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Canals and Trails Adventure: May – June, 2013

Bill Scott and I had thought about riding the Erie Canal years ago when his son was at Hamilton College. It never worked out. Several years ago we planned to drive out to central Pennsylvania and do some day riding in the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania and nearby areas. On the first day I stepped on a rock in a lake, gashed my foot, had it stitched up, returned home, and ended up in the hospital for a week with a serious infection. Last year we dreamed up the crazy idea of combining these trips with the GAP (Great Allegheny Passage) and C&O rail trails, but we had a bike accident in Florida and had to cancel that idea. Finally this year it worked out!

Summary — 1,200 miles in 4 weeks. 685 miles on trails: Erie Canal (345 miles), Pine Creek Trail (70 miles) through Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, Ghost Town Trail (37 miles), West Penn Trail (17 miles), Westmoreland Trail (5 miles), Great Allegheny Passage (150 miles), and C&O Canal (60 miles).

Highlight — The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is awesome—now my top pick among US bike trails. Beautiful scenery along rivers and through hills and valleys, impressive bridges and tunnels, several pleasant towns, fascinating history, excellent crushed cinder surface, gentle railroad grades, and an example of very impressive cooperation among many volunteer organizations, towns, counties, and companies.

Lowlight — Food poisoning in Tyrone, PA. We both had a miserable night and day after a delicious supper at Uri’s Rib Shack. But we both also benefitted from the kindness of our B&B host and a fellow cyclist on the road who provided rides to the next day’s destination. We felt sluggish on the bikes for another couple of days, and then woke up actually excited about riding again.

WarmShowers — Always a highlight. We stayed with 10 wonderful people/families who welcomed us into their homes and provided various combinations of showers, lodging, laundry, meals, and other help. This is so much more than a way to save money; it’s a way to interact with very interesting people and learn about their lives and the areas where they live.

Weather — Some hot, some cold, and some ideal. In 26 days we had a wet couple of hours into Schenectady, a rainy day holed up in Wellsboro, a rainy day riding the C&O, and we ended the trip two days early in Hancock, MD, to avoid more heavy rain and heavy mud on the C&O Trail. Bill’s twin sister was so kind to drive out to pick us up and take us back to her warm dry home near Baltimore.

Photos — Below are my 48 best photos and brief descriptions. I have divided the trip into five sections:

1. Green Mountains > 2. Erie Canal > 3. Western NY > 4. Western NY & PA > 5. GAP

1.    Green Mountains — 135 miles in 2.5 days across southern New Hampshire and Vermont. First night in Brattleboro; second night in North Bennington. Cool weather with a 10–15 mph headwind, and we had snow flurries over Searsburg Mountain on the second day.

2.    Erie Canal — 345 miles in 6.5 days across New York

The Erie Canal runs about 363 miles from Albany, New York, on the Hudson River to Buffalo, New York, at Lake Erie. It contains 36 locks and encompasses a total elevation differential of approximately 565 ft. Construction was started in 1817 and it was officially opened on October 26, 1825, thereby completing the first transportation system between the eastern seaboard and the western interior of the United States that did not require portage, was faster than carts pulled by draft animals, and cut transport costs by about 95%. []

Tod at Waterford Steps

The Waterford Steps is a series of 5 locks that parallel the Mohawk River and raise boats 170 feet above the Hudson River in 1.3 miles. It takes a lot of energy to lift big boats 170 feet, all of which is provided free by water flowing down the Mohawk River. The views over the Hudson Valley are wonderful.

Cohoes Falls

The Waterford Steps bypassed Cohoes Falls, which also provided the energy for many mills during the 19th century. The flow is currently about average; it can be much more or less. After a sunny/cloudy morning, we had a couple of hours of good rain on the first part of the canal; but we were dry in sunshine when we reached Schenectady.

Old Schenectady

The Stockade District near the river in Old Schenectady is worth a visit. [] Very near downtown, it’s a neighborhood of historic homes and churches, some of which have been gentrified.

Along the Mohawk

Since our WarmShowers host had to get to work early, we had an early breakfast at Mike’s diner and a lovely early-morning ride along the Mohawk River.

Pineapple house

With the early start, we arrived in Canojoharie in time for lunch. We looked around town, hung out at a park on the river, and still arrived at the Pineapple House B&B by 3—in time for a couple of beers with our generous hosts. In fact, Bill and Janine Nelson ended up cooking a delightful pizza dinner for us and their two other guests.

Erie path

The bike trail along the Erie Canal varies, but even along this lovely section the surface is quite good.

General's home

General Herkimer was a hero in the Revolutionary War. He built this beautiful home overlooking the Mohawk River in 1764. In 1777 he was seriously wounded in the Oriskany Ambush, required a leg amputation, and died here soon after from infection.

Angel's nest

Mary Davis bought this former convent in Rome and made it into a B&B. She spent her entire working life teaching elementary dependents in US military schools all over the world. She was a rebel who refused to live on bases, instead living in towns in the Phillipines, Ethiopia, Germany, etc. She has filled the home with 12,000 pounds of special furniture from around the world.

When we asked for dinner recommendations, Mary told us about several in downtown Rome. Then she exclaimed, “Oh, it’s Friday night. Fish-fry night at the Polish Home.” When we told her we weren’t crazy about fried fish, she said they had prime rib too—delicious, but a little more expensive at $11.95. She walked us down there and introduced us to the bartender, waitress, etc. Everyone welcomed us with “Mother Mary,” and it was very good—with draft beers at $2!


Bill had some trouble getting by some Canada geese with young chicks. He thought I was returning to help out, but I was only coming to take photos.


One of three drydocks at the very good Chitenango Canal Museum. We visited another very good canal museum in Syracuse.

model trains

This is only a small part of Dale’s fantastic model railroad setup in his basement, which we stumbled upon while doing laundry.

old erie canal

The original Erie Canal crossed the Genessee River in downtown Rochester. Later the updated New York State Barge Canal (often still called the Erie Canal) detoured around the south of the city. We rode a very pleasant 7-mile detour on bike trails down the west side of the Genessee River to see the city and back up the east side.

We stayed at the Schoolhouse B&B in Albion and walked over the canal on this convenient bridge to the excellent Crooked Door restaurant.

Model amusement park

Next morning after a good hearty breakfast, Lou and Jeri offered us a tour of the B&B. It didn’t sound very compelling, but we decided to be polite—and were blown away by the exhibition hall upstairs. You would have to see it to believe it, or at least see their website. []

Cobblestone church

Next morning we detoured a few miles north to ride along Ridge Rd. and see some of the cobblestone buildings. They were considered very stylish in their day. The cobblestones came from the shore of Lake Ontario, which has gradually receded north.

Old/new Lockport

On the original Erie Canal (somewhat hard to see on the left) there were 5 locks to climb the Niagara Escarpment in Lockport. The newer NY State Barge Canal built the two larger locks on the right to simplify the lift and accommodate larger boats. The Niagara Escarpment is a massive ridge of sedimentary rock that runs predominantly east-west from Watertown, NY, through Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. It is most famous as the cliff over which Niagara Falls plunges. The caprock is weather-resistant dolomitic limestone, which overlies weaker, more easily eroded shale. Over millions of years the gradual erosion of the softer shale has undercut the resistant caprock, leaving a cliff or escarpment. [from:]

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3.    Western New York — 110 miles in 3 days from Lockport to Lake Ontario, Fort Niagara, Niagara Falls, and Buffalo

Looks like a fun field trip. Fort Niagara, at the critical portage junction of Lake Ontario and the Niagara River, played an active role in three wars in the struggle to control the Great Lakes region of North America: the French and Indian War (1759), the Revolutionary War, and the war of 1812. Unlike some of the forts we've visited on the coast of Maine, this is a fort where many people actually fought and died on the ground we stood on.

We again rode up the Niagara Escarpment and visited the third largest hydroelectric plant in the US. On the opposite side of the river is a similar Canadian plant. During the night they divert up to 75% of the water flowing over the falls through these two plants to generate electricity! Water flows through two conduits 68 feet high and 46 feet wide that run under the city of Niagara Falls. This massive infrastructure project was built in only three years, completed three weeks ahead of schedule in 1960! Very impressive with a good visitor center.

What can you say about Niagara Falls? Since we both forgot our passports, we were limited to the American side.

Trinity church

Wright house

Our plan included an extra day in this area, in case we needed it somewhere. We didn’t, and very much enjoyed the easy days and extra sightseeing up to Lake Ontario, Fort Niagara, the falls—and Buffalo! On a cold windy day we rode two fantastic walking tours of historic Buffalo. The highlights were Trinity Church, with 15 gorgeous windows by Tiffany and LaFarge [], and the Darwin Martin house, an early and beautiful design by Frank Lloyd Wright [].

Ray and MaryAnne with his very sophisticated and impressive electric Trek.

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4.    Western New York and Pennsylvania — 380 miles in 9 days from Buffalo to Pittsburgh

A less sophisticated homemade electric bike parked in front of the delicious Elm Street Bakery in East Aurora

We spent a night in Wellsville, NY, a very pleasant county seat—and home of the regionally famous Texas Hot restaurant. People told us about it for miles around, but it was too crowded and the wrong time of day for us.

We spent two nights and a very rainy day in Wellsboro, PA, another very pleasant county seat. Very good library, motels, B&Bs, and restaurants. We hypothesized that there is more money in county seats.

Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania


Turtle laying eggs

It was worth holing up in Wellsboro for the rainy day, so we had a gorgeous day to ride the Pine Creek Trail for 70 miles down the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. The name is an (unfortunate?) exaggeration, but it is a beautiful and remote 1,000-foot deep wooded valley with a beautiful bike trail along the river. Early in the morning we saw several foxes, rabbits, snakes, deer, and turtles laying eggs on the edge of the trail.

After a good dinner and lousy room at the Pine Creek Inn near the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we almost missed the Avis Diner. Can you see why? We were hungry after an hour of riding, and would not have been happy if we had to continue riding without breakfast. Food was plentiful and good.

Riley’s B&B in Tyrone, PA, was a real treasure in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, when we asked our hosts to recommend a good restaurant, his response was, “I wish I could.” We ended up waiting 45 minutes for ribs, fries, and baked beans, which were delicious the first time. They didn’t taste so good the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. times between midnight and 8 AM. We both had some kind of food poisoning, and felt terrible the next day. Bill was in worse shape, so our plan was that I would try riding 50 miles to our next stop, and our host would drive Bill there later in the afternoon. If I couldn’t make it, I would call, return, and we would spend an extra day in Tyrone.

I left at 10, as the weather was already hot. Riding flat land seemed OK, but riding hills was very painful on my stomach. After one hour I encountered road work. Only once have I been unable to get by road work—when a bridge was out in Montana. This turned out to be the second time. Returning to the start of the detour, avoiding the car detour on I-99, and riding a special detour through town was going to add about 10 miles and an hour to an already difficult day. I was near tears, but decided to keep trying. On the detour through town, another cyclist caught up with me, and we talked for a couple of miles. Barry ended up taking me home, feeding me water and banana, and driving me in his new truck the next 40 miles to our motel in Blairsville. Today was the worst and best moments of the trip—all within one hour! What can you say about kindness?

Today we rode the beautiful Ghost Town Trail [], down Black Lick Creek and past several towns that were once thriving in the early 1800s, when this area mined iron ore and coal to make crude iron in blast furnaces like the Eliza Furnace shown here. Development of better ore and techniques elsewhere led to the end of prosperity in this area.

The West Penn Trail runs for 17 miles along the corridor of the Portage Railroad that operated from 1830 to 1864 between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. [] The trail includes a short, but very steep, detour around a closed tunnel. We could just barely push our bikes up the stairs and trail around a huge fallen tree, and then return for our panniers. No question though: it was worth it!

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5.    GAP (Great Allegheny Passage) and C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio Canal)
215 miles in 4 days from Pittsburgh to Hancock, Maryland (120 miles short of Washington, DC)

When we told people in the Pittsburgh area that we rode from Boston, they were not very impressed.

Iron ore is present everywhere in western Pennsylvania.

We crossed paths several times with a very nice father-son team riding the GAP/C&O from Pittsburgh to Washington. Note the clever (and truly waterproof!) panniers made from kitty-litter boxes.

This station in Connelsville, PA, was one of five in town! Several railroads intersected here, and each had their own station. During World War II many military men passed through here, and a plaque says the USO canteen was open 24-7 and served 3,500 men per day.

One of the impressive bridges on the GAP near Ohiopyle. Weird name, but a great town to stay in if we’d known that. It is on the GAP, near whitewater rafting, and the nearest town to Falling Water (Frank Lloyd Wright house); so it can support good motels, B&Bs, restaurants—and a great bakery!

A 100-yard tunnel on the current railroad has been replaced with a “cut” through the hill to allow higher freight cars. How much did this cost? The GAP bike trail (on the original railroad line) travels 1.5 miles around the hill.

In Rockwood, PA, we rented this very nice 3-bedroom ranch for $85 for the night.

The Salisbury Viaduct carried the Western Maryland Railroad 1,900 feet across the Casselman River Valley until 1975.

The Eastern Continental Divide. Water to the west flows down the Casselman, Youghiogheny, Monongahela, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. Water to the east flows down Wills Creek and the Potomac River to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. We climbed very gradually (0.3%) over 125 miles from 700 feet in Pittsburgh to 2,400 feet at the divide, and then dropped relatively quickly (1.4%) over 25 miles from the divide at 2,400 feet to Cumberland at 600 feet. Then it’s mostly level for 300 miles to Washington—only dropping at the locks!

The Big Savage Tunnel (named for John Savage, surveyor) is near the divide, 3,300 feet long, (sort of) lighted, smooth, cool, and relatively easy to ride through. However, I reaffirmed that I just don’t enjoy riding through tunnels.

Just down from the tunnel we came across a man photographing rocks, lichen, bushes, or something. When Bill stopped to check it out, I decided to return and see what was so interesting. The man, whom we had been talking with near the tunnel, was photographing a group of several intertwined rattlesnakes that had emerged from their hole to enjoy the warm sun. Although they were only twenty feet off the trail, we never would have noticed them if this man hadn’t heard about them before and stopped while we were passing. Exciting? Scary?

Ten miles down the hill to Cumberland, we decided to stop in Frostburg for ice cream. We didn’t know it was a very steep mile up the road into town, and then Main Street continues up. It was worth it, though.

Cumberland, MD, half-way between Pittsburgh and Washington and the meeting point of the GAP and C&O Trails, is almost a required stopping point. The next towns in both directions are about 60 miles (excluding Frostburg at 10 miles). Although the town is busy with traffic, the main street has been converted to a very pleasant pedestrian mall—with good restaurants and an evening concert.

Thirty miles east of Cumberland, the 3,100-foot Paw Paw Tunnel [] carries both the C&O Canal and the bike/tow path through the hill to avoid a six-mile stretch of the Potomac River that includes five horseshoe bends. The bike/tow path is very narrow, very rough, unlighted, and littered with puddles. Even with a wooden fence to protect people from falling into the canal, I enjoyed this tunnel even less!

The rain increased all during the day, and was quite heavy for the last 30 miles after the tunnel. We buried the cameras for protection and focused on getting to our motel in Hancock as fast as possible. Next morning Betsy (Bill’s twin sister) picked us up in a borrowed truck and drove us to her warm dry home near Baltimore. The following morning we rented a minivan at BWI and drove home.

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