A year ago, Dan and I took our first long distance bike tour, traveling on the full Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, heading Northbound. While there were some initial challenges, we had a great time on the trip, and we both wanted to do the full C&O and GAP trail, making the trip from Pittsburgh to Washington (and then onto my house in Virginia). Once we got the scheduling figured out, we set the date and were joined by Dan's girlfriend Trish. We budgeted 9 days to make the journey, ensuring we could have a relatively leisurely pace of no more than 40 miles a day. As it turned out we made the complete trip in 8 days and had a great time. Here is the story of our journey through 4 states and the District of Columbia.
Day 1 - 40 miles
My wife and I celebrated our first year of marriage by visiting Pittsburgh and staying at the Omni hotel. We celebrated the day in style having a great dinner at the Monterrey Bay Fish Grotto on top of Mount Washington and watching some fireworks from high above the city. The next day was to be the first day of the tour and my wife graciously agreed to take us to the trail head in McKeesport, a few miles out of the city center. There is no real bike friendly way to get there, only 55 mph highways with no shoulders.
We left out early in the morning and picked up Dan and Trish, making our way to the trail head. After loading down our bikes and saying our goodbyes, we started our journey Southward. The first few miles of the trail were not particularly well marked and were surrounded by unattractive industrial areas. Once we finally got out of the area of industry we got a little more tree cover and faded into a mostly sylvan, if unremarkable setting.
The summer heat was in full force as we made our trip and we were glad to reach the River's Edge campground 40 miles into our journey. The high quality surface of the GAP made those miles go particularly quickly, so we had time to hop into their refreshingly cool pool and cool ourselves off. We set up our tents and got ready for the evening. In the adjacent site, a bike touring father and his daughter arrived on a tandem and chatting with them we found that the father had done several cross country bike tours in his youth. He now teaches biology and raises some crops at his farm. This was his first tour in many years, but they were having a great time.
We broke out my MSR Dragonfly camp stove and cooked our dinners and made it to our tents in time to get shelter from a rather intense downpour. There were a few instances of thunder and lightning to keep things interesting, but my tent performed admirably, keeping the rain out and my gear dry.
Day 2 - 50 miles
We woke up in the morning to a very damp camp, with the soaking rains making sure everything got washed off the night before. The forecast was for more rain, and the meteorologists would not be proven wrong. After making breakfast (oatmeal and trail mix for me), taking down our tents, and loading down our trusty steeds we continued our journey South, happy for the dry conditions and hoping they would last. Our legs were feeling good after the nights rest and we made some good distance during the day. As afternoon approached the sun's rays started to bake us and we were happy to see a swimming hole at Ohiopyle where the cool waters of the Youghioheney River. We had lunch and a refreshing dip. A little excitement was had when Dan saw someone messing with my bike, but he was able to scare the guy off and we continued on our way.
Unlike the C&O Canal with its free hiker/biker sites every 5-10 miles, the GAP does not have a lot of camping options and free-camping is prohibited. This meant we absolutely had to make certain mileage targets, no matter what was tossed into our path. Our goal was Rockwood, and about 20 miles from the campsite there the skies opened up and rained upon us. Normally a little rain is not an issue, but on the crushed stone surface of the GAP, it meant our bikes and legs were getting coated with concrete-like slurry of rock and wetness. Riding became decidedly unpleasant, but with no other options we pressed on until we made Rockwood at milepost 43.
We did not look forward to setting up our still soaked tents in the downpour, so we looked at the signboard on the edge of town and decided to stay at a hostel in town. Interestingly enough, the town didn't have cell service, but they had a cell repeater by the signboard that worked within a 25 foot radius -- definitely helpful for calling up the various places regarding accommodations. The staff at the Hostel on Main in Rockwood was friendly and accommodating, and the nearby restaurant had some tasty pizza and calzones to warm us up. We availed ourselves of the dryer to make some of our gear a bit less soggy and enjoyed some nice hot showers and warm beds. This would be our only night not camping, but it was definitely a nice change of pace due to the weather. As fortune would have it, the only other occupants of the hostel were the father and daughter tandem tourists we had met at the last campsite. We had a great evening of conversation and exchanged many stories before calling it a night. The only downside to the place was its proximity to the railroad (literally in the back yard) which woke us up every hour or so. Even still we had a good night's stay.
Day 3 - 50 miles
After our soggy travels the day before it was not easy rousing us from our comfortable beds, so we hurried to make the 9AM closing time of the hostel, cutting it quite close. Breakfast was to be a rare departure from my usual oatmeal and trail mix -- leftover pizza was the order of the day, and it was almost as delicious the morning after as it was the night before. After loading our bikes we headed back to the now less soggy GAP and continued our Southward journey.
We continued on the 100 mile climb to the top of the Continental Divide, and while the grade was not overly difficult, we definitely knew we were going uphill. Once we finally reached the Continental Divide we took some celebratory photos and prepared for the best downhill ride we would get during the entire trip. We descended about 1,700 feet in 20 miles and with my heavy load I was definitely out in front descending on the trail about 18-20 miles an hour. I got a good lead on Dan and Trish on the descent and with about ten miles to go the skies started to threaten with thunder and rain, so I took a chance to take shelter at a covered picnic table. Dan and Trish were not to lucky and got pretty wet, rejoining me about an hour later. While I waited out the rain I was joined by an older couple who were doing biking day trips on a vacation. We had a great conversation and parted ways when the rain went from a deluge to a mere trickle. As they were departing I was joined by Dan and Trish and I broke out the stove to make some warm food to warm them up.
After lunch we made the final 10 mile descent into Cumberland and celebrated our completion of the GAP at Ed's Canal Pub where we had $2.50 drafts of Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and Anchor Steam. The place remains awesome. While we celebrated with our inexpensive pints, we were joined once again by the father daughter tandem touring team and we had a great conversation once again. After we had our fill of refreshment we set off down toward the C&O Canal to set up camp at one of the hiker/biker campsites.
The rains had made the towpath quite muddy in some sections making for a challenging ride at times. We decided to set up camp at Irons Mountain hiker/biker campsite, and as we did so the darkness of night fell upon us making the use of our headlights required to see what we were doing. Filled with beer and popcorn from Ed's Canal Pub we decided to skip dinner for the night and head straight to bed. After a 50 mile day our sleeping bags were quite inviting.
Day 4 - 40 miles (20 net miles)
Although the weather had kept things interesting, we had been relatively lucky on the equipment side of things thus far on the trip. After making breakfast, breaking camp, and loading our bikes it was clear that this streak of good luck had come to an untimely close. Dan had fallen on his front wheel the previous night on the hilly terrain of the campsite and had thought nothing of it, but in the morning it was clear that his wheel had a broken spoke and was significantly out of true. I took out my spoke wrench and got his bike rolling again, but with no bike shop South on the trail for many miles, we made the decision to reverse course and go back the 10 miles into Cumberland to fix his wheel.
As it turned out his rim had been bent beyond repair, so the incredibly helpful mechanic at the bike shop at the end of the C&O named Hutch sold Dan a new wheel at a very favorable price. While I was there I thought it would be a good idea to get some grease in my speedplay frog pedals, and much to my surprise grease leaked out of the pedal body on one of the pedals. The pedal was very close to complete failure. Luckily Hutch was a certified speedplay dealer, and he used a pedal body he had in stock to do a free warranty repair for me. He also flushed out my kickstand with grease, making it move smoothly once again after being jammed with grit from the GAP. He definitely saved the day, and I'd recommend that shop to anyone in the area in a heartbeat.
While repairs were being made on our bikes we had lunch at the nearby Crabby Pig restaurant and then we continued Southward. As we continued on the C&O the muddy conditions made for some hard travelling. The mud was packing between my front fender and tire, making for a very hard ride that is akin to riding with the brakes on constantly. Even still we made our daily mileage target of 40 (even if it was only an effective 20 miles South).
We stopped at Purslane Run hiker/biker campground at mile 156, sharing the campsite with a couple guys from Lancaster county. All of us went for a swim in the Potomac and after the riding it was very refreshing. After our swim we made dinner and shared the campfire until dark when we got some much needed rest.
Day 5 - 45 miles
Our campsite was very close to Paw Paw Tunnel so after making our breakfast and loading our bikes we headed to the nearly mile long structure. Inside the tunnel the space was definitely optimized for the canal traffic and not the mule -- the towpath here was very narrow and with no internal lighting only a wooden guardrail protects you from a rather steep fall down into the canal. It gets incredibly dark in that tunnel, but thankfully my HID light was up for the task lighting the way.
After we got out of the tunnel it was a relatively short ride down to the legendary Bill's place for lunch. I had a hamburger and some delicious birch beer for lunch and we all enjoyed the colorful restaurant in its quirky glory. From there we continued South to Hancock to get some provisions at the grocery store there. To make good time and give ourselves a break from the incessant bumps of the C&O we took thje 22 mile Western Maryland Rail Trail with its glorious silken pavement. After getting our supplies we continued on the WMRT until we rejoined the C&O Canal eventually making our way to the North Mountain hiker/biker campsite near milepost 110. We made dinner and set up our tents and were surprised at the noise at the site. While train traffic had become a constant companion along the route, the mosquito drone of marine engines kept us up for a while as people on jet skis, boats, and other craft made their way past our site. Finally the noise subsided and we got a good night's rest.
Day 6 - 35 miles
As we made breakfast and broke camp we were eagerly awaiting our destination for the day -- Killiansburg Cave hiker/biker site. We deliberately made today's mileage shorter than usual so we could spend some quality time at this site. Last year Dan and I had a blast camping down by the water and swimming, and we hoped to do the same this year.
About 10 miles from our campsite was the town of Williamsport, home to one of our favorite little cafes on last year's trip, the Desert Rose. Just like last year we had service with a smile and great tasting food. We also picked up some other supplies in town before continuing back down the hill to the canal.
The bumpy terrain of the C&O Canal puts a lot of strain on equipment, and in a flashback from last year, my saddle broke while riding toward the detour off trail that gives a big climb to get around the section that has been unable to be ridden on for years. As was the case last year, the metal rail sheared off near the mounting bracket on the seatpost. Channeling my inner MacGuyver, I was able to put both sides of the break into the bracket by sliding the seat forward, but this movement caused the saddle to pinch upward, making for an extremely unpleasant ride. I suffered through the ride and we made it to Killiansburg Cave where I was glad to give a rest to my disgruntled undercarriage.
Upon arriving at the campsite we realized that the campsite we loved so much was already occupied. We set up camp at the vastly inferior campsite near the trail and then consoled ourselves with a nice long swim in the water. It was absolutely wonderful in the water and we spent a good long time soaking and swimming.
After our swim we made dinner and retired for the evening, hoping to make an early trip to Harpers Ferry to buy a new saddle to replace the one that was a replacement from last year's tour.
Day 7 - 50 miles
After making breakfast and breaking camp at Killiansburg Cave, we continued South to Harpers Ferry with all due haste. It had become clear that I was going to need to replace the saddle, so when we reached the railroad and pedestrian bridge at Harpers Ferry we crossed in search of a replacement. In the past there was a general store that also was a bike shop, but when we got there we were informed that they had moved their bike operations 2 miles away. They had a very limited set of equipment for sale under a table, mostly tubes. After an in-depth search I finally found one remaining bike saddle in the back of the collection. I happily forked over the $26 for it and we made our way back to the C&O. The heat of the sun was intense, so I decided to continue on the broken saddle for the remaining five miles to Brunswick where I would be able to make the repairs in air conditioned comfort.
When we arrived in Brunswick we made a direct line to Beans in the Belfry and started locking up our bikes when I was surprised to hear a familiar voice. My father, having read my status report the night before that I sent on my smartphone, had made the trip out to Brunswick to join us for a bite to eat. I was definitely pleasantly surprised. Beans in the Belfry was having their Sunday brunch with live jazz, and the food and drink were, as always, quite delicious. While waiting for my sandwich I made the necessary repairs to the seatpost, swapping saddles and getting the angles just right. After enjoying our repast and a bit of respite from the sweltering August sun we made our way back to the trail eager to make some good distance with my newly fixed saddle.
We made the distance from Brunswick to White's Ferry in a very short time, cranking on all eight cylinders with our bellies full of energy and my backside reveling in the comfort of a new saddle. Once at White's Ferry we got some cold drinks and took a brief break before heading back onto the trail with our goal of making the last Hiker/Biker campsite on the C&O, Horsepen Branch at mile 26.
We made it with sunlight to spare, however, there was no handle on the pump (the only site we noted without one on the entire trail). This meant we had to make do with the water we had on our bikes, and unfortunately, that wasn't a whole lot. Luckily the following morning we would reach a source of tap water in about 10 miles, and we had just enough to reach that point. After making dinner and a fire we retired for the evening taking refuge in our tents from a particularly mosquito infested site for our last night of the trip.
Day 8 - 45 miles
On the last day of the journey we woke up and did the morning ritual for the last time, fueling our bodies, and preparing our bikes for the last 45 mile leg of our journey. Our first stop was ten miles down the road at the Great Falls Visitor center where we used their bathrooms to fill up our nearly empty water containers. Here Dan saw some people he had spoken with earlier in the trip from Switzerland, conversing with them in their native tongue, French.
Just a short trip down the road was Great Falls itself, and the three of us went on the catwalks over the falls and saw the torrents of water making their way over the rocky structure. After taking the requisite photographs and admiring nature's handiwork, we continued on our journey to the South, biking through what may be my favorite part of the entire canal towpath, the widewater section. The scenery in this area makes you think that you're somewhere out west with a rugged rock face abuting a serene lake, but in reality you're less than 14 miles from Georgetown.
Continuing down the towpath we made our way to Fletcher's Cove, where we had a cold drink and I indulged in a hot dog. Then it was time for the final 3 miles on the towpath (we decided to stay on it instead of taking the Capital Crescent). Finally, within 300 feet of milepost zero we were stopped by security. As it turned out the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the building adjacent to the trail, so they would not let us take the last little bit of the journey. Thankfully I was familiar with the area, so we simply took a couple block detour and made it to the photo opportunity by the sign.
Now it was time to brave the 95 degree heat and head home. Our first stop was at Gravelly Point where we watched some planes take off and land, and then we made our way to Old Town Alexandria where we treated ourselves to some Ben and Jerry's ice cream down on Union Street. After continuing on the trail and making a stop at Belle Haven Marina to top off our water bottles we finally made our way to my house after many a difficult climb (due to the heavy load we were carrying). Once home we unloaded our bikes and headed straight for the showers to get clean and cool off. Once clean we cracked open some of my first batch of home brew and enjoyed the comfort of the couch after over a week in the outdoors. Including side trips into towns we travelled over 360 miles in 8 days and had a wonderful time.