An Introduction

I am not a cyclist, but I love travel, new experiences, and adventure...

I'm Sarah, the Program Manager for Friends of the Riverfront, a nonprofit in Pittsburgh that has been building trails and restoring the region's riverfronts for over 20 years.

The 25-mile Three Rivers Heritage Trail has helped transform Pittsburgh from an industrial city to a green one. We work to build, maintain, expand, and promote this riverfront trail system for cyclists, walkers, runners, commuters, and rollerbladers. The Three Rivers Heritage Trail is also a Pittsburgh hub, connecting to larger trail systems.

This year, we celebrate the completion of the last link in the Great Allegheny Passage - the final mile to form a complete trail connection between Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh.

In anticipation of the official grand opening Point Made! celebration on June 15, I'm joining the grand opening ride to pedal 335-miles from D.C. to Pittsburgh on the C&O Canal Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage.

Count down the days -- and miles by taking a virtual tour with me from the Capital to the Burgh! I hope you'll enjoy following me on this amazing ride!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Know Before You Go

Comments and Suggestions for Riding the C&O Canal Towpath and Great Allegheny Passage

One of the most common comments I've received while writing this blog and talking to people about biking from D.C. to Pittsburgh or vice versa is that this is something a lot of people are interested in. A bucket list item, something they have been trying to plan or thinking about doing for years, or even a possible family vacation now that the trail is complete.

I believe that making this trip is possible for just about anyone, from the experienced cyclist to the bicycle novice (like myself) looking for a new type of adventure. There are many ways to make the trip and things to consider, so here are my comments and suggestions:

Planning Your Trip:
Like most travel, riding the GAP and/or the C&O can be done in a variety of ways. Which direction should you ride? What type of accommodations should you use? Supported or unsupported?

Our supported trip with Events Unlimited was very luxurious in comparison to what it could have been. It took a lot of the planning and guess work out of the equation. We didn't have to transport our luggage on our bikes each day, and had nice hot showers and comfortable beds to sleep in each night. Other advantages of the supported trip were the knowledgeable guides, ready to lend a hand with any maintenance issues during the trip. The SAG (support and gear) wagon was available for anyone who couldn't ride due to illness, injury (thank goodness there weren't any), or people who just wanted to avoid a bit of rain.

The camp sites along the trail looked very nice, and many are free to use. I'll definitely be making use of some of these sites when I do some shorter, weekend rides.

We met many people during our ride who were doing the trail in different parts or directions. There's no  right way to ride the trail, but I enjoyed going from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh because it got the harder part out of the way first -- I'm all for that! After the C&O and the brief 16 mile gradual elevation climb after Cumberland, the GAP was a breeze and a luxury with smooth paved or crushed limestone surfaces that were similar to what I was used to riding.

The ride to the top of the Allegheny Mountains at the beginning of the GAP is something a lot of people were hesitant about. I found that it was neither as easy or as hard as people had described. I was able to keep a steady pace in what I call 3rd gear (with the number 3 on the right -- again I'm no cycling expert), and with persistence and a few short breaks, I made it to the top!

Unfortunately, I can't provide much expertise on the type of bike to use on this trip, but it seemed like something a bit tougher than a road bike, with some tread on the tires was what most people were using.

I rented my bike in Pittsburgh from Golden Triangle Bike Rental -- these guys are great! My rental package came with everything I needed - extra tube, pump, tire levers, lock, panniers, and even a helmet! Seriously, can't say enough good things about these guys.

Training vs. Riding the Trails:
Even though I only had 8 days of bike training before leaving for my trip - 6 days at the gym ranging from 5-30 miles and two 18-mile rides around Pittsburgh on the bike I rented for the trip - I am an active person, going to the gym 5-6 days a week, running, lifting weights, yoga, and aerial silks.

I'd definitely recommend a bit more training if you're not already active.

At the gym or on the smooth-surfaced Three Rivers Heritage Trail, I could ride a high number of miles in very little time. In fact, none of my training rides lasted over 2 hours. When you're out riding on the trail, the experience is very different.

Our rides on the trip ranged from 35-60 miles, and always took up the entire day, riding at least 6 hours and often including additional time for stops to explore points of interest along the way.

The surface of the C&O is much more rugged and bumpy than the Three Rivers Heritage Trail which I had practiced on. There were gravely portions, patches of mud, puddles spraying dirty water, and all of these slowed you down. I LOVED the experience of the C&O, especially in relation to the Great Allegheny Passage and the Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh, but at the beginning of the trip I did wish I'd done some practice runs on rougher surfaces.

The Nitty-Gritty:
This ride will make you sore. It's not the end of the world by any means, and if you can handle basic soreness from physical activity, you'll be fine.

For me, certain parts of the ride felt like extended hours on the thigh-master. Raising the seat on my bike, yoga stretching, and relaxing in a cool swimming pool helped this.

For other people -- and what I was warned of most before the trip -- saddle soreness aka pain in the bum! This wasn't bad for me, and I survived the whole C&O Canal without padded shorts. But, my suggestion: get padded shorts! At some point, you'll be thankful you did, and anyways, who doesn't like a more comfortable seat?!

Apologies in advance for this last bit, but you'll thank me. Be sure to bring Butt Paste. It's anti-chaffing ointment that can be found in the infant isle. It will save you after long days of riding, especially if you get soaked in the rain and your riding outfit becomes a wetsuit.

There are some great resources out there for riding the trail, but none more helpful than the TrailBook! We followed this little $10 book mile by mile throughout the ride, so we always new what attractions to look forward to and where to go when we stopped in a town! It comes with nice water-resistant map that my riding buddy used as an "old school GPS," constantly reporting on what was up ahead.

While you're on the GAP, check out the GAP Certified Business Network page for suggestions on local sustainable businesses. This is where I was tipped off about Queen City Creamery in Cumberland,  and some of our other stops like the Trailside in West Newton can be found on this page. If you're going the Bed & Breakfast route, there are some good suggestions on this page.

Sarah's Rules of the Trip:

1) Most important! Attitude is everything. The trail isn't always easy, and the weather isn't always cooperative, but nothing can stop you if you keep an open mind, go with the flow, and have fun!
     - If it's muddy, embrace the mud! When else is it ok to be completely covered in mud?!

2) Food = Fuel. Fuel up regularly and enjoy every bite. Be prepared with extra fuel while you're riding - I took lots of fruit from hotel breakfasts for this purpose, fruit is perfect for a quick boost. Energy bars like Clif, Luna, or granola were great packable snacks for a bigger energy boost. Don't get yourself in a bad spot by not eating!

3) Water, water, everywhere! Remember your water so you don't have to ration. Refill stations with water pumps (water treated with iodine) are available about every 5 miles on the C&O and much less frequently on the GAP. I used these pumps more than a few times. If you can't use this water, be sure to pack enough to get you to your next stop!

4) Relax & Enjoy. Taking time to stop for a nice lunch and exploring points of interest along the trail provides a nice break from a long ride.

5) Smile. When the going gets tough, take a quick break, smile, and keep pedaling. Celebrate each mile marker, make up a game, ring your bell. You can do it!


  1. Very practical summary, and you answered all of questions I have been wondering about while following your trip report each day! How cool is that? Or how unoriginal am I? I bet you've been asked exactly same questions numerous times. Thanks again for your inspiring reporting! Maybe I'll see you on the area rails-to-trails someday. Sounds like you're a convert now.

  2. On April 27th of this year (2013), I left Point Park with another friend and the two of us did Pittsburgh to DC in seven days. All of your suggestions are dead on. Case in point is that I did not have padded riding shorts and my friend did. Bad mistake on my part. I'll leave it at that. We were loaded down with tent, sleeping bags, camp stove, cooking utensils, repair tools, change of clothes and food. You are correct in the fact that the provided primative camping sites are very well maintained. It rained on us two of the seven days. On those two evenings we opted for rooms instead of camping. It gave us a well deserved shower and warm bed. Overall, the trip was awesome. It was the first time I had ever done anything like it and plan on doing it again. Maybe from DC to Pittsburgh the next time.

  3. What are the advantages for riding east to west versus west to east? I would think west to east would make more sense, as the weather (wind) generally travels this way as well.

    1. Hi Paul! I'm not sure that there is any great advantage of riding one direction over another. There was a bit of wind once we were on top of the mountains, but it didn't seem too bad to ride into, and was pretty brief.

      Overall, I think most people usually choose a direction based on what makes the most sense for their travel plan.

      I'd favor going east to west just because (being from Pittsburgh) all of my long distance transportation would be done at the beginning of the trip, the C&O might not be as fun AFTER riding the GAP, and the incline portion is much shorter (but a little steeper) coming westbound on the GAP.

  4. Glad everyone is finding this summary helpful! If anyone has additional questions, please don't hesitate to ask!

  5. I have SOOO enjoyed reading your updates, thank you. I've wanted to ride from Cumberland to Pittsburgh for many years. After reading this, my wife and I have decided that this is something we can and will do now that we have some time to ourselves.

    Also, thanks for this tips update. I appreciate that you mention the importance of food, water, training, seat height, appropriate gear and positive attitude. A day of riding can and should be an enjoyable experience and, with tips and preparation, can be achieved. I must now find a TrailBood for myself.

    Thanks again, and I'm glad you arrived safely. Happy trails!