When the pioneers pressed westward settling the country, some of the greatest obstacles they faced were the Allegheny Mountains. Although not as steep and foreboding as the Rocky Mountains that settlers would later encounter as the nation grew and expanded, the older, thickly forested Allegheny Mountains of the mid-Atlantic posed problems for explorers, merchants, and homesteaders. Centuries later, they still are formidable, but you can conquer these mountains either by foot or on a bicycle on one of America’s premier trails: The Great Allegheny Passage.
The GAP is a 150-mile trail winding through the Allegheny Mountains and connecting Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. At Cumberland, you can connect with the C&O Canal Towpath, which is a 184.5-mile trail that continues to Washington, D.C., making the combined trails a 334.5 mile excursion through some of the country’s most scenic and historic lands.
Unlike other trails in the state which are shorter or are geared only for hikers, such as the Appalachian Trail, the Great Allegheny Passage is the longest trail accessible to both bikers and hikers. The passage was constructed mostly on abandoned railroad beds, earning it a place in the Rails-Trail Hall of Fame. It is particularly favored because of its smooth riding surface and nearly level grade, which averages less than an overall 1 percent incline.
The trail traverses the Eastern Continental Divide, which is the high point in the east of our continent, and separates two watersheds. The eastern half of the continent’s water flows to the Atlantic Seaboard watershed, while the western half flows to the Gulf of Mexico watershed. It would seem that a high point, such as the continental divide, would make for a steep ride. However, the trail follows the routes of the old rail lines, whose climb to the highest elevation at the divide of 2,392 feet above sea level near Deal, Pennsylvania, in Somerset County, is a very gradual one.
The completion of the trail has been a gradual one as well. In 1978, after many of the railroads abandoned their rails, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy purchased the first property from the Western Maryland Railway Company that would eventually become part of the GAP. The first stretch finished was the Youghiogheny River Trail portion near Ohiopyle State Park in 1986, and it was embraced enthusiastically by lovers of the outdoors. From 1986 until the trail’s completion on June 15, 2013, the trail came together piecemeal.
The GAP is not only noted for its scenic beauty, but also for its historical significance. These mountains were where Indians roamed, where George Washington explored, where British and French armies battled for land. The trail crosses the Mason-Dixon Line. This cultural demarcation separates the North from the South and was named for Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the surveyors who, in the 1760s, scoped out the land to settle border disputes among the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. In addition to the Eastern Continental Divide and the Mason-Dixon Line, along the trail, hikers and bikers encounter small towns, metropolitan areas, water gaps and gorges, wilderness, farm land, mining areas, and industrial areas.
Depending upon your fitness level, enthusiasm, and commitment, you can walk or bike a portion of the trail or travel the GAP’s entire length and connect to the C&O Towpath Trial and travel all the way to Washington, D.C.
Obviously, if you are a novice hiker or biker with only a few hours to enjoy the trail, you will only want to take on a portion, going as far as your feet can walk or pedal. Perhaps you are up to the challenge of taking on the whole trail. Fortunately, unlike the C&O trail which has a rougher terrain and fewer volunteers who maintain the trail, the GAP is primarily made of crushed limestone and so is more accessible. It has stops along the way for those venturing out for a “longer-than-a-day” trip. A longer excursion will require some planning, though. You will need to determine how many miles you can cover in a day. Many first-time bikers fear that it will be their legs that will bear the brunt of the work, but many have confided that it is actually their bottoms that hurt the worst from sitting on bike seats for so long. Therefore, it is wise to know your limits, plan ahead for lodging, and pack the appropriate supplies and gear, including items for repairing bicycles.
Many of the towns along the GAP have places where you can grab something to eat, book a night in a hotel, B&B or campground, and have bikes repaired. There is a Yahoo group for the Great Allegheny Passage where enthusiasts offer tips and advice for best enjoying the trail.
The following is a list of some of the towns between Pittsburgh and Cumberland.
Located 20 miles from Pittsburgh, this town has plenty of parking, making it a popular point on the trail for beginning or ending a day’s biking.
Situated at mile 60 where the Casselman River and Laurel Hill Creek merge with the Youghiogheny River, Confluence is a charming town with a gazebo and several places to eat and sleep.
This small city was once the home to the coke industry, producing this essential ingredient for the making of steel. There are plenty of places to eat and stay, and a luxurious (by camping standards) campground.
This is the embarkation point at mile 0. It has numerous restaurants, overnight accommodations, and places to stock up on supplies, as well as repair shops where your bike can get tuned-up in case you decide to travel further on, connecting to the C&O Towpath Trail heading to the nation’s capital.
The first stop in Maryland if you are heading east at mile 16, Frostburg has many restaurants and places to eat. The trail changes some here, running along active railroad tracks and some stretches that are paved.
Six miles from Pittsburgh, you will find the Homestead Waterfront complex with shops, cinemas, and dining destinations. You will also see the vestiges of Pittsburgh’s steel-making past. An excursion from Pittsburgh to Homestead and back, is a nice day’s walking or biking activity.
Located at mile 32, Meyersdale is the last larger town on the trail in Pennsylvania. It has restaurants and accommodations for hungry and weary hikers and bikers.
The stretch of the trail at mile 72 turns wild and is an outdoor paradise as this is the best whitewater rafting area in Western Pennsylvania. It’s very touristy and has restaurants and accommodations, which can fill up quickly during the busy summer months. But where else can you bike or hike while watching rafters navigate the rushing rapids of the Youghiogheny River?
This is the most metropolitan location along the GAP, which means plenty of places to eat or sleep, not to mention seeing the city up close and personal.
This small town at mile 43 has a picturesque main street and a number of places where you can grab something to eat and find a place to sleep.
The old train station in West Newton has been restored here at mile 116, and it serves as a Visitor’s Center. There are a few Bed & Breakfasts nearby, as well as camping.