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GAP and C&O Bike Ride

Bicycling the GAP and C&O trail in cold weather

In October 2023 I rode the Great Allegheney Passage (GAP)Trail and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O) with 3 friends.
We timed it for the fall colors and it was truly beautiful.
We rode from Pittsburgh to D.C. and returned by Amtrak

This is a must do bicycle tour that is almost completely on smoth trails away from traffic.

Our ride started out with several cold days, with at least one night dropping below freezing, but towards the end of the ten day trip, the weather along the C&O canal warmed up.

Try this trip planner.

Flying to PIttsburgh

We flew from Arizona to Pittsburgh. I packed my bicycle in the Thule RoundTrip MTB ($999 retail) to fly with my bike. I chose this one over the road bike version because I fly with both types of bikes. The Thule RoundTrip MTB comes with a bike stand, however on my next trip I decided to leave the stand at home since it offered me little imrpovement and I was able to save weight by deleting it. The Thule is pretty heavy and you need to be careful not to exceed the Airline total limit of 70 pounds. You will automatically be over the 50 pound weight. If you don't have the good airline status that I have, you may get charged for being over 50 pounds. Actually, on my return flight from Pittsburgh, the check-in person didn't understand the overweight rules and charged me $100 even though corporate told them I was exempt. Thankfully American Airlines did agree to refund me the money.

My comrades used cardboard bicycle boxes, which requires more disassembly and the addition of padding, but is the easiest way to keep the package under 50 pounds.

Hotels in Pittsburgh

We stayed at the LaQuinta hotel near the Pittsburgh airport and the staff was nice enough to save our boxes for us. In the morning we caught Bills taxi 412-855-4484 from la Quinta to Gap trailhead for $125 for the four of us with our bikes. (Bill's will also pick up and deliver to various places along the trail). However it is much better to stay near the start of the trail which is downtown and about 17 miles from the airport. I recommend the Drury Inn - which is right by the Amtrak station and has a large room for storing bicycles and bike bags. We stayed at the Drury at the end of the our trip, which was very handy since we arrived close to midnight on Amtrak from D.C. The Drury also has a very nice breakfast buffet included in the price.

It is also possible bike from the airpot to downtown, but some of the streets are a little sketchy for bike riding. When crossing bridges, be sure to ride on the sidewalks and not in the traffic lanes - unless you have a death wish. The airport is at a higher elevation, so riding to downtown will be a mixture of downhill and flat sections with multiple bridge crossings.

It is also possible to take the Montour Trail from the Pittsburgh airport to the GAP trail. We didn't ride it, but we did see where it intersects the GAP trail and it would definitely be a consideration for next time. You'll miss the first miles of the GAP trail between Pittsburgh and Mckeesport, which is mostly paved urban trail anyway.

Trail Conditions

The locally maintained GAP trail is mained much better than the federally maintained C&O trail.
The GAP trail is mostly crushed limestone, with a bit of pavement in the central part of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and again in Cumberland Maryland.

The C&O trail is part of the National Park Service and is Federal land and is therefore poorly maintained.
I rode 700c x 40 tires, which were ideal for both trails. 65PSI is good for most of it, but the Northern end of the C&O is exceptionally rough and we took advantage of the 23 miles of the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail from Little Orleans, MD to Big Pool on the second day on the C&O. More on that below.

The C&O trail from Cumberland is immediately noticeably poorer quality. We encountered some lazy National Park Employees at the park office in Cumberland. Typical Federal government worker - poor customer service with lots of sitting around and not much getting done!

It is truly ironic that the un-paid volunteers and local workers on the GAP trail out perform the government workers on the C&O trail!

As we got closer to DC there was a new base being laid down on the C&O trail and we had to detour around on a fairly busy road for a very short distance (maybe a mile).


I rode Surly Straggler drop bar gravel bike. My friends all road flat bar mountain bikes.
I had the best bike for the ride by a long shot!

Surly Straggler - a touring bike?

Handlebars: My only real regret about the Surly Straggler was that my handle bars were too low, even with maximum spacers and very steep riser stem.
My handlebars were roughly level with my seat, but ideally they would have been about 2" above the seat.
I have a 36" inseam and was riding an XL size Straggler (60cm). My legs are long compared to my torso.

Pedals: All four of us rode flat pedals and were glad we did. Cleats would have gotten very muddy on our ride and also are not good for night walks around town and we didn't want to have to carry extra shoes. We each wore our flat pedal bike shoes and carried a pair of sandals (Tevas or similar). NOT flip flops! You want to have sandles you can pedal for hours in if you need to. Wool sock with Teva sandals work great. For my bike shoes I used 5.10 mountain biking shoes. My pedals were the Crankbrothers Stomp 11 flat pedals. The combination was not ideal for long trips. The sole of the shoes was too flexible/soft and the Stomp pedals have a small contact patch area. The result was that after about 400 miles of total pedaling in 9 days, my right foot ended up with a minor injury that lasted a few months - when I walked around, it felt like a sock was bunch up under the ball of my foot. The mroal of the story is make sure your pedals have a lot of contact area and that your well-broken-in shoes have a medium stiff sole. One of my fellow riders on this trip also had the same issue. By comparison I did a previous trip that was over 800 miles in Vasque leather hiking boots and my feet never suffered - though my efficiency surely did!

Bicycle Panniers for the GAP and C&O trail

I again had the best setup out of the four bike riders on this tour. On the rear of my Surly Straggler I used Ortlieb Hi-ViZ Panniers (bright yellow with refelctive threading). I put my food, stove, sleeping bag and thermarest in one and almost all my clothes in the other. I also had a half frame bag custom made by Rogue Panda. I put a water bladder in one side and stuff I needed on a regular basis on the other side (snacks, gloves, etc...). On the front I had an Ortlieb 6L handlebar bag - which I leave on my bike all the time because it is so handy and waterproof.

My three friends rode mounttain bikes. Two of the mountain bikes used for this ride on the GAP and C&O trail were hardtails so they jury-rigged some rear racks to them, both of which had failures. Their bikes did not have braze-ons for racks so they used racks that clamped and bolted on by other means. One of them we fixed with a webbing strap and gorilla tap. The other with lots of gorilla tape. (Bring Gorilla Tape!!) The third mountain bike was a full suspension and that rider used a typical bike-packing bag setup. She did not need to carry a tent since she shared one with her husband.

Tents for the GAP and C&O trail

I used a two person Euraka brand tent with stake out vestibules. It is a typical 2-3 season tent that had a partial fly. The fog/humidity and general moisture on the East Coast caused a lot of condensation, which wasn't too big of a problem as long as I ddin't touch the tent walls. Thankfully I had brought a small terry-cloth wash towel that I used to dry my tent off each day before packing it up. Most days we hit the road pretty late due to the temps and letting gear dry a little after the cold damp nights. Most days we were pedaling by around 10:30 AM. I recommend picking a tent site that has direct sun in the early monring - the warmth will feel good and will help gear dry.

Other Gear to Bring

Pedal wrench - to get those tough to remove pedals off when packing up the bikes for the train ride back on Amtrak.
Terry Cloth hand towel - for drying your tent and general tent cleaning.
Zip-ties, Extra Strap, Gorilla Tape, Extra Cash, Extra battery to charge phone. Tube and Tube repair kit (do not count on tubless setups)
Water-proof duffle bag - for air travel in case of rain. Put all your clothes and gear in this bag for flying. Leave it at your hotel till you get back.

Gear NOT to bring

Solar panel - most of the trail is shady.

Our Schedule on the GAP and C&O trail from Pittsburgh to D.C.

Fly from Arizona to Pittsburgh - stay at La Quinta

Pittsburgh to West Newton - 36 miles
West Newton to Confluence - 55 miles
Confluence to Meyersdale PA - 33 miles
Meyersdale PA to Cumberland MD. - 34 miles
Cumberland to Little Orleans MD - 44 miles
Little Orleans to McCoys Ferry Campground - 37 miles
McCoys Ferry Campground to Harpers Ferry WV - 55 miles
Harpers Ferry WV to Lock House 22 - 47 miles
Lock House 22 to Mile Zero in DC - 22 miles.
( then bike from Mile Zero to Amtrak station and ride train to Pittsburgh - stay at Drury Inn)

Bike from Drury Inn by start to La Quinta by airport - 17 miles

Fly back to Arizona

Our Ride Log

Next Time on the GAP and C&O

The biggest portion of our budget was spent in Pittsburgh at hotels and shuttling. I recoommend booking a hotel near the start of the trail. It will be more expensive, but it saves time on the first day and those hotels are accostomed to storing bike boxes. Apparently there is a direct city bus from the airport to downtown (Bus 28X - express).

Also explore the option of a one way van rental. It may be cheaper than Amtrak tickets for four people and let's you travel when you want, but be warned of the long drive if you are exhausted. You could rent the van either at the beginning or end of the trip. Ultimately, you'll want a hotel and hot shower before flying home. If you fly into one city and out of the other, the Amtrak or car rental could be avoided and that money applied to buying another cardboard bike box and a nicer hotel and maybe a nice dinner out.


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