Now the longest rail-trail east of the Mississippi River, the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) spans two states in its course along great rivers and across mountain passes. Running from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cumberland, Maryland, the trail traces the paths of railroads that helped build America.
Beginning in Pittsburgh's Point State Park, the trail overlaps the route of the Eliza Furnace segment of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. Trail users are treated to an array of signage interpreting the area's industrial past. A crossing of the Hot Metal Bridge, once used to carry iron by rail from the Eliza furnaces to Pittsburgh's south side to produce finished steel, leads across the Monongahela River to the Three Rivers Heritage Trail's South Side and Baldwin Borough segments, which extend south to Homestead.
In the small Pittsburgh suburb, massive industrial furnaces from the Homestead Steel Works stand along with smaller artifacts, such as a ladle car. These industrial artifacts and interpretive signage add interest to both the trail and the retail area called The Waterfront. The district is now a modern retail center with offices, restaurants and entertainment, all rebuilt to reflect early 20th century charm and its industrial past.
The Great Allegheny Passage heads south from Homestead to McKeesport through former steel mill sites along the banks of the Monongahela River. Here the GAP splits into two, with the on-road Clairton Connector heading west through Glassport to meet the Montour Trail in Clairton, and the main trail continuing south along the former route of the Pittsburgh, McKeesport and Youghiogheny Railroad.
Built in 1883, the railroad carried coal and coke from the rich Connellsville District to the Pittsburgh steel mills. Nicknamed the P-Mickey for its initials, P. McK. & Y., it eventually merged with the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad. The freight and coal traffic that sustained the branch dried up by the mid-1980s, and the line fell into disuse in 1990.
As you travel south along the Youghiogheny River from McKeesport, you pass lush green hillsides and once booming industrial towns. The first 40 miles of this segment go through the Pennsylvania towns of Boston, West Newton and Dawson. Trailside B&Bs, bike shops and cafes welcome trail users in these towns, making them great resting places.
Eventually, the Great Allegheny Passage reaches the historic boomtown of Connellsville, where the industrial revolution is still alive. This self-proclaimed “trail town” offers wonderful parks, restaurants and cafes. Near South Connellsville, trail users can hop on the short Sheepskin Trail to travel southwest to the tiny community of Dunbar.
For the next 28 miles, the Great Allegheny Passage follows the Youghiogheny River through Ohiopyle State Park. Take refuge under the dense canopy of the hardwood forest on the river's edge. Before reaching the quaint town of Ohiopyle, you cross two impressive trestles. The town is a home base for adventure seekers. Not only is the trail a central attraction, but the Youghiogheny River is wild and untamed here and a popular whitewater rafting destination. Not even George Washington was able to navigate its rapids; he was forced to turn around while trying to capture Fort Duquesne.
The trail continues south along the river to Confluence. Aptly named, the town is built where the Youghiogheny River, Casselman River and Laurel Hill Creek come together. It has plenty of great places to eat or catch a good night's rest.
South of Confluence, the trail leaves the Youghiogheny and heads northeast for 31 miles, following the Casselman River to Meyersdale. Highlights of this section include traversing the newly restored 850-foot-long Pinkerton Tunnel; crossing the 100-foot high Salisbury Viaduct, which spans more than 1,900 feet, and the slightly smaller Keystone Viaduct; and exploring the 3,300-foot-long Big Savage Tunnel, which offers welcome relief on hot summer days. (Note that this tunnel is closed from late November to early April.) Along the way, enjoy spectacular views of the Casselman River Valley, which, in the autumn, offers a vibrant display of colorful foliage. Meyersdale also offers a pleasant old trailside train depot that provides good local information.
You continue a gentle climb as the trail heads southeast toward the Eastern Continental Divide. Here the trail follows the route of the old Western Maryland Railroad, which began operations between Cumberland, Maryland, and Connellsville, Pennsylvania, in 1912. Sold to a competitor in 1931, the railroad was operational for many more years before falling into disuse. You'll find the Keystone Viaduct, a 910-foot-long bridge, along this gorgeous part of the trail.
You cross the Eastern Continental Divide just before reaching the Maryland state line. From this elevation of 2,400 feet, it's all downhill to Cumberland. Pass through the 0.5-mile-long Big Savage Tunnel just beyond the divide and take in stunning views of the surrounding hills and agricultural valleys as you pass the Mason-Dixon Line into Maryland, just beyond the tunnel. Frostburg is the first town you reach, about 5 miles into Maryland. The city features a restored passenger and freight station—now open as a restaurant—that was originally built in 1891.
The trail leaves Frostburg and continues another 16 miles through rolling Maryland countryside to Cumberland. For much of this section, the trail parallels the active Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, and you may catch glimpses of its steam locomotive. The popular excursion line provides scenic three-hour trips through the Allegheny Mountains.
Cumberland, the terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage, does not disappoint. A pedestrian mall downtown has many restaurants and shops. In Cumberland, the trail connects to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park towpath (aka the C&O Canal Towpath), which takes you another 184 miles to Washington, D.C., without ever leaving a trail.
Note that equestrians are only permitted on the grassy areas of the Great Allegheny Passage between Boston and Connellsville, Rockwood and Garrett, and Frostburg and the Maryland–Pennsylvania state line. Before you set out on a long journey to explore the trail, check the Allegheny Trail Alliance website for updates on detours and other safety information.
Some of the best parking for the Great Allegheny Passage can be found south of Pittsburgh along Waterfront Drive in the shopping area in Homestead. To reach the McKeesport trailhead farther south, take State Route 837 out of Pittsburgh and follow signs to McKeesport. Cross the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge and pick up SR 148 (Lysle Boulevard) toward McKeesport. Follow the road into town and veer onto the Water Street ramp on your right. Take a left onto Water Street; parking is located in the park.
Parking can also be found near where the Great Allegheny Passage and Montour Trail meet in Clairton, just off SR 837. There is free parking at the trailheads in Confluence, Ohiopyle, Connellsville, Meyersdale, Garrett, Rockwood, Markleton and Fort Hill as well.
In Frostburg, park off Depot Street near where it meets New Hope Road or off New Hope Road just north of Rankin Drive. To reach the Cumberland trailhead in Maryland from Interstate 68, take Exit 43B. Upon exiting, take a left onto West Harrison Street and then a right onto South Mechanic Street. The old Western Maryland train depot on your left has public parking for the trail.
Visit the Allegheny Trail Alliance website for more information about the many other access points along the Great Allegheny Passage.