Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Biking the Great Allegheny Passage- Three Amigos

Mile Marker at McKeesport
We three amigos - Leo, Gene and Paul -  have known each other since the early 70's when we paddled whitewater streams that included the Youghiogheny River in Western Pennsylvania. It's the "Yough" to paddlers and it can be big water.

Today,  we are greybeards on bicycles and returning to journey on the Great Allegheny Passage rail-to-trail which largely follows the Youghiogheny for the western  half of the GAP. The trail uses the former Western Maryland Railroad roadbed from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. Now CSX trains run on one side of the river and the GAP trail runs the other. How well we recall the trains rumbling up and down the tracks on each side of the "Yough" as we paddled in famous rapids like Railroad and Whales Tail. We were never able to see the river from track level before this trip. This trip reveals a new perspective.
Leo and Gene ready to roll

The gradient going west is nearly five times greater per mile, so we went eastward, beginning in McKeesport some 18 miles from Pittsburgh at the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Monongahela Rivers. Here, and at numerous other access points, we found convenient parking and a clearly marked route. The trail surface is excellent.

The first of many stops along the way was in Boston.  (You can also find Boston in Kentucky and Georgia.) I took a photo of another cyclist from the big Boston, and he reciprocated for us at mile 4 in our travels.

Our next stop was at Dravo where a spark from a locomotive twice  burned the Methodist Church  to the ground. The second time, in 1920, it was not rebuilt and all that remains is the graveyard.

Leo at the Red Waterfall

All along this lower part of the river, there was evidence of the role that coal played in bringing the railroad here.  True the railroad was part of the westward passage, but coal both fueled the locomotives and dictated where the railroad found revenues.

Near Buena Vista we saw a most unusual waterfall coming down the embankment. This is acid runoff from the long abandoned Ocean Number 2 mine.  It is rich in sulfur and iron due to the iron pyrite found along the coal seam.  I looked on a satellite image and found a cluster of modern homes just above the embankment.  (Where do they get their drinking water?)

Passing the riders traveling the other direction, there is always a greeting.  The visitor centers also offered warm greetings, and a nice lady at the West Newton  center sent us across the river to Jim's Chuck Wagon for lunch.  It was arguably the best lunch of the entire trip.  Good food and friendly people. Nice.

In addition to the coal mines, there were sites where the coal was processed into the coke needed to make steel.   We were following Gene at a distance and saw him pull over and walk up into the trees.  Thinking he just needed relief, we thought nothing of it until we saw that his bike was resting on a sign post reading Coke Ovens.  Following up the short trail, we found a long line of beehive shaped ovens built into the hillside. This was the more primitive process before it became modernized. It seems amazing that they have survived so many years.

Day One ended after 40 miles at the KOA in Adelaide a few miles from Connellsville.  Very nice campground for bicyclists in need of a hot shower.

On the next morning we were away at the normal early hour.  This day was 47 miles from Rockwood to Connellsville that included the section where we so often paddled the "Yough", and where one sees some spectacular railroad engineering through narrow gorges. As on every day, there were shuttles to run so we'd have a car at the end of the ride.

Coming from Rockwood in a westerly direction put us on a generally downgrade track.  Early on our route we came to the spectacular Pinkerton Tunnel.  It is 849 feet long with a high trestle on each end to span the "Yough" as it makes a tight horseshoe bend. It is long enough to need lights front and back.  Leo demonstrates how suddenly the rider emerges from the tunnel.

We pressed on towards Ohiopyle where we so often began our whitewater paddling. Standing at the falls, it seemed so long ago that we carried our kayaks down the bank to launch below the falls.  Can't do that now; it's all closed off.  The old change house is gone, and in its place is a large visitor center.

 Ohiopyle has grown into a tourist center for bicycling, river running, hiking and even a waterslide.  The one constant is the Ohiopyle Falls on the river. Upstream people still wade  and the trains still blow strongly at the grade intersection just above the falls.  The GAP trail is a great addition to the area that just may have been a catalyst for the rest of the growth.

But the three amigos had 17 miles to go, and it was time to roll.  First, the high bridge over the river for a view we never had when the Western Maryland was active. It was downhill and we kept a fast pace with Gene in the lead.

Our ride over, it was back to a camp in Rockwood, where the CSX trains across the river blew at the crossing with such gusto that ear plugs were nearly useless. We divided our route the next day into two sections, again to coax mostly downhill running.  Meyersdale to Rockwood began at the visitor center and soon got to the Salisbury Viaduct at 1908 feet long and about 100 feet above the valley.

The run to Rockwood went quickly, and we shuttled back to run from Meyersdale to Frostburg.  Along that stretch we navigated another high viaduct to reach the high point of the trip at the Eastern Continental Divide. There would be few upgrades from here to Cumberland.

Beginning our downhill run, we came to the granddaddy tunnel, the Big Savage Tunnel, that is 3,294 feet long.  There really is only a pinpoint of light in the distance as you enter. It was at first unlighted inside, but a local described to me how her sister ran into the tunnel wall in the darkness. We had lights on our bikes.

Exiting the tunnel, we had a wide view of the eastern side of the mountains.

Gene and Leo bundled up for the run to Cumberland
In Frostburg for our last night, we found a good restaurant to refuel and managed to stay warm in our tents in this town called "Frost" -burg.  The next morning would be almost a continuous coast into Cumberland.  We'd lose 1207 feet of elevation in only 15 miles.  It was chilly in the morning, and we were glad we had windbreakers on during the quick descent.

The highlight of the run to Cumberland was coming upon a dozen Wild Turkeys just above the last tunnel. We'd been through so many tunnels by now that the Brush Tunnel, at 914 feet, was child's play.  It will take me longer to  get used to the high viaducts.

The end of the GAP trail is the beginning of the C&O Towpath to Washington, so I've overlaid the marker signs over the entrance to the C&O. 

It was a good trip.  There was fine weather, good companions and a fantastic rail-to-trail.  We are still friends.



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