Pittsburgh from Washington Heights

Several People have asked me about specific recommendations along the GAP and C&O towpath. I traveled at an unusual time of year, Labor Day weekend during a pandemic. This means that a lot of historical sites which I normally would recommend visiting, as well as restaurants, were either closed or had curtailed hours. Yes, other than Ohiopyle State Park, hours were curtailed Labor Day weekend! In Cumberland, on Labor Day, I found only one restaurant open.

When I publish my book next year, I’ll include a more complete list, but for now here are few places and sights that I can recommend, including some that a person might overlook, beginning with lodging and food recommendations.

Lodging: I chose not to camp and can recommend several of the places I stayed. The Comfort Inn in Connellsville is clean and convenient, right along the trail and right next to the river. Morguen Toole in Meyersdale was clean and inexpensive. I stayed in a hostel room, but I was by myself. The Town Hill B&B was superb; the biggest breakfast ever and they will shuttle you up the mountain to their place for a reasonable charge. (There are few other options in Little Orleans.) I can recommend two other hotels, the Ramada in Cumberland (about four blocks from Canal Place) and the Red Roof Inn in Williamsport. The last one looks a bit seedy from the curb, but the rooms were clean and it was cheap. It is over a half mile from the towpath, however. I stayed at the Harpers’ Ferry Guest House. Loved the place and would recommend it heartily, though it’s a climb to get there!

View of the Yough River from the deck at the Comfort Inn
Harpers Ferry Guest House

Food: In Pittsburgh a perennial favorite is Buca di Beppo, in Station Square. Italian food, served family-style. (Maybe not the best during Covid-19, but worth it if you are with a group.) In West Newton there’s the Trailside, my favorite for afternoon ice cream. Ohiopyle is full of places to eat, perhaps the most famous being the Falls Market, but I just discovered the Bittersweet At The Falls cafe, which serves cappuccinos, a great midday pickup. Cumberland was pretty much closed-down when I was there (Labor Day) but I discovered Uncle Jack’s Pizzeria and they had lots of outdoor seating and good food. From Cumberland to Hancock, the pickings are slim, but the School Kitchen in Oldltown is worth a short diversion, if even just to get some cold water. Shepherdstown is also worth a stop; I can recommend the Lost Dog Cafe, but the town is chock-full of places to eat and drink. Same thing is true of Harpers Ferry, and for those of you who are vegan or vegetarian (like me) and are willing to climb up to Bolivar Heights, there’s the Kelley Farm Kitchen. Nearby is The Barn, an excellent place to stop for al cold brew. My last day I stopped for lunch at White’s Ferry Grill–they have excellent sandwiches.

Pasta at Boca di Beppo.
Bittersweet at the Falls, Ohiopyle

Washington Heights. This is a place not to be missed, in Pittsburgh. I stayed in an Airbnb just at the top of the McArdle Roadway. There is a wonderful walkway along the edge of Grandview Ave. and the view is truly grand. At one end is the Monongahela Incline and about four blocks the other way is the Duquese Incline. You can take your bicycle up or down the incline. At the base of the Monongahela Incline is Station Square, where you find Boca di Beppo. You can also catch the “T” which is the light rail that runs through downtown and the South Hills. Bicycles are allowed on board.

Scenic overlook on Mount Washington

Montour Trail. If you have an extra day or two in the city, this is a pleasant rail/trail that extends 46 miles from near Coraopolis on the Ohio River, west of Pittsburgh, to Clairton, south of Pittsburgh, on the Monongahela River, where it connects to the GAP. The trail itself has several connectors, including one to the Airport and another into Bethel Park, which you can get to on the “T.” It also intersects the Panhandle Trail, which goes to Weirton WV, on the Ohio River.

A bridge on the Montour

The GAP is paved for the first 15 miles out of Pittsburgh and there are several historical markers and places of interest that are worth stopping to check out, such as Homestead, where there was an epic showdown in 1882 with striking steelworkers. At about milepost 136 you pass below Kennywood Amusement Park, where you can pause watch the Phantom’s Revenge rollercoaster as it plunges and arcs above you.

The Phantoms Revenge at Kennywood, taken from the GAP

There are quite a few visitor’s centers along the GAP. I enjoyed stopping at the one in Boston, which also has an original Pittsburgh & Lake Erie boxcar. Another one is in Meyersdale, which is actually a small, free museum.

Visitors center in Boston
Museum and visitor’s center in Meyersdale

The Youghiogheny Gorge is the pearl of the entire GAP: 25 miles of remote and beautiful scenery as the river cuts through the first two of the Allegheny Mountains–Chestnut Ridge and Laurel Ridge. At the center of it is Ohiopyle Falls, a “must” diversion along the way. DO NOT be in a hurry when you pass through town. It has lots of eateries, but can be very crowded on a Summer/Fall weekend.

Ohiopyle Falls

The GAP has four tunnels, the most spectacular of which is the Big Savage, just east of the Eastern Continental Divide. At 3,294 feet it is the longest on the entire route between Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. On the eastern end of the tunnel is an overlook of the valley down to Cumberland. It has benches to take a rest, and I fully advise a photo op. Make sure you remove sunglasses before you enter the tunnel and have a front and rear light. If the lights are off, proceed on foot, but not without a light. Riding through the tunnel can be a bit unnverving (it is for me) but the secret to staying on the path is to keep your focus on the proverbial light at the other end.

Eastern entrance to Big Savage
Overlook east of Big Savage. This is my youngest son is 2010. He pedaled 75 miles from Cumberland to Ohiopyle at age 12!

The Paw Paw Tunnel (milepost 155 on the C&O) is also unique. Almost as long as the Big Savage, this canal tunnel cuts through 3,118 feet of rock. The surface is uneven and you should dismount and go on foot. Like Big Savage, have a light on the front and back of your bike.

Deep inside the Paw Paw tunnel, lined with 6 million bricks. Looking West.

I can also recommend skipping parts of the C&O towpath between Little Orleans and Big Pool (milepost 113) and riding the Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT), a distance of 26 miles. The WMRT is paved and offers a relief from the dirt/gravel towpath. It parallels the C&O, so you really don’t miss anything and you can go faster.

Western Terminus of the WMRT in Little Orleans

A new place for me was Shepherdstown, WV, on the south side of the Potomac and about a 10 minute diversion from the towpath. This is an artsy college town with lots of good eateries and, if you have the time, shopping. Well worth a stop. This is also the point in the trail where the surface is paved with limestone, going east. Unfortunately this superb surface ends at milepost 30…

The turnoff to Shepherdstown, also the place where the towpath is paved with crushed limestone.

Harpers Ferry is my favorite place along the C&O. Full of history, the town has been turned into a museum. I can recommend a day here. There are lots of great places to stay and eat while you see the historical sights and hike the Maryland Heights, where you get a spectacular view of the town.

Harpers Ferry from atop Maryland Heights. The bridge on the lower left is the footbridge for cyclists.