A ride along the C&O Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage

September 20, 2011

The Whole Gang!

This year, I took a week-long vacation to ride my bicycle with friends. From September 11 through September 17, 2011,  we rode approximately 270 miles from Leesburg, Virginia to McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Here is the daily diary of my trip with my husband Steve, and my friends Barry, Dana and Kim.

Day 1 – Leesburg to Harper’s Ferry – 30 miles 

Day 1 Route

Where we started...

We flew into Washington DC the previous night, and stayed overnight at the Leesburg Colonial Inn.

The staff was helpful and  friendly, and the rooms were cheap.  They let us leave our truck here for the entire week, which is pretty amazing. On the other hand, the place was old and a bit dingy. I didn’t sleep well, probably because of the 3 hour time shift from California. We all got up at about 8:00 am and met in the restaurant for breakfast.  It seemed to take forever for us to pack up our bikes and finally leave.

We took the local roads from downtown Leesburg to White’s Ferry. In places, the roads were narrow and a bit uncomfortable, but it was Sunday morning and traffic was light. The river was still high from the previous week’s rains, but the ferry was running. I felt unbalanced by the panniers on the bike, and was hesitant about starting and stopping.

C & O Towpath

As soon as we passed the ferry, the C&O Towpath appeared on the left. At first, I wasn’t sure, as it looked a lot like a disused dirt road. But after a moment, we took to the path at a blazing 8 miles per hour. It was mostly dirt and occasionally gravel. Throughout the 4 days on the Towpath, we would go though a lot of mud puddles and ruts. It got better each day, but it was never entirely dry. While I disliked the mud, I really hated the occasional tree root in the path – roots are bumpy and slippery when wet.

For lunch, we ate at El Sloppy Taco & BBQ in Brunswick; it was pretty decent, and close to the Towpath. I’ve forgotten exactly what I ate. But I do remember how the rain poured down on us for the last 5 miles into Harper’s Ferry. It was a good thing that we didn’t plan for a longer ride on the first day, because we were all wet and miserable. The rain slowed to a drizzle and then quit just as we arrived at the bridge across the Potomac River into Harper’s Ferry. We saw people rafting the Shenandoah River, which was still running high where it joined the Potomac.

High water and rafters at Harper's Ferry

We rode up a steep hill to the Town’s Inn – our B&B for the night. The price was great, because we rented the third floor room. It had a single bunk-bed and a queen-sized bunk-bed, so it could sleep 6. When we arrived, wet and muddy, we asked to use an outside hose to wash off our bikes and panniers – and ourselves – before going inside. I was surprised to find that they did not have (or were unwilling to let us use) any outside washing facilities. In addition, they had very limited space for bicycles, and most of ours had to be chained on the front porch in the rain. So we brought in all our dirty gear and washed it in the shower.

Town's Inn

(Not good for the plumbing, but hey, we tried to tell them…)

By the time we were finally cleaned up and ready to eat, it was raining again. There wasn’t anywhere to eat nearby, so we had dinner in the Town’s Inn. That was a mistake. The room was cheap, but the food wasn’t.  And it was pretty bad.  I can’t recommend that you stay here; the room did not make up for the lack of facilities and the poor quality of the food.

Day 2 – Harper’s Ferry to Williamsport – 35? miles

Day 2 Route


Fortunately, it wasn’t raining when we got up on Monday morning. We ate breakfast (it was okay) and packed, then cleaned the bikes. We were on the road at the crack of 11:15. When 5 people share a bathroom, you just can’t move quickly! Our plan was to visit Antietam, so we left the Towpath after just a few miles and headed into Sharpsburg. OMG, the hills. On the Towpath, you are following the canal next to the Potomac. There aren’t any hills, just an occasional 15 foot climb whenever you come to a lock.

But once you leave the Towpath, there are hills. Lots of hills. None of them were long hills, and the grade was probably less than 7% in most places. But it was tough with the panniers. I had plotted a route that would take us through the battlefield at Antietam, but we found that we would be going the wrong way down a one-way road.

Dunker Church - Antietam

Fortunately, there were a couple of bicyclists there who had just taken the “driving tour” of Antietam, and they gave us directions to the Visitor Center. By the time we saw the film at the Visitors Center and toured around the battlefield, it was getting pretty late – probably around 5 pm. Our original plan was to return to the trail and ride to the Candlelight Inn in Williamsport, but I was afraid that it would get dark while we were still on the trail. Plus, the owner of the Candlelight Inn had promised to have dinner ready for us at 6:00 pm. So we called and changed dinner to 7:00 pm, and then took the road to Williamsport instead of the trail. It wasn’t terrible and it wasn’t too hilly – but it wasn’t great either. The roads were narrow and the traffic was heavier than I’d like. I am not sure of the total mileage for the day, but I think it ended up being less than our original plan of 37-40 miles.

Ice Cream

Rolling into the Candlelight Inn) was a relief. This place is set up to accommodate bicyclists and it is very professionally run. We had a fine dinner, with plenty of food, for just $15 per person. (You have to make advance arrangements for dinner.) After dinner, we walked down the block to the local ice cream parlor. The ice cream cones were enormous and only about $2 for a double. We waddled off to our comfortable beds, content. I recommend the Candlelight Inn; it was well worth the money and the owner is very helpful.

Day 3 – Williamsport to Little Orleans – 41 miles

Day 3 Route

A lock on the C & O

By Tuesday morning, we were getting better at getting up and getting organized in the morning. We had waffles for breakfast, with fruit and yogurt. Later in the morning, I’d wish that we had asked for a heartier breakfast, but it was all I wanted at the time. We stopped at the bicycle shop next door – River City Cycles – where  I got my shifting adjusted; it was a bit out of whack. We also aired up our tires. The guy in the shop was very helpful, with lots of advice about the trail. I recommend it.

It was day 3 on the Towpath, and we were getting in the groove of riding every day. We stopped at a lot of the locks, and took pictures of most of them. After about 13 miles, we switched over to the Western Maryland Rail Trail; it’s paved and runs from about Towpath milepost 113 to approximately milepost 136. On the pavement, we upped our average speed to about 13 mph – we were flying! It wasn’t as interesting as the Towpath in some ways, but we were happy to avoid the mud and bumps for a while.

Bill's Place

We stopped for lunch in Hancock and ate at Weaver’s Restaurant & Bakery. In one of the guidebooks, it was listed as “a towpath favorite. great desserts.” We definitely found that to be true; my peach pie was fabulous. After lunch, we rolled on to Bill’s Place in Little Orleans. This is a well-known stopping point along the Towpath. When we pulled up in front, we were dawdling a bit.  A woman stepped out of the front door and asked “Are y’all coming in?” I said yes, and she went back inside. A few minutes later, she came back out and asked again – which I thought was a bit strange. So I headed inside as quickly as I could. It turns out that she and Bill were going to close up and go fishing. So we all just grabbed a soda or Gatorade and headed back outdoors. It was warm, but not hot, and we sat at the picnic table and waited for our ride.

Buck Valley Ranchhouse

There isn’t much around Little Orleans, and we had seen mixed reviews on the local lodging.  So we made arrangements with Buck Valley Ranch. Leon drove down to Bill’s Place to pick us up; his truck is equipped to carry bicycles. We all piled in for the drive back to the ranch. It wasn’t a long trip, but we had a great time chatting with Leon. That night, we had a huge feast of pork ribs, corn on the cob, asparagus, green beans, potatoes, rolls and a dessert that I can’t even describe. We were stuffed, and it was great. Afterwards, Steve and I had a soak in the hot tub. We sat around and chatted for a while, and went to bed late.

Day 4 – Little Orleans to Cumberland – 44 miles

Day 4 Route

On Wednesday morning, we got up to the sound of a rooster crowing. We were all starting to feel the wear of over 100 miles on bicycle and so we were not fans of the rooster. I heard a variety of remarks about its life expectancy at the breakfast table. Barry, who is not a morning person, was still groggy. In one of the highlights of the week, he got confused and poured the orange juice on his pancakes instead of into his glass. He ate them anyway. Like the dinner the night before, breakfast was plentiful and tasty. I have to say that this was the best food that we had all week. And the price was amazing – $90 per person for the room, dinner and breakfast. And they let us pack a lunch to take with us! Nadine took off for work, and then Leon drove us back to Little Orleans with our bikes. I was sorry to leave so soon. This would have been a great time to take a day off and just hang out, but we had reservations in Cumberland and a schedule to keep.

Paw Paw Tunnel

After 15 miles, we came to the Paw Paw Tunnel. It was long and dark; we walked our bikes. I would have preferred to ride, as it would have been quicker, but the drop-off to the canal scared me, even though there was a rail. You definitely need lights to go through the tunnel. Shortly after that, we stopped at the Paw Paw Tunnel campground for lunch. It was a good thing that we had packed a lunch from the ranch, because there wasn’t much in Paw Paw. Barry and Kim rode into town (about a mile) to pick up some more water and Gatorade; the rest of us just hung out in the campground for a while.

The End of the C & O

That afternoon, the weather turned rainy again, although not as badly as the first day. We came to the end of the C&O Towpath, but at first we didn’t recognize where we were. Fortunately, the Fairfield Inn is right there at the end of the Towpath. They even had a bike washing station outside, so we were able to get all the mud off our bikes before stashing them in our rooms. After sharing bathrooms, it was great to have 3 rooms and 3 bathrooms – we got ready for dinner a lot faster.

We walked down Canal Street from the hotel, and then up to Ristorante Ottaviani. We had a good dinner, if a little more expensive than most. After enjoying the Fairfield’s spa, we turned in. Tomorrow, we would start on the Great Allegheny Passage.

Day 5 – Cumberland to Rockwood – 29 miles (44 miles, but…)

Day 5 Route

Canal Boat

On Thursday morning, we found out some sad facts: first, the breakfast at the Fairfield is not very good. Second, it was raining again. Third, the Western  Maryland Scenic Railroad does not run on Thursdays. Actually, we already knew about the railroad, but we hoped we were wrong. The WMSR runs a steam train from Cumberland to Frostburg, which would cut 15 miles from our route and feed us lunch. Those miles are all climbing, but only at an average grade of less than 1%. We knew we could do the climbing, but we weren’t very happy about riding in the rain. Uphill. So we visited the museum and then stopped in at the bike shop next door. The folks at the Cumberland Trail Connectionwere happy to transport us to Frostburg; we were lucky that their shuttle was available.

Click to check this out!

So our ride really started at Frostburg and then went uphill from there. By the time we started riding, it wasn’t really raining. Also, we were happy to find that the Great Allegheny Passage is a much better trail than the C&O Towpath. The GAP trail was finely crushed rock that rode almost as nicely as pavement. That was a good thing, because we didn’t get to Frostburg until around 11:00 am or so. We rode uphill for just about 8 miles to the Eastern Continental Divide. It was an easy ride, although the elevation map in the tunnel at the continental divide makes it look like you have climbed straight up.  Now we understood why all the east-bound cyclists told us that we were going the “hard way.”

We stopped in Meyersdale for a late lunch at the Morguen Toole Company. This was one of the best lunches we had. Afterwards, our waitress gave us a tour of the whole building, including the lodging upstairs. We were impressed; I’d stay here if I ever come back to the area. Some of the rooms were still under construction, which may be why it didn’t appear in any of the guides. It was a neat old building. But we had reservations in Rockwood, so we were off again after lunch.

The Great Allegheny Passage

One thing about the C&O Towpath: there are campgrounds every few miles, and port-a-potties (or better) are frequent. This was a disadvantage of the
Great Allegheny Passage – I found that I was using the bushes fairly regularly on the final 3 days of our trip. Personally, I don’t mind using the bushes, but it seems an unsanitary way to run a popular trail. Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic on the trail and I was not discovered.

We arrived at the Gingerbread House B&B fairly early in the evening; it was just up the hill from the trail. They had a secure spot for storing our bikes and a nice setup for the house. We were fascinated by some of the pictures, including a beautiful portrait of the owner in her wedding gown. We walked into town for dinner at the Rock City Cafe; it wasn’t a long walk, but I was very cold on the way back. The Rock City Cafe was a fun place; they specialize in wings and fried food, so that’s what we had. I am not a fan of wings, and even I liked them. The only bad thing about Rockwood was that the cell service was terrible.

Day 6 – Rockwood to Connellsville – 46.5 miles

Day 6 Route

Along the GAP

For mileage, this was our longest day. I thought it would be an easier day, since it was all downhill. But an average grade of less than 1% isn’t really a downhill. We had to pedal the whole way.  t was easy pedaling, but still pedaling. Our average speed was up to 11.5 mph, which is certainly better than it was on the Towpath. But we were getting tired. And to be honest, the scenery along the trail wasn’t changing that much. Unlike the C&O Towpath, there just isn’t much to look at on the GAP.

We had lunch at the River’s Edge Cafe in Confluence. I was not impressed. Other people seemed to like the food better.


Our big event for the day was to visit Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house that is just a few miles from the trail. Unfortunately, those miles are extremely hilly, on narrow roads that are used by trucks. So we did the smart thing and reserved a ride from the Wilderness Voyagers in Ohiopyle. We made the shuttle reservation for 2:00, but we didn’t get there until about 3:00 – I think we had the slowest lunch service on the planet. But maybe I was just impatient, because I knew that the last tour of Fallingwater starts at 4:00. But we did make it, just in time.

Fallingwater was great. We should have reserved tickets in advance, but we were lucky and able to get in. The regular tour lasts an hour, and goes through all the major rooms of the house. Afterwards, you get to roam the grounds. I was very impressed with the overall design, although I saw places where I thought that Wright had made mistakes as well. Still, what he did was very revolutionary at the time, and would probably not be allowed today. I loved the blending of the house and nature.  In the store, I could have purchased one of everything; I think it would all have been perfect for our Eichler. Fortunately, touring on a bicycle limits the number and size of souvenirs that you pick up!

By the time we got to Connellsville, it was nearly dark. Fortunately, the Connellsville Bed and Breakfast was easy to find.  The owners, John and Lucille, are great people and very helpful. We used the coin-operated washer and dryer. They have secure storage for bicycles, too. They recommended the local Mexican restaurant, El Canelo. Steve and I were dubious – we were happily surprised! This is good authentic Mexican food. The chili relleno was great, and most places don’t cook it very well. The prices were good, too.

Day 7 – Connellsville to McKeesport – 42 miles

Day 7 Route

Steve woke up sick this morning, and just couldn’t eat the great breakfast. If you can’t eat, you can’t ride. In fact, I had become concerned a day or two earlier, when I realized that he wasn’t snacking like the rest of us. Everyone else was eating granola bars, Clif bars, etc. at least twice a day in addition to meals. So we made arrangements for Steve to get a ride into McKeesport with his bike. Since the van had room, we also loaded in most of our panniers. It felt weird to be riding with so little weight on the bike!

We stopped for lunch in West Newton at the restaurant above the West Newton Bicycle Shop. I can’t remember the name of the place, but they served a good sandwich. The bike shop downstairs let us park in their bike racks. This was all visible from the trail; it couldn’t have been more convenient. We met a couple who was riding the trail with their two-year-old daughter in a trailer. I think she was still in diapers. Brave people.

The trail got a bit more interesting on the last day. There were some coke ovens, and a bunch of coal around. We passed near the entrances to several coal mines. On the downside, we also smelled some “factory odors” and started to see some graffiti. We were leaving the country and entering the suburbs of Pittsburg. The trail began to travel through residential areas, sometimes crossing streets every quarter of a mile.

Mile 132 of the GAP

Without panniers, we got into McKeesport pretty quickly. We stopped at mile 132 on the Great Allegheny Passage, near the intersection of 5th and Water Street. Some locals told us that we could go on, that the GAP had been extended, but we were done. This is where we had told Steve to meet us, and this is where he showed up with the rental truck.

From here, we went to the Embassy Suites near the Pittsburg airport, and the next morning I flew home.

It was a great week, with great friends. This posting doesn’t do it justice. But I don’t think that we will do that ride again. And the next time, I would reduce the mileage to around 30 miles per day. Plus, I’d make day 4 a day of rest. We did a lot of riding. We saw a few things, like Antietam and Fallingwater, but we really didn’t have enough time to appreciate the country we were riding. So I might not do it this way again, but I’m glad we did it.

Here is a link to the full photo album Bicycle Vacation
And a link to Kim’s Blog

For anyone planning to ride the trail, I’d say “go for it.” There are no steep sections on the trail, except for a few quick hills in McKeesport. Get the Trail Guide. Ride east to west. Look at some of the other web sites; here are a few