Cycling the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14186A, Bicycle


  • Visit Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water
  • Tour the Antietam National Battlefield Park
  • Stroll the historic streets of Harpers Ferry


  • Nightly lodging
  • Shuttle from Washington, D.C. to the trailhead
  • Local guides and historians


DatesJun 1–8, 2014
StaffPaul Minkus

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Trip Overview

The Trip

One object of my journey is to facilitate as much as in me lay the Inland Navigation of the Potomack - George Washington, 1784

A young George Washington explored and surveyed the upper Potomac Valley. With foresight, he envisioned a canal that would link the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River. Construction of that canal began in 1828. The C&O Canal would only reach halfway to the Ohio River, culminating at Cumberland, Maryland in 1850. It was left to the railroads to carry the traffic the rest of the way to the mighty Ohio River in Pittsburgh. The Potomac Heritage Trail follows that rail bed through the Allegheny Mountains and the towpath of the famous C&O Canal. The 360-mile pathway is an ambitious multi-use trail project that is nearing completion. This outing is intended to be a cultural tour on bicycles. Assisted by local historians and interpreters, this cycling trip will be a passageway into the history, scenery, and culture of Western Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. We will pedal our bicycles past quaint towns, along beautiful rustic rivers, and through the rolling farmland of the countryside. Moderate cycling distances will provide time for the exploration and interpretation of local history, culture, and ecology. We'll enjoy local restaurants and stay nightly in motels and B&Bs.

In 2012, the dream of many Eastern recreation enthusiasts finally became a reality. The Great Allegheny Passage trail project, constructed of many local trail systems, was finally completed. It now runs uninterrupted from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. There, it joins the already complete historic towpath of the C&O Canal to create an ideal 355-mile cycling corridor connecting Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. 


Day 1: We'll meet at 6:30 a.m. in the long-term parking lot of Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C. We will travel with our bikes aboard a shuttle van for a five-hour transfer to the ride's starting point on the Ohio riverfront in downtown Pittsburgh, PA. The shuttle is not mandatory. Participants may meet the group in Pittsburgh. Following a moment for pictures and historical discussion, we will mount up and ride 15 miles to Boston, PA. After dinner and local live music, we'll spend the evening together at a bed and breakfast that's located a very short distance from the trail.  

Day 2: Today is an easy ride on very good flat trail. The steep banks beside the trail lead down to the Youghiogheny River. The rugged river will be our constant companion for the next few days. It is one of the more wild, remote, and beautiful rivers in the East. Our first scheduled stop of the day will be near West Newton. There, we will meet a local environmental educator and trail advocate. The interpreter will discuss the formation of the trail, the river's ecosystem, and the environmental efforts to maintain its natural beauty. Our B&B lodging will be in the historic town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania. The town was the center of coke and coal mining for the burgeoning Pennsylvania steel industry. While there, we will study the colonial & industrial history of Western Pennsylvania.
Day 3: Leaving Connellsville, the former wealth and prosperity of the town is evident in impressive homes and buildings. The trail begins to climb gradually. Our destination is the scenic riverside town of Ohiopyle. The "Falls City" is in the midst of a 20,000-acre state park. Mountain trails, waterfalls, and some of the best whitewater rapids in the Eastern U.S. abound. We will park our bikes and board a shuttle bus for a short ride to what is considered the best work of the acclaimed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Polls of the American architects have frequently considered the elegant Falling Waters among the most inspired examples of American architecture. After touring the home, we shall return to the trail and continue to the steep riverside in the town of Rockwood, where we shall enjoy bed & breakfast accommodations.
Day 4: Today will provide the most beautiful views of the week, and a thrilling descent through a narrow gap in the mountains. Before leaving Rockwood, we will meet with a local watershed advocate and learn about all the local conservation issues. This day of gradual climbing will lead us inexorably toward the crest of the Eastern Continental Divide. The heights of Alleghany Highlands are serene and beautiful as we finally reach the crest of the Divide at Big Savage Mountain. Just beyond is the most impressive structure of our journey. It took 12 million dollars and many years of local advocacy to renovate and re-open the Big Savage Tunnel. It is nearly a mile long and illuminated the entire way. The light we will see at the end of that tunnel opens up to a beautiful panorama of the expansive valley that is hundreds of feet below our wheels.
You will not need to pedal very hard for the next few hours as we descend from the mountain heights toward Cumberland, Maryland and the Potomac River Valley below. A narrow gap on the trail brings the many old church spires of Cumberland into view. Also, we get our first view of the mighty Potomac River. Cumberland is the end of the Alleghany Passage and the beginning of the C&O Canal. On arrival in Cumberland, we will visit the C&O terminus. The terminus is now an enjoyable visitor center and museum. The nearby downtown mall is a mix of interesting shops, galleries, and restaurants.

Day 5: We awake to our longest day. The absence of lodging requires us to ride 60 miles. Along the way we will encounter the ingenious Pawpaw tunnel. This engineering marvel took 14 difficult years to complete and nearly bankrupted the canal corporation. The very canal itself passes through this 3,100-foot long tunnel, with a narrow towpath for the mule beside it. Shortly after the tunnel, we will stop at a well-known local establishment for lunch. Bill's Bar and Café has occupied this location for many years. It is famous for its ceiling, papered with thousands of dollar bills autographed by its salty clientele. Much of our afternoon will be spent in the lush Green Ridge State Forest. The trail in the area follows the many sharp linchpin turns of the Potomac River. On this long day, there is a welcome detour at the end of the day. Our last 14 miles will be cycled on the adjacent, beautifully paved Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT). A welcome B&B arrival finally awaits us in Hancock, Maryland.
Day 6: After breakfast in Hancock, another 11 miles on the WMRT takes us to Fort Frederick State Park. This old fort was erected by the Maryland colony for protection during the French & Indian war in 1754. It also served minor roles in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Leaving Fort Frederick behind, we rejoin the C&O canal pathway on our way to historic Williamsport. We will visit an original working lock & lockhouse prior to leaving the pathway and heading north on rural highways. Our destination is Antietam National Battlefield Park. Antietam was a crucial and momentous battle of America's Civil War. It was the bloodiest single day in American history, ended Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North, and led to the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, the battlefield is beautifully preserved and interpreted. We shall cycle the roads through the park and try to understand how the battle transpired and its significance. In the late afternoon, we shall proceed to our lodging in Shepherdstown, West Virginia beside the Potomac River.
Day 7: Before leaving Shepherdstown, we meet a historian and discover the efforts to preserve the local history and archetecture. The trail leads us to one of the most enjoyable destinations of the week. Harpers Ferry is a crossroad of two great rivers and American history. The most famous event was the raid on the Harpers Ferry National Armory by John Brown in 1860. His plot to start a slave revolt inflamed national passions and led to the Civil War. Today, the town along the river is a wonderful national park that spotlights American industry, history, and transportation. After touring Harpers Ferry, we'll continue downriver. We will board the last remaining Potomac River ferry and spend our last night in the old town of Leesburg, Virginia.
Day 8: Our final day begins early as we cycle the remaining 35 miles into the heart of our nation's capital. As we approach it, the trail will become more congested with the avid cyclists of the Metro area. Outside Washington, we will stop at the dramatic Potomac Falls. At this point, the river narrows from 1,000 to 60 feet wide. The narrow, rock-strewn gorge has picturesque rapids that are a haven for whitewater kayak enthusiasts. The outing will end in the center of the Capital Mall, appropriately at the Washington Monument. It is a splendid and symbolic way to finish our journey.
Participants have many practical transportation options for a return home or back to Pittsburgh. The Union Station Amtrak terminal is nearby. The Reagan International Airport is nearby and has extensive daily regional air service. It is directly accessible on the efficient Metro subway system.



Getting There

The outing will start and end in Washington D.C. We shall meet at 6:30 a.m. on day one at the Reagan Airport economy parking lot just outside Washington, D.C. We will load ourselves and our bikes aboard a shuttle van for a ride to the starting point in Pittsburgh. Washington is easily reached by car.  It also has multiple airports served by many major airlines. Amtrak also serves Washington. Bicycles can be shipped to a nearby bicycle shop that will reassemble and deliver it to the trailhead for a fee. The Washington area is served by a wonderful far-reaching Metro transit system. Bicycles are permitted on Metro trains and there is a station at the Reagan Airport. Detailed lodging and transportation suggestions are available upon registration.

Accommodations and Food

We will all be sharing accommodations at motels and B&Bs that have been selected for their quality, location, availability, and affordability. The trip fee is based on double occupancy, and singles will have to share rooms. Roster information will be provided to all participants. Breakfasts will be provided some mornings by our lodging hosts. All shuttles, tours, and admissions are included in the trip price. Most lunches and all dinners are not included in the trip price. We will eat lunches along the trail, and eat dinner together as a group each evening.

Trip Difficulty

This outing requires cycling experience. Most experienced cyclists will find this outing to be only moderately difficult. The itinerary contains one unavoidable 60-mile day. All other days will be approximately 45-50 miles. The Alleghany Passage portion of the itinerary is well paved, with a durable crushed limestone surface. The C&O Canal towpath surface is hard-pack dirt and gravel and somewhat rougher. The riding conditions on the C&O canal portion of this outing depend greatly on its recent weather. Large rainfalls can render it somewhat muddy and rutted, and will increase the level of difficulty. We will also ride on some local streets and highways to get to restaurants, lodgings, and interpretive sites. The trail itself is not hilly and the grade does not exceed five percent. However, on the first three days, the trail does climb imperceptibly, gaining over 1,600 feet to the Eastern Continental Divide. After crossing that divide, the remainder of the trip is downhill. We do have one day on our itinerary where we will be riding 22 miles off the designated pathway. That day we will ride on two-lane rural highways, with moderate hills, and a paved shoulder most of the way. This is a self-contained tour. There will be no support vehicle. Participants will only need to carry their clothing and personal items along with them in panniers on their bicycles. We will be staying nightly at pre-arranged motels and B&Bs along our route. We will ride daily, regardless of the weather. However, the leader always considers the health and welfare of the group.

Those who apply for this outing should be mentally and physically prepared for such a journey. They should be self-confident in their cycling abilities and be able to assure themselves and the leader that they are capable. Our outing is early in the summer season, but the leader expects participants to have been riding in preparation for this outing. The leader would be happy to advise participants on suggestions for equipment and fitness preparation. The minimum age for trip acceptance is 18, unless the leader provides approval. 

Equipment and Clothing

Participants will need a bicycle and bike packs (panniers) to carry their gear on the Alleghany Passage/C&O Canal Pathway. Bicycles must be mechanically sound and in highly reliable condition with new tires. Participants are encouraged to have their bicycles serviced by a capable mechanic prior to the outing. Road, mountain, or "hybrid/cross" bikes can all be suitable for riding this trail. However, the pathway can be coarse, muddy, or wet in spots, and narrow road tires are prohibited. Rental bikes are available and can be reserved at a moderate price. There are numerous bike shops along our route where parts and experienced mechanics may be available. Detailed bulletins explaining all equipment requirements will be sent upon registration.



The success of the Potomac Heritage Trail is a sturdy testament to the power of regional activism. The Rails-to-Trails movement has been successful in preserving abandoned rail corridors for use as multi-use recreational trails. The effort to improve and expand the trails in the region will be highlighted. Another conservation focus of this outing is the continued need to fund the preservation of historic sites. Due to urban sprawl and lack of funding, many of our cherished places are threatened. We shall also observe a sprawling wind farm and discuss the issues regarding this alternative energy source.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park.



Paul Minkus really cherishes the pageant of our American history and the local efforts to preserve it. He is 61, and is the devoted father of a very "special" 28 year-old daughter. He lives in the Chicago area. An experienced hiker, paddler, skier, and cyclist, he has led 39 outings for the Sierra Club, including sixteen successful cycling tours. Paul has completed the 80-hour Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification course. He is a graduate of the 1996 Sierra Club leadership training class. "My main concern as an outing leader is the safety and fulfillment of my participants." Paul works as an athletic official and recreation coordinator. In his spare time, he enjoys music, photography and golf.

Assistant Leader:

Paul Gross, an avid outdoor enthusiast, has been a cycling and backpacking vegetarian living in harmony with his surroundings for many decades. Ten years spent building his homestead in the Ozarks and living self-sufficiently off the land have given him a significant appreciation of being with nature. Paul has been leading local Sierra Club outings for the past 20 years, and national outings for 11 years. Paul has trained, and received his Wilderness First Responder Certification. Besides backpacking 5-6 weeks per year, Paul is also an avid cycling tourist and capable bicycle mechanic. He has completed several long-distance, self-supported cycling tours with his wife Melody on their tandem bicycle. When not backpacking or cycling, Paul can be found in his garden, experimenting in the kitchen, or ballroom dancing with Melody. In his spare time, Paul supports himself as a remodeling contractor, carpenter, and cabinet/furniture maker. This is the 3rd cycling outing he has led with Paul Minkus.

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