Pedaling through History: A 335-Mile Bike Odyssey from Pittsburgh to D.C. via the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal

June 20, 2023 Adventure

I recently completed a 335-mile journey by bicycle from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. This six-day tour incorporated two well-known and connected trails: the Great Allegheny Passage and the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath. I had been planning to ride these trails for several years, but the ongoing global pandemic put my plans on hold for a few seasons. This year, I finally executed the adventure.

Firstly, I should mention that I planned this trip with my wife. We agreed on a few basic rules for our ride. This included “credit card touring,” which essentially means staying in hotels as opposed to camping. Furthermore, we agreed to ride no more than 65-70 miles per day. This would allow us time to proceed at a leisurely pace, explore new sights, and immerse ourselves in the environments we traversed on our journey.

We opted to ride from north to south, which meant we first tackled the Great Allegheny Passage. The trailhead begins at the western terminus, located at Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. From there, the 150-mile route heads south through numerous small towns, including Connersville, Ohiopyle, Confluence, Frostburg, and ends at the eastern terminus in Cumberland, Maryland. The route is a rail trail and follows the former right-of-way of several retired railroads, including the Baltimore and Ohio, Pittsburgh and Lake Erie, Union, and Western Maryland. The route is fairly flat, with a crushed limestone path that gently inclines for most of the journey eastward. The last twenty or so miles then descend more rapidly along a slightly steeper grade, providing just enough momentum to ensure a swift and smooth finish at the terminus.

The Great Allegheny Passage exceeded my expectations in terms of both fun and stimulation. We passed through numerous historical and geographically significant sites, including the Mason Dixon Line and the Eastern Continental Divide. We crossed numerous historic bridges and witnessed remnants of the steel industry’s historical legacy. We discovered delicious, locally-owned establishments in places like Ohiopyle and Frostburg, and engaged with many other bicyclists who were warm and welcoming.

Cumberland serves as an ideal juncture for the two trails. There is a bicycle-friendly hotel conveniently positioned just off the trail in the downtown area, nearby a local brewery and a variety of restaurants. Furthermore, a bike shop situated close to the trail ensures easy access for prompt repairs and additional supplies.

The C&O Canal, affectionately known as the “Grand Old Ditch,” stands as a crucial piece of the United States’ early transportation history. Operating from 1831 to 1924, this engineering wonder spans approximately 184.5 miles, extending from Cumberland to Washington, D.C. Erected in a time before the rise of the railways, the canal was originally conceived to connect the tidewater of the Chesapeake Bay with the headwaters of the Ohio River, serving as a vital artery for the movement of goods and resources. This significant edifice of 19th-century infrastructure boasts historical features such as lock houses, aqueducts, and locks. Today, the C&O Canal is designated as a National Historical Park, preserving America’s early transportation history, encouraging recreational activities, and providing a habitat for various species. It stands as a testament to the United States’ past while simultaneously operating as a vibrant natural retreat in the present.

The section of the trail between Cumberland and Hancock is unimproved and includes a detour at Paw Paw Tunnel. Navigating this detour up and down a mountain trail with a bike laden with panniers was undeniably a formidable challenge. This day was, without question, our most demanding day in the saddle. However, the remainder of the ride into Georgetown was on a more heavily utilized trail, which provided a smoother ride and numerous points of interest. These include Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg, the nearby Antietam National Battlefield, Fort Frederick, Points of Rocks, and Great Falls.

For this journey, we adopted “The Ride of Your Life” itinerary detailed in the Official Guide to the C&O Canal Towpath and the Great Allegheny Passage. This six-day, five-night itinerary allows for a moderate daily mileage and ample time for exploration. Please note that those planning to bike this route should be aware that there is limited access to food and water on the C&O Canal due to the vast distances between towns and potentially hot weather conditions. Be sure to plan your trip accordingly!

1Pittsburgh, PA to Connellsville, PA61 miles
2Connellsville, PA to Rockwood, PA45 miles
3Rockwood, PA to Cumberland, MD43 miles
4Cumberland, MD to Hancock, MD60 miles
5Hancock, MD to Harpers Ferry, WV63 miles
6Harpers Ferry, WV to Washington, DC61 miles