Bikepacking the GAP Trail and C&O Canal Trail
Introduction and Trip Highlights
Bikepacking the GAP Trail and C&O Trail from Pittsburgh to Washington DC is a superb mix of natural beauty, wooded trails, quaint towns, & American history. It’s the perfect introductory trip for those new to bikepacking. But it’s just as suitable and rewarding trip for accomplished riders. Virtually all of the trail is away from traffic on flat, wide, non-technical dirt trails (double track) that do not require great riding skills.
If you have even a slight interest in bikepacking, one of the hottest and fastest growing ways to explore the outdoors, this is the trip for you. Most trails are heavily wooded with a distinct wilderness feel — many follow along scenic rivers like the Potomac, Monongahela, and Youghiogheny. You can rough it or glamp it — your choice. Each night you can sleep in a bed at a cute B&B, eat at restaurants — or just as easily you can tent it in a beautiful campsite and munch on takeout or camp food. The local, trailside towns are super bike friendly. They actually like you! In short, this bikepacking trip has something for everyone. So it’s no surprise that the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trial is known as “America’s Friendliest Long-Distance Rail-Trail.”
Finally, bikepacking the GAP Trail and C&O Canal Trail has super easy logistics. This trail is easily accessed by car or train from much of the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Midwest (there is a no-car needed option). In fact, we did this trip front door to front door without ever using a car. Supplies are easy to get from trailside towns and there are tons of camping, lodging, grocery store and restaurant options for every taste and budget. Finally, there are outfitters that will take care of gear and/or shuttles for you — a big stress reducer for non-planners that just want to enjoy the trip.
Already a Backpacker? You’re 80% There!
This is a perfect introductory Bikepacking trip. The trails are easy to follow and are within the abilities of most casual bike riders (road or mountain bike). In addition, if you are already a backpacker, the transition to bikepacking is super easy — it’s almost the same gear. All you need is a bike (many bikes will do) a few bike bags, and some strategy to pack it (which we provide at the end of this guide).
Finally, if you are not a camper, you can sleep in a bed every night and dine out for your meals. Similarly, it is just as easy to camp out every night if you prefer roughing it.
This Guide Has Everything You Need
- Day by day, detailed route descriptions, with mileages and elevation profiles
- A GPX file of the route Our up-to-date GPX file of the route includes the two major detours, and the optional Western Maryland Rail Trail
- Gear Packing Information | what gear to bring, what not to bring
- How to Pack Your Bike | This may be the most confusing subject about bikepacking. We cover what bike bags to get and where best to load them on your bike.
- Detailed information logistics to trip start/end, including low-carbon, a no-car needed option via Amtrak
The combined Great Allegheny Passage Trail and C&O Canal Trails go 333 miles from Pittsburgh PA to Washington DC. Virtually all of the trail is away from traffic on dirt trails, mostly rails-to-trails and the old towpath along the C&O canal.
Bikepacking the GAP Trail and C&O Canal Trail
Day by Day Guide
to Bikepacking GAP Trail and C&O Canal
Day 1 Pittsburgh, PA to Connellsville, MD
60 Miles | 1400 ft ↑ | 1250 ft ↓
The definitive start of the GAP trail is elusive and may not be worth the effort, but some have it at the tip of Point State Park. It’s likely easier to start under the Liberty Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh, which is plenty close enough. The easiest landmark to look for is the Golden Triangle Bike shop.
Not only does the Golden Triangle Bike shop rent you bikes for tooling around Pittsburgh, but they can completely outfit you for a self-guided bikepacking trip along the GAP and C&O Canal trail. Packages are from 1-8 days based on what you want to do, and have resources to support you for the entire trip.
For the first 19 miles of the trip you will be biking on a nicely paved path. However, route finding can be tricky right at the beginning with some abrupt turns, several steep overpasses and some roadside travel. You’ll need to pay attention.
Getting out of a major city by bike can be challenging and this one is no exception. As such, we recommend using your GPS on active navigation until you clear Pittsburgh (or the first 19 miles). After that, you are on crushed limestone and you can just use the mileage on your bike GPS as the route becomes quite straight forward.
It is no surprise that large portions of this trail fall under the category of rails-to-trails conversions. As such, the biking is either flat or gently sloping with a wide path. In fact, your first rails-to-trail bike experience is on day one, the P&LE RR (Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Rail Road) built in 1875 which, oddly enough never made it to Lake Erie, but does make for easy biking.
Along the P&LE path, mileage is well signed, there are many porta potties, picnic tables, etc and as such, we averaged about 14+ mph with loaded bikes. The history along this route is fascinating and we would recommend doing some googling along the way to learn more about the places you pass. Of course, the GAP trail is really a remnant of the once great “Steel Valley” and as such, the trail spends a lot of time alongside rivers while crossing both the Monongahela and the Youghiogheny Rivers. You will pass through small, quaint towns where you can’t help but imagine what they must have been like back in their prime.
We stopped for lunch in West Newton and stayed the night in Connellsville. Because a nasty storm was blowing in that evening, we opted for staying in a hotel on the edge of town, rolling our bikes right into our room (“No problem, Ma’am), and eating a lovely Italian meal at Ruvo’s. Listening to the hail and sleet hit our hotel window that night was nothing short of sublime.
Day 2 Connellsville, MD to Meyersdale, MD [w optional trip to Fallingwater]
57 Miles | 2750 ft ↑ | 1550 ft ↓
Upon leaving Connellsville, you immediately pick up the old Western Maryland RR rails-to-trails conversion, of of many while bikepacking GAP Trail and C&O Canal Trail.
It is really Day 2 that you realize you are going uphill. Because it is a gentle grade, the uphill is not very noticeable but in reality, you are climbing to the Eastern Continental Divide to a height of 2392 feet. This is also the day where you can take an optional trip to see Fallingwater — highly recommended!
FALLINGWATER ASIDE: For those not familiar with Fallingwater, this may be Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece. Because of its location, it is not somewhere that you can easily visit–unless you are riding the GAP trail. Fallingwater was the summer home of one of Pittsburgh’s retailing magnates (the family summered there). The home is known as one of the greatest architectural achievements of the 20th century and actually has a waterfall running thru the middle of it (see picture below).
We highly recommend the side trip when Bikepacking GAP Trail and C&O Canal Trails. You will need to make reservations ahead of time and cost is $30/pp. Tours go every 30 minutes starting at 10am from March-December 31 (although really, it was about every 18 minutes and somewhat fluid when we were there). We parked our bikes at Wildness Voyageaurs in Ohiopyle and for $25/person, they shuttled us up and back to Fallingwater. Of course you could bike there, but we were on a somewhat tight schedule and didn’t want to take the extra time.
When you arrive at Ohiopyle, a fairly small town, you will find an abundance of supplies, good restaurants or sandwiches to grab and eat by the river.
We continued on until Meyersdale, at 2,106′ which also had a few options for stores and restaurants. The weather was still colder than expected so again we opted for a B&B that night. Yoder House was very nice and offered a reasonable rate with a fully equipped bike garage.
Day 3 Meyersdale to Paw Paw, WV
60.5 Miles | 1450 ft ↑ | 3000 ft ↓
From Meyersdale, it was only 8 miles and 300’ of easy riding up to Eastern Continental Divide 2392’. As you enter into the tunnel that signifies the E Continental Divide, there is a map painted on the wall showing your route. Here you can easily see how much climbing you have actually done.
On the other side of the Divide, it is all downhill until you get to Cumberland — down like a rocket 24 miles and 1800’ to Cumberland (at 605′). Note that you will cross through several tunnels on your downhill.
The Savage tunnel, the longest at 3,294 feet, is well lit. It is also closed between late November and early April. The Borden Tunnel, at about mile 17, is 957 feet and unlit so caution is advised. Most of this downhill trail does not have views and is in the shade of trees.
The other memorable note of the downhill is the Mason Dixon Line around mile 21. Finally, right after Frostburg you are forced to share the trail with the Western Maryland Scenic RR (the only remaining active part of the Western MD RR). In the off season, that’s not a problem but in peak summer, you will need to be cautious as the trail crosses the railroad a number times. The last two miles into Cumberland are paved.
In Cumberland, you have many options. If you are done biking, you can take Amtrak back to Washington, DC. or to Pittsburgh and/or Chicago. If you want to continue onto the C&O Canal, the trail goes right through Cumberland with many options for food, lodging and services. Right at the start of the C&O Canal in Cumberland is a Bike Shop, Cumberland Trail Connections. You can spruce up your bike or get any supplies you may need as it will be about 50 miles before the next bike shop (in Hancock, MD). The good news is that from here on out, your options for NPS campsites become plentiful.
As you head south of Cumberland, although the landscape is pretty, the focus at this point is to get used to the C&O Canal path which is quite different than what you have just been riding on. Just south of Old Town, near lock 68 is the confluence of the north and south forks of the Potomac River. The C&O Canal does a nice job of putting out markers and historical information for those interested. The history of the locks themselves is worth some researching to learn more.
Aside on the Locks: construction on the locks completed in 1850 at Cumberland, MD. It was intended to go all the way to Pittsburgh, PA but was cut short due to the railways. The canal operated from 1831 until 1924 transporting coal to Washington, DC but was closed in 1924 due to the constant flooding that washed away the route. In 1971, the canal was established as a National Historical Park.
Today, there are hiker/biker campsites about every 5-7 miles along the towpath available on a first come, first serve basis. Each campsite has a water pump, picnic area, firepit, and latrine.
We stopped at a campsite in Paw Paw, just shy of the tunnel, spending the night with a group of inner city kids rafting.
Day 4 Paw Paw to South of Williamsport (Opequon Junction)
66 Miles | 550 ft ↑ | 750 ft ↓
Because we were camped very close to the famous Paw Paw tunnel, we came upon it first thing in the morning. It is a very long (3,118 feet) CANAL tunnel (meaning water running in it, see picture below) with a very narrow elevated trail on the side, above the water. There are no lights in tunnel so be sure to have your headlamp handy and go slowly as the elevated trail surface is very uneven. Some may choose to walk their bikes.
We had heard of and then saw the detour available around the tunnel although we chose to go through it. We understand this tunnel also closes during the winter months.
The trail south of Paw Paw improved slightly compared to the rest of the C&O canal trail up to that point. What does a rough C&O Canal trail look like? In general, it means rough/wet/muddy sections that required an elevated level of biking handling skills. There is also plenty of debris on the trail that riders need to watch carefully otherwise, you can get sticks stuck in your wheels and drivetrain as we did. What makes all this worse is the blotchy sunlight on the trail such that navigating trail debris, pot holes, tree roots, and large branches in the trail problematic enough to slow ones progress considerably.
Little Orleans is the next ‘big’ town you come to but we missed it completely (even though we were looking for the turnoff), so be careful if you intend to stop here. We instead stopped in the town of Hancock which is directly on the trail. It has a nice bike shop/outdoors store and a nice but quirky restaurant. — Buddy Lou’s. Both are right on the paved path on the far side of the canal.
If you need a break from the pounding of the C&O Canal’s tough terrain, you are in luck! Just south of Little Orleans, at lock 56 (eventually, the path is supposed to extend to Little Orleans), you can hop the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a paved path which parallels the C&O for about 40ish miles. At some point, the trail will force you back onto the C&O but enjoy it while you can!
Be advised: if you do take the paved path, you will miss the Round Top Cement Mill ruins at Lock 53.
Following that, there is a fun cliff path that goes along the Potomac.
You will also pass several more options for campsites. McCoys Ferry looked particularly nice, as did the Four Locks area. Lock 43, south of Williamsport is the midpoint of the canal.
Unfortunately, the C&O Canal goes under construction from time to time resulting in long detours. We found one in Williamsport which had us detouring uphill and through the center of town. Although a bit longer of a route, it allowed us to grab sandwiches at the Desert Rose Cafe in downtown Williamsport which was a treat along with the pumpkin bread.
After Williamsport, we found the path to be recently flooded and was therefore very bumpy and uneven to traverse. We camped at the Opequon Junction Campsite that night.
Days 5 and 6 | Opequon Junction to Washington DC
90 Miles | 850 ft ↑ | 1150 ft ↓ (most will split this into two days)
Options for Days 5 and 6
90 miles is a lot to do in one day. Fortunately there are a number of ways to split this up into two days. One option is to bike a short Day 5 to Harper’s Ferry (which has many advantages, including spending an afternoon and night exploring the town and getting a good meal). Then get up early the next morning and make the 70 mile push to DC. One way to shorten this long last day would be to have the shuttle (see more information below) take you directly from Harper’s Ferry to the Catoctin Aqueduct. This avoids the hazardous detour from Brunswick to the Catoctin Aqueduct (which appears to be permanent closure where you can either use a shuttle or ride on the road). With the shuttle, your last day would become a more manageable 51 miles.
But many folks may want to camp on Day 5 at one of the numerous campsites between Opequon Junction and Washington DC. Note that once you pass Brunswick MD, food and lodging options along the trail become extremely scarce (although you could detour off the trail to them).
Note: Part of what made this trip especially sweet for us is that on Day 5 we rode our bikes back to our home in Washington DC. We just took a left on the Capital Crescent Trail to Bethesda Maryland and on to Northern DC. As such, we also cut off some of the day’s mileage vs. riding all the way into Georgetown DC. Even so it was a very long day, and we would only recommend this to very fit bikers with trail hardened butts.
This last day we ran into two major detours. The first was right out of camp in Opequon Junction. The signs were difficult to follow and at some point, we had to turn to our phones to guide us back to the trail. All-in-all, it was about a 10 mile detour which luckily, only took us 1-2 miles out of the way, but was truly frustrating as the detour signs just ended at some point. We understand this section is now “somewhat open.” That is the Park Services says: “Big Slackwater: Dam #4 – Burnside Farm (Milepost 84.4 – MP 90.0) Open, This section is open but be prepared for muddy and slick conditions caused by river silt.” We would take this message seriously and still consider taking the detour.
This is also the day you will pass by Antietam (the historic civil war battle field), which had a lovely campsite. If you are so inclined, it is a quick side trip to the actual battle field. From there, you pass through Shepherdstown, WV. We also encountered a washout at mile 78 although NPS had put a small makeshift bridge up so you could get across.
Between Shepherdstown and Harper’s Ferry, the path was about as bad as we encountered the entire trip. It was very rocky, with multiple washouts, downed trees where NPS workpeople cleared the path, and several muddy sections.
By the time you get to Harper’s Ferry, WV, you may be done for the day. Harper’s Ferry is always worth a stop with great shops, lots of history, and beautiful scenery. Note that the stairs up to the pedestrian bridge to Harper’s Ferry are steep and difficult to maneuver with a loaded touring bike. Some people (especially those with very loaded/heavy bikes) lock their bikes on the canal side and walk over although we would strongly recommend taking your bags and valuables into town with you.
We opted to continue into Washington DC which meant hitting yet another major detour, this one dangerous. From the NPS website:
- Catoctin Aqueduct- Brunswick Family Campground (MP 51.5–MP 54) Towpath Closed. Due to a washout. There is no detour in place at this time due to unsafe conditions on adjacent roadways. From the west, exit the towpath at Brunswick (MP 55), or from the east at Lander Lock 29 (MP 50.9). Please contact Shepherdstown Pedal and Paddle at 304-876-3000 or River and Trail Outfitters at 301-834-9950 to arrange for a shuttle around the detour. Due to repeated flood events, attempts to install a temporary bridge have been halted. The park is working on a long-term solution.
What makes this detour unsafe is that the “re-route” (which is included in our GPX track for the trip) goes along some busy roads with high speed traffic, in particular Point of Rocks Road. To complicate matters it is fairly hilly which means that some of the time you will be going slowly uphill on a loaded bike with high speed traffic passing you. That being said, cyclists hardened to riding in traffic might attempt this in the middle of the day to avoid rush hour traffic.
This detour makes the last day even longer but such detours are part of the C&O Canal trip and our best advice is to closely watch, and then plan for them on the NPS CO & Canal Web Page. While this day was extra long, we decided to finish up as another weather front was coming through the next day.
As noted earlier, most of your backpacking gear will work for bikepacking. The only additional pieces you need to get will be a bike and the bags. We used two different methods of packing: Alan used frame bags (left photo) and Alison used panniers (right photo).
Alison’s Set Up | Rear Panniers & Handlebar Bag
The trick to using rear-only panniers is weight distribution. Because the panniers (and rack) hold much of the weight, you need to have sufficient weight on the front of your bike to balance things out and keep the front wheel solidly on the trail. Two water bottles and a sweetroll were put on the front of Alison’s bike to keep her weight evenly distributed. The reason Alison opted for panniers was because her bike ended up being too small for most of the frame bags for the main triangle (e.g. no size Ripio fit). Panniers were the logical alternative. And honestly, if your bike already has a rear rack they are cheaper, hold more and are easier to pack than Alan’s frame-bag setup.
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