Bikepacking the Great Allegheny Passage / C & O Canal
Seven years ago, I passed through Harpers Ferry, WV for the first time, just after graduating high school. I was on a five-day bike tour with a friend, from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC on the Great Allegheny Passage / Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Wandering around the steep hill of Harpers Ferry, gazing into ice cream parlors and hostels and historical buildings, I noticed a lot of people with massive backpacks, beards, bandanas, and boots. It was my first exposure to the animal known as thru-hiker. Last year, halfway through my own thru-hike, I crossed the bridge out of Harpers Ferry as one of those creatures. My mini-adventure six years earlier played no small role in getting me out on trail for a longer period.
If you are an AT hiker, you may remember a spot just north of Harpers Ferry denoting the C&O Canal. This trail coincides with the AT for about three miles. The Great Allegheny Passage (stretching from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD) was completed in 2013 and the C&O Canal (beginning in Cumberland and ending in Washington, DC) has been around as a National Historic Park since 1971. Together, these trails add up to over 300 miles of bike-graded trail. Don’t get too excited though—the C&O portion of the trail is largely unpaved and can get quite muddy. Throughout my five-day bikepack, I did notice some people walking the trail with packs. This trek could certainly be done on foot, though it would take much longer.
Length: 334 miles, can be biked in 4-6 days
Location: Pittsburgh, PA <—> Washington, DC
Trail Type: End-to-end. Packed gravel / dirt trail. Optimized for biking
Scenery and Weather
Scenery on this trail is typical of the deciduous forests of the mid-Atlantic. Wooded sections and rolling hills, along with passages through small towns are the general backdrop to this journey. It’s very similar to the AT, but packed and graded for bikes—the “rails to trails” setup is largely on and around old railroads. I completed this trip towards the end of June, which was hot and humid (as well as making it impossible to find accommodations at Harpers Ferry). It’s doable in the heat of summer if that’s your thing, but make sure you make reservations if you plan on sleeping indoors or anticipate a crowded campsite. Fall or spring are a safe bet for good weather and less traffic.
Moderate. The trail begins uphill from either direction and crests at the Eastern Continental Divide, going downhill for the remainder in either direction. The grade is manageable but training will help with soreness and endurance, especially if you plan on high-mileage days. In preparing for this trip, I had ridden a maximum 40-mile day, and my longest day of the trip ended up being 80 miles. Mileage and elevation charts can be found here.
Navigation, Water, and Camping
The trail is very well-marked and is, for the most part, easy to follow (with the exception of routing through a few towns). I did the entire thing without any guidebook at all, using a couple of printable maps as an overview. These maps also include water, food, and camping locations. We carried iodine and used it only once over 5 days. We did not have to acquire any permits at the locations mentioned here, though it’s always good to double-check beforehand. Reservations are often required for drive-in sites along the way (many of which are accessible via the trail itself).
Why Bike this Trail
Aside from getting you back on the AT (if only briefly), this trail doesn’t require a long stretch of time off from work, or physical fitness beyond a baseline level. If you plan your trip well, and do some 40+ mile rides beforehand, it’s a quick way to get off the beaten path and into the woods. The trail follows old railroad tracks alongside a river and canal, providing great views and access to wildlife. (Don’t count on the canal as a water source, though.) As a bonus, there is good public transportation in Washington, DC and both cities have their own attractions as bookends to the tour.
Though you can bike the trail in either direction, I began my trip at the Boston, PA trailhead, about 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh via the GAP. (Living near Pittsburgh, I’d seen it all before and wanted a jumpstart.)
That night, I arrived at Ohiopyle State Park and camped there, almost 80 miles outside of Pittsburgh. (A word of warning: the trail up to the campsite from the bike trail must be walked, as it’s very rocky and steep.) Ohiopyle is known for its whitewater rafting tours, scenic hikes, and proximity to Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater. (Wilderness Voyageurs in Ohiopyle, PA offers three, four, and six-day versions of this bikepacking trip, in addition to rafting and kayaking adventures.) If you have some spare time, Ohiopyle is a great place to dwell and soak up the outdoors, with some choice burger joints in town.
The second day was tougher, and that’s because the GAP straddles the Eastern Continental Divide, which we crested near the end of the day. As an inexperienced biker, I hopped off many times for a break (no shame) but finally made it. That night, I stayed at a campsite outside of a bed and breakfast in Frostburg, MD after enjoying a massive pineapple pizza at Fatboy’s Pizza Shack… highly recommended.
The third day was~ 80 miles of riding. After passing through Cumberland in the morning, I ended up near Hancock, West Virginia and stayed in an isolated hiker-biker campsite. This day is largely remembered for the many mosquitoes encountered, the leftover pizza eaten, and the more remote aspects of trail life. Despite being “downhill” from the Continental Divide, the very slight grade combined with the muddier trail quality of the C&O canal still provided a biking challenge.
The next night was the seminal Harpers Ferry visit, which I never recovered from and which spurred my initial interest in the AT. Much ice cream was consumed. We did not make reservations in Harpers Ferry (or know much about campsites there) and ended up walking along the highway for two miles to the nearest KOA. Decidedly not recommended.
The final day took me from Harpers Ferry to Washington, DC, and through more crowded areas filled with tourists on foot and locals out for a bike ride. Reaching Georgetown, we waited until my friend’s sister picked us up and took us on the DC Metro—a very different kind of adventure. If you’re on your own, Amtrak now offers a “walk your bike on” option for the Capitol Express.
The websites for these trails are the best resource for providing information about them. If you live in the area, try some test rides beginning at either terminus. Otherwise, smart planning and a good trail mix will get you to the end. It’s not an easy trip—by the end, you’ll have saddle sores and a few mosquito bites to show for it. But the trail is easily accessible and can be hiked or biked, taken at any speed, and has ample access to food and water along the way. A short trip can be a life-changing experience—it certainly was for me.
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