Great Allegheny Passage, Day 1 (Pittsburgh to West Newton)

On April 22, 2015 · 9 Comments

I’d fretted about my upcoming bicycle trek along the Great Allegheny Passage trail, my attitude stuck somewhere between nervousness and fear. I’d never attempted anything like it before, a 150 mile (240 kilometre) rails-to-trails ride between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cumberland, Maryland.

Every time I conquered a fear I created a new one to replace it. I wasn’t "experienced enough" so I rode all through the winter in the cold and the wind getting into shape. I wasn’t used to extra baggage so I loaded my panniers with 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of dead weight and rode around like that for several weeks. I didn’t have the right equipment so I had the bike overhauled, packed for every roadside repair imaginable and scoured the Intertubes for suggestions from riders who’d finished the trail successfully. It might rain a lot in early Spring so I packed waterproof everything. I even threw in a couple of bungee cords because — well why not — bungee cords might be useful. How did I ever get to this? A younger version of me with some friends took a 28-day roadtrip with barely a map and a vague idea of wanting to visit national parks. Now much older and supposedly more experienced, I was afraid I might get wet.

Eventually I eliminated every rational and even some irrational fears with the exception of possible attack by hillbilly meth addicts hiding along the trail. Roving feral methamphetamine gangs were one tick above sassquatch sightings on the probability scale so I knew I’d finally arrived at the proper mental state. I was ready. Besides, we were spending four days on the trail, an easy pace that one website described as a classic for "recreational cyclists with some experience." That seemed to fit my demographic.

We parked in Cumberland, Maryland and hitched a shuttle ride along with our equipment to Pittsburgh through a local bicycle shop. We would need to finish the trail if we wanted to see our cars ever again and return home. We burned the bridge behind us, figuratively.

The Journey Began

Point State Park; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Mile 150 began in Pittsburgh. We planned to ride all the way back down to Mile 0 in Cumberland. The shuttle dropped us off at Point State Park at the joining of the city’s famed Three Rivers, where the Monongahela and Allegheny formed the Ohio (map). I wished we’d been able to spend a little more time exploring the history at the park, the place where Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne stood at the river confluence during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). However it was already approaching 2:00 pm and we needed to get moving even though it was a light ride, 35 miles (56 km) on relatively flat terrain.

We posed for the obligatory photos at the fountain in a cold, steady rain. We were all thoroughly waterproofed, warm and ready to roll so the weather didn’t bother us. The route followed city streets for a about a mile before turning onto a dedicated path that would last for the remainder of the trip.


CSX Railroad Train; near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The GAP Trail followed decommissioned railroad rights-of-way primarily along riverbeds, first the Monongahela as we began the adventure and later the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers, each growing progressively smaller as we pushed farther back into the watershed. Trains became our constant companions for the entire route. While some lines had been decommissioned and turned into trails, others continued to haul coal from the mountains in an unending stream. All day, all night, along every mile of pathway and in every sleepy hamlet the train whistles and the clackety-clack burst into waking hours and even seeped into my dreams. I saw the first train just outside of Pittsburgh (map) and then came hundreds more.


The Homestead Works; Homestead, Pennsylvania

The trail leaving Pittsburgh displayed an unusual mix of post-apocalyptic ruin and suburban sprawl, and reminded me why the local football team became the Pittsburgh Steelers. The steep decline of the Rust Belt loomed everywhere though, in remnants large and small. Entire factories of broken windows stood abandoned along the banks of the Monongahela. Concrete blocks and iron trusses poked from the earth in unexpected places, crumbling, rusting, decaying. Every once in a while an actual working mill continued to belch pillows of steam over the valley, a remnant clawing its way into the 21st Century. Perhaps some might find this industrial backdrop a bit grim for riding. It rather fascinated me though. I imagined the prosperity that old robber barons brought to the area only to see a way of life collapse decades later, emptying towns and scattering people as economic winds shifted to other parts of the world.

Not everything I saw reflected a tale of decline. Modern suburbs grew into many of the vacant spaces once filled by factories. We peddled past an odd array of well-preserved smokestacks (map) in front of a shopping center known as The Waterfront. Those were remains of Homestead Steel Works, once the world’s largest steel-producing plant.

The poles are the 12 towering smokestacks that used to vent heat from red-hot steel ingots waiting to be reshaped in the 45-inch slab mill. They now stand like lonely sentinels at the edge of the Loews Theater parking lot.

Homestead Steel Works dated to the 1880’s, once owned by industrialist Andrew Carnegie who later sold it to U.S. Steel where it became the company’s flagship factory. It was also the site of the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 that lasted for several months with significant violence and loss of life.

The Works closed in 1986. Almost thirty years later I rode across the place where molten metal rivers once poured.

Scars Upon the Landscape

Red Waterfall
Red Waterfall; Buena Vista, Pennsylvania

We began to leave city behind and pushed past McKeesport, now switching from the bank of the Monongahela River to the Youghiogheny. The trail’s paved surface turned to gravel and would remain that way for the remainder of the ride. City gave way to suburb and finally to countryside as the miles slipped away. Next came smaller towns like Boston and Sutersville and historic sites such as the old Dravo Cemetery.

Nature reclaimed many of the old industrial sites although a toxic legacy remained behind. A red waterfall (map) hid a dark secret. The rich color came from iron. The acidity killed aquatic life and poisoned the waters. Toxins seeped from abandoned mines, an environmentally harmful condition called Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). The waterfall reminded me that even something ugly could appear somewhat beautiful on its surface.

We arrived in West Newton for the night, wet and layered with ashen grime from the crushed limestone used on the trail. We hosed-off our bikes and congratulated ourselves on a successful first day.

The Great Allegheny Passage articles:

On April 22, 2015 · 9 Comments

9 Responses to “Great Allegheny Passage, Day 1 (Pittsburgh to West Newton)”

  1. capejohn says:

    Once your on the trail all that anxiousness goes away within the first mile. Over training is a pit many of us fall into leading up to our first tour. My bet is now that you have done a bike tour, I can honestly say “hooked another one”.

    I’m doing the same tour on June 2nd with my son. If I may, how much was the transport to Pittsburgh?

    • It wasn’t cheap. Rather than quote a price, I’d recommend you contact Cumberland Trail Connection because it will vary by the size of your party and whether you can be combined with other parties. Also the price will likely change over time and I’d hate for someone seeing this comment three or tive years from now being mislead unintentionally (it’s happened — I’ve been contacted by business owners who were concerned that I’d listed “old” prices). I’d recommend that you book soon regardless. Our driver told us that they get really busy shuttling groups in the summer.

      And you’re right, I can’t wait to do another one!

      • Sarah says:

        Check Amtrak. I think they’re supposed to be implementing roll-on service there soon.

        • Shawn says:

          I just e-mailed Amtrak; they do not have a date yet for roll-on, roll-off service for the Capital Limited.

          I lead a group of Venture Scouts a couple of weeks ago on a trip from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. If the Capital Limited had roll-on roll-off bike racks, I could get on the train in Waterloo, IN (north of Fort Wayne), take the train to DC, and then bike to Pittsburgh and hop on the train home!

  2. Kurt says:

    We will be doing the Pitt to DC ride this summer. Right now I’m feeling that same fears you had. I guess it will pass.
    Enjoying the read, looking forward to day 2


  3. Hi–
    I am the volunteer admin person for the Great Allegheny Facebook page. Hope you are okay that I posted your Day 2. I would like to post the days but wanted to run it by you first–
    Please let me know if it is okay.


  4. Randy101 says:

    I really enjoyed ready about your trip. This trail is on my bucket list, I’m 67 and usually ride trails 40 to 55 miles in length. I plan on riding the trail that runs from Wellsboro, Pa thru the Pa Grand Canyon. My wife gets upset because most of the time I ride alone and she does like the thought of me camping and transporting all the extra weight. My question, after reading your blog I take it you didn’t camp on this trip. If you stayed at B&B’s or motels are there some you can recommend, also dining.
    Thanks Randy

    • I stayed at Bright Morning B&B in West Newton, Laurel Guest House in Ohiopyle, and Gram Gram’s Place in Meyersdale. I’d recommend any of them. As for dining, it was pretty much catch-as-catch-can.

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