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4.07.2016

GAP Trail: Bicycling through Maryland and Pennsylvania

Over the Easter Holiday, I had a day off and the privilege to take a ride on the Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail that runs 150 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD, where it connects with the C&O Canal trail to run all the way through to Washington, D.C. The path stands as an example of the resilience of the people of Pittsburgh, western Pennsylvania, and western Maryland, in the way these places have bounced back from the loss of heavy industry. On rail right-of-way that was shuttered as the factories and industries that it once served all went to the wayside, a transition took place that enabled it to move into the 21st century. The efforts of the people in creating the Great Allegheny Passage have garnered national and international recognition and acclaim and brought tourism to areas that the future has remained uncertain post heavy industry. The trail has turned into an economic boon for an area that is in the midst of transition. 
My favorite section of the GAP Trail, in the Youghiogheny River Gorge in Ohiopyle State Park
I've enjoyed riding the end results of these efforts, having completed the stretches between Pittsburgh and West Newton, and Ohiopyle and Cumberland, MD. I've completed 105 miles of the 150 mile long trail and it has certainly been an interesting experience. Between the natural wonders of following the Cassellman, Youghiogheny, and Monongahela Rivers, awesome gorges, many waterfalls, the rugged terrain of the Alleghenies, the many overlooks, and many remnants of old industry, this is a trail that you definitely want to experience.
I started my journey on the Capitol Limited Amtrak Train from Pittsburgh. I took an early morning train
My bicycle and my gear. Here is my rust bucket dumper Lambert "death fork" bicycle. I've used it pretty hard for five years now and I can't complain about it. It is very lightweight and a pretty decent bike, aside from looking terrible and having a fork that was recalled back in the 1970s for catastrophic failure. 
The inside of the Pittsburgh Train Station
Pittsburgh's Amtrak operation handles two routes. Both trains were in at the moment. The train on the left is the Capitol Limited, which operates with fully equipped Superliner trains with two level cars that include a dining car and observation car, in addition to having roll on, roll off service for bicycles for only an additional twenty dollars. The Capitol Limited operates daily from Chicago to Washington, DC. The train on the right is the smaller Pennsylvanian, that operates on a spectacularly scenic route from Pittsburgh to New York City, Via Philadelphia. If you have time, I certainly recommend riding either of these trains for their spectacular views. 
Getting ready to board the Capitol Limited!
The "Roll on, Roll off" system worked great. It was extremely easy and took a grand total of a minute for them to fasten the bike to the rack, and then for retrieval at the stop. I was very impressed by this system and would love to see this get utilized more within American transportation.
The train ride was quite relaxing. Many of the folks that had boarded the train at earlier points in places like Chicago and Cleveland, had remained sleeping throughout the entire ride. The standard Amtrak seats are extremely comfortable. They are wide, have a ton of leg room, reclining options to lay down, and more. Additionally, this train is also equipped with sleeper cars. Truly traveling in luxury.
This was the place that I hung out at for the whole ride, taking in the spectacular scenery through the rugged Alleghenies.
The views on the Youghiogheny River around Boston, PA
The river starting to get more wild as we head up towards Ohiopyle State Park. We pass right through the main road through the little town. Unfortunately there is no train stop there. I believe that this unbelievable natural attraction could really benefit from easy Amtrak access.
A look into the Yougiogheny Gorge. 
You can see the GAP trail on the other side of the river. You can also see how rugged this area is through how many boulders are in the river at this point.
Christmas tree farm!
And now we have arrived in Cumberland, MD! 
This is a nice little city. The GAP trail has proven to be a solid economic boon to this town. Never before had it seen tourism. The intersection of the GAP Trail to Pittsburgh, and the C&O Trail to Washington, DC, has made Cumberland a tourism destination. The GAP trail should be an example to any place with abandoned right-of-way and room for economic growth.
The charming downtown area of Cumberland, MD
Right here is the official start of the GAP trail. 150 miles to Pittsburgh from this point!
For the first few miles, the trail is paved at this point, to serve a dual purpose as a community park for the people of Cumberland. This is looking towards the Narrows, where Chief Nemacolin of the Delaware Native American Nation created a path, and the National Road and railroads were built to pass through the pass between Wills Mountain and Haystack Mountain. This was traditionally considered a "gateway to the west." The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad also runs through this pass and runs along the GAP trail for the first sixteen miles. On days that the railroad is operational, this scenic railroad could be a huge help for you in the climb up the pass and up towards the continental divide. There is 2000 feet in upwards elevation change for the first twenty-one miles of the GAP trail.
Heading into the Cumberland Narrows Mountain Pass. Spectacular sights. The quartzite outcroppings on the mountains are so beautiful. 
You may notice that I really enjoy old infrastructure. The entire trail has a ton of old railroad bridges, and other bridges that were rescued from destruction and kept for the relatively lightweight usage of the trail. While this bridge is still utilized for rail traffic, many other bridges, where the trail splits from the railway, are quite beautiful and rare. Since they are obsolete or unusable for heavy traffic anymore, the rail trail offers a great place to preserve vintage bridges for appreciation, while still having some functionality. This is one of my favorite aspects of the trail.

Here's what the climb looks like for roughly the first twenty-one miles. Surely a hill that would be preferable to descend upon. It is still pretty cool though.
At this point they made a pretty large cut for the rail grade to make it through this hill. What they found while making this cut was downright spectacular. The Cumberland Bone Cave is an archaeological find that they made and took out several complete prehistoric creatures that are on display at the Smithsonian. The remains are estimated to be over 200,000 years old.
The Cumberland Bone Cave
It is said that some bones likely still remain in this, the south face of the rail cut.
A little further up the trail, some of the sights of the season could be taken in. Throughout the northeast, we are in the midst of Maple Syrup season. They had the collection tubes attached to the trees here in Corriganville, MD. This collection operation is by S&S Maple Camp, Maryland's largest producer of maple syrup.
And the collections head into that tank. This photo strikes me, for in addition to seeing the trees getting used for Maple Syrup collection, you also see a previous generation of industry getting represented by
Continuing the climb through the mountains and farmland.
As I said, one of my favorite things is seeing old infrastructure. There is no shortage of tunnels along the GAP trail This is the Brush Tunnel. This is the only one of the tunnels along the trail that still has a rail line running adjacent to it. This is a very short tunnel, only measuring in at 911 feet. There is nothing like the cool and refreshing air of a tunnel or deep mountain cut, especially during a bike ride.
One striking aspect of all of the GAP trail tunnels is the great shape that they are in. Many tunnels that sat in abandonment for a number of years are in sad shape. They've done a great job shoring up these tunnels. One of the tunnels that we will check out later was even completely redone so it could be reused for the trail, no small feat for a tunnel that sat in abandonment for the better part of three decades.
The light at the end of the tunnel!
Still working my way up the climb.
When you take a look at the rails, it is awesome to see how the rails are a mix of Bethlehem and US Steel rails. It is amazing to think that the majority of old rails came from Pennsylvania companies that were once first and second in steel production in the nation. Some of the rails were so old that they are still marked "Carnegie Steel." 
Throughout the entire trail, there are dozens of mini mountain streams with many small and unnamed waterfalls.
This little waterfall heads down the hill from the trail at the town of Savage, MD. The harshly white colored runoff is a reminder of the heavy mining industry that once inhabited this area.
The view of Savage, MD from the trail.
The old energy production industry has given way to the modernized clean wind energy production. The areas surrounding many miles of the GAP trail are extremely windy, and optimal for wind production. You see windmills along the trail for many miles. Once you arrive in Pennsylvania, you will actually see the first five windmills that were installed in the state.
Next up is the Borden Tunnel! This one measures in at 957 feet and dates back to 1911.
The spring wildflowers were just starting to bloom
Here is the monument to a line that has a tumultuous history within our nation, the Mason-Dixon line, the line between the north and the south, between Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Here is a lookout point, just shy of the highest point on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail.
Now for the largest tunnel on the trail, the Big Savage Tunnel! It dates back to 1912 and measures in at close to 3300 feet long. While sitting in abandonment, this tunnel had partially collapsed. Through a monumental effort, they were able to fix the tunnel. They put doors on the tunnel through the winter months, to ensure that freezing temperatures do not get into the tunnel and damage it. They opened the doors to the tunnel on the day before my adventure!
Here you can see the doors that they use for the portal.
In motion!
Staring up at the highest point of the trail, the Eastern Continental Divide, where the separation between the Chesapeake and Gulf of Mexico Watersheds begins. This is one amazing climb. 
Getting closer!
Cresting, cresting! It is all downhill from here now! The downhill is so slight though that you do not often coast, though it is a welcome break not having to pedal climb hills from this point forward.
Beautiful murals are painted at the divide.

Here is a guide showing the elevation changes throughout the trail. It is quite a challenge getting up to this point from Cumberland.
The Keystone Viaduct is beautiful. It is 910 feet long, stands 100 feet over the Cassellman River, and it dates back to 1911. 

My favorite bridge of the entire ride was the Bollman Bridge. This iron through truss bridge dates back to 1871. It was later inadequate for heavier rail usage, so it was relocated for vehicular usage. The fine details on this bridge are stunning. It has recently undergone a restoration project.

Meyersdale has an awesome rest area for riders with their old train station. This was the only public facility that offered water along the entire ride, so be sure to pack a ton of water. There was a man preparing the place for reopening in the spring. He was kind enough to offer riders some water from a hose.
They have even preserved this old caboose. 
Now for the Salisbury Viaduct. This is one of the tallest and longest bridges on the entire trail. It crosses over Route 219
I needed to take a break for a little bit. I did not take many breaks so that I would not lose time. This spot was spectacular. They set up a bench looking right towards this mini waterfall, surrounded by mountain laurel and representative of the beautiful scenery in both the Cassellman and Youghiogheny River Gorges.
Now let's slow it down a bit!
Deep gorges, filled with the state trees and state flowers, hemlocks and mountain laurel.  
The following photos are representative of the beauty of the trail between Rockwood and Ohiopyle. Once you reach Ohiopyle State Park, you ride along ten miles of river rapids through the Youghiogheny Gorge, starting at the Ramcat boat launch. Stunning scenery.

Now for the final tunnel of our journey, the Pinkerton Horn Tunnel. This part of the trail required a long detour, for the old tunnel was heavily damaged. The other Pinkerton Tunnel, on the running portion of the railroad across the river, was "daylighted" a few years ago, to accommodate double decker loads on the freight trains. This is a massive cut. Just this past year, after more than a decade of fundraising and hard work, they were able to get this old Pinkerton Tunnel back into passable condition, after practically rebuilding the interior of the tunnel. I am glad that they did, for this tunnel cuts through a stunning bend in the Cassellman River, with two large bridges off of each end of the tunnel, as was common with these types of river bend tunnels. This is the shortest of the four tunnels on the GAP trail, measuring in at just 849 feet, but the scenery is so beautiful. Truly one of the jewels of the GAP trail. 

Now looking over at Confluence, PA. This is a place that I recommend staying overnight. The Army Corps of Engineers, Yough Outflows Campground at the Youghiogheny River Lake is an excellent and inexpensive place to stay. They offer camping for roughly fifteen dollars a night, with no nightly minimum, full hookups if you have a camper, and excellent shower facilities. We had a blast when we stayed there last summer. The campground is right next to the trail, deep within the Yough Gorge.

Ohiopyle State Park picks up very close to Confluence. The state park itself has more than ten miles worth of trail and river rapids. The Ramcat Rafting Launch is where the trail starts in the park, and it runs all the way through the town of Ohiopyle. Stunning natural beauty. There was also not a single soul in sight, neither on the river or on the trail. Ohiopyle is also a hub for some motels, outdoor outfitters, shops, and eateries. Our favorite is the Falls Market. They are the only place in this seasonal town that is consistently open. You can get a good meal in here, some supplies, souvenirs, and some of the friendliest service that there is. The nearby Ohiopyle Cafe is a decent place to eat, though it is a seasonal place that is primarily open only during the summer season. 
The story of the GAP trail is a story of ingenuity and fighting the odds, like much of what Western Pennsylvania is about. With the loss of much of the heavy industry in the region, visionaries turned lemons into lemonade when they reworked this abandoned rail right-of-way into a rail trail, visited by thousands yearly, with guests hailing from all fifty states, and many nations from around the world. Former industrial towns like Cumberland, Meyersdale, Rockwood, and more, now get visitors from all over the world, traveling to see the natural beauty that was often overlooked by the industry that once occupied these areas. This is now a growing and world class attraction that is breathing life into the many old industrial towns that are along it. In addition to the 75 mile Cumberland to Ohiopyle stretch that I rode on this excursion, I have also gone from Pittsburgh to West Newton, round trip, and loved seeing all of these awesome sights, including a roundhouse and old rail bridge across the Mon River in McKeesport, Kennywood, and more. Ride the GAP trail if you love seeing old infrastructure and natural beauty.

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