It’s the stuff bikers’ dreams are made of: almost 335 miles of connected off-road biking on two scenic, historic trails.
When my husband Dean and I visited our son in Maryland last year, we heard about an amazing set of bike trails in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. We love biking in Minnesota and Wisconsin and were amazed that we had never heard of these trails. Hey, where’ve you been all my life?
In September, we took another road trip to Maryland to visit our son, but this time, we planned an extended trip that allowed for some biking.
The Trails In Brief
Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath
- Georgetown (Washington D.C.) to Cumberland, Maryland
- The C&O Canal Towpath runs 184.5 miles along the historic C&O Canal. It was originally built for mules to walk beside the canal as they “towed” canal boats through the waterway. It’s part of the C&O Canal National Historic Park.
- Converted mule trail of dirt and hard-pack stone
- Elevation gain: 605 feet
Great Allegheny Passage (GAP)
- Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- The Great Allegheny Passage runs 150 miles, following the path of the Western Maryland Railway and the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad through the mountains of Maryland and the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania.
- Converted railroad bed of pavement or hard-pack stone
- Elevation gain: 1,767 feet
Both trails have lots of mature trees and shade cover. The trails are marked separately, but both have distinct mile markers that number from east to west, so it’s easy to understand the entire route (PDF).
- For the C&O, Georgetown is Mile 0 and Cumberland is Mile 184.5.
- For the GAP, Cumberland is Mile 0 and Pittsburgh is Mile 150.
Pro Tip: Purchase the official TrailGuide, which offers details on the trails, towns, lodging, restaurants, and much more.
The TrailGuide identifies 10 “best of” day trips (“out and back” rides). For this visit, my husband Dean and I selected three rides on the C&O Canal Towpath and three on the GAP. Here are the amazing rides we enjoyed on the GAP.
1. Mountain Maryland Ride
Maryland: Cumberland To The Mason & Dixon Line And Back
41 Miles Round Trip
This ride starts in Cumberland with a slight but consistent uphill grade to Helmstetter’s Curve, on to Frostburg, then continues up to the Mason & Dixon Line, where riders can turn around and enjoy the (largely) downhill coast back to Cumberland.
Part of the freedom of doing “out and back” rides is that we control when and how much we ride. We covered this ride (and then some), just not in the traditional way. Our previous rail bike adventure covered the 10 miles between Helmsetter’s Curve and Frostburg. Another day, we rode our bikes from Cumberland to Helmsetter’s Curve, then turned around when the skies started to darken. We were about 4 miles from Cumberland when it started raining, but we stopped, put on raincoats, and kept pedaling. It wasn’t windy or cold (and we’ve biked in the rain before), so we were careful and finished riding.
As we drove across the mountains from Cumberland to Frostburg (where our hotel was), we learned a lesson about biking near the mountains. The sky cleared and it felt like a new day! So, what were we to do? Get back on our bikes, of course! From the Frostburg trailhead, we rode the trail to the Mason & Dixon Line. En route, I loved the 957-foot Borden Tunnel built in 1911. To our surprise, it had motion-activated lights!
I loved seeing the large granite blocks that spelled out Mason & Dixon (one letter on each) and an imprint of the surveyors’ yellow, 66-foot measurement chains that marked the controversial boundary disagreement. I could stand with one foot in Maryland and one in Pennsylvania!
While this ride officially ends at the Mason & Dixon Line, the weather was so good that we biked on to the 3,291-foot-long Big Savage Tunnel. From the viewpoint at the eastern end of the tunnel, we could see into four states! Then we turned around and largely coasted back to Frostburg.
Pro Tip: There’s no fee to ride the GAP (or the C&O). Be sure to check the rules and safety of these trails before you go.
2. Ride The Divide
Pennsylvania: Meyersdale To The Big Savage Tunnel And Back
20.8 Miles Round Trip
It’s hard to pick a favorite ride, but this might be mine. As recommended, we parked in Meyersdale. The bike ride takes us east, but first, it led us 2 miles west to see the longest trestle on the GAP. The 1,908-foot-long, 101-foot-high Salisbury Viaduct rises majestically over multi-lane highways, railroad tracks, and the Casselman River.
As usual, we got an early start, and the clouds on the mountains over the viaduct were marvelous and sort of mysterious. I loved this! Then we biked back to Meyersdale to ride east. It was an easy 4 miles (round trip) to see this viaduct, and I could see why the bike route had us backtrack a bit. Worth it!
Another highlight on this ride was the curved 910-foot Keystone Viaduct. I loved the way it swept over the valley, roads, tracks, and the wandering Flaugherty Creek. We could also see wind turbines on the mountains here.
Just past the hamlet of Deal, Pennsylvania, a short underpass signifies the Eastern Continental Divide and the GAP’s high point (2,392 feet above sea level). Two miles past the high point is the Big Savage Tunnel. Of course, we had to ride through it again!
Pro Tip: The beauty of an out-and-back ride is that you don’t have to carry all your gear or book lodging along the trail and “guesstimate” your daily rides. Conversely, if you want to ride the entire trail, shuttles or outfitters can help.
3. The Original
Pennsylvania: Ohiopyle To Confluence And Back
20.6 Miles Round Trip
Remember how I said the last ride might have been my favorite? This one is Dean’s, and it’s a beauty. This ride is called “The Original” because it was the first completed section of the GAP.
We started at the trailhead in Ohiopyle and biked through Ohiopyle State Park, renowned for whitewater rafting on the Youghiogheny River. We didn’t go rafting, but this ride does follow the Youghiogheny (nicknamed “the Yawk”) through Pennsylvania’s deepest gorge!
In Confluence, we saw a couple of men fly fishing under the restored 1896 bridge. It was a beautiful day, so we decided to extend the ride. (More biking is always possible on a 150-mile trail!) We biked a couple more miles to the hamlet of Harnedsville and turned around.
Back in Ohiopyle, we enjoyed the deck views of Ohiopyle Falls and the beautiful Visitor Center that celebrates the town’s whitewater rafting history. Ohiopyle has two bridges a third of a mile apart: the curved 620-foot Low Bridge, 30 feet above the Youghiogheny River, and the 663-foot High Bridge, 115 feet above “the Yawk.”
Pro Tip: For a healthy lunch, try Ohiopyle Bakery and Sandwich Shoppe for made-to-order sandwiches, and sit out on the deck. For dinner, you can’t go wrong with the Historic Stone House Restaurant and Inn in Farmington. It’s a 15-minute drive from Ohiopyle (watch for free-range goats on Highway 381!).
The Rides Are Worth The Trip
As we struck up conversations along the trail, I can’t tell you how many people were surprised that we had come “all the way from Minnesota” to bike these trails. Didn’t they know what riches they had here? Worth the trip! We can’t wait to go back and bike more of it.
Whether you’re an avid biker or a casual one, I think you’ll love the scenery, history, and variety of the Great Allegheny Passage. It’s a treasure.