If you're interested in biking the entire length of the GAP Trail and the C&O Canal Towpath, or if you're just curious about what it's like, check out our day-by-day itinerary! Our packing list is at the bottom of the page.
I'd never visited Pittsburgh, though I'd been fascinated by the city since I read "An American Childhood" by Annie Dillard in college. She opens the book with these lines describing the city:
When everything else has gone from my brain... what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that. I will see the city poured rolling down the mountain valleys like slag, and see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills’ curves, rows of bonfires winding.
We arrived at the Wyndham Grand, near the point where the city's three rivers come together, in downtown Pittsburgh in the late afternoon and unloaded our bikes and gear. We had packed carefully to be sure we wouldn't leave anything in the car that we'd need on the trip!
I tied up the last few loose ends online at work while Eric took our car to the airport's long-term parking area. This would allow us to quickly return the rental car that we'd be picking up in DC at the end of the bike ride.
We spent the evening exploring downtown Pittsburgh on foot. The sidewalks in the arts district had been expanded out into the streets to allow outdoor restaurant seating during the pandemic.
Day 1: Pittsburgh to Connellsville
On Saturday, May 22, we started our ride at Point State Park, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers join to form the Ohio River.
And yes, that's a road bike. We took road bikes on 350-ish miles of gravel. We didn't see anyone else stupid enough to try that, but these are the bikes we have and they generally performed great. I was truly doubting our sanity one morning, but more on that below. (FYI Eric was running 28 tires and I was running 30s.)
We soon saw an Eat-N-Park right on the bike trail and stopped in for a ridiculous breakfast. I'm smiling to hide my utter fear of what might lie ahead: I truly had no idea what to expect on this trip and I was scared that either I would break down or my bike would.
We passed lots of industrial sites for the first 20 miles or so, and then the trail took on the more natural character that we had expected. We took a little hike in Cedar Creek Park.
We rode a little over 60 miles to Connellsville and set up our tent at the biker-hiker campground on the edge of town.
Eric immediately embarked on a quest to find beer, which turned out to be far more difficult than we anticipated! Apparently they don't sell beer in grocery stores in Pennsylvania? Or in liquor stores? He was finally able to acquire a bottle from a pizza place that was technically closed.
I was starting to think that maybe we'd actually be able to do this. Our camping neighbors, on the other hand, decided to give up the trip after one day and they called a cab to take them (for $150!!!) back to Pittsburgh.
Day 2: Connellsville to Rockwood
We got an early start out of Connellsville. I'll always remember the morning sun shining through the trees and sparkling on the river! This was one of my favorite sections of the trail.
After about 20 miles we arrived at Ohiopyle State Park, site of the Youghiogheny River Gorge and numerous waterfalls, waterslides, and whitewater runs. We had set aside most of the day to explore the park, but we loved it even more than we thought we would. Next time we'll stay at least two nights and go for a paddle along the river!
I was glad I'd packed my Altras because we did a lot of hiking: we hiked the long way to Cucumber Falls, all around Ferncliff Peninsula, and part of the Laurel Highlands Trail. We had lunch outdoors at Falls City Pub and spent a good part of the day just wandering around the rocky river's edge and relaxing by the water.
We reluctantly left around 3 in the afternoon and it was a l-o-n-g (but beautiful!) 20 more miles up to Rockwood, a small town near the eastern continental divide. We barely beat the rain to our hostel and absolutely NOTHING in town was open for dinner, so we had "dinner" at the gas station after the storm passed.
Day 3: Rockwood to Cumberland
This was the day of mist and tunnels. It never actually rained hard, but the trail was wet and the air was misty enough that we eventually needed to put our raincoats on. We happened to arrive at the Meyersdale Visitor Center just as the rain intensified, so we sheltered there and had a second breakfast of ice cream sandwiches while we waited for the rain to pass. Then we rode on up and over the Eastern Continental Divide!
Soon after we crossed the Divide we entered the long and eerie Big Savage Tunnel. I'm generally not a fan of tunnels, but I have to admit this one was pretty cool.
After that it was all downhill to the city of Cumberland, which marks the end of the GAP Trail and the start of the C&O Canal Towpath! We decided to get a hotel in Cumberland rather than set up our tent in the wet grass, and we did our laundry in the sink. Then we set out to explore town on foot.
Day 4: Starting the C&O Canal Towpath
Cumberland to Little Pool Campground
Not gonna lie: This morning was THE WORST. It had rained all day the day before, so the trail was muddy and riddled with puddles of indeterminite depth. The photo below doesn't even begin to convey how bad the conditions were. We were probably extra crazy to take road bikes on this part of the trail, but at least we didn't fall or get hurt. We met up with a group of about 12 riders who said they had four people crash in this section.
The trail was so bad that Eric broke a spoke on his "indestructible" touring wheel, but he was able to fix it at Fifteenmile Campground. Soon afterward we picked up the beautifully paved Western Maryland Rail-Trail into Hancock, where we had dinner. Then it was an easy couple of miles on to our campsite at Little Pool.
Oh, and the cicadas were out. I noticed their exit holes around the picnic table while Eric was fixing his bike, and their whirring calls formed the sonic background for much of the trip. They seemed to grow loudest at dusk, and they were quiet all night.
Day 5: Little Pool to Harpers Ferry
We had breakfast in camp and enjoyed a sunny morning on the trail, passing the midpoint of the Towpath fairly early in the day.
We left the trail to venture in to the college town of Shepherdstown for lunch at the Blue Moon Cafe, a cute place with a river running through the patio. This was the first (and only, as it turned out) hot day of the trip and we had planned to sit out the heat of the day on the patio, sipping cool drinks and taking advantage of the free wifi.
But right after we finished lunch, a huge wind blew in and we noticed thunderheads building up fast. We checked the radar and realized large storms were moving all around us; if we left immediately and rode quickly, we would probably be able to make it to Harpers Ferry before the next storm hit.
We had seen a few fallen trees on the trail and Eric was concerned for our safety, so he booked a room at a hotel in Harpers Ferry before we even left the restaurant. A lot of other people must've had the same idea, because the manager said we got one of the very last rooms! We arrived about an hour before a powerful storm hit, and the next day we saw lots of trees that had blown down.
Day 6: Harpers Ferry to Horsepen Branch Campsite
Most people bike directly from Harpers Ferry to Georgetown and complete the trip in five or six days.
We wanted to set aside a morning to explore Harpers Ferry, and we wanted to spend the next morning exploring Great Falls National Park right outside Georgetown.
We're glad we had time to look around Harpers Ferry. Some buildings in the historic downtown area are run by the National Park Service, and I found it particularly moving to stand inside the armory where John Brown and his men had holed up and awaited their fate after their daring raid.
Harpers Ferry is also the nominal midpoint of the Appalacian Trail, and we hiked up the hill to see what it was like and enjoy the view from Jefferson's Rock. Thomas Jefferson described the scene like this:
"The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea."
After we left town, we saw LOTS of downed trees on the trail, including one in a campground we might have stayed in! Crews were out clearing trees and brush off the trail. We felt justified in getting a hotel for the night.
We were hoping to take the ferry across the river to Virginia, but it was closed, apparently due to a legal dispute. We had a short ride to camp, so we set up our tent in the afternoon and took a walk along the trail to explore it at a slower pace.
Day 7: Horsepen Branch to Georgetown!
The next morning we had another short ride to Great Falls Park, and we hiked around and explored for several hours.
We hopped back on our bikes for the last few miles in to Georgetown to beat another storm that was forecast to move in around noon. This was another crazy routefinding experience — after several detours I was surprised to pop up out of the towpath right in front of our inn!
We locked up the bikes, showered, had a great lunch at the Italian restaurant next door, and set out to find the Mile Zero marker that marks the end of the path.
Running the shuttle
We had the next day to explore DC, and on Sunday Eric rode his bike to the airport to pick up our rental car. We grabbed breakfast at a French bakery on our way out of town, and then we drove back to Pittsburgh, picked up our car and returned the rental car at the airport, and made our way home.
Another option for running the shuttle would've been to take the Amtrak from DC to Pittsburgh, but we were on a tight schedule and all the bike slots on the train were already taken on Sunday, the day we'd need to return to Pittsburgh.
What we packed
Like everyone who takes a long, self-supported bike trip, we spent a lot of time thinking about what to pack and trying out different strategies for cutting down weight and getting everything to fit. I had a "must have" pile and a "nice to have" pile, and nothing in the "nice to have" pile made the cut.
In hopes of helping others decide what to pack, here are detailed lists of what we took.
I had two panniers, a small Camelback backpack, a tiny stem bag, an even tinier seat bag, and a bag on the back for shoes.
Here's what it looked like, and below is a list of what I packed where.
In the backpack
I know it isn't cool to ride with a backpack but I like being able to lock up my bike and walk away without worrying about someone taking small valuables. I also like to drink water while I ride without having to slow down and mess around with water bottles.
- water (I usually filled it up with 1.5 liters every morning)
- ballcap (I didn't take a helmet because I knew we'd only be riding on soft trails at relatively slow speeds)
- raincoat or jacket, depending on the forecast
- comfy shorts for hiking — so I could do a quick change out of my bike shorts at the trailheads and not have to rummage through the panniers
- credit cards and cash
- driver's license
- headlamp (for tunnels)
- baby wipes — I didn't think to pack wipes and decided to buy some after I saw another biker "washing" his hands before eating in camp on the first day. They were great to have along.
- toiletries (toothbrush and toothpaste, flossers, hairbrush, lotion, spare hair ties)
- menstrual cup (yup, got my period right in the middle of this trip) (And ladies, the towns are few and far between and there are no trash cans anywhere along these trails. If you use disposable tampons and pads, you will need to pack the used ones out until you find a town, which would be... not ideal. I strongly advise using a cup instead. Plus it's better for the environment.)
- sugar and salt packets (to make DIY gatorade)
- earplugs (again, ESSENTIAL at least for the GAP because trains run nearby night and day)
- ziplock bag of trail mix
In the stem bag
- facemask (still required in hotels, etc. when we set out, but not so much when we finished the ride a week later)
- lip balm
- toilet paper (yeah, there are pit toilets every 5 miles along the C&O but they are UNBEARABLE. I peeked in one to check it out and immediately noped out of that situation)
- granola bar for mid-morning snack while riding (re-stocked every morning)
In the seat bag
- Mini bike repair kit
In the panniers
- Sleeping bag
- Eric's clothes
- My clothes, packed in two little Eagle Creek cubes
- 2 pairs of summer-weight smartwool socks
- light jacket
- 4 t-shirts, 2 bras, and 4 pairs of underwear (could've gotten by with less of everything since we ended up staying in hotels a couple nights and washing our clothes there)
- a lightweight, long-sleeved, three-quarter zipper top - I LOVED this and wore it every day. It provided great sun protection without feeling too hot, and it was perfect under my jacket on chilly mornings and evenings.
- full-length leggings
- nightgown (don't judge, this was my one luxury)
- a summer dress for the night before we left Pittsburgh and for DC
In the little bag on the back rack
Again, this is unconventional and people probably laughed at me, but I was really glad to have my hiking shoes close at hand. And wrapping them in plastic grocery bags and then packing them in this little cloth bag kept them separate from my clothes and bedding and other stuff I needed to keep dry and clean. I also reasoned that we could use the bag for quick trips to the grocery store, although we never ended up needing it.
- Altras (lightweight trail running shoes with great tread, and they fold down almost flat)
- Biking shoes
- Biking shorts
- Water and a thermos mounted on the bike frame. A Thermos might seem like a weird choice but I love making my favorite coffee-hot cocoa mixture in the morning, and I saved a little for a mid-morning treat along the ride. Then at lunch I filled the thermos with cold water that stayed cool all afternoon.
Eric is bigger and his bike weighs less, so he carried the camping and cooking gear and I carried his clothes. (And also he's a nice guy who wanted me to enjoy the trip without having to carry 60 pounds of gear).
He'll have to fill in the details, but here's what I know off the top of my head about what he packed and where it was.
- Lightweight two-person backpacking tent - the tent, fly, and ground cloth went in one of his panniers and the stakes and poles went in his Revelate frame bag
- Backpacking cookstove, fuel, pot, sporks, and collapsible bowls - pannier
- Food and coffee and hot cocoa mix - pannier
- Tools and spare parts - frame bag
- Spare cables for brakes and derailleur
- Spoke tool and spare spokes (he needed them)
- Standard tire patch / repair kit
- Allen wrench etc.
- Small tire pump - frame bag
- Toothbrush etc. - stem bag
- Clothes - one of my panniers
Give it a try!
This was an amazing trip, and I want to stress that anyone can do it with proper preparation. I started out this spring like I always do after a long Wisconsin winter: a 10-mile bike ride was at the edge of my ability. But I gradually worked up my endurance until I knew I could handle 60 miles a day on gravel.
We're really, really glad we didn't ride that far every day, though. It was great to have almost entire days to explore the parks and small towns that border the GAP and the towpath. We've heard of people doing the whole trip in three days (or even 24 hours, according to the doormen at our hotel in Pittsburgh), but we had as much fun exploring places we found along the trail as we did riding the trail itself.
If you landed here because you're thinking about making the trip, I hope you'll give it a try! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me via the form!