Family Bike Adventures on the Greater Allegheny Passage Trail
Over the summer, our PedalPower family took a short midweek vacation to Western Maryland, to ride the Greater Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail, which spans 150 miles of former railroad line from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD. Along the way, cyclists cross the Mason-Dixon Line, top the Eastern Continental Divide and are treated to breathtaking mountain scenery without the strenuous mountain cycling! The grades along the trail are gentle, typically never exceeding 1%, making for a very family-friendly adventure! A recent post on the Biking with Kids Facebook Group asking for recommendations inspired this blog- hoping this might be useful for other families!
Due to a crazy summer of camps and lessons, our planning and trip time was limited, but we managed to pack a lot into a 3 day visit! While most cyclists travel from trail town to trail town over several days, staying in small inns along the way, our schedule and situation didn’t work for an end-to-end trip. However, there are numerous tour companies to plan and support your trip. My parents had previously cycled the full length of the trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland using a “barebones” outfitter who simply transported their bags between accommodations, which is a great option for families! I would also recommend Discovery Bicycle Tours. If you are considering a self-supported trip, you will need to determine how to carry your gear (and your kids’ gear!)- based on our experience this summer, I think it would be very doable with proper planning!
Here’s how we approached our visit- we opted to stay in Cumberland, Maryland as a home base. Nicknamed the “Queen City”, this pretty town at the base of the mountains has some beautiful old churches and interesting architecture, but is definitely still in the “revitalization” phase. The GAP Trail and the C&O Canal Trail meet in Cumberland, and there is a National Park and Museum area at the confluence of the trails. The C&O Canal Trail will allow you to ride nearly 200 miles back to Washington, DC, but a very rainy spring and summer and decimated National Park budgets have meant trail conditions are particularly awful on the C&O. I ventured about 5 miles out of Cumberland on the C&O one morning, and was eaten alive by mosquitos, soaked and covered in mud. At this time, I would not recommend the C&O Canal Trail from Cumberland for family riding.
Right where the C&O and GAP Trails meet downtown, there is a reasonably nice Fairfield Inn & Suites that is super bike-friendly. Not even 10 feet from the trail, with a large bike wash station outside, shower caps for covering helmets in the rain (an odd detail, but thoughtful) and a hearty breakfast buffet, the Hampton Inn worked well for our family group- 1 set of very active and awesome grandparents, two parents, and our three girls ages 16, 11, and 7.
Ride: Meyersdale, Pennsylvania to Cumberland, Maryland- 32 miles. Meyersdale has a lovely little museum in the train station and the stately Levi Deal Mansion to lay your heads. The first part of this right has a slight incline as you approach the Eastern Continental Divide, which is also the highest point along the trail. From there on, it’s smooth sailing downhill and stunning scenery. The Big Savage Tunnel was a HUGE hit with the girls and provided some much needed relief from the heat. When you reach Frostburg Depot, there’s a beautiful hillside meadow with a switchback trail to town lined with bike sculptures- a must-experience! There’s so much history on this very doable and family-friendly ride, where Lt. Col. George Washington once traveled with his militia from Virginia to do battle with the French. In Cumberland, you’ll be ready for drinks and eats- the newly-opened Manhattan Social on the pedestrian mall is a great space with all day menu, market and lots of potential.
Trail Town: Ohiopyle- Ohiopyle is home to a hugely popular state park, some of the best white water rafting in the Eastern US, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, wonderful hiking in the Laurel Highlands, natural waterslides, and of course, the GAP Trail. This town definitely warrants an overnight stay- even the Visitors Center over the river, with its living roof and interesting conservation exhibits, is very much worth a look. The natural water slides, just a short walk or ride from town, were just what our tired girls needed when they hit their limit on bikes that day. For the hardcore cyclist in the family (that would be me!), there are some killer climbs and views just outside town- I found out the hard way when I accidentally climbed a mountain (check my QOM’s on Strava, haha! Ohiopyle is a good base camp for lots of other outdoor activities in the Laurel Highlands area, and there is more variety of eateries and shops than the other train towns.
Store: The Fruit Bowl, Cumberland- Situated below “Lover’s Leap”, a rocky outcropping with a disturbing legend, this throwback is much more candy shop than farm stand, and is chock full of thousands of varieties of sweets. Those sweets come in handy along the trail, refocusing hangry 7 year olds who’ve decided that they can’t possibly ride another mile! My best advice for family bike touring is pack A LOT of snacks! Hydration packs are a must, too- especially for younger riders who aren’t as comfortable with grabbing water bottles from cage while pedaling.
$40 Sanity Saver: The Tow Whee is basically a bungee cord that connects your bike to your kid’s. Best for experienced, controlled riders (both parent and child), this magic little leash was a great equalizer, allowing us to travel at pace comfortable for our big family group.
The Tow Whee isn’t safe to use downhill, so we didn’t use at all on the Meyersdale-Cumberland ride, and instead, rode in a rotating paceline to give all family members (from age 7 to age 66) an opportunity to set the pace. We find this works well for us as our two youngest girls are both ultra-competitive (huge surprise, ha!) and both want to lead, always. A paceline keeps everyone in check and our overall speed comfortable for the group! It’s a fun skill to practice and the girls enjoyed schooling their grandparents on proper paceline etiquette!