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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Riding Pittsburgh to Washington, DC by Bicycle

05/23/12 244# 0m
I found myself three times in the last two weeks describing the bike ride from Pittsburgh to DC, or from Washington to Pittsburgh, to people who really wanted to go but didn't know how to go about the endeavor.

I figure one time is a conversation, two times is a theme, and three times is a blog post - so without further backstory, here's an email I sent about riding a bicycle from Pittsburgh to DC.

You can ride from the Point in Pittsburgh to the heart of downtown DC, almost completely on car-free trails. Purists will point out small gaps in official coverage, and yet people with local knowledge do it all the time. There are a few small work-arounds involved.

The northern half of the trip, 150 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland MD is called the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP). The GAP is a modern trail built to contemporary engineering standards; it's one of the finest trails in the country. The official web reference is www.atatrail.org, and the crowd-source is at GAP Yahoo Group.

The southern half of the trip, 185 miles from Cumberland MD to Washington DC, is called the C&O Canal Trail and it's an unimproved Civil War donkey path. It's got a historical designation so it won't be improved much. The trail is often just two tire tracks, there's roots and rocks and mud, and the C&O trail is more primitive than the GAP. They're both great, just very different. The authoritative web reference is: http://bikewashington.org/canal/, and the crowd-source is at C&O Yahoo Group.
  • If you want to ride your bike for five or six days, ride Pittsburgh to Cumberland and back to Pittsburgh. The GAP is so nice, and you'll be back at your car/home when you're done. Every injury or busted bike I've seen on the DC-Pittsburgh ride has happened on the C&O. Key phrase: unimproved Civil War donkey path.
  • If you use a trailer on your bike, make it a one-wheeled trailer; two-wheeled trailers are incompatible with the C&O Trail

There is a growing trail economy in the small towns you pass through. Personally, I prefer the eastbound (Pittsburgh to DC) trip because of the relative slopes. The logistics of a round-trip often outweigh the aesthetics, and many people in Pittsburgh prefer the certainty of traveling to DC first and then riding home. The wrinkle is there's a bit of a peak (Mount Savage) east of Cumberland that's got a relatively steep slope if you're riding westbound.

How to get from one end to another? People rent cars and drop them off near a trailhead, people box their bikes as baggage and take Amtrak (unfortunately no rollon, rolloff service), people get a friend to drive them one-way or solicit a lift on Craigslist. Some people even bicycle round-trip.

Every year the trail and accommodations improve, so most things in print are outdated within a year. There's a tremendous little $5 book called Linking Up that I highly recommend, and the Fourth Edition is now available for purchase. All profits benefit the GAP.

This book is written by CMU professor Mary Shaw and Michael Baker engineer Roy Weil, and if the Pgh-DC trail has grandparents they are it. They're nationally recognized trail advocates.

Almost any (non-racing) bicycle that is reliable in frequent use will do; trikes really don't work well on the C&O. An optimal tire size is 1.5". Fenders are good.

Usually, people make an intermediate overnight trip for a bit of experience before they go on a 5-day or a 8-day trip; you might ride from Connellsville out to Confluence, stay in a B&B, bike back the next day, etc.

There are various ways to assemble a group of riders; the most straighforward seems to be to go on local group rides, meet other riders, and talk it up. All the other options to some extent resemble Internet dating, but some people post for group rides on the two Yahoo groups, on CrazyGuyOnABike, on BikeForums, etc.

1 comment:

  1. I am not far from Georgetown, MILE ZERO on the C&O... the "towpath" is a big part of my Washington DC Cycling experience...

    starting to read some of you stuff on the ride from Pittsburgh to DC

    I may have to make this happen
    a year or so ago a few people rode from PA to DC in one day on this route... I think I would shoot for three

    I did the Cumberland to DC ride in one sitting... that was a painful slog

    4 or 5 days could be more sensible