Frequently Asked Questions
Here’s a brief list of answers to questions commonly asked by folks planning an outing on the Great Allegheny Passage or C&O Canal Towpath. For a comprehensive resource, pick up a copy of TrailGuide and the official trip-planning map it contains.
What’s the best method of travel?
Cyclists, runners, walkers and hikers enjoy both trails (they can connect to the Appalachian Trail and Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, for example). Horseback riders can pick from selected sections of the GAP, rollerbladers excel on paved sections near Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., and cross-country skiers often take advantage of winter snow at higher elevations.
What’s the distance between towns?
On the GAP, you’re never more than nine miles from a trail town, putting overnight lodging, dining, and outfitters within a easy ride or hike. On the C&O Canal Towpath, which is within a National Historic Park, you’re in the woods for stretches of nearly 30 miles at a time, with abundant opportunities for camping. While some hamlets provide services, canal towns are spaced apart, so scheduling your stops takes some advance planning.
What is the surface like? What about elevation changes?
Nearly all of the Great Allegheny Passage is evenly-topped with crushed limestone, although there are some short paved sections in Connellsville and Cumberland, and a 19-mile stretch paved between McKeesport, and Downtown Pittsburgh. It is relatively smooth and easy to pedal, run, or hike. Over the 23.7 miles from Cumberland to the Eastern Continental Divide, it rises 1,767 feet steadily (about 1.5 percent on average), enough to notice, but not so much to detract from the winding mountain views. From the Eastern Continental Divide, 125.1 miles to Downtown Pittsburgh, the GAP drops 1,680 feet imperceptibly (about 0.25 percent on average), making it feel like a light tailwind at times. At road crossings, watch for temporary changes of surface.
In contrast, the C&O Canal Towpath is nearly level, gaining only 605 feet from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland. Since it was built for mules in the 1830’s and 1840’s, cyclists, hikers, and runners find it slower going, and a mix of trail surfaces (a bit of hard-packed stone, some sections of limestone, but largely two-track packed dirt, roots, and rocks) makes for a bumpier journey. The section from Edward’s Ferry to Shepherdstown has been recently resurfaced with fresh limestone, making it quite smooth.
Where can I park?
There is plenty of parking along the Great Allegheny Passage and along the C&O Canal Towpath, typically in trail towns but also at other trailheads in between. Overnight parking is limited to certain locations, and you’ll likely pay for parking in Downtown Pittsburgh, on Pittsburgh’s South Side, and in Georgetown (or anywhere around Washington, D.C.), whether you’re parking for the day or overnight.
Are the GAP or C&O Canal Towpath ever closed?
Both trails are open year-round, and you’ll find busy sections during spring, summer, and fall, often on the weekends near Washington, D.C. (and nearby Great Falls Tavern and Overlook), between Homestead and Pittsburgh, and near favorite trail towns like Harpers Ferry, Cumberland and Ohiopyle.
While there’s camping available along both trails, the GAP and C&O Canal Towpath are only open for travel from dawn to dusk. You may want a flashlight, headlamp, or bike light for tunnels, but you should plan on daylight travel only.
Please note that the GAP’s Big Savage Tunnel (between Meyersdale and Frostburg) is closed from early December to early April without an easy detour, so plan your thru-trip for other times of the year. Watch for annual updates specifying closing and opening dates. Sections of the C&O Canal Towpath are prone to flooding after major storms, and it’s best to check for temporary closures or detours within the C&O National Historical Park directly.
Is there cell coverage?
While cell coverage is improving along both the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal Towpath, you may find yourself without service between trail towns, and even available service can be spotty. Call 911 in case of emergency, and always alert a friend to your intended plans.
Where can I charge my phone?
Take advantage of lunch and dinner stops to recharge your cell phone, and make sure it is ready to go when you are. Don’t rely on USB-only cords, either; bring a cord with a complete wall plug. Hiker-biker campgrounds typically do not have electrical hookups, although some private campgrounds do.
Where can I fill up water bottles?
Most trail town businesses will allow customers to fill their water bottles, and most (but not all) campgrounds have potable water available seasonally. Still, it’s best to carry two bottles and to top them off whenever possible to stay hydrated and prepared. Thru-travelers may wish to carry a water filter or pump, especially on the C&O Canal Towpath.
Where are the restrooms?
Along the Great Allegheny Passagage, aside from trail town businesses, and friendly stops like the West Newton Visitor Center, Ohiopyle State Park Visitor Center, Meyersdale Area Historical Society, or Canal Place, you may be limited to chemical toilets at campgrounds. You may wish to carry hand sanitizer in case options are limited.
Where can I stay overnight?
There are many options for overnight lodging along both trails. The GAP is known for trail towns with B&B’s, guesthouses, hostels, inns, and hotels, from fancy to modest. Much of the GAP is along private land, so you cannot camp “just anywhere.” However, there are hiker-biker, public, and private campgrounds along the way to make camping easy for bicyclists. Hikers will need to blend indoor and outdoor lodging to avoid long days.
The C&O Canal Towpath is known for hiker-biker (and some nearby private) campgrounds every few miles, making it easy to start and end your day at your convenience. While there are fewer canal towns, most have B&B’s, inns, and guesthouses that cater to trail travelers. Note that some lodging options are a few miles off the trail via some on-road travel.
If you’re planning to stay at hotels, inns, B&B’s, or hostels, you’ll want to make reservations in advance to make sure you’ve got a roof over your head.
Hiker-biker campgrounds are first-come, first-served, and seldom full, but be prepared to travel a little further in case all sites are taken. Note that hiker-biker campgrounds often limit group sizes to six per campsite.
Where are the best spots for breakfast, lunch, or dinner?
Trail towns along both the GAP and the C&O Canal Towpath feature a mix of dining options, including restaurants, cafes, diners, and specialty shops like distilleries and breweries. Ice cream is always popular! Some towns will have one or two dining options, but most will have several to choose from. You can often pick up snacks and groceries in towns, as well. Please note that some restaurants have limited hours on Sundays and Mondays, and during the winter months, so it’s best to call ahead for hours. If you’re camping and handling your own meals, packing a small cooking set and propane stove is a foolproof way to make sure you have a hot meal.
What about traveling among large groups?
Groups are welcome on both trails. For groups over 25, please contact the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy at [email protected] for permits.
Keep in mind that most trail town lodging and dining options aren’t accustomed to large groups without reservations. You may need to split up among several lodging partners or restaurants. We encourage you to spend your money in trail towns rather than bringing in mobile food trailers.
Also, please be respectful of the speed of your slowest traveler, so you don’t drop someone inadvertently. It’s best to travel in duos or trios. Lastly, please do take caution at road and railroad crossings.
What about dogs?
Both the GAP and C&O Canal Towpath are dog-friendly. Please keep your dog on a leash at all times, and be mindful not to have the leash cross over the width of the trail. Pay special attention to other travelers, especially those approaching on bikes from behind, to avoid injury. If you’re camping, please leash your dog so it doesn’t disturb other travelers. It should go without saying that you must clean up after your dog and pack out waste.
What are some common precautions?
When you’re traveling, use common sense, stay hydrated, and keep alert to puddles, rocks, and other trail users. Watch for younger or older travelers. Take a break when you get tired.
Be alert for cars and uneven surfaces at road and railroad crossings. Watch for groundhogs, deer, pheasants, or snakes that may be crossing the trail surface, and give them plenty of space.
Some additional advice for bicyclists: Don’t use your cell phone while riding. Call out “biker passing on your left” or use a bike bell, and slow down when coming up on dog walkers, runners, or hikers. Walk your bike in the Pinkerton Tunnel or Paw Paw Tunnel, which are unlit.
Lastly, if you are biking, you should wear a helmet to avoid injury in case you take an unexpected spill. In Pennsylvania, children (under age 12) must wear helmets, as must children (under age 15) in Maryland. Make sure your helmet fits properly. Check out a full list of rules and safety.
What’s the weather like?
The mid-atlantic region among Downtown Pittsburgh, Cumberland, and features humid, warm summers and cold winters. Spring and autumn are more temperate. Check the forecast ahead of your trip. If you’re out for a weekend or week-long adventure, you might find yourself traveling in a rain shower. A rain jacket will help keep you dry, but puddles or standing water (primarily on the C&O Canal Towpath) will splash your legs and “stripe” your back while on a bicycle. Fenders can prevent this, of course, but they can also fill with caked-on mud after heavier rains.
How do I get back to my car?
Amtrak’s Capitol Limited provides one-way service among Downtown Pittsburgh, Connellsville, Cumberland, Harpers Ferry, and Washington, D.C. For an extra $20, you can reserve a place to transport your bike to get back to your starting spot. Bicycle spots are limited, so make a reservation well in advance of your trip.
If you’re starting or finishing outside a trail town not served by Amtrak, consider hiring a private shuttle service or outfitter to take you from your endpoint back to your car. Of course, you can hire a service to provide just the shuttle or to take care of planning the entire trip. There are several outfitters and tour operators who offer a variety of packaged or flexible trips on both trails.
Consider renting a minivan or SUV for a one-way return trip. Your best options are the major car rental companies in Pittsburgh, Cumberland, and Washington, D.C. Alternatively, you might plan to be retrieved by a friend, or have someone drive a support vehicle from town to town to mirror your itinerary and pick you up at the end.
What kind of bike is best?
Many types of bicycles work well on the Great Allegheny Passage, including touring bikes, hybrids, mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, urban commuters, and department store specials. Even a road bike might work during dry weather. Fixed-gear bikes work okay, but most travelers prefer being able to change gears in trail towns. Tandems, trikes, and recumbents are quite popular. Fat bikes are unnecessary unless there’s deep snow. A 28 mm tire or larger is your best bet.
It’s another story on the C&O Canal Towpath, though, where you’ll want tires with some width (at least 32 mm) and grip. Many riders are glad to have a front shock or suspension to ease the bumps. Road bikes are inadequate and trikes are cumbersome; neither are recommended.
Make sure your bike is in good condition before you start, and know how to fix a flat tire (bring a hand-pump and some spare tubes even on a day ride), repair a broken chain, or tighten a loose seatpost. A roll of duct tape and some zip ties can provide a temporary fix to other issues. There are fix-it stations with pumps and tools, placed strategically, along the GAP. Of course, make sure your bike fits you properly, whether it is yours or a rental, by having a bike shop representative adjust the seat, tire pressure, handlebars, and brakes to your liking. There are outfitters that rent, sell, or repair bikes in many trail towns.
How far can I bike or hike?
Most cyclists can average eight to ten miles per hour, but it depends on how many stops you would like to make for snacks, photo ops, and greeting other travelers. Day-trippers with no gear or lighter loads can often move more quickly. If you’re carrying gear for overnight travel and/or camping, you may travel more slowly. For hikers, about three miles per hour is a reasonable pace. Most overnight and thru-riders tackle between 35 and 60 miles a day — half before lunch and half after lunch — depending on their destination. Along the GAP, trail towns are between 10 and 20 miles apart, so there are places to stop, refuel, explore, and enjoy. On the C&O Canal Towpath, you’ll need to be able to ride 30 miles between some towns.
What kind of gear do I need?
If you’re a bicyclist heading out for a day trip, you’ll likely want to pack a trunk bag for a hand pump, spare tube, bike tools, snacks, perhaps a jacket, and your phone and keys. Carry at least one water bottle, or two just in case. You’ll be fine with a pair of sneakers, or whatever shoes you normally ride in. Hikers ought to carry a day pack and have comfortable footwear. For overnight and thru trips, it all depends on how much gear you have, and whether you’re camping or staying in overnight lodging. Do bring an extra pair of “town shoes” or “camp shoes” for once you’re off the trail.
If you’re carrying baggage on your bike, you may consider a trunk bag and a handlebar bag, and/or saddlebags on your rear or front racks. Some bicyclists use trailers, although the bumpier and narrower C&O Canal Towpath can be a challenge for trailers with two wheels. Hikers will want a backpack that can carry between 30 and 65 liters of gear, and you’ll want boots or trail shoes that fit well. Here are some recommended items for overnight or thru trips:
|Outerwear||Camping Supplies||Tools and Bike Parts|
|Warm shirt or windbreaker|
Clothes for lodging or camping
Rain jacket, fleece hat
Long-sleeved shirt and pants
Padded cycling shorts
Wicking-fabric t-shirts or jerseys with pockets
Cycling gloves and helmet
Synthetic or wool socks (2-3 pairs)
Extra pair of “town” shoes or sandals
|Tent or bivy with tarp/rainfly|
Sleeping pad (closed cell are lighter)
Sleeping bag (down is best)
Backpacking stove with fuel
Matches or lighter
Cooking kit, utensils
Sheet or sleeping bag liner
Water filter or iodine
Extra Ziploc bags
Food (carry an extra meal)
Clothesline or nylon rope
Spare tube and spokes for your wheel
Tire levers and patch kit
Headlamp or flashlight
Leatherman or pocket knife
Small set of Allen wrenches
Duct tape, zip ties, and rubber bands
For a complete list of recommended gear for overnight and thru-trips on the Great Allegheny Passage or C&O Canal Towpath, pick up a copy of TrailGuide.
If you would like to travel light, you can hire a shuttle service, trip planner, or outfitter to haul your luggage among trail towns. Or you can arrange a friend to transport your gear and meet you at your next lodging location. (If you’re camping, keep in mind that most hiker-biker campgrounds are not accessible by shuttle service or car.) There are a number of outfitters that arrange self-guided tours and shuttle services for you, ahead of time.
Do I need a bike lock?
Most, but not all, lodging properties will have secure storage for your bike or backpack. Ask ahead of time. Most travelers at hiker-biker campgrounds are “trail-friendly” and honor one another’s property, but you may wish to bring a cable lock for peace of mind.