The Great Allegheny Passage winds 150 miles through the mountains of Southwest Pennsylvania and connects Cumberland Maryland to Pittsburgh. Beautiful medallions mark the end points in both Cumberland and Pittsburgh. The Mile 0 medallion is easy to find because it's positioned in the center of the trail in Canal Place. It's a little trickier to locate the one on the Pittsburgh end. It's located on the waters edge at Point State Park where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio.
One thing that makes this trail such a destination is that there are trail towns located every ten miles or so that provide the essential amenities. Of course, some towns have a larger selection of amenities than others so do your homework if you plan to overnight at B&B's. Check out the trail towns page for details about the towns and their amenities. There is a very helpful interactive map on the GAP Trail website which shows the amenities available in each town. Click here to view the map.
The crushed limestone surface of the Great Allegheny Passage holds up well under traffic and generally provides a smooth ride. While the limestone surface makes for an excellent riding surface, it becomes a bit softer when it's wet. Thinner road tires (23-25mm) typically work just fine until it rains. The high pressure skinny tires are fast when conditions are dry but they tend to sink into the surface when it's wet creating unwanted rolling resistance. There's about 15 miles of paved trail on the Pittsburgh end which extend just south of Mckeesport, and a couple miles of asphalt as you approach Cumberland. Some sections of the C&O c and o canal Canal are being improved with the same crushed limestone surface used on the GAP.
There is a small army of volunteers who monitor the trail and provide maintenance as needed. It is common during summer months to have strong thunderstorms pass through Western Pennsylvania. Landslides, erosion and trees falling across the trail are no match for this group of trail maintenance super stars. If you encounter a fallen tree or a maintenance related issue on the trail, please report it via email to (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Most of the Great Allegheny Passage trail is converted from abandoned rail beds, which makes for a nearly level riding surface with the average grade of less than 1%. The steepest eastbound grade - 0.8% - is from Harnedsville to Markleton and Garrett to Deal. The steepest westbound grade is from Cumberland to Deal at 1.75%. The high point of the trail is where it crosses the Eastern Continental Divide near Deal (2,375' above sea level). From the Eastern Continental Divide heading towards C and O Canal, the trail drops 1,754 feet in 24 miles to reach Cumberland and, going west, it drops 1,664 feet in 126 miles to reach Pittsburgh.
The elevation numbers make this trail sound intimidating - don't worry. Most of the trail is converted railroad bed so the changes are very gradual and often are hardly noticeable. When you look at the elevation charts and From Cumberland to Washington, DC, you drop 625 feet to sea level on the C&O Canal towpath.
The Great Allegheny Passage connects to the C&O Canal Towpath in Cumberland. The C&O Canal is a national park which preserves the towpath which once transported goods between Washington, DC and the towns leading up to Cumberland. The towpath follows the Potomac River for 184.5 miles from Washington, DC and connects with the GAP at mile '0' in Cumberland (Canal Place). Click here to learn more about the C&O Canal. Even though its common to ride both trails together, the trail surface on the C&O make the ride a very different experience.
The riding surface of the towpath varies from section to section. There are some short paved sections, and a dozen or so miles of manicured crushed stone, but 90% of the towpath looks like the image to the left. The surface is not terribly rough, but be prepared to navigate around potholes, roots, rocks, and mud. The trail conditions are considerably rougher than those found on the The Great Allegheny Passage which is constructed entirely with a crushed limestone surface. Also, conditions change from month to month due to weather and maintenance. In general, expect conditions to be a bit rougher than your typical crushed limestone surface found on rail-trails. It's best to select a bike and tires that perform well in muddy conditions and feel lucky if the weather stays dry.
The Big Savage Tunnel was renovated for use on the Great Allegheny Passage trail. It is the longest tunnel on the trail. The tunnel is closed between roughly December 15 and April 10 each winter to protect it from icing damage. Check out the video to see what it's like to ride through the tunnel.
Whichever direction you're traveling, the Eastern Continental Divide is a significant milestone on the trail because it marks the highest point on the Great Allegheny Passage. Whether you are headed to Pittsburgh or DC, it's all downhill from here. Heading west, the Great Allegheny Passage drops 1,664 feet in 126 miles to reach Pittsburgh.
A road passes over the trail at the Divide so there's a short tunnel. Inside the tunnel there's a map on the wall showing the trail mileage and elevation changes between Cumberland and Pittsburgh. The map makes the 1800' elevation change between The Continental Divide and Cumberland look like an intimidating climb but it's not. The elevation change is spread over nearly 30 miles with the steepest grade being around 1.75%. You can easily ride this trail in both directions.
The Eastern Continental Divide, in conjunction with other continental divides of North America, demarcates two watersheds of the Atlantic Ocean: the Gulf of Mexico watershed and the Atlantic Seaboard watershed. Prior to 1760, the divide represented the boundary between British and French colonial possessions in North America. The ECD runs south-southwest from the Eastern Triple Divide in Pennsylvania to the watershed of the Kissimmee River, which drains via the Lake Okeechobee and the Okeechobee Waterway to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
One of my favorite landmarks on the GAP is the Big Savage Tunnel. On a sizzling hot day in 2010, I climbed the 20+ miles from Cumberland to the Big Savage Tunnel. It was a little before noon and the air temperature was already 94 degrees with no clouds in the sky. The sun was baking me on the climb. The Big Savage Tunnel is at the top of the climb and was a welcome treat because it's like a giant natural refrigerator. The air temperature inside the tunnel was easily 20 degrees cooler than outside. It was so much cooler that a thick fog had formed reducing my vision significantly. The fog was so dense that the ceiling lights weren't able to light the trail...I couldn't see the ground I was riding on. Halfway through the tunnel I could hear the voices of other bikers but they were hidden in the thick fog. They were slowly riding towards me and only became visible once they were within 20 feet from me. It was the coolest thing.
One of the most spectacular views along the GAP is on the southern end of the tunnel. From the top of Big Savage Mountain you can see for miles.
Here's some more details about the tunnel: The Big Savage Tunnel is an abandoned railway tunnel located about 9 miles (14 km) southeast of Meyersdale, Pennsylvania. The Big Savage, Borden Tunnel, and Brush Tunnels are part of the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail. It was originally built for the Connellsville subdivision of the Western Maryland Railway. The mountain and tunnel are named for John Savage, an early surveyor who narrowly avoided becoming a victim of cannibalism in the area in 1736.
The bone cave is not the most fascinating sight on the Great Allegheny Passage because there's not much to see but it's very unique and worth a stop. The cave is located a couple miles down the hill from Frostburg, and what you can see is a sign sharing the history and the entrance to the cave which has been closed off with a chain link fence. The cave's history is really interesting and it's right on the edge of the trail. In 1912 workers excavating a cut for the Western Maryland Railway along Andy's Ridge broke into the partly filled cave. A local naturalist, Raymond Armbruster, observed fossil bones among the rocks that had been blasted loose and were being removed from the cut. Armbruster notified paleontologists at the Smithsonian Institution, and James W. Gidley began excavating that same year. The cave later became known as the "Cumberland Bone Cave".
Between 1912 to 1916, Gidley excavated the Cumberland Bone Cave, where 41 genera of mammals were found, about 16 per cent of which are extinct. Numerous excellent skulls and enough bones to reconstruct skeletons for a number of the species were present. Skeletons of the Pleistocene Cave Bear and an extinct Saber-toothed cat from the Bone Cave are on permanent exhibit in the Ice Age Mammal exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Many of the fossilized bones date from 200,000 years ago. The Cumberland Bone cave represents one of the finest Pleistocene-era faunas known from eastern North America.
Today very little of this cave is still in existence, though some excavations are still being performed by the Maryland DNR.
The Salisbury Viaduct is a 2000' bridge in Somerset County, located just down the trail from Meyersdale. It was built in 1912 as a railroad bridge to cross the Casselman River valley and it offers fantastic views of the valley below. It was decommissioned in 1975 and converted for pedestrian and cycling as part of the Great Allegheny Passage in 1998.
Borden Tunnel is 2.5 miles west (uphill) of Frostburg. The tunnel was bored for two tracks and has a length of 957.5 ft. After the 1975 abandonment, the track was left in all the way up west of the tunnel. It was left to serve a small coal strip mine here. I had a really freaky experience in this tunnel at the end of a long rainy ride from Connellsville.
It was early evening and the rain finally stopped but the air was wet and the sky overcast. Clouds had formed inside the cooler temperatures of the Borden Tunnel. There are no lights in the tunnel so the only light source was coming from the opposite end of the tunnel which was clouded with a cool fog. The light was being diffused through the fog in such a way that I felt like I was riding through a kaleidoscope. It was a really freaky moment. It was as if I were floating because I couldn't see the ground or the walls of the tunnel, just the diffused light coming from the far end. Pedaling through the tunnel towards the light felt like a sneak peak of Heaven. I stopped to take a photo but there was so much moisture in the air (my camera was still wet from filming through the Big Savage Tunnel) that my camera refused to cooperate.
The Mason–Dixon Line is just down from the Big Savage Tunnel on the Great Allegheny Passage, and was surveyed between 1763 and 1767 by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in the resolution of a border dispute between British colonies in Colonial America. It is a demarcation line among four U.S. states, forming part of the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia (then, part of Virginia). What started as a border dispute between British colonies in America is now a famous geographic landmark that forms the borders of four states and is also considered the boundary between the northeast states and the southern states.
You will cross the Mason Dixon line about half way between the Big Savage Tunnel and Frostburg. A couple cyclists from Virginia and myself witnessed a bear crossing the trail as we approached the Mason Dixon Line marker. Unfortunately, I wasn't quick enough with the camera to capture the scene. I've never found it, but I heard stories of a rattlesnake den located nearby.
The Big Savage Tunnel is the longest tunnel on the Great Allegheny Passage. The abandoned railway tunnel located about 9 miles (14 km) southeast of Meyersdale, Pennsylvania. It was originally built for the Connellsville subdivision of the Western Maryland Railway. The tunnel is closed between roughly December 15 and April 10 each winter to protect it from icing damage.
There are no lights in the Borden tunnel so the only light source was coming from the opposite end of the tunnel which was clouded with a cool fog. The light was being diffused through the fog in such a way that I felt like I was riding through a kaleidoscope. It was a really freaky moment. It was as if I were floating because I couldn't see the ground or the walls of the tunnel, just the diffused light coming from the far end. This is one of my favorite tunnels on the Great Allegheny Passage.
One cool thing about riding the Great Allegheny Passage are the trail towns. There is a town every ten miles or so along the trail which provide travelers with all of the basic the necessities. The towns have a lot of character and range dramatically in the services they provide. Below is a list of the trail towns and a brief description of the services they offer. Keep in mind that there are a number of businesses and services which are not included in this list. Some of the Trail Towns are considerably more fun and offer more services than others. As the GAP trail is becoming more popular, the amenities offered in the towns are continually improving. More lodging and restaurant options are available each year but many towns have limited options so plan ahead. On the Trail Town list, the 'HR' stands for highly recommended. These towns will have more lodging and restaurant options and are my personal favorite towns.
You all know that staying in a hotel requires considerably less gear than camping. You only need to pack your credit card, toothbrush, some clothes and you are ready for the trail. There's a lot more equipment involved when you are bike camping but it's considerably more adventurous to sleep under the stars. Camping isn't for everyone but if it's for you, things are looking brighter. More camping options are available each year and the services continue to improve for the existing campgrounds.
Where can you camp on the GAP?
Camping on the Great Allegheny Passage is permitted in designated areas only. It certainly is possible to camp each night when you ride the GAP with campgrounds positioned every 20 miles or less. Unfortunately, there's a 30 mile stretch of trail with no campgrounds on the Pittsburgh end but other than that there is camping available at these mile markers:
Camping at miles: 0, 15, 32, 43, 62, 73, 89, 92, 99, 110, 114,122
This video from Mid-Atlantic Gravel Travel Dirt documents the experience his group had while riding the Great Allegheny Passage in five days. They camped four nights along the GAP. He shares some suggestions around camping destinations. For example; avoid the Ohiopyle State Campground because it is at the top of a very steep and treacherous climb.