Biking to DC, looking for route advice
A friend and I are planning on biking to DC in late september/early october. We’ve never done anything like this before, but we’re both in good shape, can do 25-mile city rides comfortably, and plan on staying in B+Bs, as opposed to camping. I have two routing questions:
1) Five days or six? Right now we’re thinking about 5 days: Pgh -> Connellsville PA -> Meyersdale PA -> Little Orleans MD ->Harpers Ferry -> DC. But reading this article from the P-G makes me reconsider – they did it in five days and made it sound grueling and unpleasant.
2) What’s the path like before the GAP – google suggests going over the rankin bridge, past Duquesne, and then to McKeesport, before meeting up with the GAP. I think we’d both like to leave from the city proper if possible, but is the non-trail part feasible?
If the farthest you’ve biked is 16 miles, and you are also not in the best of shape in general, then I’d say you should let the author of that article scare you into perhaps a more leisurely pace than he followed. Keep in mind, he’s writing to hold your attention and entertain you.
On another thread ( http://bike-pgh.org/bbpress/topic/the-great-allegheny-passage-anyone ) I was urged to have at least one training ride be 125% of my expected daily average, but also that some kids who aren’t cyclists managed in 8 days easily. I have done neither, having already taken my vacation and am now hoarding the rest of my days. But good luck, it should be beautiful that time of year!
I’d go 6 days instead of 5.
Harper’s Ferry is an attractive stop, distance-wise. Unfortunately, to actually get to HF from the C&O trail, you have to carry your bike up a very unpleasant outdoor spiral staircase. I’d consider Point of Rocks (where I admittedly haven’t stayed myself) or Shepherdstown instead. Shepherdstown is pretty bike-friendly.
If you’ve never ridden the C&O trail, don’t expect it to be like the GAP. IMO, it’s much less scenic. It’s also less fun to ride on. The GAP is mostly crushed limestone and asphalt. The C&O is mostly mud, rocks, and tree roots. Don’t expect to go as fast on the C&O, especially if it’s raining.
Standard caveats: be sure to take tools and spares. You will be far from help at many points. I recommend a couple of spare tubes and spokes, pump, standard multi-tool, and a chain tool. Large portions of the GAP and the C&O have no mobile phone coverage.
You may want to check out the Western Maryland bike route as an alternative to the C&O trail. I will probably do that next time I go.
Think about food and water.
Others have complained about insects on the C&O trail. I never had a problem, and didn’t need any repellant. YMMV.
A good rule-of-thumb for the “in shape” check is that you should do a ride that’s roughly the distance you plan to cover in one day. You should feel fine the next morning. If you feel drained the next morning, then you probably can’t sustain that mileage for a week.
Don’t take the Rankin bridge. It’s under construction right now, and it’s terrible for any vehicle, but especially for a bicycle.
You don’t need to go to McKeesport to pick up the GAP – you can pick it up in Duquesne – it’s right at the RIDC entrance on Grant. If you turn off 837 into RIDC, it’s immediately on your right. Bonus reason for picking up the GAP there: you get to ride over the beautiful Riverton bridge. Getting to Duquesne from the city is currently unpleasant – the trail to connect up to Homestead isn’t open yet, AFAIK. I did this ride earlier this summer, and I just started in Duquesne. I’ve ridden 837 before, and it sucked. I had no desire to start my fun trail ride with a sucky highway ride.
Be sure that your bike has a headlight and a blinky. Even if you don’t ride at night, you’re riding in the dark in the tunnels. You’ll want a headlight that’s capable of providing genuine illumination as well as visibility to others. If you choose to go through the Paw Paw tunnel (rather than take the detour over and around), you’ll want either a flashlight or a detachable headlight on your bike.
If you’re looking at lodging in Connellsville, the “Melody Motor Lodge” advertises itself as trail-accessible, and it’s the only place in Connellsville that advertises in the GAP Trail Book. The ride from the trail to the motel is extremely unpleasant. Once there, you’re on a highway that I wouldn’t want to ride on in the dark, so factor that into schedule and dinner plans. I will not go back there. Next time, I’ll either find someplace else or just camp.
Others have reported problems
Books to check out:
The C&O is not less scenic than the GAP. It’s simply different scenery. I will agree that the trail surface isn’t as nice.
Yes, take all the tools you need. Bike shops are few and far between.
Mosquitoes can be bad on the C&O but only when you’re not moving. The typical mosquito can only fly 1.5 miles an hour. But, when you stop, they find you. I tend not to take bug spray but spend my time in camp and eating dinner walking around in circles before seeking shelter in my tent.
Yes, you’ll want a light of some sort, especially for the Paw Paw tunnel, although my first time riding the trail I rode through the tunnel without a light. A white-knuckle experience. You can get away with not having a light, though. Most tunnels are short enough for ample light from either end, the Big Savage Tunnel is lighted.
Don’t take the detour around Paw Paw.
Get a map.
Books about the trail are nice but to get a real sense of what riding is like, good and bad, read blogs and trail reports. Mine are at http://www.tasigh.org/gps/bikeblog.html
I forgot to mention: if you’re looking for C&O mile marker 0 in DC, it can be hard to find. If you follow the path (not so easy through Georgetown), you’ll end up at the Potomac with Thompson’s marina on your left and a giant sundial-looking thing on your right. Turn left and cut through Thompson’s past their office. Marker 0 and the tidelock are on the far side of the building, across the world’s smallest bridge.
I’d shoot for 6 days (the crushed limestone drains you pretty fast). I would also suggest starting on the trail in Boston.
My girlfriend and I are trying to do it in three days next week….
yeah, don’t start from Pittsburgh. Duquesne is the closest start point. Boston is also a good start point.
A 5 day ride averages 67 miles per day. Some days longer.
Do some long rides. If you do a 70 mile ride and the next morning you feel happy to repeat it? Then 5 or 6 days might be good.
I trained hard to do it in 7 days, then 7 days return. Averaged 48 miles per day on my trip.
My longest training ride was 70 miles. But then, I’m in my 50’s and I’m slow.
If you aren’t comfortable doing 35 miles on consecutive days, it would be difficult to do the trip at all.
“25 mile city rides” makes me think 2 week one-way trip. I known people that have done it like that. They are adament that it is the only good way to do it. (I disagree, but…)
I rode from and to my place in Oakland for my trip. I scouted routes from my house to the GAP as part of my early training.
Riding from town to the Dravo Cemetary site, about 45 mile round trip, or to the Sutersville Ice Cream stand (!), about 55 miles, are good short-medium rides for early training.
I don’t understand why some people start by driving from Pittsbugh.
The roads aren’t great, but they aren’t bad and aren’t very long. It’s a BIKE trip.
I like the GAP. For the C&O, I recommend the lovely Maryland roads for going from Williamsport, through Sharpsburg (where the battle of Antietam happened), to the village of Antietam (where the battle did not happen). Regardless of the weather
Unless it has been very dry, I also recommend taking Whites Ferry to Leesburg, then taking the W&OD paved rail trail to DC.
+1 White’s Ferry, but for non-bike-route related reasons.
The roads and landscape around White’s Ferry are gorgeous, and White’s Ferry itself is really cool. I “discovered” it on a trip from Portsmouth VA to PGH when I pulled off the dreaded Beltway due to traffic, and intended on finding backroads to my cousin’s house for lunch (Leesburg). Found out they don’t quite have as many bridges over that river as a Pittsburgher would think, got stuck on the wrong side, thank god for cell phones and my cousin’s sick knowledge of backroads there.
White’s Ferry was a huge bonus on that drive, if you can structure an itinerary to go see it, I would (it’s old school, with a cable across the river, and it’s a tiny boat). But I love ferries definitely way more than most normal people (I take them for fun any time I can). Like I bought a post card of it, and look forward to going back.
Depending on how handy you are with all your stuff, another way to get out of town is to take the 61c (which has a bike rack). You can get off at Duquesne or go all the way to the terminal in McKeesport.
^+1 yeah, the Montour Trail leaves a lot to be desired… the “detours” in the incomplete trail pretty much amount to winding country roads complete with steep hills and one-lane-tunnels. Honestly, the Montour Trail drained me more than the GAP Trail from McKeesport to the Apache Springs Campground. There is something to be said for an increased level of anxiety on roads such as the ones where the Montour Trail “detours” to.
However, you are right. It is a BIKE trip. So basically, do whatever you want.
Take however long you feel comfortable, but don’t be scared of it. I rode from my door in Pittsburgh to a friend’s door in Frederick MD in three days in May. 100 miles per day, and I was camping and carrying my own food, though I’ll admit to buying prepared food in a couple of the towns along the way.
Think of it this way – you have 24 hours each day to do nothing but eat, sleep and ride. Being that you’re staying at B+Bs and won’t be carrying much gear with you, you might be surprised at how many miles you can comfortably pedal in a day.
I’ll second or third the ride from Pittsburgh comments, it isn’t nearly as bad as a lot of people make it out to be. From Homestead to the Duquesne trail head is the only section that is on sort of sketch roads, and it’s only a couple of miles and shouldn’t be that scary to anyone who rides in traffic as there is ample shoulder space for most of it. It is much more fulfilling to have ridden your bike from home than to drive 5 miles and then ride.
Thanks for all the advice, everyone.
I think we’ll plan on doing seven days, with the option of pushing it faster if we can handle it after the first couple days. It also sounds like a good idea to scout out the first 15 or so miles to actually get to the GAP. I’ve actually never ridden east out of the city.
I wasn’t aware there was an alternate trail to DC – the W+OD. It sounds like it’s paved? Would people recommend it over the C+O? We’re ending the trip in Georgetown, so the C+O seems more convenient from that perspective. What’s the transfer like between the two trails?
I’m not sure where those comments about the Montour trail came from.
@raphael is referring to an undeveloped section near the eastern end of the trail that, yes, does have a climb.
If you want nice crushed limestone, they’re plenty of it on the western 2/3rd or so of the trail (along with amenities).
Sorry if you already know this, but if you haven’t done a lot of riding on crushed limestone before, be aware of the effect on your chain. You’ll want to take some kind of degreaser and chain lube. When I’m doing a multi-day trip, I take a tiny can of wd40 for degreasing and a small bottle of chain lube.
@ Aothman wasn’t aware there was an alternate trail to DC – the W+OD. It sounds like it’s paved? Would people recommend it over the C+O? We’re ending the trip in Georgetown, so the C+O seems more convenient from that perspective. What’s the transfer like between the two trails?
There are two alternative trails, neither is particularly long.
Around Hancock, MD, there is about 20 miles of paved route that is parallel to the C&O, the Western MAryland Rail Trail. It’s a nice respite from the ancient mule turds of the C&O. Highly recommended.
When you are traveling east bound the entrance is past Little Orleans. The “transfer” is about 20 yards of good trail.
They are planning to extend this – possibly all the way from DC to Cumberland. It would greatly expedite the trip.
There is also a paved rail-trail that is 35 miles from Leesburg, VA into DC, the Washington and Old Dominion. South of the river and not close to it, either. Paved though.
Leesburg is on the south side of the Potomac (Get across by White’s Ferry! $1!), and about 5 miles down a trafficky highway with an OK shoulder. There are motels there and an expensive, but really cool, B&B there.
If you stay there, tell the English proprietor that you got recommended by me. He would know me as “Mick – the guy who ran into Tony Soprano and the boys under the Point of Rocks Bridge” (Don’t ask.)
If you go to Leesburg, you probably want to take the W&OD, even if you are going to Georgetown. If it is really rainy, you probably want to go to Leesburg and take the W&OD. It’s about 35-40 miles.
aothman It also sounds like a good idea to scout out the first 15 or so miles to actually get to the GAP.
Two nice day-trip destinations on the trail.
Dravo Cemetary campsite – 44 miles round trip from Oakland. Good for picnic stop. Has water and relatively clean outhouse.
Sutersville – with a great ice cream stand/ hammburger place (not sure of vege options). 55 miles round trip from Oakland.
Either one is a nice training ride from Oakland. Not sure where you’re starting from.
PS I just read teh Franklin Toker PG article. The horrors that a 64 year old would face on the trip are somewhat lessened by youth. Also, I second his recomendation of the Desert Rose Cafe in Williamsport.
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