C&O Biking Guide - 2007 Group Trip
Our "Groupies" at Lincoln Monument
With the long awaited completion of the Great Allegheny Passage, it was time to finally make the complete 330 mile trip from DC to Pittsburgh. For this trip, my wife Sandy and our friends Tom and Betsey would be sharing the fun. To lighten our load, we decided to sign up for a supported tour offered by the folks at Adventure Cycling. They would be hauling our gear each day, and providing all the meals. A total of 41 folks from all over the US, ages ranging 12 to 68, would spend the week peddling and camping our way up the path.
Saturday, June 2 - A rough start: Unfortunately, our trip got off to a rough start when we learned that Tom would be unable to join us for the first few days due to a work commitment. However, Tom was gracious enough to drive us down to the Washington DC Hostel to meet up with the group. After dropping off our gear and bicycles in “Bubba”, a rental truck, we enjoyed our first group dinner and briefing in the Hostel. At the end of the briefing, it was time to say a temporary goodbye to Tom. The three of us set off on a evening walk around downtown DC. At the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, we ran into a hoard grade school kids from Eastern Tennessee and had a nice chat with one of the teacher chaperons. We returned to the Hostel for a “lovely” night sleeping in bunk beds, on plastic covered mattresses, with 14 of our randomly selected new friends. Yes, this would be an adventure!
Betsey and Sandy with the Rans in DC
Sunday, June 3 – From Bad to Worse: We awoke for a 7 am breakfast in the hostel, and then walked two blocks to the old convention center site in order to gear up. This is where Bubba spent the evening. The plan was for me to ride my seven year old Specialized Rock Hopper, while Sandy would assist Betsey on her new Rans Screamer (a recumbent tandem). Although the Rans Screamer is quite fun, it is bit more challenging to drive than a normal bike. To prevent driver fatigue, we had planned to periodically switch bike positions during the trip. So, Sandy and I had received a one hour “crash course” driving lesson the day before the ride. Today would be our trial by fire.
Unfortunately, it appeared that Barry (as in “Tropical Storm Barry”) would be taking Tom's spot on the trip today . We had been tracking Barry since Thursday, hoping it would stay farther off the cost. However, the ominous southern sky told us that we were going to be a bunch of wet bags. At 8 am, the first rain drops began to fall as the group pulled out of the convention center site. We made a brief stop at the Lincoln Memorial for a group photo, and then headed off to Georgetown to pickup the towpath.
For the first 20 miles, the warm rain was very light and was actually quite nice. We had very little rainfall during the previous month, so the towpath was absorbing all the new moisture. However, once we passed Rileys Lock, the rain became heavier and the towpath mud began to fly! Although the Rans Screamer is fairly easy to drive on asphalt, we soon discovered that it is quite a challenge to drive in the mud. Each one of us took a white-knuckle turn at the helm, where the slightest steering over-correction would send our tandem twosome hurting toward the either the canal ditch, a passing tree, or a pile of poison ivy. By the time we reached our planned lunch stop at Whites Ferry (mile 35), we were all cold and exhausted.
Between shivers, I managed to choke down my lunch while trying to stay out of the rain. As other groupies tricked into Whites Ferry, we were hearing reports of multiple flats and blowouts. It turned out that many folks completely underestimated the harsh conditions of the towpath, and many started off with basic street tires. Fortunately, our little threesome were all sporting Schwalbe Marathon tires, and so we were able to survive the whole trip without any of these inconveniences.
We survived to arrive in Brunswick, MD (Milepost 55)
Our final destination was still 20 miles away in Brunswick, so we reluctantly saddled up and headed on up the trail. Despite the rain, the next 7 miles was actually in pretty good shape. Regardless, by the time we crossed the Monocacy Aqueduct, mud was caked on the bikes and clogging the brakes . We took a few minutes to “clean” things as best as possible, and then proceeded on down the trail. At Point-of-Rocks (mile 47), I reluctantly took another turn at the Rans helm, with Betsey in the rear and Sandy on my bike. I was beginning to get the hang of the beast when around mile 50 I managed our first “crash” of the trip, dumping Betsey into a bush on the side of the path. After I offered about 30 apologies, Betsey and I got back on the beast and carefully slogged our way up to the Brunswick Campground.
We finally arrived around 4pm. First order of business was to take pictures and then hose everything down. We then setup the tents in the rain and headed off to the showers. At 6 pm, our much anticipated dinner finally arrived. I was so hungry, the only thing I can remember was that dinner was “very good” and was “carbon-based”, but other than that I don't recall what we actually ate. After dinner, we began to consider the next day. None of us were looking forward to driving the Rans another 60 miles in the mud, so we decided to implement Plan B and called Tom to drive out to swap out the tandem for our normal bikes.
Lunch at Dam #4 (Milepost 84)
Monday, June 4 – It can't get worse! The rain continued through most of the night, but we did manage to stay nice and dry in our tents. By 6 am, the sky was still ominous but the rain seemed to be holding off. We broke down the tents, ate breakfast, and then apprehensively started off for another 60 mile day. Then without warning, a mere 100 yards out of the camp, just about every single bearing dropped out of my bottom bracket! This was nearly the last straw for me. However, dreading another 60 mile day in the mud, Sandy graciously offered to take my bike into Hagerstown, MD for joint replacement surgery. I then continued along with Betsey riding Sandy's Trek. After making a few sizing adjustments, Betsey and I were off.
The first thing we noticed was that the towpath was no where near as muddy as we dreaded it might be. Even with all the rain from the previous evening, it seem that the trail was draining quite nicely (most likely thanks to the near drought conditions from the previous months). With the sun now out, our spirits were greatly lifted by the time we reached Harpers Ferry. We hung out here under the railroad bridge for a few minute to chat with our other groupies (and to make sure everyone knew about my mechanical misfortune!), and then pushed on up the trail. At Shepherdstown, we made a rest stop at the SAG wagon. Here we met up with Preston, our 68 year old cyclist riding the Bike Friday. While other groupies opted for the Antietam Battlefield short cut route, the three of us decided to pushed on up the towpath toward a lunch stop at Dam #4. Along the way, I received word from Sandy that my bike was going to pull through surgery with a brand new sealed bottom bracket.
James in the KOA Kabin (near Milepost 100)
After lunch, Betsey, Preston, and I immediately began tackling the “charming” hill that begins the Big Slackwater detour (at mile 84). Yes, there is nothing better than making a gut wrenching climb on a full stomach (grin)! We were all still a bit wiped from the previous days adventure, so my overland shortcut route via Downsville was approved by proclamation. We made short work of the detour, and found our way into the Hagerstown KOA before 3 pm where we reconnected with Sandy. As a thanks for fixing my bike, I decided we should rent one of the cabins for the night (however, I believe that Sandy actually ended up pay for it – some thanks!). The evening's excellent dinner was Tex-Mex, followed by a nice history lecture about the canal.
Tuesday, June 5 – Blue Skies: With the weather report looking great and the prospect of only 18 unpaved miles today (thanks to the Western Maryland Rail Trail) everyone in the group was feeling good this morning. After a leisurely breakfast, our threesome hit the 4 mile route through Williamsport back to the towpath. Our leader had scheduled a group tour of Fort Frederick at 10 am, so we were on a mission to get there on time. Fortunately, we had about 2 hours to complete the 16 miles between the campground and the fort. This allowed us some nice photo opportunities, and to “assist” a couple of turtles found crossing the towpath.
Betsey and James a few miles north of Williamsport (Milepost 106)
By 10 am, we arrived at the Fort and then broke into our trail mix supply as we waited for the other groupies to arrive. I had never been inside the fort, so I was glad to have the opportunity. After touring the fort for about a half hour, we pushed on up the trail past Big Pool, and then onto the parallel Western Maryland Rail Trail. Before we knew it, we were in downtown Hancock, MD. We joined most of the group for the obligatory stop at Weavers Restaurant, where we sampled their mighty fine pie collection. After the pie break, we headed over to C&O Bicycles to load up on water. Here, our trike pilot was amazingly able to purchase three 20” Schwalbe Marathon tires to replace the threadbare skins that had been giving him no end of grief.
Our threesome continued along the Western Maryland Rail Trail as we headed out town. Thanks to the sugar high, we were “cranking” along at about 13 mph (much faster than our typical 10 mph pace). Sandy commented that this was “actually fun”. However, near the end of the paved trail our mojo began to fade, and soon we where back at our normal speed on the towpath for the final 4 miles into Little Orleans. Before long, we were standing in front of Bill's place in “downtown” Little Orleans. However, it seemed Bill was off fishing as the place was locked up. So we pushed on toward our evening accommodations.
Hanging out at Fort Frederick (Milepost 112)
Sandy and I had previously planned this to be our indoor night, so we headed toward the Little Orleans Lodge while Betsey pushed on up the “tiny hill” to Little Orleans Campground. Once we were settled in and showered, Sandy and I walked the half mile over to the campground to meet Betsey for dinner. All I can say is that the hill leading to the campground is really something. Even just walking up took our breath away. The hill is not very long, but I think someone recorded a whopping 17 degree pitch! I understand that nearly all of the group walked their bikes up.
Following our fine dinner, the evenings guest speaker arrived to tell us about the French and Indian War. Just as he started, the sky suddenly opened up without warning, causing everyone to dash off to secure their tents. However, this was the typical brief shower you normally see during this time of year, and it was all done after just about 20 minutes. Once the lecture was over, we were able to enjoy the dessert of the evening - Crabs! (Yes, we could not figure that out either.). Anyway, the best news was that Tom was finally rejoined us, and the Rans Tandem was back for another go.
Wednesday, June 6 – Muddy Morning: After a fine evening in the Lodge, one of the tour guides kindly shuttled us and our bikes up to the campground for breakfast. Another 10 am tour was scheduled, this time 15 miles up river at the Paw Paw Tunnel, so we made sure to get out of camp by 8 am. We all safely negotiated the rapid decent down the monster hill, and quickly rejoined the towpath.
Waiting to tour the Paw Paw Tunnel (Milepost 155)
Each time I ride the towpath, there always seems to be one section that is in pretty bad shape compared with the rest of the path. The problem is that this bad section changes from year to year, so you never know when to expect it. It turns out that in 2007, the “bad section” award goes to mile 140 through 155. This was by far the nastiest part, with a constant barrage of mud bogs, potholes, and tree roots impeding our journey. We also had another minor tandem crash, this time with Tom at the helm (so I did not feel so bad about my earlier faux pax). After some triage, we continued slugging up the path. During a bio-break at one of the hiker-biker campsites, we ran into a maintenance ranger doing some trimming work. I chatted for him for a few minutes and we discussed the trail conditions. As is the case at all national parks, the canal is massively under funded and so they don't have enough budget to take proper care of the entire path. (I know this first hand, having volunteered at the park). However, he did assure me that the path was in better condition upstream from the tunnel.
Arrival in Cumberland (Milepost 184)
We arrived at the tunnel about 10 minutes early. Unfortunately, someone decided that we had to wait for everyone to arrive, so the talk did not start until 40 minutes later. Although I am quite interested in all sorts of civil engineering projects, I also knew that most of my companions do not share my enthusiasm. Since we were somewhat cold standing in the shaded tunnel cut for 40 minutes, we decided to forgo the complete tour, and pushed through the tunnel. It should be worth noting that the park is planning a major tunnel renovation in the near future, which may require closing the tunnel for several months. At the far side, we ran into four maintenance rangers who, in preparation for the renovation, were attempting to pump all the water out of the the tunnel basin. This had never been tried before, so they were eager to see if it would be feasible.
As promised, the towpath was much better on the far side of the tunnel. After a snack break, we continued upstream to Oldtown, MD for lunch. Everyone also went over to check out the rickety old toll bridge (the oldest privately owned bridge in the US) that still carries traffic over to West Virginia. After lunch, it really started to warm up. At this point, Sandy hit “the wall” and our forward progress slowed considerably. So we decided to play “musical bikes” once again, with Sandy moving to tandem stoker, Betsey taking my bike, and myself taking Sandy's bike (as Sandy's bike is too small for Betsey). Like many of the other groupies, I was having some pretty serious saddle sores by this point in the trip, so I was glad to be riding the cushy seat on Sandy's bike.
C&O Victory Dinner at Canal Place (Milepost 184)
With our new riding arrangements, we enthusiastically completed the final 10 canal miles. Betsey and I even attempted to race the last mile. However, this did not work out because 1) I cheated, and 2) we actually had difficultly finding the correct route to the end. With all the “improvements” they have been doing at this end, they forgot to install proper signs. After "butt slapping" the mule statue for continued good luck (a tradition, I'm told), we took some victory photos at Canal Place. Then, to celebrate our towpath victory, we headed off to the Queen City Creamery for ice cream. Here, I took some serious ribbing from the employees as I was pretty well covered with mud. I simply explained that I “took a shower once a week whether I needed one or not, but it was not yet Saturday” <grin>.
After ice cream, we biked the last mile and a half through Cumberland to the makeshift campsite at the YMCA. Note that this is not a campground. Our guide Larry lives in Cumberland, and arranged for us to spend the night in the field across from the Y. While Sandy setup the tent, I waited in the long hose line to clean off the bicycles. We then hosed ourselves off in the YMCA locker rooms. By 6 pm, everyone was shuttled the mile and a half back to Canal Place for an excellent Italian dinner with the mayor of Cumberland. The mayor gave us a brief history of the city, and then we all hoofed across the street to Ed's Canal Bar for a few drinks.
Tom and Betsey climing with the other Rans twosome
Thursday, June 7 – Over the Top: Despite the fact that we were camping right between a rail switching yard and Interstate 68 (with all the Big Rigs riding their Jake Brakes), we were able to get a good nights sleep thanks to our earplugs. There was another hard dew this morning, so we let the tent dry while we ate another staple breakfast consisting of eggs, sausage, and hash browns. This morning was the big 20-mile climb through “The Narrows” and up Savage Mountain. While Tom, Betsey, and myself were totally psyched about this brand new section of trail, about half the group was less than enthusiastic about the looming 1,800 foot climb. Most of these folks opted to ride the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Since this was not scheduled to arrive at the top until 12:30 pm, Sandy decided to take our shuttle up to Frostburg, MD and meet us there for the final five-mile climb to the top.
Eager to go, our threesome left the camp at 8 am in the bright sunshine and navigated the city streets back over to Canal Place. Here, we picked up the brand new Great Allegheny Passage trail and began our assault. It was actually rather cool this morning, so the gradual 2 percent climb helped warm us up. Overall, the climb was actually quite easy, and it offered some of the trip's best views. During the climb, we met up with the other Rans Tandem twosome and I took a number of photos of the two beast in formation. This trail section runs right along side the scenic railway, so the newest rage is for local cyclists to try and pace the old steam engine as it chugs up the hill at 15 mph (no one has yet come close). Today, the diesel engine was making the accent. We easily beat this beast (um, thanks to our 3-hour head start), and arrived in Frostburg around 10:30 am where Sandy was waiting for us.
Crossing "The Line" on Big Savage Mountain
After snacks, our foursome continued the climb up to the Big Savage Tunnel. We made the obligatory photo stop at the Mason-Dixon Line as we crossed from Maryland into Pennsylvania, and soon arrived at the tunnel. We had planned to eat lunch here, but it had really started to heat up today. So, we hoped for cooler conditions on the other side and continued through the tunnel onto the rest stop at Deal, PA. Along the way, we made one more photo stop at the Eastern Continental Divide marker, which to us meant the rest of the ride would be downhill! A few minutes later we were eating lunch in “downtown” Deal (which basically consists of two houses and a barn).
The day had become a real scorcher, with temperatures in the 90's, so we made certain we had plenty of water before pushing off after lunch. As we expected, the Passage trail was MUCH smoother than the towpath. So we were all in good spirits as we descended down the trail towards Meyersdale, PA. Upon arriving in Meyersdale, I headed downhill into town to search for some drinks while the remainder of the foursome rested up at the old railroad terminal. All I can say is that the town is VERY quite on a mid-day afternoon. After making the rounds at both the drug store and the grocery store (neither of which carried any Diet Coke), I made due with what was available and ground my way back up the hill to rejoin the group.
Our campsite at Husky Haven, near Rockwood, PA
We pushed on and soon crossed over the 1,950-foot long Salisbury Viaduct, where we stopped to enjoy the view for a few moments. We made quick work of the final 10 miles, and found Bubba sitting on the trail right at the entrance to the brand new Husky Haven Campground in Rockwood, PA. I believe we might have been the first group to use the campground. In fact, I notice that their website photo gallery features our group! Unlike the previous campgrounds, this one had many discrete campsites located throughout the woods, so it took us a while to find a spot that was not too far from the trail.
Although this campground was a bit more rustic than the previous ones, I must say it was very nice. The best feature is that several sites are located near babbling brooks, so it was really nice to just lay around reading with the stream noise in the background. The only real issue is that the showers are located about a half mile away in downtown Rockwood, on the far bank of the Casselman River. As a result, we had to use the bicycles to get back and forth from the showers. And like just about all the other campgrounds, this one was also near the railroad tracks so be sure to carry earplugs.
Friday, June 8 – Mad Dash: During the previous day, we called ahead and reserved spots for the 11 am tour at Fallingwater. This wonderful house is located just five miles off the trail. However since biking to the site requires riding on a fast moving, very hilly road with limited sight lines, our guides offered to shuttle folks from the town of Ohiopyle to the site. So, we decided that we should try to get to Ohiopyle by 10 am. After a quick calculation, it became apparent that we would need to leave our camp no later than 7 am. So we grabbed an early breakfast and then pushed off down the trail.
James and Sandy at Fallingwater
For the next 1 1/2 hours, we rode pretty hard, averaging between 11 and 12 mph. Along the way, we passed by Markleton, the Pinkerton Tunnel, and Fort Hill. Upon reaching Harnedsville, we stopped for a bio break. This was about 8:45 am, so it appeared that we would have no problem reaching Ohiopyle on time. However, Sandy was beginning to run out of steam, so we decided to play musical bikes again. Betsey, riding on my bike, proclaimed that she was now the “Weakest Link” and pushed on ahead, while we followed about 5 minutes later with Tom and Sandy on the Tandem and myself on Sandy's bike.
At Confluence, we momentarily became disoriented and almost headed off in the wrong direction. However, we quickly found the correct way and continued along the Youghiogheny River. We were making good time now, averaging about 13 mph. After a few miles, we started to wonder what happened to Betsey. Although she had considered herself to be the “weakest link”, we began to fear that she might become the “missing link”. We were concerned that she had made a wrong turn in Confluence, but decided it would be best to push on to Ohiopyle, and then worry about tracking her down.
We'll it turned our our concerns were unfounded. Betsey had actually hooked up with one of the speedy groupies, and they rushed ahead. So by the time we reached Ohiopyle, Betsey was already enjoying snacks from the support van. We all hung out for a few moments to wait for a few more groupies to arrive, and then we piled into the van for the 15 minute drive out to Fallingwater. Sandy and I had actually taken a tour of Fallingwater several years ago, but this was during the renovation period. We all agreed that the tour was much better the second time around, as we were able to explore just about all aspects of the home. After the tour, we took the obligatory photo shot, and then grabbed the van back to town.
Enjoying the view at Ohiopyle, PA
Back in town, we found a shady spot to eat lunch at the old railroad station. It had become very hot today, with high humidity and temperatures up in the 90's. We were also noting with dread the large number of puffy white cumulus clouds popping up all over the sky. It was at this point that one of the guides came over and told us that a large cold front was expected to come through around 2:30 pm, and we should expect some really bad weather. Having heard horror stories from the previous year's ride, with “limestone mud caked on like concrete”, we decide to push on down the trail so that we could get at close as possible to the evening's campground before the storms hit.
For the next 10 miles, we were really flying. I coached Sandy on drafting techniques, and we were cranking along at 13+ mph. Eventually, Sandy hit “the wall”, so we performed musical bikes once again and continued our “blistering” pace. By the time we reach Connellsville, 2:30 pm had come and gone. The sky was still looking real “iffy”, but no real signs of storms as of yet. It was suggested that perhaps the sweep guide had just made up the “cold front” story in order to “set a fire” under the stragglers. Anyway, as we were only a few miles from the campground at Adelaide, I decided to explore town for some drinks while the others continued. This took me 10 minutes, so I did not expect to rejoin my group until the campground. However, they were waiting for me a mere half mile down the trail under the Route 119 bridge to make sure I could find the correct route. While they were waiting, one of the other groupies took a spill here and ended up with some minor road rash.
Relaxing in the Youghiogheny River at River's Edge Campground
We pulled into the River's Edge Campground around 3:30 pm and started to search for a place to pitch our tent. As it was still very hot, everyone eventually ended wading out into the Yough prior to hitting the showers. Then, just before dinner was to be served, the storm front finally decided to come through. Everyone quickly swung into action and moved the food line over to a pavilion on the other side of the campground, were we enjoyed a somewhat disorganized dinner of leftovers in the rain. Everyone expected the rain to blow over quickly, but by the time dinner was over a light rain still persisted. After shooting the breeze with some other folks, I headed back to the tent to do some reading and eventually fell asleep.
Saturday, June 9 – Big Finish:
During the night, a think fog rolled in and blanketed the campground. By the time we awoke, everything was covered in a think dew. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, hoping the sun would come out and dry the tent. Even though today was only a 30-mile haul to the finish in Boston, PA, we could not putz around too much as we needed to be done before 1 pm. So eventually Sandy and I packed up the wet tent and tossed our stuff in Bubba. The two of us pushed on ahead of Tom and Betsey as we knew they would quickly catch up.
About two miles down the path, we came across a downed tree block the path. Instead of just climbing over, we decided to try to clear the tree from the trail. We made quick work of most of the branches, however the main trunk was just too much for the two of us. Fortunately, a bunch of other groupies showed up and we all began dragging the tree to the side. The tree fought back valiantly, at one point pinning me to the ground and nearly knocking out another groupie with a wayward branch, but we eventually prevailed. Tom and Betsey caught up at this point and the four of us pushed on.
A beautiful morning on our last day
Even though the trail was nearing Pittsburgh, there is still very little development along this section. Every once in a while, we would break out into the open as we passed through a small village, but most of the ride was in the forest running along the Yough. At Cedar Creek Park we made our last official rest stop, loading up on “healthy” snacks such as Peanut M&Ms and Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies.
At Buena Vista, PA, we found a convenience mart right on the trail so I stopped to load up on drinks for the bus ride back to DC. At this point, we also decided to do one more musical bike swap. As a result, I pulled into the finish in Boston, PA riding on Sandy's bike, Betsey on my bike, and Tom and Sandy on the tandem. We quickly loaded our bike onto Bubba and then grabbed some lunch, which was setup buffet style underneath the Route 48 bridge. Many of us also took advantage of the changing rooms before getting on the motor coach for the 5 hour trip back to DC.
As expected, most slept on bus trip back to DC. Thanks to our quick departure, we arrived back in DC around 5 pm (an hour earlier than expected). Tom and Betsey's daughter came down to pick them up, and they were kind enough to haul our gear back to Gaithersburg. However, there was not enough room for all five of us and our bikes, so Sandy and I hoped on the Metro Red line with our bikes for the long ride out to Shady Grove. From here, we biked the final 5 miles to our home.
Despite the rough start, we all agreed that is was a great trip and would gladly do it again. Here are some closing thoughts:
Best Gear – Earplugs: With the exception of Hagerstown KOA, every campground was located right next to a busy railroad. If you like to sleep, don't try this trip without earplugs.
Best Gear I wish I brought – Softer Seat: The towpath is a very bumpy trail. By the time we arrived in Cumberland, most of our group had a bad case of the saddle sores. The next time I do this ride, I will probably use a suspension or spring seat. The seat on my wife's bike is spring loaded, so riding on her bike was a lot more comfortable than on mine. However, be careful not to use an extra wide seat, or you could end up with some serious chafing issues.
Favorite Campground: Tough call, but I would give this to Hagerstown KOA, with Little Orleans a close second. Husky Haven was also nice, but a bit lacking in amenities. On Friday evening, River's Edge was bursting with RV campers so it seemed a bit cramped. At the bottom of the list is Brunswick, thanks to the poor condition of the shower rooms and the close proximity to the rail road switching yard. However, if you like trains, then Brunswick may be your spot. You will especially appreciate the rapid fire banging noise at 4 am, they start connecting cars with locomotives.
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