Jun 13, 2014

Bucket List: Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath

Cumberland, Maryland, acts as the connecting point between the Great Allegheny
Passage and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath Trail.
Riding rails-to-trails is one of my favorite outdoor pastimes.

The trails in Pennsylvania go through forests and are usually accompanied by a scenic river or mountains. You can witness these views while riding on a path that is mostly flat and is not accessible to motor vehicles (usually), so the trip isn't physically or mentally overbearing. What's not to love?

During a recent trip to Cumberland, Maryland, I experienced love at first sight with two of the larger trails in the region (just don't tell my girlfriend).

Image courtesy of Google Maps / A map of the Great Allegheny
Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland.
The first is the Great Allegheny Passage, a rail-to-trail that starts in Cumberland and cuts through much of southwestern Pennsylvania until the final destination in downtown Pittsburgh. The entire trip, one-way, is about 150 miles.

The second is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath Trail, another rail-to-trail that also starts in Cumberland and coasts along the Potomac River until it ends in Washington, D.C. This trail is about 185 miles long, one-way.

Image courtesy of Google Maps / A map of the Chesapeake &
Ohio Canal Towpath Trail from Cumberland, Maryland, to
Washington, D.C.
Because the two trails meet in Cumberland, riders can travel both of them in one long stretch, a whopping 335 miles. To put that into perspective, a car trip from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia via interstates 70 and 76 is 304 miles by car, according to Google Maps.

The chance of me doing both trails in one trip is quite slim at the moment. I want to start modest and tackle the GAP or the C&O one at a time. Both trails seem great and offer spectacular views, but I'm leaning toward the C&O as my first trip -- the main reason being because it travels parallel with the Potomac River the entire way. I love water, whether it's a lake, river or an ocean. The C&O also has several islands along the way, which makes the trip sound that much more exotic. There is a vast history associated with the C&O, too, so I never pass up a great history field trip.

Image courtesy of Google Maps / This map represents the driving
distance between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The trip by car is
about 304 miles via interstates 70 and 76. The combined trail of
the Great Allegheny Passage and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal
Towpath Trail is about 335 miles by bicycle.
The trip is made a little easier because of campsites every five to seven miles. The sites are free and provide a bathroom, picnic table, grill and drinking water. There are also hotels and stores along the way just in case.

Despite all the amenities, the trip is going to be challenging.

For starters, both trails are 150 miles or more. The most I've ever ridden in one trip is 52 miles, which was on the D&L Trail in Lehigh Gorge State Park. I will give myself some credit, however, because I've ridden all 52 miles in about five to six hours. I've completed the D&L several times, so I'm no stranger to longer rides. In addition, the D&L has no overnight camping locations, so if you plan to ride the whole thing round-trip as I have, you need to do it all in one day. The C&O gives me the comfort of knowing I have a location I can rest at every few miles.

Another problem I've come across is the camping arrangements.

I have a two-person tent, which is a good start, but how do you lug a two-person tent on a bike? The bag I currently keep the tent in is enormous and would never fit on my bike. I would need to stow the tent away in a backpack or a bike saddlebag, the latter which I do not own. As for the former, I received an outer frame backpack from an editor at work, but whether or not the bag is large enough to accommodate the tent I have yet to find out. And this is just the tent -- not including other items like food, water, clothes or anything else necessary for long-distance traveling. Speaking of food, what kind can you take on a bike trip? Anything that requires refrigeration is basically out of the question. All of the food needs to be non-perishable, which leaves me with items like granola, cereal, Pop-Tarts ... basically breakfast. I admit I could live with that.

Finally, there's the time requirement for such a trail.

As I stated before, it took me about six hours to ride 52 miles in a day, which I think is great progress. What that means, however, is if I were to ride that many miles per day, it would take me about four days to travel the C&O Trail -- one-way. I don't have a problem riding for that long, but I do need to return, which would take another four days. I don't have enough vacation time accumulated to make an eight-day bike trip just yet, not to mention I don't think I'd be able to lug around eight days worth of camping materials on my bike. The best solution would be to ride the trail one-way and to take a shuttle from Washington, D.C., back to Cumberland, which I know is an option. That option costs money, however, and I haven't been able to find a rate for shuttle services yet.

Those are just a few issues I need to overcome in the planning phases before attempting to tackle these trails. The more I type, the more I realize how difficult this trip might be.

My plan of starting small by riding only one trail might need to be downsized even more. I'm considering taking a two-day trip just to ride a portion of the trail and get a feel for what I might encounter. I haven't set a single tire on either trail yet, so what may seem like a conquerable feat might prove to be the biggest physical challenge of my life.

I think the planning of the trip is the most important part of successfully completing it. Going into it unprepared can be my greatest failure and make what should be one of the best experiences of my life into a living hell.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, seeing these trails was love at first sight. But just like love at first sight, I shouldn't just jump into a trip without first getting to know it better. I may find out that I'm not entirely compatible with the trails after just one or two days of riding. I may have to ease myself into riding the trails in their entirety. But that's what love is all about -- putting forth the effort to make things work, no matter how difficult the challenges ahead. I'm willing to make this work.