Friday, September 18, 2015

2015 Bike trip - Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

This post was started in 2015. I am publishing it even though it is rough around the edges.

In 2013, the Great Allegheny Passage (a Rails-to-Trails project) was officially completed when they finished up a one mile section around Sandcastle Water Park, near Pittsburgh. With the completion of this section of trail, you could bike 150 miles from Point State Park, Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD then join up with the C&O Canal trail and take that 184.5 miles to Georgetown, Washington, D.C. I had been trying to make time for this trip for a few years and finally just forced it in to a tight time space. Sabah and I had four days to make the trip.

Sabah at Mid-Atlantic Regionals in Poolesville, MD before dropping the car off. She is getting ready to the life of R&R in the trailer.

I left my car with a friend in Washington, D.C. after an ultimate tournament. When I got back to Pittsburgh, I pushed a full work week into 4 days and then set out on Friday in the wee hours of the morning with all the standard gear for a bike trip and some absurd extras including a dog, laptop, and fifteen NES games. I was moving out of my wonderful summer spot and heading back to Houston so I could not pick up the laptop (from work) or NES games (that I forgot to pack in my car) later. I had a single pannier and trailer to carry everything. The trailer was mostly used for carrying Sabah, but also had my tent, sleeping, bag, and food.

Looking back, the main thing that stands out about this trip is that I needed more time. With stops to rest and let Sabah explore, we were averaging maybe 7mph which led to the need to bike from dawn to dusk. When I finally arrived in Washington, D.C. I spent two days barely able to walk down stairs without my quads giving out.

By the numbers (351 miles in 4 days, 1700ft elevation gain):
  • Day 1 (109.7 miles)
    • 4.7 miles - Lawrenceville, PA to Point State Park, Pittsburgh
    • 105 miles - Point State Park to Husky Haven in Rockwood, PA
  • Day 2 - 88 miles - Rockwood, PA to Fifteenmile Creek Drive-In Campground, Little Orleans, MD
  • Day 3 - 71.6 miles - Little Orleans, MD to Antietam Creek Camp Ground, MD
  • Day 4 (81.8 miles)
    • 68.5 miles - Antietam Creek Camp Ground, MD to Mile 0 'The Mole" on the C&O Canal in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
    • 13.3 miles - 'The Mole" to College Park, MD
Gear without food and water (129 lbs):
  • Trailer 105 lbs
    • 43.5lbs of gear and the trailer itself
    • 61.5 lbs of Sabah weight
  • Pannier 24lbs

The Carnegie Science Center and Heinz Field on the Pittsburgh North Side across the river from Point State Park fountain.

When you are biking the Eliza Furnace Trail, this is the first sign for the Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. trail

Birmingham Bridge and the Pittsburgh skyline.

The Pump House from the Carnegie Steel Company's Homestead Works, site of the 1892 battle during the Homestead Strike and Lockout.

I love Pittsburgh. The people. The buildings. It always feels right, like home. Slipping out of my favorite city as the sun rose was a great way to start our ride.

A map of Sabah and my bike trip from Acadia's in Pittsburgh to the Great Allegheny Passage to the C&O Canal to MikeLo's near the University of Maryland.

A pretty standard piece of the smooth packed crushed limestone that makes up the trail of the Great Allegheny Passage.

After a few miles of paved trails, we switched to the crushed limestone of the Great Allegheny Passage. The limestone made for a very smooth ride through the woods and sleepy Pennsylvania towns. The Trail Towns were so small that I can't recommend making them your points of interest. The best parts are between the towns, but the towns give you great resupply points where I got drinks and some wonderful full meals.

Sabah loved the frequent stops along the rivers.

Stained glass arch over the GAP in Connellsville, PA

Sabah making her way on the slow incline up to Ohiopyle and the Eastern Continental Divide.

I can't find any photos of the first town I slept in, Rockwood, PA. I was probably too tired to take any photos. I do know that I was too tired to set up a tent so I went into town and paid for a room at the Husky Haven. That first day ended up being my fourth century ride. The first and last ones were while fully loaded on a bike tour. The other two were on a mountain bike at elevation in Leadville, CO. One day, I need to try one on a skinny little road bike.

Youghiogheny River

Keystone Viaduct

An elevation chart for the Great Allegheny Passage.

The Eastern Continental Divide.

Big Savage Tunnel.

An overlook from the GAP trail.

The Mason-Dixon line.

The Mason-Dixon line.

Cumberland, MD where the Great Allegheny Passage meets the C&O Canal.

In Cumberland, MD, after a long downhill from the divide, the Great Allegheny Passage ended. Then, we picked up the 184.5 mile C&O Canal towpath. The canal loosely follows the Potomac river and passes through 74 canal locks as it winds its way down to Washington, D.C. It is a slow decline, but not enough for bikers to coast without pedaling. The canal was originally made for mules to pull barges at a plodding 3mph. The towpath is a packed down clay and not-very-crushed stone path that made for an almost continuously bumpy ride. When it rains, it gets really sloppy and hard to keep your speed up. Even when it is dry, the rocks keep you from easily keeping your speed up.

A standard primitive campsite on the C&O Canal towpath.

Pigmans Ferry Hiker Biker Campsite. These simple camp sites were every 5-10 miles on the C&O Canal.

Near Paw Paw Tunnel

The Paw Paw tunnel was nice, but what I really remember is the town of Paw Paw, WV. A sign on the trail had it marked as a place to get food. I went up the ~20% half mile incline to get to town. The food on their map was a gas station with slim pickings. While something was better than nothing, when I ascended the steepest hill on the trip, I was really hoping for something a bit more filling. I'm getting hungry thinking about it.

20th morning Dam No. 5 - one of the most idyllic spots on the trail.

C&O Canal Lockhouse - where people stayed to operate the canal locks.

Just down river from Dam No. 5

Stick throwing spot #45 for Sabah, just down river from Dam No. 5

Tait and Chelsea happened to be doing a road bike ride in West Virginia right near when I'd be passing through on the C&O Canal. After their ride, they waited in Williamsport, MD for me. When I finally got there, they were a sight for sore eyes. I was hungry and running on low on energy. We went to the biker friendly Desert Rose Cafe and ate. I have no idea what I ate, but I do remember it being really, really good. I was rough shape after 2.5 days of long riding without enough training. Seeing Tait and Chelsea was a perfect pick me up.

Duckweed cover on the C&O canal.

The Big Slackwater section of the C&O Canal Towpath that was repaired in 2012 to allow for an unbroken trail.

One of many good places along the canal for a break.

I spent my third night in Antietam Creek Camp Ground which is next to the battlefield. I have not been down there since I was in the Boy Scouts. After a great night's sleep wondering if an enormous raccoon would try to raid Sabah's food, I headed out for my final and what felt like my longest day of riding. I was running low on energy. It was drizzling and raining all day which made the C&O canal hard to ride. I got a flat tire on the trailer, but didn't notice until I was almost done. When I got to the Washington, D.C. I didn't have a good map or smart phone to guide me. When I felt lost, I would find a place to hide from the rain, boot up the work laptop, and google a bit. The last day's miles, particularly the last 5 miles of the canal, were a slog. On the plus side, I did find another Surly rider, found a place to get amazing breakfast sandwiches, and made it to MikeLo & Tami's place.

These birds were just waiting for me to keel over.

Scenic view along the C&O Canal towpath.

Great Falls Park. I'd like to spend more time here.

Great Falls Park

Sabah was also over riding in the rain and getting sprayed with the water from the tire.

Sabah was finally willing to lay down after spending the first three days standing in the trailer or running beside me.

We made it to Mile 1 of the C&O Canal towpath.

Mile 0 of the C&O Canal towpath (Google 'The Mole' if you are trying to find it).

A map for folks trying to find mile marker 0 without a smart phone. If you have a smart phone, just search for 'The Mole, Georgetown."

This trail is a great one. This trip was a good one. It would have been great with more time. When I do it again, we'll go at a slower pace or with Sabah pulling me. It would be the perfect intro for someone to bike touring because resupply points are frequent and you don't have to worry about car traffic. This would also be an ideal trail for 'credit card touring' where you head out the door with just your bike and buy meals and lodging along the way. Though, if you carry a smart phone to find food and lodging in towns or 'mile 0', you would be even better off.

I owe a lot of thanks to a lot of folks for helping make this trip happen. Thank you to Tait and Chelsea who met me on the way, Erin, Susan, and Kate who helped me plan the trip, Eddie who gave me a ride home after I dropped my car off, and MikeLo, Tami, Acadia, and Stu who housed me and took care of my car.