By Linda McK.Stewart
Biking Washington D.C.-Pittsburgh, Pa
Before making that down payment on the all-family rafting trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River or the Eight-Countries-in-Six-Days tour through Europe, you might want to consider a great alternative that is practically under your nose.
With a minimum of fanfare the Allegheny Trail Alliance announces – at long last – the completion of the bike trail that runs for 334.5 miles between Washington D.C. and downtown Pittsburgh, Pa. It is the longest, vehicle-free such trail in the U.S. The newly completed segment, referred to as The GAP, aka the Great Allegheny Passage, is made up of converted railroad tracks that wind through the mountains of Pennsylvania and join up with the C&O Canal Trail, built originally for merchants to move freight-laden barges from the Chesapeake Bay to inland customers up the Potomac Valley. It closes a 150-mile stretch between Cumberland, Md., and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. The trail has taken more than 35 years to complete at a cost somewhere in excess of $35 million.
As countless D.C. residents can attest, the C&O towpath provides an easily accessible venue for jogging, strolling, biking or just plain loafing – a welcome relief from traffic-jammed streets. The canal itself parallels the north bank of the Potomac River. It was built in segments between 1828 and 1850 and functioned as a canal, albeit a bit sporadically, until 1924. Long before train tracks joined one town to another, first-class travel meant a barge on a canal and a couple of good-natured mules on the towpath. Today, descendants of those mules make frequent appearances during the numerous historical re-enactments that take place every year along the whole length of the trail. The idea of a coast-to-coast unified system of paved highways did not seize the national psyche until after World War II. It was President Eisenhower who viewed such a system as essential to national defense. It was really then that America’s love affair with cars came into full bloom. Canals were seen as useless relics of a long-ago era. Had it not been for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the C&O canal and its adjacent towpath would have disappeared under a ribbon of asphalt. It was the year 1954 that His Honor organized an eight-day hike along the C&O canal, thereby saving it from being turned into an eight-lane parkway. Apart from being, thus far, the court’s longest serving justice – more than 36 years – the Minnesota-born Douglas is best remembered for his legacy of saving the canal and preserving it for all of us as a national historic park.
Some iron-legged jocks do the entire 334.5 miles of the trail in one swoop. Good for them, but in doing so they are missing some of America’s most intriguing historical landmarks. The whole trail is so rich in historic interest that it deserves several days or even a week to be fully appreciated.
Budgets for trail maintenance are tight but overall maintenance along the entire trail is amazingly good. It doesn’t hurt that dedicated cyclists assume responsibility to clear away fallen branches, discarded bike tires and slow-moving turtles.
At both ends of the trail and dotted along its full length are well-equipped tour companies like Road Runner in Clear Springs, Md., and Bike-the-Gap at the Pittsburgh end of things. At the top end in Maryland, such a company will provide an accompanying van to relieve you of backpack, extra sweaters and excess camera stuff as well as provide flat tire repairs, minor first aid and historical narration. Camping sites, reservations recommended, take care of do-it-yourselfers. But for the less intrepid there’s The Inn at Boonsboro in Boonsboro, thoroughly renovated since its 1798 origin or the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, just two of the several choices where even the ultra-pampered will feel completely at home.
The trail runs through a wealth of fascinating sites. It crosses the Mason Dixon line as well as the Eastern Continental Divide plus the battlefield at Antietam where the first major engagement of the Civil War was fought. There in September 1862, on what is remembered as the bloodiest day in American history, 22,717 soldiers died. Details of that dreadful day are brought vividly to life on the well-marked battlefield and in a small but excellent museum. There’s plenty to see as well in Harper’s Ferry where in October 1859 the famous abolitionist John Brown carried off his ill-starred raid. Eventually captured by a contingent of federal troops, led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, an unrepentant John Brown was tried, convicted and hanged on a nearby gallows. The trail also runs as well past Fort Frederick, built in 1756 as protection of early settlers during the French and Indian War, a great site for kids to re-enact the Indian raids as narrated by local guides.
Whether biking east to west or west to east, there’s fine train service to carry weary cyclists on the seven-hour train ride back to their starting point. For spectacular scenery, a rich diet of American history and a week’s worth of exercise, it would be hard to beat the 350-mile bike trip between our nation’s capital and Pittsburgh where the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers flow together at that city’s Golden Triangle.
IF YOU GO: Excellent websites provide a wealth of information about the trail and its amenities: www.greatalleghenypassage.com.