An Epic Cycling Adventure – The Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Towpath

DC End of Trail

Photo Courtesy of Jim Thomas

We recently returned from “the ride of our lives”!  What started out months ago as an intriguing idea for some big boy fun culminated with five guys riding their bicycles from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC.

In the blistering sun and sweltering humidity,  Jim Thomas (Lewisburg), Jeff Schans (Montoursville), Steve Speaks and his 13 year old son, Noah (Bloomsburg), and myself (Watsontown), all members of Revival Tabernacle in Watsontown, “left nothing on the trail” as they completed one amazing cycling adventure of the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Towpath .

The two scenic trails were originally conceived as the corridor of commerce between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC by our nation’s first president, George Washington.   The official guidebook for the trails describes the journey as “The Ride of Your Life”!

The Great Allegheny Passage starts from the forks of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh and continues for 150 miles to Cumberland, Maryland then joins the 184.5 mile C&O Towpath which ends on the banks of the Potomac in Georgetown.  The two paths linked together create an unparalleled cycling adventure and form the longest non-motorized, hiking / biking trail in the nation.

Let’s refer to this group of guys as the “RevTab Five” – on wheels!

Our journey started on Wednesday, July 10th, with a commute to Pittsburgh to stay at the home of my mother and step-father, Babe and Bob Yanosko of West Mifflin.

Let’s begin with a true confession – we did not complete the entire trail combination.  Upon arriving in town some last minute bicycle repairs were in order and a local repair shop was visited.  By the time our crew returned to home base, a massive storm system was settling in over Pittsburgh and the weather was THE topic of news that afternoon and evening on the local stations.   On Wednesday, we had originally planned to hit the trail, travel into Pittsburgh to the start at Point State Park, and return to the Yanosko home for dinner – all called off due to the dangerous storm system.  Technically, we fell about 8 miles short of riding the entire distance.

Day 1 / Thursday – July 11th

We awoke early, grabbed a quick breakfast, and made our way to the trail via an on –road, rush hour traffic jaunt to the starting point at the Waterfront commercial district near Homestead.   Things got interesting very quickly!  The RevTab Five hit the first of many obstacles to come. Five miles into the day the tone was set for things to come for the remainder of our 4 day trip.  Downed trees and vines covered the bike path over a 50 foot area just below Kennywood Amusement Park.  Like old time fireman passing water buckets, we formed a human chain and passed our bikes from one to another to escape the initial hurdle.

As they day unfolded, we passed by the towns of Duquesne, McKeesport, West Newtown, Ohiopyle, Ohiopyle State Park, and Confluence as we traveled along the banks of the Youghiogheny River.  More delays ensued due to many downed trees and rockslides which paved a 13.5 hour, 103 mile day to our first destination in Rockwood, Pennsylvania, The Hostel on Main.

Several of us completed our first “century ride” (100 miles) or achieved a personal best one day ride distance – no small accomplishment!  We celebrated with dinner at the Rock City Café – the only place to eat in town!

Facebook posts and text messages kept us in contact with our families, friends, and our church family all keeping us in their thoughts and prayers – all integral parts to completing our goal of finishing in 4 days.

Day 2 / Friday – July 12th

Fortunately, the temperatures were moderate until Sunday.  Friday morning started out cool and we began to pair off as riders along the lines of our early morning preferences – get going or get coffee and get going!

Jeff and I started out the day first on our way to our initial stop, Meyersdale, Pennsylvania.  We found the local Sheetz™ store to grab some breakfast and were later joined by Jim, Steve, and Noah.  After a short break we were back on the trail and this is when the fun began!

My initial thought was “I hope that was not gunshot”.  I knew better.  Two weeks prior to this while on vacation in North Carolina, I heard a similar sound – a flat tire that ruptured the sidewall of my back wheel.  Going back to the thoughts and prayers of our family, friends, and church family, it may sound cliché to hear them say “we were praying for you”.  There are times we all take it for granted.  Those prayers by all parties were not only felt, but were critical to our safety as the events of the prior day proved, the drama of the current day would reveal, and the journey of the ensuing days would unfold.

I am not the most mechanically inclined person around.  I could probably change a flat tire in a pinch, but I might want to throw my bike off a cliff after trying to do so!  Jeff and Steve pitched in to assist me and out of nowhere two elderly gentlemen riding the trail stopped to help out.  It was a definite meeting of the minds and an answer to our current need – get the tire fixed and get moving.  It was no coincidence that one of the guys that stopped had a truck parked in a lot about 500 yards away.  The plan was to change the tube, stick a piece of cardboard between the tube and the rim, and apply electrical and duct tape to the tire! The plan was completed as noted, they jury-rigged the rupture, and we bought some time to get to civilization to get the tire replaced.

The tire was “fixed” about 5 miles short of the Eastern Continental Divide, the highest point on the Great Allegheny Passage (2,392 feet).  We made our way to and through the dimly lit Big Savage Tunnel (3,294 feet) and a subsequent 22 mile downhill run past Frostburg, Maryland on our way to Cumberland, Maryland.  A few miles short of Cumberland, the tire a la duct tape went flat again and we stopped to inflate it.  We rode a few more miles and once again, the tire was flatter than a pancake.  It was time to offload me (Bruce), switch bikes with Jim to lighten the load on the bad tire, and pedal to Cumberland where we arrived a few minutes later seeking Steve and Noah who went ahead to locate a repair shop.  The 22 mile downhill run allowed us to gain time back on an already behind schedule day.   As we would eventually realize, we most certainly would have been placed in harm’s way later in the day if this did not occur at this point.

While the bike was in the shop getting a new tire, we ate next door at The Crabby Pig, a local favorite.  Still four hours behind schedule, we left Cumberland around in mid-afternoon with 44 miles remaining to our destination, Little Orleans, Maryland.

By way of analogy, the Great Allegheny Passage can be likened to a rustic and rural ride in the park. It was by no means easy. However, it is a decent trail much like many of the rails-to-trails we are familiar with in our area such as the new Lewisburg to Mifflinburg trail.  On the other hand, we admittedly bit off more than we could chew in estimating the terrain of the C&O Towpath, which smacked us in the collective face after lunch.  To picture it think two, 12” to 18” channels in the ground separately by grass, covered with puddles from the overnight rains, and lots of rocks, ruts, and roots.  Travel went from an estimated 11 or 12 mph earlier in the day to an estimated 8 to 10 mph to account for the mountain biking conditions we now were introduced to on flat ground.  We had to get engaged or we would not make our stop by nightfall. This was something that none of us would admit was a concern but it certainly was a possibility that we did not want to entertain.

The second trial of the day soon came a calling.  Shortly into the mid-afternoon ride, Jeff and I connected with Jim, Steve, and Noah.  Jim blew a back tire, then a short while later, a front tire.

The result – more time delays for us as a group with diminishing daylight on the horizon.  Jim and Steve remained to repair the tires while Jeff, Noah, and I traveled ahead at their insistence.  Again, the prayers were felt.  We had to somehow pick up the pace despite the setbacks, difficulties, and exhaustion.   A surge of energy came over us and we found ourselves riding in the 12 -13 mph range on the obstacle course on which we found ourselves.  Fourteen miles short of the mark, we found ourselves going through the Paw Paw Tunnel (3,118 feet) – a completely dark and abandoned canal tunnel that had a crude walkway adjoined by the stagnant canal waters below us.  Jeff had a small light to guide us along the walkway, but the steps were slow going.  All we could do was look to the light at the end of the tunnel as we proceeded.  Upon coming out of the tunnel it was approximately 7 p.m. with 13 miles to go and about 90 minutes of daylight left to the day.

Incidentally, cell phones were of no use as there was no service in No Man’s Land.  Regaining our focus, the three of us forged ahead and made our way out of the woods a few minutes before nightfall.  Steve and Jim remained “out there” with no way to contact them.  We offered prayers for their safety, asking they make it out of the abandoned wilderness before daylight subsided.

Immediately off the trail was Bill’s Place, a local restaurant and bar and our intended stop for dinner.  I walked into the establishment, spoke with a lady at the bar who had a look on her face that portrayed , “What in the world did the wind blow in here?”, and she informed me the kitchen was going to close shortly.  Imagine three guys dressed in Spandex, covered in mud, and drenched in sweat – it’s no wonder the lady was dazed by our appearance!  We ordered dinner for Jim and Steve, hoping they were soon to arrive, which they did.  After dinner, we made our way down an unlit road to our second night’s lodging stay, the Little Orleans Lodge.  Day two was in the books – 89 miles and 13 hours later, our journey reached the chronological half-way point.

Day 3 / Saturday – July 13th

Saturday was by far the only “normal” day of the trip.  The mileage goal for the day was 85 miles.  We awoke to our only real breakfast of French toast, bacon, sausage, coffee, and juice – compliments of Steve the innkeeper who was not all that pleased to be a cook.  He simply wanted to be an innkeeper and he let us know it.  Where’s the customer service survey when you need it?

The first order of the day was to travel to Hancock, Maryland where a bike shop was less than a stone’s throw off the trail.  We started out on the “trail from the abyss” and within five miles welcomed a pedaling diversion, the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a 22 mile fully paved trail that ran parallel to the C&O Towpath.  Both of Jim’s tires needed to be replaced as a result of Friday’s attempt to keep him rolling.  The paved trail was a welcome relief to the constant keep-your-eye-on-the-path mode that we encountered to this point while on the C&O.  The early effects of the recent heat wave began to be felt as temperatures climbed into the mid-80’s.  Several of us were nursing sore knees that added to the trials of long distance cycling.  Williamsport, Maryland welcomed us 40 miles into the day and was a welcome break as we found a couple of places that served ice cream and pizza.

The destination for the day was near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia where we would stay at the Harper’s Ferry Hostel.  Other than dealing with the treacherous trail conditions similar to the day before, the travel on Saturday was a welcome relief to the trials of the previous two days.  The only hitch came at the end of the day when it was getting dark and a miscommunication on the meeting point left Steve looking for his son, Noah.  He was found in short order – no harm, no foul.   It was a short day, only 10.5 hours of ride time.

Day 4 / Sunday, July 14th

Sunday was to be our “easy” day – approximately 60 miles to our journey’s end near Georgetown.  We started the day with no breakfast except for the meal bars and snacks we individually packed.  There were two summer league basketball teams staying at the hostel and to wait for breakfast meant a delay, something we did not want to do with the temperatures from the heat wave already beginning to soar into the mid-90 degree range.

Once again, we had to make our way through rocks, ruts, roots, and the many puddles that formed due to the overnight rains.  We traveled approximately 25 miles to White’s Ferry, Maryland dodging poison ivy bushes, sticks, and trees.  Several of us hit low energy levels due to the lack of breakfast to start the day.  We came across the only place to get a bite to eat – a small, Mom and Pop convenience store that sold breakfast sandwiches.  With food in our “engines” and our water bottles refilled, we were on our way to Georgetown for the final 35 miles.  Little did we realize that our only water supplies were well pumps used for the campgrounds and there were only a few to be found.  They became our soaking stations to wet our heads and shirts and to fill our water bottles, despite the nasty taste of the water.

Any little diversion to get our minds off the arduous task of finishing was a welcome break to help us manage the physical, mental, and emotional demands we encountered.  We chatted, listened to music, spoke with strangers on the path, and attempted to get a glimpse of the scenery in an attempt to get our minds off the obvious.

We all began to count down the mile markers.  Any athlete typically hits the “wall” during a period of extended exercise.   There were times we simply did not want to go on, but we knew that it was not an option as the victory of completing the journey was coming closer.   Some of us could no longer think of it in terms of how many miles to the end.  We had to break it down into a thought similar to this – “Can I make it one more mile?”  We could “buy” that line of thinking and it was a direct answer to our prayers and it made the journey more manageable.

We made our way to the point where we began our astronaut’s countdown in terms of miles to go  10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3.  At mile marker 3, we would have exited as my brother and his wife live nearby and were hosting us for a shower and dinner.  However, the count continued.  We detoured off the C&O Trail onto a parallel paved trail to take us the final few miles.  Crowds of people were gathering in the area for a Sunday afternoon in the park.   With much emotion and a sense of accomplishment we arrived safely near Georgetown and the end of our journey. Mission accomplished!

This particular adventure was filled with trials and obstacles of all shapes and sizes.  We were thirsty, hungry, tired, and injured.  We endured the aftermath of storms and mechanical failures with our bikes.  We enjoyed the cool breeze of the morning, a refreshing rain shower, and the sauna –like conditions of a mid-July heat wave.  We hung in there to the end, ignoring the screams from our physical bodies and triumphed over the battles waged in our minds bent on us giving up.   In the end, we thoroughly enjoyed the taste of victory and experienced the joy of going beyond out comfort zones as we finished what we set out to do. 

Winston Churchill once said this, “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

It’s our belief that we applied those fine words – We overcame!


Steve (front) from L to R – Bruce, Jeff, Jim & Noah




Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.