One of the best known bike trails in the US, the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is a 150 mile hiking and biking trail that connects with the 185 mile C&O Canal Towpath that takes you straight to the nation’s capital. Completed in 2013, the trail passes through shaded valleys, small towns along the banks of winding rivers, beautiful state parks with big forests, panoramic views from mountain peaks, and across massive bridges.
Representing Pennsylvania on CNN’s list of “50 Spots, 50 States for 2014“, the Great Allegheny Passage is a classic rail trail built on abandoned railroads and made of crushed limestone. “What’s so special about it is it truly attracts bikers of all fitness levels and all ages from around the country and the world,” says Julie Donovan, Vice President of Public Relations at the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. In fact, the Allegheny Trail Alliance reports that up to a million people visit the trail every year.
There are many options when it comes to experiencing the trail. Some visitors start at Point State Park in Downtown Pittsburgh, and end up in Washington DC (or vice versa) to experience the complete 335 miles that includes both the GAP and C&O towpath. Others just visit the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md., staying along the way at any of the various campgrounds, hostels, or upscale bed and breakfasts. Of course, it is also possible to just enjoy sections of the GAP, travelling to any of the pleasant trail towns. No matter how big or small your journey, there are outfitters available to help plan or support your trip. For example, Golden Triangle Bike Rental offers multi-day trip services, day trips, and guided group tours.
100 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage winds its way through the Laurel Highlands, offering some of the most spectacular natural scenery in the United States. “The Laurel Highlands is Pennsylvania’s highest mountain elevation: 3,213 feet. The trail is very close to that,” Donovan says, describing the views as something like what you would expect to see in Europe. “You are up on these mountain tops and it looks like it is in the Alps. You look out over western Maryland and you just see rolling mountain tops.”
The trail winds past farms but what makes it so special are the trail towns that visitors can stop in. “You can start at one place, plan out your excursion and have lunch or spend the night,” Donovan says. She describes Ohiopyle (mile 72), one of the six trail towns in the Laurel Highlands, as the most significant town that you can hit in a relatively short amount of time. “Ohiopyle State Park is one of Pennsylvania’s largest and most visited state parks”¦ It’s a hub for the trail, with fun places to eat, beautiful waterfalls, natural waterslides, and white water rafting,” Donovan says.
If you are willing to go slightly off the trail, transportation can be arranged from Ohiopyle to the world class Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Fort Necessity (where George Washington’s military career began), Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s house on Kentuck Knob. “It’s an uphill climb. I would not promote it as something they can bike to, but there are outfitters in Ohiopyle that would shuttle folks to the Wright homes if they wanted to see them,” Donovan explains. Nemacolin will also arrange transportation for guests to or from Ohiopyle.
According to Donovan, the remaining five trail towns in the Laurel Highlands also offer plenty of amenities, places to eat, places to stay, and bike services. For example, in Meyersdale, Pa. (mile 32), check out Morguen Toole a former mortuary that has become a popular dining spot where you are sure to hear about paranormal activities.
Connellsville, Pa. (mile 88), is a go-to for history buffs because a replica of Colonial William Crawford’s log cabin is located there, in Yough Park. (Crawford was a close friend of George Washington’s.) General Edward Braddock also crossed at the site in 1755 and a re-enactment is held each June.
Finally, West Newton, Pa., a truly classic trail town, offers a quaint downtown, bed and breakfasts, bike rentals, pubs and restaurants with outdoor seating close to the trail.
Other trail towns along the Great Allegheny Passage include Frostburg, Md. (mile 15), Boston (mile 128), McKeesport, Pa. (mile 132), The Waterfront in Pittsburgh, Pa. (mile 140), The South Side of Pittsburgh, Pa. (mile 146), Pittsburgh’s downtown (mile 150), and of course, Cumberland, Md. (mile 0).
Regardless of how you chose to experience the Great Allegheny Passage, Donovan recommends visiting its official website, where you can really plan your visit. It offers information on camping, bike tours, trip preparations, trail alerts, and if there are any closures. For more information about the Laurel Highlands region itself, she recommends a book published by the Allegheny Trail Alliance titled TrailBook – the Official Guide To The C&O Canal And The Great Allegheny Passage.
“What makes the Great Allegheny Passage unique is the setting. It is the magnificent scenery, the wonderful quality of the trail, and the fact that there are amenities and services to make the experience more enjoyable. According to Donovan, “there is really nothing like it”.
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Are you more of a camper or someone that would prefer to stay at a bed and breakfast? Would you prefer nature or history? The Great Allegheny Passage offers it all.
Written by Marsha S. Morgenstern