacles the builders of the C&O Canal faced almost 200 years ago.  The National Park Service has created a nice detail map of the Towpath from Mile 0 to the Great Falls area.

NPS Potomac River Gorge Map 999px

It is a shame maps at this level of detail aren’t available for the entire Towpath.  The NPS also has a very detailed map of the Great Falls area itself.  While the map is mainly for the benefit of hikers, it gives an excellent sense of the things that there are to stop and see in this amazing place.

NPS Great Falls Trail Map 999px

Wheel full 70pxI was briefly confused by the use of the term “aqueducts” in connection with the Canal and Towpath.  I had a concept of an aqueduct as a channel, often depicted up on a bridge, to carry water into an urban area or an agricultural zone.

Pont du Gard wsig

There are eleven aqueducts along the route of the C&O Canal and Towpath.  I’ll see the first of these today at Mile 22.8 across Seneca Creek.  These aqueducts carry the Canal and Towpath over the various small streams that flow into the Potomac.  They are beautiful works of early 19th century civil engineering and the Park Service has done an incredible job restoring and preserving them.

Wheel full 70pxI am assuming that today’s ride will take all day long due to the numerous stops I will be making to take photos and just to see the sights.  Once outside of Georgetown there are no cities or towns that I will pass through before arriving at Chisel Branch Hiker/Biker Campground.  I will plan to grab lunch at the Great Falls Snack Bar about halfway through the ride and will carry a cold supper in my panniers.

Day 2 – Friday, August 10, 2018
Chisel Branch Hiker/Biker Campground (Mile 30.5) to Teahorse Hostel (Mile 60.4 + 1.3 miles off route)

MapOut C&O Canal - Day 02

Wheel full 70pxOn the second day of my ride up the Towpath I’ll pedal 31.4 miles/50.5 kilometers from the Chisel Branch Hiker/Biker Campground to the historic city of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  During the day I’ll pass through a gap in the first outlier ridge of the Appalachian Mountains at the community of Point of Rocks, Virginia, deal with a detour around a section of the Towpath that is closed due to a culvert washing out, and enter West Virgina, a state of which I’ll see much more, in a couple of weeks, for the first time on the ride.  I may also decide to do a “there and back” crossing of the Potomac on White’s Ferry, which operates at a location from which there has been continuous ferry service since 1817.

  • White’s Ferry (Towpath Mile 31.7)
  • Monocacy Aqueduct (Towpath Mile 42.1)
  • Point of Rocks, Virginia (Towpath Mile 48.2)
  • Catoctin Creek Aqueduct (Towpath Mile 51.5)
  • Brunswick, Virginia (Towpath Mile 55)

Wheel full 70pxIt looks like I’ll have to deal with a detour around a place on the towpath where a culvert has washed out and not yet been repaired near the Catoctin Creek Aqueduct.

Brunswick Detour - Detour Route complete

There’s about 6.7 miles of local roads to navigate in making the detour.  Reportedly they are hilly and narrow, and the Park Service tries to discourage riding on them and recommends arranging a shuttle through the area instead.

There is no detour in place at this time due to unsafe conditions on adjacent roadways.

Wheel full 70pxWell, clearly there is a detour.  And it’s a free country and those are public roads.  I have a hard time imagining that they present a worse challenge than, say, the miles of mountainous narrow high traffic highways I tour on up here in Alaska.  A shuttle may be fine for some, but I think I’ll take a pass on it and brave the “no detour” detour.

Wheel full 70pxOr, maybe not.  A friend who will remain anonymous has let me know that he rode up to the washed out culvert, unpacked his bike, carried it across the ankle-deep stream, went back and made a second trip with his panniers, reloaded the bike and was on his way.  Sounds like a plan to me.  We’ll see.

Wheel full 70pxIt looks like Point of Rocks will be a nice place to stop for lunch.  I can get dinner in either Brunswick or after I arrive in Harpers Ferry.  Probably I’ll just stop at a store and get hard sausage and a piece of cheese.  Hey!  I like sausage and cheese, the perfect cycling dinner.

Cheese and Sausage 600px

Day 3 – Saturday, August 11, 2018
Harpers Ferry (Rest/Slack Day)

Wheel full 70pxHarpers Ferry!

John Brown 999px

Well, that is what comes to my mind, anyway.

Wheel full 70pxJohn Brown’s 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal  is just a small piece of the history of this gem-like little town, now largely historically preserved by the National Park Service.  It is a major Civil War location as well.  Here’s a map of Harpers Ferry and the surrounding area that will give you an idea of the size of the Park Service’s holdings in the area.

NPS Harpers Ferry Full Inset Box 999px

Due to the large size of that map I have outlined the central area of Harpers Ferry appearing in the map below with a gray dashed line.

NPS Harpers Ferry Central 999px

Here’s a National Park Service isometric map of the historic area downtown and immediate environs.

NPS Harpers Ferry Downtown 999px

Wheel full 70pxHarpers Ferry is located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.

Old Map Harpers Ferry

It is here that Virginia gives way to its poor relation sibling West Virginia; a result of the division between slave and free factions during the Civil War.  Beyond its historic significance, the city is a major milestone along the 2,178 mile/3,505.2 kilometer Appalachian Trail in being located on the trail’s approximate midpoint and in being the home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and its Visitor Center.

Wheel full 70pxI’m taking my first rest/slack day of the trip here not so much because I think I’ll need on, but because I have just always wanted to see the place.  A day will give me enough time to walk around the historic district, visit the ATC Visitor Center (I’m a frustrated wannabe through-hiker) and just hang out in general.  I have reservations for two nights at the Teahorse Hostel, which reportedly serves a nice breakfast.  I’ll have secure storage for my bike and gear there, so I won’t be worried about being away from it for a while while I look around.  I’m sure many photos will be taken.

Day 4 – Sunday, August 12, 2018
Teahorse Hostel (Mile 60.4 + 1.3 miles off route) to Opequon Junction Hiker/Biker Campground (Mile 92.7)

MapOut C&O Canal - Day 04

Wheel full 70pxPresumably refreshed by a nice breakfast on the way out of Teahorse Hostel, I’ll leave Harpers Ferry and West Virginia on the bike/footbridge across the Potomac, then get back on the Towpath and ride 32.3 miles/52 kilometers mainly in a north-northwesterly direction to Opequon Junction Hiker/Biker Campground.  The highlight of today’s ride is the Antietam Battlefield- the site of the bloodiest day of the Civil War.

  • Antietam Aqueduct (Towpath Mile 69.3)
  • Shepherdstown, West Virginia via VA State Route 34 (Towpath Mile 74.1)
  • Sharpsburg and Antietam Battlefield via Snyders Landing Road (Towpath Mile 78+1.5 miles off route)

Wheel full 70pxI probably will not stop in Shepherdstown, but will instead enjoy the view into it across the river.  This is because I will add about 10 road miles/16 kilometers to the day by riding off the Towpath into Sharpsburg and visiting the Antietam Battlefield.

NPS Antietam Battlefield Map 999px

I’ll cycle around the battlefield roads and reflect on the sad chapter in our history that led to the preservation of this otherwise lovely place.  After leaving the battlefield I’ll stop in Sharpsburg for lunch and to pick up a cold supper to eat at the campground.

Day 5 – Monday, August 13, 2018
Opequon Junction Hiker/Biker Campground (Mile 92.7) to Little Pool Hiker/Biker Campground (Mile 122.2)

MapOut C&O Canal - Day 05

Wheel full 70pxMy first McDonald’s breakfast of the trip will likely happen today.

Sausage biscuit

The restaurant is about a mile off route in Williamsport, Maryland.  I should have a nice appetite worked up by the time I get there.  I’ll look around the city, check out the Visitor Center, pick up a cold supper and other supplies at a grocery, and head back to the Towpath.  The remainder of the day does not have any “big ticket” things to see.  Rather, it’s just a nice ride through an area that, as I ride further into the western part of the state of Maryland, is becoming more mountainous, remote and thinly settled.  There are no places to eat or stores along the Towpath for the rest of the day past Williamsport.

  • Williamsport, Maryland/C&O Canal Visitor Center (Towpath Mile 99.4)
  • Conococheague Aqueduct (Towpath Mile 99.5)
  • Charles Mill Ruins (Towpath Mile 108.1)
  • Four Locks area (Towpath Mile 108.6)
  • Fort Frederick (Towpath Mile 112.1)
  • Big Pool (Towpath Mile 112.5-114)
  • Western Maryland RR Rail-Trail – east end access (Towpath Mile 114.5)

Wheel full 70pxThe ride is fairly short today: 29.5 miles/just slightly less than 50 kilometers.  I am undecided as to whether I will stay on the Towpath or take the paved Western Maryland RR Rail-Trail that runs parallel to it just a few tens of yards/meters away.  I guess it will depend on the condition that the Towpath surface has been in.  We’ll see.

Day 6 – Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Little Pool Hiker/Biker Campground (Mile 122.2) to Stickpile Hill Hiker/Biker Campground (Mile 151.2)

MapOut C&O Canal - Day 06

Wheel full 70pxThe sixth day of my ride is another just under 30 mile/50 kilometer day.  Almost immediately after I start in the morning I will ride through Hancock, Maryland.  There’s no McDonald’s here, but I should be able to find a nice local café.  Once again I’ll stop to pick up cold food for supper, as there is nowhere else along the Towpath to stop for the rest of the day except for a bar: Bill’s Place, near the hamlet of Little Orleans.

  • Hancock, Maryland (Towpath Mile 124.1)
  • Western Maryland RR Rail-Trail – west end access (Towpath Mile 136.3)
  • Little Orleans (Towpath Mile 140.8)

The Canal and Towpath have entered the central Appalachians today.

River Bends near Little Orleans with image credit

Potomac River bends around New Orleans, which is in the center of the image

The land is incredibly rugged on both sides of the Potomac, and the ability of the river to carve the narrow gap I will ride in is almost incomprehensible.

Day 7 – Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Stickpile Hill Hiker/Biker Campground (Mile 151.2) to Evitts Creek Hiker/Biker Campground (Mile 180.0)

MapOut C&O Canal - Day 07

Wheel full 70pxThe final day of my ride on the Towpath will have its challenges.  Well, one challenge, actually, but it is a big one.

Paw Paw Tunnel Downstream Portal w image credit 999px

Paw Paw Tunnel, downstream portal

The Paw Paw Tunnel is expected to be closed, per the Park Service, starting August 1st [link] in order to allow continued stabilization of the cliffs that the Towpath runs next to as it approaches the downstream portal.  As I will miss that date by about two weeks, this will require that I make a strenuous “over the mountain” detour, of which I will say more below.

Wheel full 70pxThe day’s cycling is the shortest of the full days on the Towpath at just under 29 miles.  I’ll get lunch in Paw Paw, West Virginia at the convenience story there.  Just after I pass the Forks of the Potomac- the Canal and Towpath follow the North Fork- I’ll make another foray into West Virginia, this time into the hamlet of Green Spring and will, as has become the custom, pick up some items for a cold supper.  From there it will be a couple more hours to the outskirts of Cumberland, Maryland and Evitt’s Creek Hiker/Biker Campground.

  • Paw Paw Tunnel – downstream entrance (Towpath Mile 155.2)
  • Paw Paw Tunnel – upstream entrance (Towpath Mile 155.8)
  • Paw Paw, West Virginia via MD State Highway 51 (Towpath Mile 155.2+1 mile off route)
  • Town Creek Aqueduct (Towpath Mile 162.3)
  • Forks of the Potomac (Towpath Mile 165.1)
  • Old Town Lockhouse (Towpath Mile 166.7)
  • Green Spring, West Virginia via toll bridge (Towpath Mile 168+0.5 miles off route)

Wheel full 70pxThe Paw Paw Tunnel detour is a big deal.  Beyond missing the experience of cycling through this masterwork of 19th century civil engineering, I will have to walk my loaded bike up a dirt path that climbs an almost 400 or so foot/120 meter ridge which at some points exceeds a 15% grade and then walk it down the other comparably steep side.

Paw Paw Tunnel 999px

I’m figuring that this one and a quarter mile long death march will easily take a couple of hours.  I am not looking forward to it.

Wheel full 70pxSo on Wednesday, August 16th, I’ll get up, pack my gear on my bike, and ride the last four miles/six and a half kilometers of the Towpath.  When I reach the middle of the city of Cumberland and the end of the C&O Canal, the Towpath will become the Great Allegheny Passage- the GAP, and I will be more than halfway from the start of my trip in Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  That segment of my ride will be coming up next- thanks for following along.

A Couple of Admin Notes

Wheel full 70pxAs I work on the C&O Canal Towpath Itinerary post a couple of things came to mind.

    • If you want to contact me directly concerning anything you see here please feel free to email me at info@b2bbiketrip.com. When I’m on the road I generally check the mail at least once every other day and I try to get back to folks as quick as time and connectivity allow.


    • If you are commenting here for the first time, please don’t be alarmed when the comment does not appear right away. I go through the WordPress approval process for every new person who comments, not because I want to pick and choose among what folks have to say, but because if I didn’t you’d be seeing all sorts of spam. I don’t know how the “Try just this one simple trick” people find blogs like this, but they do- sigh. Usually your comment will appear over the next 24 hours- I get an email when something new is posted so that is pretty much what drives the train there. If your comment doesn’t show up within that time frame, please send me an email per the above. I love to hear from folks- thanks for following along and letting me hear from you.


Wheel full 70pxSo thanks for bearing with me as I get things going here again. I plan to do my absolute best to update the blog on a more or less contemporaneous basis during this fall’s trip. Thanks for coming along for the ride.


The C&O Canal Towpath – Why the 30 Mile Days?

Wheel full 70pxI will spend the first seven days of my 53 day long ride on the C&O Canal Towpath, plus a tiny fraction of day 8 as I ride from the last Hiker/Biker campground into Cumberland, Maryland to start onto the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) rail-trail to Pittburgh, Pennsylvania.  Here’s what that looks like on a map.

MapOut C&O Segment with Overnights 180714-01

Wheel full 70pxAs I have noted previously, the Towpath is 184.5 miles/296.9 miles long.  That breaks down nicely into six just about 30 mile/50 kilometer riding days.  Once again as noted there are nicely spaced camping and other lodging opportunities along the entire towpath, so it is easy to stay within a few miles/kilometers of that figure every day.
Wheel full 70pxI’ve been asked by several folks, “Why 30 miles/50 km?”  I have an easy answer for that.


And what does that mean?  Well, that’s how old I’ll turn about two-thirds of the way into the ride.  If you live in southern Illinois and want to come celebrate my 66th birthday with me, feel free, but bring your own cake.  Back to the point- my last experience cycling any appreciable mileage with a loaded bike on any sort of unpaved surface was… hmmm… well, never, actually.  I had a few stretches on my Atlantic Coast ride two years ago and one hellish “road closed” ride on a levee in bright sun and 90 degree (F)/33 degree (C) heat for about 25 miles/40 kilometers last fall in the state of Mississippi riding down the river of the same name, but for 300 miles/500 kilometers at a stretch?


“We don’ need no stinkin’ “road closed” signs”

Wheel full 70pxI hate washboarded gravel that makes your panniers feel like they are about ready to tear loose.  I detest those big occasional rocks that sneak under the tires every so often regardless of how hard you watch for them and leave you feeling like your front rim is about to taco.  I despise those little rocks that get shot out from under the side of the tires with a “Pu-twang!!” noise that has you knowing you are just about to have a catastrophic flat.  But most of all I just hate being too old to enjoy the little frisson from engaging in risky behavior that goes with these things.  In short, pavement has always been my friend.

Wheel full 70pxSo, after a huge leap of faith based on reports from friends that neither the Towpath nor the GAP was that bad, I decided to give the two of them, and the KATY and Rock Island rail-trails later on in the trip, a shot.  Out of an abundance of caution, though, I used 30 miles/50 kilometers a day as my planning factor as opposed to the usual 50 miles/80 kilometers for any day I was riding off pavement just in case.  This added about seven days to the length of my ride.  Will that have been necessary?  I guess we’re about to find out.



The C&O Canal Towpath – a Brief Overview

Wheel full 70pxMy trip from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City will start on the 184.5 mile/296.9 kilometer long C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio) Canal Towpath which runs along the abandoned C&O Canal on the north side of the Potomac River between the Georgetown District of D.C. and Cumberland. Maryland.  The Towpath’s purpose when built is evident in its name- a path to allow the people and animals to pull with ropes the laden canal boats upstream against the modest current.  It was probably pretty slow going.

Towboat line drawing

Wheel full 70pxBriefly, as there are comprehensive sources about the C&O Canal and its towpath readily available on the web- a good place to start is the National Park Service site [link]– the canal was envisioned by, among others, George Washington in the late 1700s, as a way to commercially link the Middle Atlantic states and the Ohio Valley.  Construction started on July 4, 1828 and the Canal was completed to the city of Cumberland 22 years later, never reaching the Ohio Valley.  The reason for this is found in another ambitious transportation start-up that, in a twist stranger than fiction, broke ground the same day in 1828, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.  By the time the Canal reached Cumberland the railroad was already there and in fact would reach the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia two years later in 1852.  The Canal was, essentially obsolete from that point on and plans to extend it further westward were abandoned.  Amazingly it continued to operate until 1924, when it ceased operations altogether and maintenance was discontinued.

Wheel full 70pxOwnership passed to the federal government in the Great Depression.  For a long time nobody seemed to know what to do with the Towpath.  There was a proposal to build a scenic parkway along its course, which would have been lovely but thank heavens nothing ever came of it.  In the mid 1950s Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas made a eight day hike on the Towpath in support of his argument that the Canal should be restored and preserved as a historical monument.  In 1971 President Richard Nixon signed an act doing just that, entrusting the work and management to the National Park Service.  Coming up on 50 years later and just a decade short of its 200th anniversary, the C&O Canal Towpath has been largely restored to the condition it was in during its prime.

C&O Canal NPS with border

Wheel full 70pxOver the past 25 years the C&O Canal Towpath has become one of bicycle touring’s Holy Grails.  While I could not immediately find statistics for through rides, anecdotally it would appear that several thousand riders do this one way or the other every year.  Some even make it a round-trip!

Wheel full 70pxThe surface of the Towpath is mostly dirt and small gravel.  Sometimes it looks like a one lane road with grass growing down the middle.  Sometimes there are roots and larger stones to watch out for.  In rainy periods it can become very muddy.  It is my understanding that, while the Towpath surface is more challenging than riding on a conventional unpaved bike trail, it is reasonably rideable on a loaded touring bike so long as wider tires, such as my 700x38s, are used.  We’ll see.

Wheel full 70pxAs noted, the official length of the Towpath is 184.5 miles/296.9 kilometers from end to end.  In Cumberland it directly transitions into the Great Allegheny Passgae (GAP) Trail, which allows for a continuous off-road cycling route from D.C. to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  This is the route I will be following on this stretch of my ride.  The Towpath climbs, depending on whose figure you go by, somewhere between 605 feet/184.4 meters and 625 feet/190.5 meters between D.C. and Cumberland, and there is no appreciable elevation loss along its length.  For east to west cyclists the climbing is done every time a lock and dam on the canal is passed, which results in more than 70 short 8-10 foot/around three meter rises by the time the ride is complete.  Between these short climbs the towpath is more or less, as one would expect, flat.

Wheel full 70pxThere are numerous opportunities for the bikepacking cyclist to camp along the Towpath.  Along with several commercial or non-NPS public campgrounds there are frequent “Hiker/Biker” primitive campsites, which are free of charge- an amazing throwback to better times.  These sites are first come-first served but my understanding is that no cyclist ever gets turned away from a Hiker/Biker location, as the people already there observe the etiquette of making room for a later arrival.  I plan to stay at four Hiker/Biker sites, one other campground and a hostel- The Teahorse- in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia on my ride.

RwGPS C&O Segment with Overnights 180714-01

Wheel full 70pxThe area traversed by the C&O Canal Towpath on an east to west ride is first the foothills and then through the Appalachian Mountains proper.  The Eastern Continental Divide is reached on the GAP 23.5 miles/37.8 kilometers past Cumberland.  The Potomac River flows through this area in a steep-sided valley that often has just enough room on its floor for the river, the Canal and Towpath, and one or more ever-present still in use rail lines.  The mountain ridges generally cross at a more or less perpendicular angle to the valley.

MapOut C&O Segment with Overnights 180714-01

Wheel full 70pxA couple of other great resources are the BikeWashington C&O Canal Towpath website [link] and the Great Allegheny Press’s “Trailguide” [link], which is now in its 14th edition and covers both the Towpath and the GAP Trail.  Finally, for those of you who like to visualize using road maps, here’s an area map of Maryland and surrounding states with the route of the C&O Canal Towpath highlighted in blue.

Rand McNally C&O Segment 180717-01

© 2018 RandMcNally, fair use asserted

Wheel full 70pxNext up:  My C&O Canal Towpath itinerary and some pre-ride observations.

My Card…

Wheel full 70pxFor the last couple of long rides I’ve done I have had cards made up so that I don’t need to write things down over and over for people I run into along the way. I have made several friends from the 100 cards or so I passed out along the Natchez Trace this spring and another 100 I gave to folks along the route of my Mississippi River ride last fall. Cheap to do- I designed my own artwork and have the cards made by Vistaprint, which always seems to be running a sale that brings the cost down to less than ten bucks plus shipping.