CUMBERLAND, Md. — I warned them about those Great Allegheny Passage tunnels. Make sure you get off the bikes and walk, I told my dozen cycling companions. Did they heed?
Not much. Most plunged into the disorienting void. I flashed back to a friend’s mid-tunnel wipeout a year earlier.
The episode proved to be a harmless hiccup in a gem of a bicycle trip.
The Great Allegheny Passage between Pittsburgh and the Western Maryland town of Cumberland is a smooth-rolling romp through the mountains that pleases cyclists of varying ability and just glows on fine autumn days. It does not have much in the way of hazards, if you’ll just listen to me and walk when I tell you.
It stretches for 141 miles (227 kilometers), offering sparkling river views, a panorama of wind-farm turbines beating lazy arcs in the sky, and loads of peace and quiet.
The recent completion of an eight-mile (13-kilometer) section connects the trail to the old steel town of Homestead on Pittsburgh’s outskirts, leaving just one section to be finished to link with downtown.
It’s a family-friendy trail, fast to dry out after a rain and suited to short rides near fun towns. Even so, an end-to-end ride on the GAP requires careful planning.
Skip a lunch opportunity and you may not find another for a while. Refilling water bottles can be hit and miss. Accommodations are well spaced, but not numerous.
Also, getting to a starting point on the trail, biking to the other end and finding a way back to cars, trains or the airport is a logistical challenge.
Here’s how we did it:
Homestead to Connellsville, Pa., 50 miles (80 kilometers).
Grouseland Tours, chosen because of its rain-date flexibility and rates ($50 each in groups of four) picked us up in Cumberland, where multi-day parking is free by the Amtrak train station, and shuttled us nearly three hours to Homestead.
The trail’s early progress goes from rust to rustic, winding through old industrial tracts before suddenly swinging off into pastoral lands of the Youghiogheny (yock-a-gay’- nee) River, your new and glittering companion for many miles to come.
Lunch 25 (40 kilometers) miles later was at the Trailside Cafe in West Newton, one of the few options this day, and a good one. It sits over a bicycle shop, to boot.
Still on the Pennsylvania side, in Connellsville at day’s end, we scattered to four B&Bs booked months earlier, none large enough to hold us all. The Victorian Rose — www.thevicto rianrosebedandbreakfast.com/ — and quilt-themed Seams Like Home — www.seamslikehomeretreat.com/ — were a little outside of town; the owners picked up their guests and bikes.
Downtown, the Connellsville B&B — www.connellsvillebedbreakfast.com/ — hosted the most, and its pumpkin-cinnamon pancakes in the morning were a hit. Also in town, the Greenwood House — www.thegreenwoodhouse.com/ — offered a bare-bones breakfast, the tradeoff for a lower price.
Connellsville to Rockwood, Pa., 47 miles (76 kilometers).
In no time we’re in one of the most remote and gorgeous parts of the ride, an 18-mile (29-kilometer) leg to Ohiopyle, much of it high above the Youghiogheny. A steady rain begins; you can see it rustling the river, but it comes down only as a cooling spritz on your face, under the trail’s thick tree canopy. This feels like the heart of the ride.
In Ohiopyle, people are clambering over rocks in shallow rushing water, lollygagging along the river’s edge and whooping it up in colorful inflated rafts. It’s bustling place, a destination on its own, but early for lunch, so we fill our bottles and move on to Confluence 11 miles away.
A thunderstorm nips at our heels, catching some of us riding in the rear while others make it dry to town, only to get drenched there. Of the Rockwood B&B choices, the Gingerbread House — www.thegingerbreadhousebandb.com/ — in town and Glade’s Pike Inn — www.gladespike.com/ — outside are the favorites.
Rockwood, Pa., to Cumber-land, Md., 44 miles (71 kilometers).
If your bed-and-breakfast hosts will pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, you’ve got it made. Otherwise you’ll have to do some off-trail climbing to find lunch this day.
The ghostly white wind turbines and valley overlooks are impressive sights in the final uphill going. Meyersdale is the only trailside town, a vital place to water up. You can get lunch down the hill if needed.
Soon after, it’s time for a mini-celebration. You’ve reached the Eastern Continental Divide. Inside the little tunnel at the divide, (you can roll through this one), check the map on the wall, showing how high you’ve come in three days, mostly without feeling it.
The final 24 miles (39 kilometers), crossing the state line into Maryland, are a downhill breeze, your closing treat.
But about those last-day tunnels.
The Borden Tunnel looks like a cakewalk, which it is, if you walk. Unless you’ve got a light that cost more than last night’s B&B, you’ll find everything vanishing from sight except the end, which quite suddenly seems too far away.
Next, Big Savage is a much longer tunnel, but has well-spaced lights, though some are typically out.
The last, Brush Tunnel, is like the Borden, out to bite you in the middle.
Clear sailing into Cumberland ends this adventure while teasing you about another. The C&O, that funky old granddaddy of off-road bicycle trails, begins straight ahead.
IF YOU GO: Great Allegheny Passage
141-mile (227-kilometer) rail-trail between Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh, and Cumberland in Western Maryland, www.atatrail.org/
• Starting at the Cumberland end, as many do, gets all climbing out of the way the first day, though it’s a slog for nearly 25 miles (40 kilometers). One cheat: Old-time steam and diesel trains operated by Western Maryland Scenic Railroad run 16 miles (26 kilometers) up the mountain and accept bikes. Schedule at www.wmsr.com/
• Some B&Bs are flexible for bicyclists who want to reschedule in bad weather, others lock you in as soon as you book or as many as 30 days ahead, so inquire.
• The Big Savage Tunnel’s giant doors shut for the winter, usually December through March or April, and the road detour is not recommended.