2004 Bike Trip Report, Pittsburgh PA - Washington DC
3-person self-contained bike trip from McKeesport PA to Washington DC via ATA Trail / Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal, in May 2004 by MC, DA, EQ
This is a trip report of our bike ride from McKeesport PA to Washington DC in May 2004.
Fundamental Decisions As identified by Mary Shaw and Roy Weil, the primary decisions are: direction, duration, support / luxury level.
Support/Luxury Level: We will not have a support vehicle. We prefer to ride the entire trip rather than use shuttle services. We'll be staying in motels and eating in restaurants, which we've seen referred to elsewhere as "credit-card-touring". In a perfect world we'd like to find hotels with hot tubs and broadband near interesting restaurants, but the reality is small basic motels and food from Sheetz.
Duration: Although one of us (me) would have planned this as a four-day trip, the group preferred three-days, which has some virtues: less time away from work/home, saves one night's lodging, but - primarily - avoids having to put your sore posterior on the bike seat on a fourth day. The notion is that it's less painful to do an extra 25 miles a day for three days than to do a fourth day.
Direction: We originally planned to ride westbound, from DC to Pittsburgh. We noted that the people who do this every year in the Yockatomac rides always go DC-Pitt (westbound), and we thought we'd follow their example. We anticipated that we'd be able to use the Savage Tunnel. Our initial assumptions fell apart.
Original Plan Our intention was for the three of us plus one spouse to drive down to DC the night before Day1, and get an early start on the trail while the spouse returned to the Burgh. We each blocked 5 days on our schedules, so that if it's raining hard we can delay without losing the schedule window. Our initial plan was Day 1: Georgetown to Hancock, 125 miles. Day2: Hancock to Meyersdale, 101 miles. Day3: Meyersdale to McKeesport PA, 103 miles. Our original plan didn't last too long. They usually don't.
The Savage Tunnel is closed, and we learned that the folks who ride westbound annually use the Train/Shuttle option. Our assumptions were unraveling, so we made a Meyersdale-Cumberland reconnaisance trip, which convinced us to ride eastbound with a better plan.
Our planB for Day1 is McKeesport-Meyersdale, 103 miles. This is a segment we did last year in one day, and it contains most of the climbing to get up the Eastern Continental Divide. Details include sunrise at 5:29, major break at Connelsville (43 miles), brief stop at Ohiopyle (61 miles), major break at Confluence (71 miles, last civilization at the foot of the climb), minor break at Rockwood (86 miles), stop at Meyersdale (103 miles) with Sunset at 8:16. Last year it took us four hours from Confuence to Meyersdale.
Our planB for Day2 is Meyersdale-Williamsport, 116 miles for the day, 219 miles total. This is the longest distance of the three days, but Meyersdale-Cumberland (33 miles) is paved, and so is the 23 miles of the WMRT around Hancock. The details include Breakfast at Meyersdale's "GI Dayroom", Sunrise at 5:29, use of the published road detour, into Frostburg (quick break), major rest stop at Cumberland, quick stops at OldTown General Store, and Bill's Place in Little Orleans. At MP 134.0 at Lock 55 we'll switch to the paved WMRT, Major Break at Hancock (MP125), depart WMRT and and rejoin the C&O at MP 114-ish, end at Williamsport (MP100). Sunset at 8:16.
Our planB for Day3 is Williamsport-Georgetown, 101 miles for the day, 320 miles total. Sunrise at 5:28; At MP 88.1 we'll take the on-road detour, rejoining the trail at 84.4. Sharpsburg, seems a likely stop; Brunswick (MP55) looks like a Major Stop at C&O Canal Bicycling; at MP48.2, quick stop at B&S MiniMart, MP47, Point of Rocks, has 2 shops if needed; MP36, Whites Ferry, looks like a Major Stop. Detour between MP 13.7 and MP 12.6. Sunset at 8:16
Then we'll pedal over to Washington National / Reagan Airport to pick up our SUV rental and drive back to Pittsburgh. In the event of significant rain on Day3 our contingency plan is to complete the trip on the roads rather than slogging across the wet trail.
All three of us rode bikes we'd bought from the Ambridge Bike Shop. Mike and I rode older mountain bikes, Mark rode a year-old mountain bike with a front-fork suspension. We all used hybrid tires (generally 1.5 to 1.75 inches wide with mini-tread) as opposed to the standard wide, knobby mountain bike tires. Road bikes would not be appropriate. You don't need a leading-edge technology bike for the trail, but you do want a reliable bike that you've put some miles on. Click here for more about my bike.
On the published detour there's not a lot of up-and-down, you generally just go up to the peak once; on the 160/36 route you go up and down a few times. It was a friendly suggestion, but for us it was a mistake. Having gone both ways now, we recommend sticking with the published detour.
Stopped at a Sheetz four miles north of Cumberland, food and drinks and canned Starbucks. Rode into Cumberland, found some other bikers just about to depart, learned there was a first-floor C&O Trail Visitor Center in addition to the second-floor Train Station Visitor Center; the first-floor C&O center was more trail focused and more familiar with the real-time conditions of the trail. We took some pictures with the burro statue and got back on the trail. On the east side of the train station there are some new shops including a coffee shop that looked pretty interesting, but on our timetable we really didn't have time for exploring.
Conditions along the C&O were decent, but the C&O surface just isn't as nice as the ATA trail. The picture of Mark and Mike gives an idea of what the trail looks like just south of Cumberland; closer to DC it turns into double-track. The C&O was wet and had muddy stretches pretty often, so it was difficult to maintain a decent average speed and we spent a lot of time manuevering to find the best line through the mud. My feet were getting pretty soaked.
As we rode further south the sound of cicadas became noticable, then quite noticable, and at times it was unnervingly loud. We'd go through patches where they were everywhere and then places without any. If you stopped they'd land on you, and in fact we each picked up a few while we were riding. The make a shrill little noise when you take them off of you.
Again, our conversation gave a clue to the perceived difficulty; when we started climbing out of Meyersdale we were quiet, during the descent into Cumberland and on the early C&O we were talking, when we started getting tired we went mute. I was bonking hard and I had to stop and take a nap; I got a 15 minute snooze while Mike and Mark patiently hung out. I suspect my snoring drowned out the cicadas. It was also a chance to dry out my feet and put on dry socks, which I ended up doing a few times today. I was very glad to have bug spray and dry socks in my bags; I ended up using 8 pair for 3 days of riding.
The Paw-Paw Tunnel was as impressive as always. A small flashlight or headlight is absolutely necessary for passing through. There could be a flashlight vending machine there. The southeast (DC) side of the tunnel has always struck me as marginally dangerous; there's a lot of places where you're awfully close to the canal without a barrier, if you're inattentive you might take a nasty fall into the stagnant water.
Stopped in Oldtown (MP167) for the promise of a store that was torn down a few years ago, but we were pleased to find Shirley's Deli operating in the old school building 1/4 mile past the post office. (19210 Opessa St, Oldtown MD 21555 301-478-5008). Coming out of Oldtown we met a solo rider who was enroute from Richmond to Pittsburgh, said he'd figured it was 500 miles. We exchanged details about the conditions behind us and it stuck me that trail use is so novel that you'll easily discuss it with strangers - like two early VW owners in the early 50's- you'd never have that sort of conversation with someone you met in a highway rest stop.
Stopped in Little Orleans (MP141) at the world famous Bill's, the folks at the bar gave us a friendly greeting. I got some cold Gatorade and water and took advantage of the trash can to unload some unnecessary stuff I was carrying. We met Wayne and his party travelling northbound, we'd exchanged emails during the previous week and it was cool to meet somebody we'd had contact with on the trail.
I made a great mistake in Little Orleans. I'd been carrying way too much stuff, including three cases of PowerBars. I was tired and not keeping up with the others, and at Bill's I started throwing away everything I didn't need. I've read that people hiking the Appallachian trail have a similar throw-away experience.
I disposed of all sorts of dead weight, and as I fed the dumpster I inadvertently hit my CycleHorn DBX horn (from CycleAware) a few times, and I got mad and threw that away too. It was ten years old, and the contacts were shorting out. I figured I'd get a new one after the trip. Unfortunately, you can't buy one of these anymore. I really miss that horn, it's the best bicycle horn I've ever seen. I was given a Air Zounds2 as a gift, it's great but not as good as the CycleHorn was. If anybody has a CycleAware Cycle Horn they'd like to sell, please let me know.
We wanted to transition to the Western MD Rail-Trail (MP134) and make use of the paved surface, and even though we had directions we passed the connection and had to come back and find it. If you want to get on the WMRT southbound don't go past Lock 55; stop and look for a path up the hill that takes you up to the other trail. The WMRT was great and the surface let us make some time.
This second day called for 116 miles and we realized that we would not make Williamsport before sundown, so we tried to make some great time on the paved WMRT trail. We formed a paceline for the length of the WMRT and really whipped right through there. I'd never done that before but Mark led us through it. Hancock, which was supposed to be a major rest stop, was a quick blur as we pressed on.
At the south end of the WMRT, the transition back to the C&O Trail was not obvious and we spent some time figuring out how to get there. We rode to Ft. Frederick and moved toward the Potomac and we ended up on the trail.
Sunset was at 8:16. The skies were fairly clear and there was a half-moon, but with the heavy canopy overhead it started turning dark on the trail before sunset, and serious darkness was upon us pretty quickly. We'd agreed to walk the bikes out if necessary, but found that with Mike's headlight we were able to keep riding. It was a bit dicey in the dark, the headlight against the trees was a bit surreal and we surprised a group of kids along the trail that we stumbled upon. We exited the trail at Williamsport MD at 9:25, having ridden 115 miles in 10:39 for an average speed of 10.7 mph.
When the trail crosses an aqueduct they have cool signs warning you about not riding your bike across. I blew them off, rode across and ended up clutching at a railing to avoid falling while thinking, "oh that's what they meant".
The scenery north of Harper's Ferry is remarkably beautiful. A lot of Civil War history and movements happened on both side of the C&O. We saw a flock of turkey vultures about a mile north of Harper's Ferry, I'm glad they weren't circling around us. It's unfortunate that Harper's Ferry was built on the wrong side of the river, and also that there's no Gatorade/Water vending machine along the trail there.
Five miles south of Harper's Ferry, stopped in Brunswick looking for the Bike Shop, which is apparently only open on weekends. Enjoyed a great lunch at the Pacific Cafe. There's no convenience store in town, but the folks at the Pacific Cafe were kind enough to fill our water bottles. I've read good things elsewhere about Mommer's Diner at Potomac and Maple on the main drag, 301-834-7200.
We met four cyclists who'd come up northbound; they strongly recommended we avoid an extremely muddy area between MP45 & MP35 -which included some large ballast gravel we'd heard was causing a lot of sidewall flats- by exiting the trail at MP48.2 at Route 15, crossing the Potomoc, and using Route 15 to get to Leesburg, then White's Ferry back across to rejoin the trail.
We'd planned a drink stop at the MP48.2 B&S MiniMart anyway (great stop), and we decided to try the Route 15 detour. Big Mistake. Beside the climb, Route 15 is busy, has little or no shoulder, and the cars and big trucks are doing 60+ whenever they can (it's DC traffic). This was not a smart way to go; Mark described it as harrowing. After our return I had an email from Steve Wershbale telling me that in 2003 four cyclists were killed on that section of Rt.15.
We rejoined the trail at MP34, feeling like success was within reach but the trail was even more wet and muddy. You'd get going and hit a mud patch, it'd slow you down and just as you'd get back up to speed you'd hit another one. They'd slow you down like flypaper.
As we continued southbound and crossed MP10 the skies opened up in heavy rain which persisted through about MP4, when a rainbow appeared and then the skies cleared. We continued into Georgetown. There's a spot where staying on the trail means taking a footbridge across the canal, your clue will be that the ramp up to the bridge is filled with dirt. The Georgetown section of the trail is a lot like San Antonio's RiverWalk.
We arrived in Washington DC at 8:15 pm, pedaling 104 miles, 9:42 pedal time, avg speed 10.7 mph. The trip overall covered 321 miles in 29 hours 32 minutes of pedaling, from 5:55 am Wednesday till 8:15 pm Friday.
The bikes did very well, the equipment all held up, and we didn't have any flats or crashes.
The rental SUV cost $111 (plus fuel) and I think that was the most effective way for us to get back home. I was a little concerned that they might decline to hand over the keys given how unkempt I was, but it wasn't a problem.