When Your Neighbors Don’t Want You to Play in Their Yard

You play in your own yard!

Since the Canadian border is still closed due to COVID-19, we postponed our Great Divide ride to summer 2021 and instead opted to ride the C&O Canal Towpath and GAP Trail. Thanks to our friends Dan, Christie, Dave, Kathleen, Paul and Terri for the ride intel. You were spot on.

You can learn more about the C&O Canal Towpath and GAP Trails here.  We figured that in a relatively short bike tour we could knock out four more states and DC on our 50 state cycling quest while enjoying spectacular scenery, laid back riding and continue to physically (not socially) distance ourselves from others during the pandemic.

Cyclists can ride all or part of either trail but the big question is how to get back to where you started if you don’t want to cycle back. We opted to drive to Pittsburgh, park our car and ride the Amtrak train to Washington, DC with our bikes on board. Once in DC, we rode bikes back to our car.

We’re grateful when a plan comes together! It seems like cycling back to our car always works for us on linear routes since there aren’t any time constraints. We used the same logistics on the Natchez Trace, Katy Trail and Appalachian Gravel Growler.

Where did we stay? What did we ride? What did we pack?

We planned on camping every night but we always weasel into at least one hotel for a hot shower and since this was my birthday week… well I wasn’t going to argue about choosing to stay at a Fairfield Marriott in town rather than camping at the YMCA in Cumberland.  Here’s where we stayed all week.

Our go-to bikes for touring are our Salsa Cutthroats and we pack the same thing every trip whether we’re going to be gone for two days, two weeks or two months. About the only optional items are based on the season. Obviously we didn’t pack our puffies. And yes I know, the amount of electronics we carry is ridiculous.

I’ll tell you what we’re not schlepping around anymore – a stove, a cookset and groceries. We can most always find a c-store or restaurant. Doing this saves a lot of time in the morning when packing up and it’s less weight (for me) to carry. And yes, Tom still has to carry the two pound Big Agnes tent.

So here’s how it all went down. It’s something we can look back on a year from now when I hope we’re riding south of Banff.

Day 1, Thursday: Washington, DC to White’s Ferry, MD – 41 miles

  • Wake up at 3:30 am and ride bikes to the Amtrak station
  • Seven hour Amtrak train ride from Pittsburgh to DC. Arrive at 2pm. Begin riding at 3:45pm
  • It’s immediately apparent that the towpath is home to a multitude of deer, turtles, and blue herons. We even saw an osprey and a beaver!

  • Rain on the C & O turns the towpath into a quagmire with lots of puddles, mud and ruts.  We’re good though! That’s what these bikes are made for.
  • Amidst a downpour, a trail angel at White’s Ferry offers to let us camp under his pavilion
  • Tom sleeps soundly in the tent while I monitor the Weather Channel and notice that the storm cell is NOT moving on. For over three hours there was intense lightening, thunder and wind.  Look at the time stamp on the weather radar below. Was this our version of the Midwest derecho?

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Day 2, Friday: White’s Ferry, MD to Harpers Ferry, WV – 59 miles

  • Beautiful morning for a ferry ride over to Leesburg, Virginia for breakfast and exploring
  • Rode 20 miles of the Old Dominion Trail
  • Return to Maryland and continue on C & O. Lots of downed trees from storm.

  • Intersect with the Appalachian Trail for a mile before Harpers Ferry
  • Take footbridge (aka stairs with loaded bikes – ouch!) to Harpers Ferry for the night

  • Dinner and bevvies outside at Coach’s Ale House

Day 3, Saturday: Harpers Ferry, WV to Hancock, MD – 66 miles

  • Lots of debris on the towpath. A rider tells us that at mile post 88 the trail is impassable and to turn around. Ummmm just no.  We pushed on and climbed over, ducked under or plowed through the obstacles.
  • Met a cute family of four stopped along the trail. They were riding with their two sons age eight and ten. The Pringle cannister actually caught my eye. This family is biketouring a section of the C&O at a time. They carry everything they need, use the free hiker/biker campsites and homeschool the kiddos. (even before COVID). Grateful to see families out and about sharing time together and enjoying the outdoors.
  • Tony’s pizzeria for outdoor lunch. It’s a family owned business in operation for over 35 years. I highly recommend! Be sure to try the garlic knots with homemade Ranch dressing. Good enough to include in Christmas stockings or an Easter basket.
  • Tip from a cyclist going in the opposite direction told us about the bicycle bunkhouse in Hancock, MD. Since Hancock was our planned stopping place for the evening, we decided to check out the bunkhouse.

  • We had the bunkhouse to ourselves except for Dave who was bike touring with his pupper named Ozzer. Prosecutors, hair stylists, bartenders and teachers have the BEST stories.
  • Dinner outside at Buddielous. Highly recommend their fried green tomatoes and rueben.

Day 4, Sunday: Hancock, MD to Cumberland, MD – 61 miles (end of C & O towpath, beginning of GAP trail)

  • Last day of riding the C&O Towpath
  • Got to ride through the Paw Paw Tunnel at the same time a boy scout troop (travelling with 30 or so cyclists) rode the opposite direction as us. The Paw Paw is over 3,000 feet long and the scouts thought they might be able to ride the whole thing instead of walking their bikes as was recommended.
  • They tried to ride. Without lights. One even had his sunglasses on.  We giggled. God bless them and their leader. They were all having a good time, wearing helmets, had face coverings on and also reflective vests. Gotta admit though, we did feel like a couple of salmon swimming upstream to the spawning grounds via the Paw Paw.

Day 5, Monday: Cumberland, MD to Ohiopyle, PA – 74 miles

  • The beginning of the GAP trail!
  • Let’s start the day with a 25 mile, mild uphill grade. Really not hard. Just put an ear bud in, enjoy the scenery and follow the railroad tracks. We both actually enjoyed this quite a bit,

  • Pretty much biking nirvana here on the GAP where the surface is even, trail towns are every 15 miles or so if we need to resupply. The hiker/biker campsites are immaculate and even come “stocked” with split campfire wood, weenie roasters for hotdogs and smores, plenty of picnic tables and three sided shelters.
  • Both Tom and I both believe that God puts people, places and opportunities in our paths for a reason. It’s not always evident what the reason is and it might take a while to figure it out but we met Marie Bartoletti near Rockwood, Pennsylvania. Marie is 62 years old, has completed well over 450 marathons and several triathalons (including Kona) and she is a retired teacher. She is also a stroke survivor. She came out of nowhere and introduced herself and invited us to her home to retrieve a book she’d written entitled Perseverance.

  • Having been delayed an hour on a conference phone call, we really needed to get moving on, but as providence would have it, she cycled four houses down to her home, retrieved her book and we got one. I can’t wait to read it. I know this special lady has something for us to learn.
  • We cross into Pennsylvania, crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, crossed the Eastern Continental Divide (ironic we would have been riding along the Western Continental Divide had COVID not exploded). Plus we cycled through the Big Savage Tunnel (even longer than the Paw Paw albeit no Boy Scouts this time). It mighta been my fave day of the trip.
  • Finally the ten miles between Confluence and Ohiopyle, was just about the most perfect section of riding all week. Downhill, sunny, scenic.

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  • It’s all rainbows and unicorns until you get to the access trail to Ohiopyle State Park. Ever done it? You don’t wanna. It’s steep, rocky and not what you want to tackle when you’re approaching the 80 mile mark and you’re tired, hungry and thirsty. Not only did we get ‘er done, we set up our tent and then walked back down the ratchet trail into town for an outdoor dinner and bevvie. Of course that meant we had to walk back up it again. In the dark. But at least this time we weren’t pushing loaded bikes.

Day 6, Tuesday: Ohiopyle, PA to Pittsburgh – 78 miles

  • Last day of riding the GAP and the last day of the trip
  • Today was just about getting back to Pittsburgh and we took our time
  • For those of you who followed along on social media, it was nice having you with us. And even if we are restricted to playing in our own backyard. It’s a most beautiful yard in which to play.
  • Though our country may seem divided at times and its warts and imperfections obvious, she’s still evolving and we were grateful to rock our way through the USA.