The final day, like the end of all great adventures, was bittersweet. Nobody wanted to stop and yet we all had our lives to get back to and our responsibilities awaiting us that needed attention the next day. Most of the day’s ride would fly noticeably downhill. All of the gradual elevation we’d earned over many strenuous hours would come back to us in a 23-mile joyride into Cumberland. All we had to do was reach the final crest a few miles farther down the path. Mother Nature envisioned one more little trick. Prevailing winds cranked up to a sustained 20 mph with gusts even higher, and blew from the opposite direction than usual. Heading out of Meyersdale going uphill with a strong headwind after riding so many miles seemed unusually cruel.
Eastern Continental Divide
Which Way Will the Water Flow?
A little wind couldn’t stop us though. It felt like conditions that I’d biked through all winter long so I pushed forward to the highest point along the trail, the Eastern Continental Divide (map), and waited for my companions. Loyal followers of Twelve Mile Circle will understand my excitement. This was a genuine geo-oddity of some significance. Water poured directly atop the divide would roll either towards the Gulf of Mexico or towards the Atlantic Ocean; two very different locations determined solely by the simple fate of how it teetered along a razor-thin line. I sacrificed a small stream to the Geography Gods from my water bottle and wondered about the journey it would take. Actually it probably evaporated on the spot although I didn’t want to spoil my little fantasy moment.
The keepers of the GAP Trail obviously understood the importance of the Divide too. The small tunnel at this pivotal spot included an elevation map (photo) as well as several murals outlining the history of the area and the trail.
Now the well-deserved downhill sprint could begin.
Big Savage Tunnel
Big Savage Tunnel
Remember my long list of worries during the planning? The Big Savage Tunnel (map) was right near the top. I didn’t have a fear of tunnels even though this one was particularly long, and the longest on the trail at 3,300 feet (one kilometre). Rather I feared it might be closed. There wouldn’t be an easy detour if its imposing steel doors were padlocked.
Its restoration took two years and $12 million so the Allegheny Trail Alliance wasn’t in any hurry to go through the trouble again. They closed the tunnel every winter to prevent ice damage. The tunnel would open again in early April or "sometime" in April or definitely before May, according to various websites I consulted. We’d had a particularly cold winter and I figured it might delay the schedule. I watched the trail alerts anxiously until I saw an announcement saying it had opened for the season on April 3, 2015; two weeks before we would need it. I could relax.
The tunnel was in great shape, well lighted and a smooth ride.
Mason & Dixon Line
Mason & Dixon Line
Another fascinating geographic division appeared just after we passed the landmark tunnel, the renowned Mason & Dixon Line (map). Twelve Mile Circle readers should be well acquainted with the line so I won’t go into great detail (e.g., surveyed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon circa 1763-1767, the traditional dividing line between north and south in the United States, the state boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland). For me, it provided a great opportunity to take a bunch of photographs of our bicycles in two states at the same time. Shouldn’t bikes get a little geo-oddity love too?
It was bound to occur. Oddly the first and only bit of misfortune during our entire trip happened a mere fourteen miles from our goal. One of our group ran over a twig at the exact same time as a gear shift. A twig hitting at that vulnerable point must have acted as a lever, twisting the chain and locking the pedals. Even so we were lucky in adversity. This happened right before the Frostburg trailhead. We walked our bikes into town, had lunch, and made arrangements for a bicycle shop in nearby Cumberland to pick up the bike for repair while dropping-off a rental for the remaining few miles. We lost very little time, thankful that it hadn’t happened on an earlier day several miles from the nearest town.
Finishing the GAP
Mile 0 in Cumberland, Maryland
On the Maryland side, the trail followed active tracks of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Active, yes, although not very frequent. The WMSR was a weekend excursion line operating only during the warmer months. I would have been overjoyed to see a vintage steam engine chugging up the mountain directly next to the bike trail. I’m not sure I’d have felt the same way if I’d been in the Brush Tunnel at the time — bikes and trains share the same tunnel (photo) — although seeing an antique train in general would have been nice. Unfortunately the first train of the season wouldn’t run for another couple of weeks.
I pedaled past the town of Mount Savage (photo) which I mentioned in an earlier article, Savages. It was pretty enough sitting way down in the valley although we were on a mission at that point, nearly finished and I kept going. One last attraction did entice us to stop, the Bone Cave only four miles from our destination. Workers constructing a railroad cut stumbled upon the cave in 1912. They found fossilized bones from Pleistocene-era animals dating back 200,000 years. Fossils included cave bears, saber-toothed tigers, mastodons and wolverines, some forty different species according to a marker placed at the entrance.
Finally the surface turned from gravel to asphalt, an oddly quiet situation after riding on rougher road for most of the last four days. People began to appear on the trail in abundance for the first time; walkers, joggers and recreational bikers. This offered another tantalizing clue that civilization couldn’t be too far ahead. Cumberland appeared on the horizon and we rolled into town for our final mile. The trail ended at Canal Place, back where we’d caught our shuttle four days earlier. The countdown to Mile 0 finally ended. We offered congratulations to each other, took plenty of photos as evidence and headed towards our cars. Two hours later I was back home, still feeling great and wondering when I might be able to do something like that again.
The Great Allegheny Passage articles:
We pushed deeper into the trip, halfway done as we pedaled out of Ohiopyle on the morning of the third day. We intended to cover the same distance as the previous day, a little more than forty miles, although we’d gain a thousand feet of altitude while reaching the town with the highest elevation along the trail. The day turned warm and sunny. I would finish this stretch with a minor sunburn on the back of hands where they were exposed as I gripped my handlebars.
Each town along the trail had its own character. Besides Pittsburgh, they were all small and some were downright tiny. Their fortunes faded as Rust Belt industries collapsed. Now the Great Allegheny Passage offered a new hope based on a more environmentally-friendly source, the trekkers who passed anonymously along the trail.
Only the most resourceful cyclists packed everything they needed for a 150 mile journey. We saw a few if them and I wondered how they even managed to remain on two wheels carrying their quadruple panniers with sleeping bundles and tents like vagabonds. Everyone else stopped at trailside towns as the need arose, at convenience stores, restaurants, lodges, B&B’s, campgrounds, taverns, hardware stores, pharmacies or bicycle shops. A new town appeared every ten miles-or-so. The trailbook made it easy to anticipate anything that would be available up-the-road (e.g., Ohiopyle) and plan accordingly.
Everyone we met couldn’t have been nicer. People went out of their way to be helpful and hospitable. Maybe some of that happened because we were amongst the vanguard of riders arriving in early Spring. I got the feeling though that they’d be equally nice at the end of a long touring season, even before things got quiet again for a long winter.
Confluence Shrouded in Fog
Departing Ohiopyle, the town of Confluence (map) was the next significant settlement. If that name sounded familiar it might be because it appeared on Twelve Mile Circle in February 2014 in an article called Confluence of Confluences. I’d learned about Confluence by happenstance. The article mentioned several interesting sites and geo-oddities within its general orbit. At the time I said, "Now that I’ve considered it more, I think I’ll have to put Confluence on my list for a long weekend. This should be a feasible itinerary for anyone living in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Someday maybe I’ll take this trip and report back to the 12MC audience." I hadn’t anticipated that my prophesy would come true barely a year later.
Confluence impressed me even more than I’d imagined; a quaint town on a beautiful stretch of river, or more accurately two rivers and a creek forming the namesake confluence. In the photograph, the Youghiogheny appeared as the river in the foreground. The Casselman River flowed into it. Up the Casselman on the left bank one can barely see where Laurel Hill Creek flowed into the Casselman. We arrived on the first day of trout season. Fishermen lined the banks for miles (photo) as we biked along the trail.
I still want to return to Confluence. We simply passed through, stopping only for a late breakfast in an old-school diner (photo) on the town square. I didn’t get to see any of the fascinating features I mentioned in the earlier article. This area deserved to be savored.
The bike trail switched away from the bank of the Youghiogheny River at the town of Confluence and followed the Casselman for the remainder of the day.
The Pinkerton High Bridge led to the entrance of the Pinkerton Tunnel (map). It will be an impressive feature on the trail someday. The tunnel was dug originally for the Western Maryland Railroad in 1912 although it was in sorry shape by the time the Great Allegheny Passage came into existence. Modern railroad trains traveled through the large cut seen up and towards the left in the photograph, leaving the Pinkerton Tunnel obsolete. Restoration efforts continued on the tunnel at the time we arrived in April 2015.
When completed, this feature will eliminate a 1.5 mile detour along a bend in the Casselman River called the Pinkerton Horn. The GAP marked miles as if the tunnel existed, planning ahead optimistically I supposed. In essence we didn’t bike 150 miles during our journey, we biked 151.5 with the Horn serving as uncounted bonus mileage. It was actually quite lovely as a detour, passing through thick forest high above turbulent waters.
I’ve read several trip reports that described the long uphill segment as "barely noticeable." That was correct in a sense. The grade never went higher than 0.7%. However it was an accumulation of miles that made it noticeable. I’d been training on rolling terrain all winter and I felt strong although I still wanted to crest that final hill and be done with it. It was right after the Horn that one of our biking companions had about enough of the constant day-long steady climb and slowed to a crawl for awhile. Generally it wasn’t all that bad though.
Trailside Art at Rockwood
Towns along the trail took pride in their appearance. Oftentimes this reflected as works of art with whimsical themes reflecting area history, a railroading legacy or bicycles. Rockwood had a wonderful steel train with bicycle rims replacing steam from a smokestack (map).
It became a game for me. I’d stop to admire each new creation for a moment and snap a photograph or two.
These all livened-up the trip and helped pass the time as hours and miles blended into each other.
Farm Outside of Meyersdale
The character of the terrain changed slowly once again. Mountain and forest gave way to farmland as we drew closer to Meyersdale (map). Day three ended with visions of open fields and barns and windmill turbines atop scenic hillsides (photo). It took one final push across the spectacular Salisbury Viaduct, almost two thousand feet long, to draw closer to our day’s destination. It crossed U.S. Route 219, the "Flight 93 Memorial Highway" at this point, only twenty five miles south of Shanksville where a United Airlines flight hijacked by terrorists crashed on September 11, 2001.
We entered Meyersdale soon after crossing the viaduct for our third and final overnight.
The Great Allegheny Passage articles:
The second day of biking on the Great Allegheny Passage may have been my favorite. The rain lifted overnight and conditions improved with lightly cloudy skies, neither too hot nor too cool. Scenery changed from rust belt chic to thick forest hugging a scenic whitewater river. It was our first complete day of biking without any time pressures on either end, with ample opportunity to explore every obscure corner before arriving at our destination for the night.
Banning No. 1 Mine Processing Plant; Perryopolis
We left behind the hulking factories that once forged iron sheets and pressed farther into mining country. Much of the easily-accessible coal along the banks of the Youghiogheny River had already been extracted. We’d encountered signs of mining pollution the previous day. Now we began to experience the discarded remnants of the mines themselves: the forgotten railroad spurs; the abandoned coke ovens; the dilapidated processing plants and other hulking artifacts discarded along the valley reclaimed slowly by natural forces.
One such facility served the Banning No. 1 Mine (map). An interpretive sign (photo) on the site explained that it once "processed coal for the steel mills." Coal came down from the mountain on tracks directly into a plant that washed, sorted, processed and shipped it from the 1890’s until 1956. "In 1951 Banning No. 1 employed 500 men and produced 500,000 tons of coal." Now all that stood on the spot were a few decrepit, spooky concrete rooms that offered little more than refuge to gangs of underage drinkers and graffiti artists.
Coalmines brought jobs and wealth to mountain communities. They sometimes brought tragedy. We biked past a memorial (photo) to the victims of the Darr Mine Disaster of 1907. Some 239 miners died on that spot when an open flame lamp ignited mine gasses and triggered a massive explosion that rocked the valley. Only a couple of miners survived. Many of them were entombed permanently within the mountain. A century later, the Darr Mine continues to be one of the worst industrial disasters in Pennsylvania history although it was largely forgotten. Life was cheap in the mines and Darr was worked by Hungarian immigrants who didn’t have much of a voice.
Fifty Miles Done
Mile 100; Perryopolis
Fifty miles down the trail — one-third complete — and another hundred miles to go (map). The miles melted away almost effortlessly as I fell into a groove and barely noticed my legs moving anymore. I felt great, physically and spiritually.
I’d been more than a bit dubious when my friend suggested the Great Allegheny Passage for our trip. I couldn’t imagine riding that distance on a gravel path. I was pleasantly surprised. The GAP consisted of a finely-crushed limestone gravel that made for an exceptionally smooth ride. The trail itself was abundantly wide with excellent drainage. Certainly the tires created a little more noise than they would have made on asphalt road, and maybe rolled a tad slower, however it was quite manageable and comfortable otherwise. Seven distinct groups maintained different sections of the trail so that the entire 150 mile length remained in great shape. Their efforts should be commended.
A Trail to Ourselves
Quiet Trail Scenery
The time of year also concerned me. We left in early April and conditions could be perfectly wonderful, or they could be miserably wet or horribly cold, or any combination hour-to-hour. Early Spring dates were always a crap shoot, a simple roll of the dice between lovely and wretched. Nevertheless, one takes what one can get, and these were the only dates that worked for all of us so we didn’t have an option. We’d already experienced the rain on Day 1 and managed just fine. The rain passed and remaining days only improved. It was a bit chilly each morning although it never truly got cold. We considered ourselves fortunate.
Taking that risk, not that we’d been give a choice, created perfect timing in one regard: we’d hit the Great Allegheny Passage at the very beginning of thru-rider season. I didn’t expect to see anyone else on Day 1 in the rain. Anyone with flexibility or common sense avoided the trail. However on Day 2, even with nicer weather, we encountered no more than a dozen people biking in either direction throughout the entire day. That included a leisurely lunch at the Round Bottom Camping Area (photo) on the banks of the Youghiogheny. Nobody. We remarked several times how it seemed like the trail had been constructed solely for our enjoyment.
Evidence of Beavers; Fayette Co., PA
I didn’t see any bears and I can live with that. Well, there was that one fake bear (photo) at the miniature golf course in Ohiopyle although that hardly mattered. Neither did I see the nest of rattlesnakes reputed to live near Mile Marker 20, not did I look for it. There were plenty of other more benign creatures along the path that greeted me as I biked through the woods. I spotted a couple of wild turkeys one morning and also a fox. There was also an amazing array of birds in the underbrush and along the river. One of our travel companions was a bit of an amateur naturalist who could describer all manner of flora and fauna to kept us entertained while we pedaled through the forest.
Where was the beaver? I saw the stumps (map). Those trees hadn’t fallen by chainsaw or axe. An entire patch of stumps stood aside the river and yet I couldn’t see any downed trees or a dam or a beaver. Goodness knows I looked.
The Wild Youghiogheny
Youghiogheny Rapids; Ohiopyle
The Youghiogheny began to increase in turbulence as we approached Ohiopyle (map). This also marked a change in terrain. The path would continue slightly uphill for the next sixty-five miles into the Laurel Highlands. This gradual elevation rise also created some of the best whitewater rafting in the eastern United States although we wouldn’t get a chance to experience it on our trip. There weren’t too many people riding the Youghiogheny rapids on a chilly April afternoon although we spotted a few brave souls. We pulled into Ohiopyle for the evening, a perfect finish to a rewarding second day.
The Great Allegheny Passage articles: