Trip Number: 12190A
Staff: Paul Minkus
- 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
"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 340-mile pathway is an ambitious multi-use trail project that is nearing completion. Assisted by local historians and interpreters, our 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, beautiful rustic rivers, and through the rolling farmland of the countryside. Moderate cycling distances will provide ample 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 2007, the dream of many Eastern recreation enthusiasts became a reality. The Great Allegheny Passage, constructed of many local trail systems, became continuous. It now runs uninterrupted from outside Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. There, it joins the already complete historic towpath of the C&O Canal to create a 340-mile corridor connecting Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. The remaining 15 miles of trail to the Ohio River in Pittsburgh will be complete near the end of 2012.
Photo: Paul Minkus
Day 1: This day will be devoted to preparation and shuttle transportation. We'll meet at 10 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 in Boston, Pennsylvania. The shuttle is not mandatory. Participants may meet the group at our lodging facility in Boston. After dinner and local live music, we'll spend the evening together at a bed and breakfast located a very short distance from the trailhead. The B&B will be the site of our important pre-trip orientation and trip preparations.
Day 2: After breakfast and final preparations, we will hit the trail. 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 river's ecosystem and the environmental efforts to maintain its natural beauty. Our first evening will be in the town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania. 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 town was the center
of coke and coal mining for the burgeoning Pennsylvania steel industry. 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 will 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 will 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.
Photo: Paul Minkus
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
Paw Paw Tunnel. This engineering marvel took 14 difficult years to complete
and nearly bankrupted the canal corporation. The 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 arrival finally awaits us in Hancock,
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 what its significance is. 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 architecture. 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 on the Capital Mall in Washington, D.C. 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.
Photo: Paul Minkus
The outing will start at our lodging facility in Boston, Pennsylvania. Boston is 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We shall meet at 10:30 a.m. on day one at Reagan Airport just outside Washington, D.C. We will load ourselves and our bikes aboard a shuttle van for a five-hour ride to the starting point in Boston. The shuttle is not mandatory. Participants may meet the group at our lodging facility in Boston. There is convenient free parking located at the Alleghany Passage trailhead in Boston. Boston can be reached from Pittsburgh via numerous shuttle services serving cyclists trying to access the Alleghany Passage. Bicycles can be shipped to a nearby bicycle shop that will reassemble and deliver it to the trailhead for a fee.
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. Couples will have private occupancy, while 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.
Most fit and experienced cyclists will find most of 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 much rougher. The riding conditions on the C&O canal portion of this outing depend greatly on how wet it is. Large rainfalls can render it somewhat muddy and rutted, and truly 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 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 20 miles off the designated pathway. That day we will ride on two-lane rural highways, with a paved shoulder most of the way. This is a self-contained tour. There will be no support vehicle. Participants will need to carry only 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. A regular fitness program is recommended for all participants. 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
Photo: Paul Minkus
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 expert 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.
Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park.
See the How to Apply for an Outing section for more details on registering for this trip and details
about our Reservation and Cancellation Policy.
The payment of a deposit does not confirm you as a member on the trip. Participants must be approved by the trip leader. After signing up for this trip, you will be sent a confirmation packet containing approval materials (Participant Approval Questionnaire, Medical Form, Liability Release Form). Each applicant (including those on the waitlist) must fill out these forms and promptly mail them to the trip leader. The leader will review the approval materials and notify you of your acceptance in a timely manner.
Paul Minkus really cherishes the pageant of our American history and the local efforts to preserve it. He is 59, and is the father of a very "special" 26 year-old daughter. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife Donna Kurtz. An experienced hiker, paddler, skier, and cyclist, he has led 35 outings for the Sierra Club including 15 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 is also leading another cycling outing for the Sierra Club this year, "Cycling Colonial Williamsburg." Paul works as an athletic official and recreation coordinator. In his spare time, he enjoys photography and golf.
Donna Kurtz takes advantage of every opportunity for outdoor pursuits with her husband, fellow Sierra Club leader Paul Minkus. Although Donna's career as a financial advisor and public servant requires focus in managing her business, she still finds time to bike, run, swim, hike, and cross-country ski as much as possible. Donna is certified in wilderness first aid and in her ninth year of outing leadership. Donna has been an assistant leader on 6 previous National Outing bicycle tours.
General Notes About Sierra Club Trips