7 Days on a Bike: DC to Pittsburgh on the C&O Canal & GAP Trail

Please note, this post is over 3 years old and may contain broken links, outdated views and cobwebs.

On the cusp of Fall, my Dad and I went on a week-long biking trip. From September 29th until October 5th, our only real concern was to get from point A to point B by pedaling. Life/work responsibilities temporarily fell into the background, allowing us to fully enjoy the sights (and smells) of Autumn.

Fall leaves on the Canal Trail outside of Little Orleans, MD

Fall was in full swing as we rode along the C&O Canal trail.

I’ve done my share of hiking and backpacking, but I’ve never spent 7 consecutive days in nature. I’ve also never rode more than 30 miles on a bike. This trip would change all of that.

We’d be traveling 330 miles along the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal and Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail. We’d ride through 4 states, starting in Arlington, VA (on the Virginia/DC border) and ending in Pittsburgh, PA.

I took a lot of photos on this trip. When it was all said and done I had taken just shy of 1,100 pictures between my DSLR and iPhone, so it took me quite a while to choose my favorites.

All of the photos that were taken on the iPhone (maybe 15% of the photos I took over the course of the trip) are tagged with GPS coordinates. Here’s a visual representation of the general areas where these photos were taken. It’s a neat way of looking at the path that we followed.

iPhone photos taken along the C&O Canal and GAP Trail.

The bike trip didn’t begin until Sunday morning, so we got there a day early. We arrived in Arlington, VA on Saturday afternoon.

I’m currently training for the Honolulu Marathon, but my plan was to take a week off from my training so that I could do this bike trip. Luckily I had some time to squeeze in a 13 mile training run through the National Mall in DC on Saturday night. I love exploring a city via running; I feel like you see it in a whole new light.

After getting my 13 miles in and a full night’s sleep, we woke up for an early breakfast on Sunday morning. After breakfast, the trip began!

Day 1: Arlington, VA to Brunswick, MD (59 miles)

We crossed into Washington DC and rode around all of the monuments. This was the day before the government shutdown happened, so they were all still open to the public.

Then we jumped onto the C&O Canal, where the real trip began!

Everyone rode at their own pace on this trip. I spent a good portion of the trip leaving my Dad in the dust, as illustrated below.

Dad on C&O Canal Trail

Our first stop was at Great Falls Outlook. This area provided some great views of the Potomac River below.

 

 

Potomac from Great Falls Outlook

Great Falls Outlook on C&O Canal Trail

Kayaks along C&O Canal Trail Parts of the Canal had water flowing through, while other parts were totally dry. And then there were areas where the water looked like straight up slime. This stuff is fine to drink, right? Because I was drinking it whenever it was available…

Green water along C&O Canal Being that this was my first day on the trail, I was overwhelmed by the sights around me. I was so excited to be “in the woods” and I had a difficult time not stopping every 5 minutes to take a picture. Eventually I came to the realization that if I were to stop every time I saw something photo-worthy, it’d take me months to complete this trip. I forced myself to be a bit more selective.

In the spirit of that mentality, here’s a shot of one of the many inviting campsites that we passed on the trail.

Campsite along the C&O Canal trail. The path eventually brought us to White’s Ferry, where a long line of cars waited to cross the Potomac River via cable ferry.

Historic White's Ferry White’s Ferry was the first place (of many) where we’d see evidence of historical floods. It’s a strange feeling to look up at the second story of a building and imagine the water levels being that high.

Water lines from floods in Whites Ferry As we continued along the trail, we passed many lock houses. I learned that the lock keepers lived in these houses so that they could tend to the locks, which were used to control the water and raise/lower boats to allow them to continue along the waterway.

One of many lockhouses along the C&O Canal Most of these lock houses were still in great condition. Some of them are available to the public; you can book them ahead of time and stay in them for a weekend.

Lockhouse along the C&O Canal Bike up against lock house After roughly 46 miles, we reached the first campsite in Brunswick, MD. After a long day of riding, that first beer tasted incredible.

Beer at campsite They had a catering company prepare delicious meals for us each night at the campsite. After a day of riding, this is a beautiful thing, even by the light of a headlamp.

Dinner by headlamp

Day 2: Brunswick, MD to Williamsport, MD (48 miles)

We woke up and rode through a thick layer of fog into the sleepy little town of Harpers Ferry, WV. Downhill into Harper's Ferry

Historic Harper's Ferry, WV

Harper's Ferry, WV Harper’s Ferry has a lot of history (mainly Civil War history; John Brown was captured here). A number of us went on a guided history tour which was pretty interesting. I managed to snap a shot of the tour group looking out over the Potomac River as the fog rolled out behind them.

Bike group in Harper's Ferry looking over the Potomac Bridge in thick fog over the Potomac in Harper's Ferry After the tour, we walked our bikes over an old railroad bridge to cross the Potomac river into Maryland.

This trip would take us over a lot of cool bridges, some of which provided spectacular views of the land below. Many of these bridges were old railroad tracks, while others were built just to connect the trail.

An old railroad bridge over the Potomac in Harper's Ferry We then hopped back onto the C&O Canal Trail.

C&O Canal Trail in MD We don’t really get seasons here in Los Angeles, and I love Fall, so it was awesome to be surrounded by the crisp brightly colored Autumn leaves. This day of the trip was when I really started to notice the Fall colors, especially when we hit an area of the trail that was paved and ran right along the water.

This part of the trail is known as Big Slackwater viaduct. It replaced a portion of the towpath that had been overtaken by the Potomac.

Paved portion of C&O Canal TrailThere were also some nice rock walls around this area. I stopped to do a bit of climbing around.

Climbing on rocks around Big Slackwater

Another delicious meal awaited us at the campsite that evening.

Dinner at the campsite

Day 3: Williamsport, MD to Little Orleans, MD (46 miles)

Portions of the trail were closed today, but that wasn’t going to stop us. Someone actually came out and deadbolted all of the portapotties closed as well…

Government Shutdown

Most of the trail was covered in tree canopy. Today was no exception. While some areas had bright orange and yellow leaves falling off the trees, other sections were still lush and green.

Lush green trail There were old lock houses and foundations from old homes all along the trail throughout the trip.

An old building along the C&O Canal Trail On this particular day, I felt compelled to stop and check some of them out. I love exploring abandoned stuff, so this was a no-brainer for me.

Abandoned House along C&O Canal #1 Abandoned House along C&O Canal #1 Abandoned House along C&O Canal #1 I didn’t feel overly safe walking around inside this one, but I did manage to snap a few shots of the interior… Or what was left of it.

Inside of abandoned house along C&O Canal #1 Inside of abandoned house along C&O Canal #1 Inside of abandoned house along C&O Canal #1   A large portion of this days section of trail was paved, which was a welcome change from the dirt/gravel we had been riding on prior.

Paved portion of the C&O Canal Trail We passed through Hancock, MD where we stopped for lunch. This was one of many small towns along the trail that I really enjoyed passing through.

Passing through Hancock, MD along the C&O Trail I eventually came across 2 more old homes just off the trail. I couldn’t help myself… IMG_2213-abandoned-house-2 So I left my bike on the path and did a little exploring. IMG_2793-bike-on-path IMG_2785-abandoned-house-2 IMG_2781-porch-abandoned-house-2 IMG_2780-inside-abandoned-house-2 And here’s the house down the road. I didn’t go inside because… wasps!

C&O Abandoned House

We had absolutely gorgeous weather for the entire trip. The temperature was just perfect, and when we weren’t covered in tree shade, the sun was warm and shining bright.

IMG_2210-amazing-weather-along-canal-trail A few miles down the path, I passed a few abandoned-looking trailers… But I decided not to push my luck. Abandoned trailer along C&O Canal Abandoned trailer along C&O Canal Roughly 5 miles from our stopping point for the day, I had to stop and take another picture of the leaves, as they were a brilliant orange. Fall leaves on the Canal Trail outside of Little Orleans, MD I had to take a quick video as well. The moment was too perfect.

I stopped in Bill’s Place for a delicious Yuengling Lager, which ran me $2. You can’t get Yuengling Lager in Los Angeles, nor can you find any beer for that price in LA, so this was exciting to me.

IMG_2259-yuengling-lager-bills-place

Bill’s Place had character, and was a nice place to wrap up the day, as our campsite was right around the corner.

IMG_2270-campsite-little-orleans

I don’t have much to say about Day 4, which would have taken me from Little Orleans, MD to Cumberland, MD. I was having tooth pain for a few days at this point, and at this point it got bad enough that I wasn’t able to sleep through the night in Little Orleans, so I went to see a dentist the following day in Cumberland, MD. The dentist quickly identified an infected root canal. Fun!

This was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced, and the whole ordeal put me out of commission for about 24 hours. Needless to say, I’m glad it’s all over with.

Day 5: Cumberland, MD to Rockwood, PA (45 miles)

I got my act together just in time to hop on a steam train and enjoy the ride on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad to Frostburg, MD.

Sticking my head out of the train car window and taking photos (while eating mouthfuls of soot and ash) was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Narrowing down these photos to just a handful was pretty difficult for me, as I took hundreds of them!

IMG_2291-train-cumberland-station

IMG_2987-train-around-bend

IMG_2899-train-leaves-blur

IMG_2862-train-smoke

IMG_2795-train-barrels-towards-bridge

IMG_3020-train-autumn-leaves

The train dropped us in Frostburg, and we began riding on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail. The GAP was created from an abandoned rail line – the last train rolled through in 1975.

The GAP took us across the Mason Dixon line into Pennsylvania.

Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line

We rode into the Allegheny Mountains and passed through the 3,300-foot-long “Big Savage”, an abandoned railway tunnel.

Big Savage Tunnel

Big Savage Tunnel

We surmounted the Eastern Continental Divide…

Eastern Continental Divide

Eastern Continental Divide

Eastern Continental Divide

From here on it was easy riding for the day, as most of it was downhill.

Going downhill!

And the Fall colors continued.

More Fall colors

More Fall Colors!

We crossed over the Keystone Viaduct…

Crossing the The Keystone Viaduct

 

The Keystone Viaduct

And the Salisbury Viaduct, which provided some amazing views.

Crossing Salisbury viaduct

Salisbury Viaduct views

Salisbury viaduct

I stopped numerous times on this particular day to enjoy the Autumn colors.

Even more Fall colors

Bike parked with Fall colors

Husky Haven Campground was our stop for the evening.

Husky Haven Campground

Day 6: Rockwood to Belle Vernon (71 miles)

This was our longest day of riding, so we hit the trail around 7am, immediately after a quick breakfast.

Leaving Husky Haven towards Ohiopyle

Leaving Husky Haven towards Ohiopyle Here’s a “selfie” taken by a mile post, because… Why not?

C&O Canal "selfy"

I had to stop and take a picture of the Casselman River, as it looked pretty amazing at the time.

A shot of the Casselman River

About 40 miles into our ride, I got a flat. Luckily, one of the bike mechanics wasn’t too far behind, and he helped me change it out.

Flat tire along GAP Trail

And I was back on the trail in no time!

Tall trees along GAP

We stopped in Connellsville, PA for lunch. Only 58 miles ’til we arrive in Pittsburgh.

Connellsville, PA - 58 miles to go!

Day 7: Belle Vernon to Pittsburgh (38 miles)

The final day of our trip was the only day with even slightly inclement weather, and it really wasn’t bad.

Bike on GAP Trail in Belle Vernon

It was very misty in the morning and a bit overcast, but nothing unpleasant.

GAP in Belle Vernon

Bike on GAP Trail outside Pittsburgh

It grew a bit more overcast as we rode into the suburbs/industrial areas of Pittsburgh, and we got about 10 minutes of heavy rain, but that cleared up pretty quickly.

Train tracks outside of Pittsburgh

As we stopped on a bridge to watch a train pass below us, the rain stopped and the sun broke through the clouds, providing us with warmth for the remainder of our ride.

Bridge above train tracks outside Pittsburgh

We finally arrived in Pittsburgh around noon.

We made it to Pittsburgh!

My Dad and I at the end of the GAP in Pittsburgh

My sister lives in Pittsburgh, so we had dinner there, and I flew back to LA at 4am. The airport was a ghost town at that hour!

This truly was an incredible experience from start to finish. I am happy with the photos I took, but I feel like they don’t truly capture our adventure.

Being able to spend this time with my Dad was awesome. There’s something incredibly refreshing about getting away from day-to-day life and spending a week with nature. I also really enjoyed all of the small towns that we rode through, many of which seemed to be largely dependent upon cyclists for their economy.

My Dad and I on the C&O Canal

If you ever have an opportunity to try something like this, I’d highly recommend it! Adventure Cycling, the company that organized this trip, will be doing it again in May 2014. You can read more about that trip here.

If you’d like to view more photos from this trip, you can find them on my Flickr account.

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11 Responses to 7 Days on a Bike: DC to Pittsburgh on the C&O Canal & GAP Trail

  1. Dennis
    November 1, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    That looks like a great trip (well, all except the dentist visit)! I loved the train and abandoned house shots. I’d totally love to do a trip like that if there was somewhere closer to me to do it.

    Reply
  2. Eddie Gonzalez
    November 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    John,

    The trip looks so amazing. I really wish I could of went with you guys and now not only am I J-E-A, I feel restless to go get on a bike and see nature! I will be on the next trip for sure!

    Nice site too btw – Nice work!

    Reply
  3. Uncle Matt
    November 2, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Johnny Nick,
    Wow, what an incredibly well-done blog you’ve created here. I really enjoyed ‘goin along for the ride’
    Stay safe kid !
    Love,
    Uncle Matt

    Reply
  4. John A Vantine
    November 2, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Great Blog John! Looking at these pictures takes me back to the trail and the fun time we had. I love your commentary as well. Thanks for sharing this. I must have been so far ahead of you on most days that I didn’t realize you were taking all these photos. No wonder you were so exhausted trying to keep up with me! God Bless

    Reply
  5. Liz Johnson
    November 3, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    Hi John, Wonderful blog and great pictures! Reading through it, I felt like I was riding on the trail again. Those abandoned houses intrigued me as well but I didn’t think of getting off the bike to explore them. Too focused on the mileage. You might not remember but thanks for helping me keep my pace up on the 69 mile day coming into camp. It was the first time I made it into camp before 5pm! Pretty cool. It was great meeting you and your dad on the trip. Take care, Liz from Baltimore, MD

    Reply
  6. Lonny Schwartz
    November 7, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Wow! What an amazing photo expose and trip! Thank you for taking the time to post all that. I haven’t been “Back East” for a Fall in a long time and I just felt humbled for my lack of participation and by your adventures. Seriously rad on every level!

    Reply
  7. Scott
    December 12, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    Great pictures, sounds like a fun trip!

    Reply
  8. M. Raphael Vantine
    January 16, 2014 at 3:39 am

    I can’t believe it took me tol NOW to visit your bike trip blog. Another great job, making it fun to read! It brought back my trip to me like it was just yesterday!! Thank you for sharing this Johnney Nick!! Xoxo

    Reply

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