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Ever since the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) was completed in 2013, overnight bicycle riders and backpackers have flocked to the 150-mile rail-trail that travels through Western Pennsylvania and Maryland. The welcoming small towns along the route entice travelers with lodging, camping, markets, and dining. Trail users marvel at the scenery along one of the longest rail-trails in the United States. The biggest allure might be the ability to travel off-road for over 330 miles—all the way from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.—when combining the GAP with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park (C&O Canal Towpath) in Cumberland, Maryland.
The GAP is also a host trail for the 3,700-miles-plus Great American Rail-Trail—which will one day form a seamless connection between Washington, D.C., and Washington State—and hosts part of the September 11th National Memorial Trail, which connects the World Trade Center, Flight 93, and Pentagon Memorials.
The route mainly follows old railbeds between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, in many cases alongside scenic rivers and streams. Westbound travelers from mile marker 0 in Cumberland will experience a steep grade in the 23.7 miles to the Eastern Continental Divide—the high point of the trail. Eastbound travelers will find a slight but steady grade from Pittsburgh to the Eastern Continental Divide. Abundant historical sites from the French and Indian Wars, as well as from the era of Western exploration, can be found.
While most users are on foot or bike, equestrians are allowed on grassy adjacent paths between Boston and Connellsville; Rockwood and Garrett; and the Pennsylvania–Maryland state line and Frostburg, Maryland. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular wintertime pursuits. Before setting out, it’s a good idea to check the GAP website for local trail conditions and for opportunities for dining, lodging, and shuttle services. The GAP got its start in 1978 when a local nonprofit bought a segment of unused railroad. The first section of trail was completed in 1986. The Allegheny Trail Alliance, formed in 1995, spearheaded the piece-by-piece completion of the route. It was the first pathway in the country to be in-ducted into Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Rail-Trail Hall of Fame in 2007.
On its western end, the trail begins at historic Point State Park in Pittsburgh. Heading east, it crosses over the Monongahela River on a former railway bridge and travels west along the water until it meets the Youghiogheny River at McKeesport. Along the way, see the remnants of the Steel City’s past in the form of a large industrial furnace, a ladle car, and a former steel mill, in addition to an array of interpretive signage.
All along the GAP, you experience a sense of remoteness and tranquility amid the landscape of lush forests, wildflowers meadows, and sparkling rivers, but you’re never too far from a town. The former industrial towns along the route that once were vital to the mining, steel, and glass industries now welcome trail users with a variety of amenities and ser-vices, the new mainstay of many of their post-industrial economies.
Following the meandering Youghiogheny River, you’ll pass through several of these towns before reaching Ohiopyle. Here you’ll find two dramatic trestles and some of the wildest rapids along the route. Popular with whitewater rafters, the river in this area features rocky outcroppings, boulder-strewn banks, and soothing waterfalls.
Farther east, past the town of Confluence, where the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers meet, the GAP makes its way to the Eastern Continental Divide. Highlights of this section include traversing the newly restored 849-foot-long Pinkerton Tunnel; crossing the 101-foot-high Salisbury Viaduct, which spans more than 1,900 feet, and the slightly smaller Keystone Viaduct; and exploring the 3,291-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 offers a vivid display of colorful foliage in the fall.
From the tunnel, it’s mostly downhill to Cumberland. Crossing the old Mason–Dixon Line—the traditional border between the North and the South—into Maryland, you’ll roll into Frostburg in 5 miles. Home to Frostburg State University, the college town features a vibrant restaurant and art scene. You can visit downtown via a series of uphill switchbacks to a regional museum and a restored 1891 train station that serves as a restaurant. If you’re here in mid-September, you can enjoy local music and crafts at the Appalachian Festival.
On the last 15.5 miles to Cumberland, you’ll parallel the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, which runs steam locomotive excursions on weekends and many weekdays. In fact, 9 miles past Frost-burg, the trail shares the 911-foot-long Brush Tunnel with the train. It’s recommended to avoid entering the tunnel with the noisy and smoky train; the locomotive emerging from the tunnel makes for a better photo anyway.
Past the tunnel is Cumberland Narrows, where the GAP squeezes through a water gap created by Wills Creek between Wills Mountain and Haystack Mountain. The old National Freeway (US 40), the scenic rail-road, and CSX share this historic passage.
The C&O Canal Towpath begins where the GAP ends at the confluence of Wills Creek and the North Branch of the Potomac River in historic downtown Cumberland. Here, in the bike-friendly town, you’ll find the Cumberland Visitor Center for the towpath and plenty of places to eat, shop, stay, and grab a beverage. The C&O continues another 184 miles along the Potomac River to Washington, D.C.
For a detailed list of parking areas and other waypoints, go to the GAP website.
To reach parking near Point State Park in Pittsburgh from I-376 E, take Exit 71A on the left for Grant St., and go 0.1 mile. Continue onto Grant St., take a sharp right onto Second Ave., and go 0.6 mile. Turn right into the parking lot, and look for parking on the right.
To reach parking near Point State Park in Pittsburgh from I-376 W, take Exit 73A for PA 885 S toward Glenwood. Turn right onto PA 885 S/Bates St. Go 0.1 mile, turn right onto Second Ave., and go 1.6 miles. Turn left into the parking lot, and look for parking on the right.
To reach the endpoint at the Cumberland Visitor Center from I-68/US 40 W, take Exit 43C toward downtown. Turn left onto W. Harrison St., and go 0.1 mile; turn right onto Canal St. Turn right into the parking lot, which is across from the Cumberland Visitor Center for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. To access the trail, turn right onto Canal St., go one block, and follow signs to the visitor center. You’ll cross Baltimore St. to access the Great Allegheny Passage on your left.
To reach the endpoint at the Cumberland Visitor Center from I-68/US 40 E, take Exit 43A for Johnson St. toward WV 28 Alt. Continue onto S. Johnson St., go 0.2 mile, and turn right onto Greene St. Go about 450 feet, turn left to stay on Greene St., and go 0.1 mile. Greene St. turns right and becomes Baltimore St. Turn right onto Canal St., go 0.1 mile, and turn left into the parking lot. To access the trail, turn right onto Canal St., go one block, and follow signs to the visitor center. You’ll cross Baltimore St. to access the Great Allegheny Passage on your left.
Select parking areas for the trail (*Indicates that at least one accessible parking space is available):
Pittsburgh, PA*: Second Ave & 10th St/10th St Bridge
Homestead, PA: 191 E Waterfront Dr
McKeesport, PA*: Water St & Fifth Ave (entrance to parking lot is 200 feet south of intersection)
West Newton, PA*: W. Main St & Collinsburg Rd
Connellsville, PA: Torrance Ave between N Sixth St & N Seventh St
Connellsville, PA*: Torrance Ave & N Third St
Ohiopyle, PA*: Sheridan St & Sherman St
Confluence, PA: Ohiopyle State Park, Ramcat Access Point/Ramcat Access Rd (at Ramcat Road)
Rockwood, PA: Rockdale Rd & Evergreen Dr
Meyersdale, PA: 527 Main St
Meyersdale, PA: 1741 Deal Road (closest to Big Savage Tunnel)
Frostburg, MD*: New Hope Road NW & Rankin Dr NW
La Vale, MD: 11401 Cash Valley Rd NW (parking is available alongside trail)
Cumberland, MD: 305 N Lee St (parking lot is about 0.1 mile east of entrance to access road)
Cumberland, MD: 119 N Mechanic St
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