Rails to Trails Cycling from Pittsburgh to Cumberland
By Cele & Lynn Seldon
As flatlanders living on the South Carolina coast, the idea of a 148-mile bike ride through the Appalachian Mountains from Pittsburgh to Cumberland was a bit daunting. However, our new-found love of rails-to-trails cycling put our fears to rest as we set out on a week-long adventure on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP).
Rail-trails are abandoned railroad tracks that have been converted into multi-use paths that welcome hikers, cyclists and, occasionally, horseback riders. Often running alongside rivers and creeks, these former railbeds typically offer flat and long stretches of pavement, crushed rock or cinder, and often go through small towns and cities, providing amenities like food and lodging for cyclists looking to create multi-day tours through America’s countryside.
With help from TrailLink, the consummate trail finder app through the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, we found our way to the Great Allegheny Passage as a multi-day ride possibility. We saw it as a sweet summer escape from the southeastern heat and humidity, as well as a great way to explore a slice of Americana. Since this was our first multi-day bike ride, and preferring an independent option, we purchased a “blueprint” for the ride from Noble Invention Bike Touring. Basically, a digital itinerary service utilizing the bank of knowledge and expertise that Noble Invention has curated over the years for their many self-guided tour options, the blueprint did the research for us in terms of detailed routes, recommended accommodations, transportation services, dining and practicalities.
Armed with a game plan, we coordinated a shuttle from Cumberland, Maryland — the finish line and where we would leave our car — to Pittsburgh. One of several shuttles offered by Wheelzup Adventures in downtown Cumberland, we chatted up owner Mandela Echefu on the three-hour drive and learned tons about the ride to come. After an overnight in downtown Pittsburgh, we hit the trail on a gray day—with picnic lunch in hand — at Mile 148, the western terminus of the GAP at the tip of Point State Park.
As we pedaled along the Monongahela River through Pittsburgh’s Uptown and across the Hot Metal Bridge into the city’s Southside neighborhood, we had views of Pittsburgh’s skyline, its many bridges and remnants of its steel industry history. We veered off at the confluence of the Youghiogheny River in McKeesport at Mile 132 and, after a riverside picnic and an afternoon of rural countryside riding, we arrived at our first port of call in the quintessential bike town of West Newton at Mile 114.
With the guidance of Noble Invention, we booked a room at the biker-friendly Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast. With 14 comfortable rooms spread across four Federalist/Victorian homes and a lovely al fresco breakfast served on the patio, Bright Morning was the perfect first night. Our luggage had been delivered by the friendly folks at Sunshine Luggage Shuttle and was waiting for us in the lobby. West Newton offers a nice selection of amenities for bikers including restaurants, a brewery, a grocery store, a bike shop and a post office. After a hot shower and a meal, we settled into our charming room to map out the next days’ adventure.
Feeling a bit sore, but rejuvenated, we set off on our longest ride, 43 miles from West Newton to Ohiopyle. We passed through several former coal mining towns, county parks and remnants of coke production facilities, as we made our way to the day’s halfway point of Connellsville. Once home to more millionaires than any other U.S. city of its size, due to the lucrative coal industry, Connellsville has a robust business district including hotels, B&Bs, camping, restaurants, retails shops and, of course, a bike shop. After a hearty lunch at Kickstand Kitchen, we enjoyed a peaceful afternoon with scenic views of the Youghiogheny River and arrived at the outdoors Mecca of Ohiopyle.
Known for its whitewater rafting, Ohiopyle State Park, the rare plant species of Ferncliff Peninsula, Cucumber Falls, and the midway point of the GAP, Ohiopyle has become a bustling tourist town for biking, rafting, hiking, backpacking and cross-country skiing. With plenty of accommodations, restaurants, shopping and outdoors-oriented outfitters (well-respected Wilderness Voyageurs offers whitewater rafting and bike tours, as well as fun dining and imbibing), the town is a tourism attraction in its own rite. There are two Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces — Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob — that are just a few miles out of town and available for tours. Unfortunately, you can’t easily or safely ride bikes to either location, but there are plenty of places in town that offer shuttles.
After a hearty BBQ dinner at Falls City Pub and a restful night at Falls Market Inn in the heart of the town, we spent the morning exploring Ohiopyle and its namesake state park. After lunch, we got back on our bikes for the leisurely ride to Confluence, just 10 miles away (our shortest day of riding). Named for the confluence of The Casselman and Youghiogheny rivers and Laurel Hill Creek, the town is a true working-class community complete with town square and Victorian bandstand. With a stop at the local grocery store, we picked up provisions for a lovely dinner on the porch at our respite, the Smith House Inn.
The following day brought another 30-miler to Meyersdale, which featured several railroad tunnels, a fossil quarry, farmland, wind farms and the Salisbury Viaduct, a 1,908-foot-long steel trestle that is one of the most distinctive structures along the trail. Meyersdale is the high point of the 148-mile trail and is one of the larger towns along the trail. Restaurants abound (you can’t go wrong with dinner at The White House Restaurant), as do B&Bs (our choice was Yoder’s Guest House).
Our final day was filled with firsts. Ten miles outside of Meyersdale, you reach the Eastern Continental Divide at 2,392 feet, and from there, it is literally all downhill. There is also the 3,300-foot Big Savage Tunnel and the Mason-Dixon line at the Maryland state line. Five miles further is the college town of Frostburg, Maryland, and the finish line in Cumberland, Maryland is just another 15 miles and, thankfully, all downhill.
Once the bikes were back on the car, we explored downtown Cumberland. Loaded with history including: one of the few passable natural cuts in the Allegheny Mountains at the Cumberland Narrows; the National Road, which was the first major improved highway in the U.S. and the main transport route for settlers heading West; George Washington’s Headquarters; and the terminus of the Western Maryland Railway and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, to a vibrant downtown with museums, art galleries, and a pedestrian mall with shops and restaurants, Cumberland is definitely worthy of a few days pre- or post-bike ride. The Fairfield by Marriott is literally on the trail, as is live entertainment and cool brews at Dig Deep Brewing, along with many nearby restaurants including Crabby Pig, Mise en Place, Baltimore Street Grill, and Ristorante Ottaviani.
(Go Magazine Online Exclusive November 2021)