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How to Plan a Ride on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail

***Warning – this is not my usual article about technology tips. It’s a review with travel tips for cycling the GAP trail. If that interests you – read on.

My husband and I love to ride rail-trails – especially longer ones so that we can spend the night in small towns along the trail. We just completed our third multi-day cycling trip in the States (we’ve also done this in Austria and Italy), and I thought it might be helpful to others to share how we planned and cycled the Great Allegheny Passage (commonly called the GAP) recently.

First of all, make lodging reservations as early as possible. These are SMALL towns with a limited number of bed and breakfasts or guest houses, and they fill up quickly on a trail as popular as the GAP. Secondly, the direction you choose to bike and the days you bike will make a difference. I prefer the peace and quiet of weekdays over weekends crowded with weekend warriors, so we chose to ride Sunday through Wednesday.

The majority of cyclers ride from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, either because of the common perception that the elevation change is easier or because they are riding beyond Cumberland on the C&O Towpath to Washington, DC. We decided to ride the less popular direction from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. It meant that most of our first day was a steady, but gradual uphill and then the next three days would be flat or an imperceptible downhill. It was the right decision for us.

We are not hard-core cyclers and like to ride about 40 miles a day, give or take a few. Last year while cycling on the C&O towpath, I made the brilliant decision to ride 60 miles the first day and then over 50 the second day. What a mistake!

Using the map on the GAP’s website, it was easy to choose the towns for overnighting based on  a day’s cycling of 35 – 45 miles. Our towns were Cumberland, MD (the night before we started), Meyersdale, PA, Ohiopyle, PA and West Newton, PA. My search for accommodations began with the links provided on the GAP website and TripAdvisor. As I mentioned, there are not many options in these little towns, but the reviews on TripAdvisor were very helpful. When I am looking for rail-trail lodging, my priorities are private bath, air conditioning and Wi-Fi – in that order!

Cumberland, MD has a newish, trailside Fairfield Inn & Suites, where we stayed last year. Unfortunately, it was already full when I tried to make reservations, so the next best hotel choice was an older Ramada Inn, a few blocks from the trail. I have since heard that there are some nice B&B’s in Cumberland, but the Ramada was fine. Plus, they allowed us to keep our car in their lot while we were cycling for four days.

Most of the towns along the GAP and C&O trails are shadows of their former selves. We noticed this last year while biking the C&O, and the GAP was no different. Cumberland, by far the largest of the small towns, has a lovely pedestrian-only Main Street with more than half of its storefronts standing empty. Walking along it on Saturday night, we heard live music playing from a pavilion in the “town square.” An excellent contemporary singer and cellist was performing to less than 100 people – part of the town’s free summer concert series. It made me sad. Obviously, Cumberland was once a thriving small city with lots of shops and restaurants. But the industries that provided work for its inhabitants must be gone and now, tourism is just about all they have.

This semi-ghost town effect was felt in each town we visited, with the exception of tiny Ohiopyle. In spite of the obvious economic struggles, I could really feel the pride in every well-kept street and flowering window box. In the friendly smiles and abundant helpfulness as we stopped in town after town. It really felt good to be spending my vacation dollars in areas that so obviously want and need tourism in order to survive.

Day 1

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Our first day from Cumberland, MD to Meyersdale, PA was only 32 miles, but there was an elevation gain of 1700 ft over the first 25 miles, so we were slower than usual. We stopped for lunch in Frostburg, MD at a small farm-to-table restaurant called Shift. It was delicious and extremely accommodating for cyclers, though we had parked our bikes and walked up the hill to the town.

Our lodging in Meyersdale was at the Yoder’s Guest House, and it was just right for us. There is a more upscale option in Meyersdale called the Levi Deal Bed and Breakfast (which was full when I made my reservations), but I would stay in Yoder’s Guest House again. Our room, the Maple Queen room, had a private entrance, private bath, air conditioning and free Wi-Fi. Perfect! A self-serve, continental breakfast was also included.

Dining in Meyersdale was limited to a hotdog stand, Subway, and a full-scale restaurant called the Morguen Toole Company. At 6 pm on a Sunday night, we were the only customers for dinner at the Morguen Toole Company until one other couple showed up around 6:30. It was a good option with a variety of salads, sandwiches and full-sized entrees. They had an amazing number of beers on tap, too.

As we explored tiny Meyersdale, we found a laundromat a few blocks from our guest house and took advantage of the opportunity to wash and dry our biking attire!

Day 2

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Our second day on the trail, we stopped in Confluence for lunch at one of my favorite GAP trail restaurants – the Lucky Dog Cafe. Great salad, sandwich, burger and beer options. I liked the food and the atmosphere.

After biking forty miles that day, we spent the night in Ohiopyle, PA. Ohiopyle isn’t like the other towns we visited on the GAP. It’s next to an extremely popular state park and a white water rafting river. The town is basically a couple of guest houses, a few restaurants and a handful of paddling and cycling outfitters.

We stayed in the Ferncliff Guest House, which was clean and air-conditioned with no Wi-Fi. I chose this guest house because there was one room that had a private bath – and that’s my number one priority! Thankfully, we were the only guests in the house that night. Of our three nights on the trail, this was the most basic and least comfortable. Our en suite room had two old double beds and only SoftSoap for bathing. Coffee, tea and banana muffins were provided for breakfast. There just aren’t many options for lodging in Ohiopyle, and staying in decent yet unusual places is part of the adventure we enjoy. If we ride the GAP again, I may try another option in Ohiopyle called the Yough Plaza Motel.

Dinner that night at the Ohiopyle House Cafe was a pleasant surprise. Everything is made from scratch, and the gnocchi bolognese was delicious.

Day 3

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Our third day on the trail took us through pleasant Connellsville with good lunch options, but it was way too early to eat lunch. So, we looked at the map and thought there would be other towns with restaurants before we reached our destination for that night. We were wrong. At least our 42-mile ride for that day was easy. We reached West Newton, PA by 2 pm and were eating lunch at the The Trailside restaurant by 2:30. My grilled roast beef sandwich with caramelized onions and Swiss cheese really hit the spot. No Paleo diet for me that day!

We stayed in the Bright Morning Bed and Breakfast which is right beside the GAP trail. It was by far our nicest lodging on the ride with a comfortable queen sized bed, private bath, air conditioning and free Wi-Fi. Plus, the owners served a delicious full breakfast the following morning. Quite a treat compared to our other mornings on the trail!

After reading reviews on TripAdvisor, dinner in West Newton had to be at the tiny West Newton Pizza House where two older women lovingly make each pizza to order in rectangular cookie sheet pans. I think the locals call and pick up their pizzas, but there were four or five tables and a cooler with bottled soft drinks for those wanting to eat in. The pizza was slightly thicker than thin crust pizza, with a crispy bottom and chewy top. Delicious!

Once again, seeing a laundromat near our B&B, we were able to do some much-needed washing so that we could don clean cycling attire the next morning!

Day 4

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Our final day of 36 miles transitioned us from peaceful woods and rivers to urban Pittsburgh, where the GAP trail ended at Point State Park – the convergence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. Our scheduled shuttle back to our car in Cumberland, MD was with Golden Triangle Bike Rental, right beside the trail in Pittsburgh. We were a bit earlier than expected in Pittsburgh, and Golden Triangle was so accommodating in getting us back to Cumberland earlier than we had planned.

As opposed to the C&O Towpath, which I’m glad I did but have no desire to ride again, I would redo this cycling trip on the Great Allegheny Passage trail in a heartbeat. The scenery was beautiful and varied, the trail in good condition and the options for lodging and dining easy.

If you like cycling, I highly recommend that you ride the GAP!