When I first started gathering the necessary gear to give bike touring (or “bikepacking” in the parlance of our times) a go, the concept struck me as an opportunity to escape from the predictable, mundane, “rinse-and-repeat” order of everyday life. An opportunity to embrace a new kind of freedom of aimless wandering through paths and tracks out in the near-endless natural landscape. After a couple of trips, though, I found the reality of touring isn’t the carefree meander I had envisioned. It can involve weeks or months of planning, trail markers, GPS tracks, resupply points… Which is not to say that escaping on a multi-day trip isn’t freeing, it is – very much so – but maybe not in the conventional sense of the word. I think author Robert Moor says it best in his written exploration of travel, On Trails:
“But complete freedom, it turned out, is not what the trail offers. Quite the opposite – a trail is a tactful reduction of options. The freedom of the trail is riverine, not oceanic. To put it as simply as possible, a path is a way of making sense of the world. There are infinite ways to cross a landscape; but the options are overwhelming, and pitfalls abound. The function of the path is to reduce this teeming chaos into an intelligible line.”
A touring route isn’t freeing because it is aimless, it is freeing because of its wonderful ability to mostly limit choice down to the following of the path and the resulting ability to free your mind to wonder. This facet of bike travel is never so acute and clear for me as when I return to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O) towpath and the adjoining Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail. Linked, end-to-end, in the middle of a bricked plaza in downtown Cumberland, Maryland, they form an uninterrupted 334-mile long ribbon of mostly dirt, crushed limestone, and gravel that is impossible to lose, even on the darkest nights. To stray from the path is often an option: to visit trail towns, to examine the ruins of 19th and 18th-century infrastructure, or to explore vast primordial caves, but the trail is always there to return to. You ride, pause, resume.
When beginning the trip from the Pittsburgh terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage trail, your first “trail town” comes as you cross the old railway bridge into McKeesport, PA. The Great Allegheny Passage follows an old rail route, and rail bridges such as this, the McKeesport Connecting Railroad Bridge, crossing the Monongahela, abound.
The existence of this uninterrupted 334-mile traverse is no happenstance, it is the result of decades of use and the fervent defense of its users. Used first by workers, then by mule and train, then by walkers and bikers. The GAP and the C&O are trails constantly being remade by the tread of these travelers. Worn into the ground by footsteps and bike tires. You aren’t just a traveler but a participant, and by the trip’s end you’ve become part of the work of making and remaking the trail. As a traveler, the fact the trail stretches behind you is partially a result of your own passage. That said, the fact the GAP and the C&O stretch out in front of you and offer such a clear path to follow as you continue on your way is no accident. They are maintained by a web of volunteers, local, state, and federal employees, and the repeated passing of boots and tire tracks, without which it would disappear into the forest, or worse, be torn asunder by the greedy hands of developers or Department of Transportation planners. As a traveler on an established route, like the GAP and C&O you follow the path in front of you and leave a trail behind you.
For my decade plus living in the mid-Atlantic, these trails have provided me both a path to follow (a path that has led me very much into the bike-centric life I now live) and a trail of memories and explorations that will always form a cornerstone of my remembrance of this time of my life. I bought my very first knobby-tired bicycle for the expressed purpose of riding on the first few miles of the C&O outside of my home in Washington, DC and without a doubt every bicycle I have owned since has graced this rough section of trail.
The entire route passes over four major rivers, 12 significant tributaries, and countless streams and runs. Going north to south the the route begins at the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers before crossing the Monongahela twice on the way out of Pittsburgh.
The reflections that would ultimately become this writing came from my third time through-biking the route. A trip I did during a summer 2020 lull in Covid cases with my friend Matthias. We avoided towns and travelled self sufficiently. How I experienced the route has been dramatically different each time, a testament to the power that limiting your choice to the following of a trail can unlock for a wandering mind. My first time completing this route was also my first overnight bike tour, and with colder weather, it was oriented around stopping at motels each night. The experience was purely physical: I had never biked that far before and each day was a test of endurance to make the overnight destination by nightfall. I was left with a deep sense of accomplishment, but little else.
The paved path becomes a gravel trail when the route crosses the second river of the trip, the Youghgiogheny (Yack-ah-hany) on the way out of Mckeesport. The feeling of natural immersion that comes with transitioning from pavement to a more natural surface trail is tangible in this place, surrounded by a tunnel of green with waterfalls to your right and river to your left.
My second trip was with a larger gathering of friends, and the feeling on the trail was largely grounded in the social interactions of the group. We adventured, explored, partied, pedaled… together. Campsites were a party each night and the days of pedaling a series of running jokes all day. It was a delightful experience, but I paid very little attention to my surroundings. The trip went by in a blur.
During this fourth running of the trip, which I would use to compile the photo essay you see here, I wanted to keep focused on the journey itself. The sights and vistas, the pre-industrial ruins and history. Immersion into the landscape with the goal of finishing the trip with a deeper sense of understanding of this national treasure. To be able to travel nearly 350 miles between major US cities without ever having to pedal out onto a road is an incredible gift and worthy of being truly appreciated.
On the GAP, decaying rail infrastructure abounds. On the route you will find old railroad stations at Cumberland, Frostburg, Meyersdale, Ohiopyle, and Connellsville; disintegrating telegraph poles, coke ovens, rail bridges, grades, and tunnels. The first section of the GAP was originally constructed as a railway, the Pittsburgh, McKeesport & Youghiogheny Railroad (PMc&Y), and was an active railroad for over 100 years before being abandoned in 1990.
The first night on the GAP, for many travelers coming from Pittsburgh, is Connellsville, PA. Connellsville has really leaned into the trail town idea, setting up a camping area right off the trail that is complete with Adirondack shelters. It’s a lovely way to camp in nice weather and, as I came to realize one morning, this was my first time sleeping outdoors without a tent or hammock. It’s a nice feeling, just being able to wake up and put the bag into the stuff sack and have there be really nothing more to packing the bike in the morning. On this fourth running of the trip we got a late start and camped short of Connellsville, but still had an Adirondack to ourselves.
After Cville, it’s a short hour’s ride to the next town, the outdoors persons’ paradise of Ohiopyle. Ohiopyle is a tiny town at the center of the state park by the same name and a destination for kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, and bird-watching. Coming into Ohiopyle introduces you to the third major river on route, the Casselman River. It is the gateway to the Laurel Highlands and has a number of significant waterfalls (for which the area is named… “Ohiopyle” is derived from the Lenape phrase “ahi opihəle” which means ‘it turns very white’ in reference to the waterfalls and rapids.) It’s a name with a dark past, as leaving behind this clumsily anglicized name are several different societies of Native Americans that were forcefully removed by European settlers.
On June 9, 1978, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy purchased 27 miles of that railroad from Connellsville to Confluence in what would become the first move of assembling the land for the GAP. Connellsville has a nice Adirondack campground, right off the trail and right behind a grocer. During the age of rail, Connellsville was home to more millionaires per capita than any city in the United States. In 1986, a 9.5-mile rail-trail conversion project in Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State was completed on what had been the Western Maryland railroad. The GAP is born, though not yet named.
I love bridges. One of the things I love so much about the GAP is the plethora of historic rail bridges that this route traverses. One of the most interesting is in fact a pair of bridges called the Pinkerton High and Low bridges, nearly adjoined end to end through the old Pinkerton tunnel. The bridges were built in 1911 and are about 100 feet above the Casselman River. As part of the “National Gateway Project,” CSX blew the roof off of the New Pinkerton tunnel in the first decade of the 2000s. From a single spot high above the Casselman, you can see a bridge, a second bridge, a tunnel, and a daylighted tunnel. It’s idyllic, in a railway infrastructure kind of way.
These days I tend to design my routes to cross historic or traditionally designed bridges as much as I possibly can. I am not sure what begot what: my fascination with bridges and old infrastructure drawing me out on the bike to get better, more close-up looks at them, or if it’s the better, more close-up views of old bridges on my bike travels that formed my love of them. In either event, with the GAP you can’t avoid them, so either you love them and you’re drawn to this route to go see a lot of them, or you don’t and maybe you will by the time you’re done seeing so many cool ones.
For what is a relatively physically undemanding and accessible route, the GAP is SCENIC. You have ready access to services and trail towns along the entire route, the surface is tame enough for an (unladen) road bike, the amount of climbing is manageable for first time bike tourists, and you get to see sweeping views of mountains, rivers, valleys and, yes, bridges. Because it is so easy, you can do this route really quickly if you push it. But why would you? My advice? Go slow and enjoy the scenery.
It is easy to get caught up in all the evil of the modern world, but I take solace in that I get to live in a period where the rails to trails movement is at the point of maturity where I get to experience things like this. More of this, please. If standing on top of a 100-year-old train truss bridge and taking in the view below fills you with half the excitement it does for me, please find your local rails to trails chapter and donate.
One of the best spots for a good view is the Salisbury Viaduct. This 1,900’ long massive steel girder truss bridge is a sight to behold. It was built in 1912, abandoned 1975, and then refurbished for trail use in 1998. Once the Salisbury Viaduct is behind you, you have a quick succession of pretty cool landmarks in a row. You hit the Eastern Continental Divide, and at this spot there is a short tunnel with a fun “you are here” topo map in it. Next you hit the Big Savage Tunnel (it’s really called that) before crossing the Mason Dixon Line. The drama of The Mason Dixon, though normally associated with the Civil War and Slavery, is an older history still. The Mason Dixon line was created to mark part of the border between four American Colonies. It was surveyed by a team of two (Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, its namesakes) between 1763 and 1767 to resolve a border dispute between Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
The Big Savage Tunnel is 3,294.6 feet long. That’s over a thousand meters for you metric users. From the entrance, the light at the end of the tunnel is nearly indistinguishable from the overhead lamps that (barely) light the inside of this massive, gaping maw into the side of Savage Mountain. The tunnel is closed between December and April every year to protect it from ice damage. The tunnel, a river, and mountain are named for surveyor Thomas Savage, who became stranded in the winter of 1736 and offered to let his party eat him to stay alive. They didn’t, so in addition to having a mountain named after him, he has that going for him.
After the tunnel and divide, you descend effortlessly off the backside of Big Savage Mountain down to Frostburg, Maryland. After climbing for the better part of a day, it feels really good. Seeing other cyclists putting in the work coming up as you are effortlessly descending is pretty satisfying too, if I am being honest. The Trail Inn in Frostburg is a private, paid campground but it’s a really good one. Getting up the big hill to the camping sites is a chore, but seasoned veterans of the route know there is a secret back entrance ;). The Western Maryland Railroad from Hancock to Connellsville, largely responsible for constructing all this cool infrastructure, was abandoned in 1975, “paving the way” for the GAP. That is, except for the segment between Cumberland & Frostburg which is still active and runs alongside the trail through that section. It can be unsettling when a train is coming the other way. We were lucky to avoid that. You may not be, but that is ok too. Trains are cool.
The grade mellows out quickly at the bottom of Big Savage, and with another scenic bridge to see you off, the Great Allegheny Passage trail finds its conclusion in the trail town of Cumberland, Maryland. Downtown Cumberland is picturesque and dominated by its adjacency to the GAP and C&O. If doing the Pittsburgh to DC run in either four or five days you are likely to find yourself here for breakfast or lunch, and plentiful outdoor seating awaits you along the pedestrian streets of downtown. For some travelers a trip down the GAP may be enough. You’ll never have to contend with rough surfaces or long stretches without services. If you stop/start in Cumberland you may miss the bigger picture though. The GAP and C&O as a pairing are a dichotomy of sorts, and I have a newfound appreciation for both as a result of a comparison between them.
Cumberland marks a significant transition area. Historically as a handing off point between trade by boat and trade by train, geographically as a gate way into the mountains, and for the bike traveler, a transition between the industrial age infrastructure tour the GAP provides and the more rustic, rugged, immersion into nature brought by the early-American C&O. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of passing through town at mid-day. The feeling you get from the GAP in the morning and the C&O in the afternoon are just different. Cumberland is a portal between decades, climates, surfaces, and experience. To the casual bike tourer, it’s the tornado from wizard of oz.
Even with a party of two or three, the beginning of the C&O feels like a grand depart. The send-off from the edge of Cumberland starts with a large brick plaza, clearly signed overhead for the short ride from the end of the GAP to the beginning of the trail. Mile 0.0/184.5 is a wide gravel turnaround, abutted by a pedestrian bridge over the first lock of the canal itself. Part of the magic of the C&O trail is just how quickly it transports you from the Industrial Cumberland into deeply rustic environs. Within an hour you’ll be spotting critters and navigating a grassy double track. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath was built for mules to tow barges up and down the canal from Cumberland to Washington through a series of locks and levies, the ruins of which are scattered up and down the endless feeling tunnel of green that is the canal in spring.
Not that it’s all just a tunnel of green. There are still plenty of opportunities to check out some cool sights. A sharp-eyed rider will notice historical markers half-buried in heaps of Virginia creeper and nettle. Yards from the canal there are 200 year old homesteads, and directly on the trail there are lily filled ponds, rusting rail bridges, and every so often, in various states of decay or restoration, canal lock keeper houses. You can easily disappear into the tunnel of green, but if you keep your eyes about you, you’ll spot plenty of things worth a gander.
One of the most impressive features of the C&O is the Paw Paw Tunnel, a 3,118-foot-long tunnel built to bypass the Paw Paw Bends, an area where the Potomac River weaves across the land in five horseshoe-shaped bends. Paw Paw trees, for which the tunnel, bends, and the nearby town of Paw Paw, WV are all named, are fruit trees that bear the largest edible fruit indigenous to the US. The tunnel looks every-bit the entrance to the Mines of Moria from the Lord of the Rings. In three trips through the tunnel, I’ve passed through it the day before it was closed for repairs twice. On this forth trip, a towpath closure just on the northeastern side of the canal necessitated the use of the over mountain path to circumvent the tunnel. It was a sweaty, high effort ordeal, but offered some excellent panoramic views.
In the miles around the Paw Paw Bends there are half a dozen old rail bridges left to rust overhead, and we all know how I feel about that. It’s a really incredible area, all together. It easily feels the most deeply natural-immersed part of the route, with cliffs above the river, no towns for miles, and mostly uninterrupted natural beauty. Getting to this area would be a chore if not through biking the route, and for those who crave the feeling of “really getting out there,” this section will seal the deal.
An old favorite on the C&O is Bill’s Place, a classic honkytonk and biker bar in the (aptly named) Little Orleans. Bill’s place has always felt like a relic, belonging to another decade. We hear that Bill died in 2019 and the bar closed shortly thereafter. It’s back open under the ownership of Bill’s son and is listed for sale.
After Little Orleans, the character of the trail begins to change, slowly but surely. The endless green gives way to increasing signs of the human engineering that created (and spurred the creation of) the canal. Large dams, decaying grist mills, and restored Canal Lock Houses dot the trail and help to count out the miles. After Hancock, MD the C&O, Potomac River, Interstate-70, the CSX Railway, and the Western Maryland Rail Trail all run perpendicular in a corridor no more than a mile wide. From above it would be quite the contrast, but from the trail (perhaps other than the increase in machine-made ambient noise) you’d be pressed to tell. There are frequent and surprisingly deep limestone caves to explore if you remember to bring your headlamp and a little bit of bravery. It was in one such particularly deep cave I conquered a long-standing phobia of dark water-filled caverns.
The R. Paul Smith Power Station sits between the canal and river just outside of Williamsport. It’s a monolith of deep symbolism on the Canal. If the C&O is a celebration of preservation, public lands, and carbon emission-free travel and recreation the Smith Station is its foil. Previously a coal-burning polluter that dumped its ash in ponds on the WV side of the river, the station shut down for good in 2012, the result of an exhausted ability to avoid compliance with the Clean Air Act of 1990. The power lines that once connected the plant to the grid lead to the hydroelectric power station at the Honeywood dam. Probably the most significant aspect of the R. Paul Smith Power Station has nothing to do with coal but sand. Before the great flood of 1924 destroyed large portions of the C&O canal and ended 74 years of commercial trade between Cumberland and Washington, DC the final five boats to operate on the canal carried sand from Georgetown to Williamsport to construct this power station.
There is something deeply symbolic about the proximity of this old power station with the new Park Service headquarters in Williamsport. The GAP and C&O were created for the purposes of early American commerce, but it is not a very different type of commerce they serve today: ecotourism and outdoor recreation.
Perhaps second only to the Paw Paw tunnel, the most interesting feature of the upper canal is Big Slack water. From the Canal Trust:
“Big Slackwater is downstream from McMahon’s Mill. Canal boats once entered the river here as the mules continued walking along the towpath. C&O Canal Company engineers chose to utilize the pools behind Dam 4 and Dam 5 rather than dig a canal prism because of rocky cliffs along the river. In 1996, severe flooding caused extensive damage to the towpath, making this section of the historic canal impassable for over 15 years.”
Thankfully construction of the concrete walkway pictured here was completed in 2012, allowing cyclists to once again complete the entire canal in one trip. It’s wild to think I had already been living in DC for two years before traversing the C&O was possible. A short 8 years later and so transformed has my life been by bicycles and access to the canal that I find myself writing what’s going to end up being a 5k word essay about it.
From there the path takes you past Harper’s Ferry, WV. On the Maryland Heights side of the River, just across from Harper’s Ferry there has been a slowly fading advertisement for “Mennen’s Borated Talcum Toilet Powder” since 1906. Harper’s Ferry is also the coming together of the C&O and a much more famous American trail: the Appalachian Trail. Harper’s Ferry is a living museum of sorts, and sits at the juncture of the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers. It is the site of abolitionist John Brown’s Fort. Only 6 miles farther down the path, Beans in the Belfry, my favorite cafe in the mid-Atlantic region, is located in an old church building in the rail town of Brunswick, MD. I go there often on rides in the area. It’s a unique space with excellent coffee.
The last stretch passes through the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in the C&O Canal National Historical Park. At this point, the trip starts to feel like a slog to me, as I’ve covered this ground so many times before. The visitor center was once the Crommelin House hotel and is now part of the Park Service. In it hangs a portrait of Supreme Court Justice William Orville Douglas, a person of significance to the canal.
Even after accounting for the countless hours of volunteer and park service time that goes into maintaining the trail, or the Irish, Welsh, English, and German immigrant labor and lives lost that went into creating the canal in the first place: the fact that the canal and the C&O trail are here for us to enjoy is nothing short of a miracle. The C&O was saved from being paved over for a parkway by the actions of that one Supreme Court Justice William Orville Douglas. Douglass, the longest service Court Justice ever, and a committed environmentalist and AT thru-hiker. Douglass was so dismayed by the Washington Post’s editorial board’s decision to come out in favor of paving the canal, he invited the journalists to walk the entire length of the 184-mile canal trail with him in 1954. They did, and afterward the Post reversed course, endorsing maintenance of the canal in its original state. The NPS has a great article about the hike, and I recommend deviating for a few moments from this article to go read it, here. If you don’t, the short version is this: the canal was saved.
To say easy access to the C&O path, and with it, the GAP trail have been transformative to my life would barely give it due credit. I bought my first knobby-tired bike to access the canal. I bought my first tent to sleep at a hiker-biker campsite on the canal. I bought my first bikepacking-style seat-bag to carry that tent. I learned to make a fire out there. I learned to love the outdoors again as a working adult riding out of the crowded streets of Georgetown, DC, and into the green tunnel of the canal trail. I met and made some of my best friends riding our cross bikes out to do little jumps on the culverts near Fletchers cove. I bought my first camp stove to make pots of coffee out on the canal. We held our first and then regular Coffee Outsides before there was a proper noun name for them or a database of other ones. We named a bicycle team after graffiti sprayed onto the low walls of an old pumping station that sits between the canal and the river. In traversing the C&O canal towpath it has left an imprint on my life, just as passings have left my own marks on the surface of the path, making and remaking this 334-mile trail.
It’s a journey that’s as accessible as it is incredible. We are lucky to have it.
Please consider making a donation to the C&O Canal Trust, or the GAP Conservancy.
Justice Douglass’s letter to the editor:
“The discussion concerning the construction of a parkway along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal arouses many people. Fishermen, hunters, hikers, campers, ornithologists, and others who like to get acquainted with nature first-hand and on their own are opposed to making a highway out of this sanctuary.
The stretch of 185 miles from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Md., is one of the most fascinating and picturesque in the Nation. The river and its islands are part of the charm. The cliffs, the streams, the draws, the beaches, the swamps are another part. The birds and game, the blaze of color in the spring and fall, the cattails in the swamp, the blush of buds in late winter-these are also some of the glory of the place.
In the early 20’s Mr. Justice (Louis D.) Brandeis traveled the canal and river by canoe to Cumberland. It was for him exciting adventure and recreation. Hundreds of us still use this sanctuary for hiking and camping. It is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace at the Capitol’s back door-a wilderness area where we can commune with God and with nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns.
It is a place for boys and girls, men and women. One can hike 15 or 20 miles on a Sunday afternoon, or sleep on high dry ground in the quiet of a forest, or just go and sit with no sound except water lapping at one’s feet. It is a sanctuary for everyone who loves woods a sanctuary that would be utterly destroyed by a fine two-lane highway.
I wish the man who wrote your editorial of January 3, 1954, approving the parkway would take time off and come with me. We would go with packs on our backs and walk the 185 miles to Cumberland. I feel that if your editor did, he would return a new man and use the power of your great editorial page to help keep this sanctuary untouched.
One who walked the canal its full length could plead that cause with the eloquence of a John Muir. He would get to know muskrats, badgers, and fox; he would hear the roar of wind in thickets; He would see strange islands and promontories through the fantasy of fog; he would discover the glory there is in the first flower of spring, the glory there is even in a blade of grass; the whistling wings of ducks would make silence have new values for him. Certain it is that he could never acquire that understanding going 60, or even 25, miles an hour.”
–U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, in his Letter to the Editor that appeared in the January 19, 1954 edition of the Washington Post
Photography notes: so paranoid was I about messing this photo set up I shot nearly every exposure twice, once with my digital Fuji X-T2 and once with Portra 400 loaded in my Minolta X-700. I brought lenses of equivalent focal length in 28mm and 50mm for both cameras. I was pleased with how both photosets turned out but it was originally my hope to use the film shots for this article, which is what I ultimately chose to do. I did a little Instagram poll for which film to use and Portra 400 was the winner. Portra was a great call for capturing these vibes and its latitude is unbeatable when dealing with a full range of lighting conditions. You can check out the full digital photoset on my website, www.karrtography.com.