Some adventures are so unique, they are irresistible. When we visited Maryland, this is pretty much what attracted us to Tracks and Yaks’ unusual Frostburg to Cash Valley rail bike tour in the beautiful Allegheny Mountains.
In September, my husband Dean and I took a biking vacation on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and C&O Canal Towpath (a combined 335 miles of trail from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Washington D.C.). To supplement our traditional biking, we thought it would be fun to try this unique rail biking adventure.
The tour description from Tracks and Yaks website: “Pedal alongside the Great Allegheny Passage hiking and biking trail along the mountain ridge. We are the only place in the state that offers this experience. Rail biking is not physically strenuous, so you can appreciate the spectacular mountain views and railroad history as you coast on by.”
The trip starts in Allegheny County in Frostburg, Maryland, and takes you east toward Cumberland, Maryland. This is the (western) “Mountain Side of Maryland,” as signs and promotional materials are quick to point out, and it’s beautiful.
Pro Tip: Allegheny County has a lot to offer. From the website: “70,000 acres of majestic nature, internationally recognized bike trails, three centuries of American history, a diverse food, brewery, and winery scene, and an endless amount of outdoor adventure.” We spent four nights in Frostburg; check here for more ideas and details.
There are many reasons to try this unique rail bike adventure; here are a few.
1. Remarkable Biking Excursion
This is not your run-of-the-mill biking excursion! The rail bikes are custom-built (no surprise) for this adventure. They’re a curious mix of aluminum frames, polyurethane wheels, mesh seats, hand brakes, seat belts, and pedals! They provide the right mode of transportation for this unique trip.
2. Easy To Ride
What’s involved? As we stepped onto this curious contraption, a staff member provided a quick orientation and explained how it works. It’s easy! Just coast, pedal, and use your brake when needed to keep about 100 feet from the rail bike in front of you. There were 35-40 people in our group, but it never felt crowded because of the distance between railbikes.
We were the second rail bike in our tour, right behind a rail bike of Tracks and Yaks staff, which was a good place to be!
3. 10 Miles On A Mostly Downhill Coast
The track from Frostburg east toward Cumberland is a gradual downhill path, so it’s a whole lot of coasting supplemented by some (easy) pedaling. We had already gone biking about 25 miles on the GAP this morning, so we were glad to relax and laugh on the rail bike and enjoy the trail and scenery in a new way.
4. Choose A Tandem Or Quad Rail Bike
Dean and I reserved a tandem rail bike for our adventure, but you can reserve a quad option as well. Each unit travels separately in the beginning, but about halfway through the trip, the crew will ask anyone who is part of a larger group if they want to link rail bikes to finish the ride together.
Pro Tip: Tracks and Yaks suggest you wear close-toed shoes and bring water, sunscreen, a snack, and a light jacket (even on a 70-degree day, it can feel chilly). A small bag or backpack hooks easily on the back of your seat, and there’s a small bin between the seats as well.
5. Historic Frostburg Train Depot
Frostburg’s restored 1891 Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad Depot is the meeting place for the rail bike tours; it’s a beautiful building with lots of character and history.
Pro Tip: Be sure to make a reservation for the tour. We made ours two days in advance and grabbed the last two slots on a noon departure. We wanted to make sure we had good weather, so we waited until the last minute. But the risk is that we could have been shut out and had to alter our plans.
6. Not A Lengthy Time Commitment
The whole adventure takes about two hours. They just ask that you arrive on time as a courtesy to them and your fellow rail bikers.
Pro Tip: To save time, sign the required waiver online before you get there. If you don’t want to sign online, arrive early to sign before the tour starts.
7. Well-Organized And Safe
Although our trip started 30-minutes late, once they got going, it ran smoothly. When the ride is underway, the crew directs traffic through the few intersections (to avoid cars or places where cyclists on the GAP cross the railroad tracks) to help keep everyone safe.
When we stopped along the tour for views and narration, their “sophisticated” braking system (which consisted of the staff placing a rock in front of one of the rail bike’s front wheels) kept us in place to give us relief from constantly holding the hand brake.
Pro Tip: Tours run rain or shine. If the weather is extreme, they may cancel or delay a tour. If your tour is canceled, they’ll issue a full refund or rebook you on a different tour if you’d prefer.
8. Mount Savage Overlook
During the ride, we saw bridges, overlooks, farms, fields, and rocky ledges. The crew directed us to stop the rail bikes at an overlook of the peaceful town of Mount Savage. Located at the foothills of Big Savage Mountain, it’s a prime example of a 19th-century mining town. According to our guide, this town’s claim to fame is the production of glazed brick, which we could still see examples of in the local towns today.
9. The Scenic GAP
As we were rolling along on our rail bike, we saw some poor cyclists huffing and puffing their way up the incline of the GAP and looking with envy at our rail bike ride of leisure (of course, the strong bikers were flying by). No matter the case, you’ll be glad you sprung for a ride on a rail bike to see this stretch of trail.
10. The Brush Tunnel
The Brush Tunnel adds variety to the ride. It’s a 911-foot railroad tunnel built in 1911 by the Western Maryland Railway when it expanded from Cumberland to a town called Connellsville. It’s unique because instead of gazing out upon all the mountain ridges along the way, this tunnel takes you through one of them.
11. Helmstetter’s Curve
The ride ends at Helmstetter’s Curve. The horseshoe-shaped curve, built in 1912, cuts through farmland that’s been in the Helmstetter family for more than 100 years and was only recently sold. As the story goes, when the first trains chugged around this curve, Mr. Helmstetter could stand on the front porch of his farmhouse and see the engine of the train in one direction and the caboose of the same train in the other direction. Today, mature trees block the view of the complete curve, but it’s still a great place to end the ride.
12. Knowledgeable Staff
When the ride ended, everyone stepped off the rail bikes. That’s when the staff sprang into action, turning each rail bike, one by one, in the opposite direction on a portable turntable of sorts, and then linking them together. They prepared the rail bikes to be pulled back up to Frostburg so they can be readied for the next group.
13. The Informative Bus Ride
Included in the tour is a return bus ride to the Frostburg Depot. On the way, a Tracks and Yaks guide provides colorful narration about the area, history, and railroad, which was so important to this part of the country.
Frostburg is a quaint little town that’s big on charm. Grab dinner at the historic Hotel Gunter at The Toasted Goat. Try the locally sourced “Goatfather” chili and a beer from the local brewery Route 40 Brewing.
We Loved Maryland
This little adventure was a great break from the norm. It’s not every day you can ride a rail bike through mountainous terrain and coast most of the way through it! We greatly enjoyed everything about our visit to Maryland, and this unique rail biking adventure in the Allegheny Mountains was a memorable part of our trip.