Biking the GAP Trail

Small towns, picturesque scenery and history. The Great Allegheny Passage has all that and more.
Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail Through Ohiopyle Borough

A rail trail through Ohiopyle on the Great Allegheny Passage. Photo courtesy of Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau

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

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

Lhvb Gap, Bradley Fisher

Salisbury Viaduct. Photo courtesy of Laurel Highlands Visitor Bureau/© paul g wiegman

We’ve chosen Ohiopyle as our starting point for a reason. Experienced riders have advised us to avoid the westward stretch of trail between Cumberland and Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, unless you’re a masochist or an ironwoman. A quick glance at an elevation diagram (see p. 139) reveals why. That’s where the trail crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, hitting its highest point, at 2,392 feet, and the incline is brutal. While our trip isn’t meant to be a leisurely girls’ getaway, we don’t want to kill ourselves, either.

We start easy with a low grade, 9-mile ride on a crushed limestone path under a canopy of mature trees that still afford frequent views of the river. Minutes in, Margit rides up beside me.

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

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

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

Lhvb Gap Tunnel

Cyclists on the GAP trail. Photo courtesy of Laurel Highlands Visitor Bureau/© paul g wiegman

The hamlets that dot the GAP trail were originally built on coal, coke (a purified fuel made from coal), steel and logging—industries that prompted the creation of the Western Maryland Railway (WMR) to transport valuable goods eastward. (The whole trail combines several former railway beds, but we rode mostly on the old WMR.)

Mansions once owned by industrial barons now serve as inns or businesses that cater to trail users, providing a new lifeline for otherwise fading small towns. With its charming park and Victorian bandstand, Confluence offers more than 20 lodging options for bikers, paddlers and cross-country skiers.

After rewarding ourselves with pecan pie and Italian lemon-cream cake at the popular River’s Edge Cafe, we settle into our comfy rental home, Pedalers’ Rest, for the evening.

Categories: Travel