Monday, September 22, 2014

Riding the GAP

The C&O Trail many of us know. The C&O Trail is the towpath to the C&O canal, running 184 miles from Georgetown through Harpers Ferry west to Cumberland. It is simultaneously a wondrous experience to explore the nature along C&O and Potomac river, and near death-by-vibration. The C&O trail surface is hard pack dirt, clay, rocks, roots and whatever else might be available that, while relatively flat, can come very close to a mountain biking experience.

Photo by Jason Pratt (cc Flickr)
The C&O canal made it as far west as Cumberland, and that is where the Western Maryland Railroad picked up, serving the iron, steel, and coal industries. As those industries closed, and the costs of the railroad became unsustainable, the Western Maryland Railroad merged with CSX, and the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) line was abandoned. The first section of this rail line to be converted to a trail was a 9 mile section near Ohiopyle (a recreation mecca and near Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water). The entire trail was completed in 2006, with the last 9 miles opening at Cumberland. In total,GAP trail takes willing wheelmen 150 miles to Pittsburgh with approximately 1300 feet of elevation change.

I started my short journey along the GAP from Cumberland. This is a town that understands and has benefited from bicycle and recreational tourism. At the center is the old trail station and a nice park with a bike shop, many good restaurants, and hotels. Departing Cumberland, the trail is in far better condition than the C&O. I rode comfortably on 28c tires at 100 psi over the surface of crushed limestone and asphalt.

The trail out of Cumberland involves climbing a steady steady less than 2% grade climb for 23 miles. The grade is optically deceiving; you cant necessarily tell that you are climbing other than you feel like you are dragging a sack of concrete behind your bike. I actually got off of my bike to make sure my brakes were not rubbing. As much as the climb up the hill can be a grind, the ride back down is a throw-back to childhood (its like flying down the neighborhood hill on a Big Wheel only the ride is 30 minutes long).

This is a journey into a wondrous land of imagination. After mile 5 you will come upon the Brush Tunnel, and further along you will pass the Cumberland Bone Cave where bones from 41 genre of mammals were uncovered. The Great Western Railroad will follow you up the mountain until Frostburg (if you want to cheat, you can take the railroad up to Frostburg, get off, and start your ride). After Frostburg comes the Borden Tunnel and the Big Savage Tunnel, which is the longest tunnel along your journal at 3294’. At about mile 23 you will cross over the Eastern Continental Divide. You will wind through the mountains, bridges and along farms. Your companions will be many other through-cyclists and hikers, and cows.

There are plenty of services along the trail and businesses that cater to recreational tourism. The trail meanders through small towns about every ten miles where lodging may be available, or cyclists can pack and camp along the trail.


1 comment:

  1. Speaking from experience the 2% grade is a whole lot easier than taking the roads, especially the climb over Big Savage Mountain after Frostburg. I love the GAP. It took a long time to build but it will prove to be a valued resource for decades to come.