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Frequently Asked Questions

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We have ridden the entire trip from DC to Pittsburgh on these trails nine times, and we’ve ridden most sections many times on shorter trips. In the process, we learned a lot about the route. People often ask us about planning similar trips. You may also be interested in our answers.

Is the trail finished?

Almost. There is one unfinished section, one seasonal detour, and one permanent detour between Pittsburgh PA and Washington DC. We tell you how to handle them

Where does the trail go? How long is it?

The route connects Pittsburgh PA to Washington DC. It runs on the trails of the Allegheny Trail Alliance from Pittsburgh to Cumberland MD, then down the C&O Canal Towpath to Washington. Eventually the Montour Trail  and Steel Valley Trail will add connections to southern Pittsburgh and the Airport. Here are the trails, with lengths and locations of open sections and detours


Trail

Distance

Trail Route

Unfinished

Portion

Open Detour From Via To
Three Rivers Heritage Trail (TRHT) 3 miles 3 miles Pittsburgh PA Glenwood PA Sandcastle PA Hazelwood-Sandcastle
Steel Valley Trail (SVT) 1 miles 9 miles Sandcastle PA Duquesne PA McKeesport PA Sandcastle-McKeesport
Youghiogheny River Trail North (YRTN) 43 miles none McKeesport PA West Newton PA Connellsville PA none
Youghiogheny River Trail South (YRTS) 28 miles none Connellsville PA Ohiopyle PA Confluence PA none
Allegheny Highlands Trail in Pa (AHTPa) 42 miles 11mi Nov to April Confluence PA Rockwood PA PA-MD state line Savage tunnel closes in the winter
Allegheny Highlands Trail in Md (AHTMd) 21 miles none PA-MD state line Frostburg MD Cumberland MD none
C&O Canal Towpath (C&O) 182 miles   Cumberland MD Williamsport MD Washington DC  

The total distance Washington, DC to Pittsburgh is about 335 miles on trails and 16 trail miles that still require road detours (see driving directions).

Can I make this trip on my road bike? How about my hybrid?

Most people ride hybrid or mountain bikes on these trails. They both work fine, especially with conservative tires, for example semi-slick tires. A road or touring bike equipped with slightly knobby tires will also work well. However, a road bike with slick skinny racing tires isn't really suitable for this trip. More details.

What’s the trail like? Paved roads, or rough rocks, or what?

Something in between. The rail-trails on the Pittsburgh side of the mountains are mostly firmly-packed crushed limestone, with a few paved sections. The southern 15 miles of the C&O Canal Towpath, between Great Falls and Georgetown, are also crushed limestone. Most of the other 170 miles of the C&O Canal Towpath is closer to packed gravel – mostly double-track (two packed tracks with a hump between them, like a one-lane dirt road). More details.

Can I do it?

Probably. If you can ride a bike for 30 miles on both days of a weekend, you’ll do fine. We’ve seen families with children, youth organizations, and groups of adults of all ages. One night we shared a campsite with a 70-something gentleman who was riding from New Castle PA to Washington DC "one more time". If you aren’t up to the full trip yet, plan some one-day trips this summer, a couple of weekend trips next year, and the whole trip the year after.

Where will I sleep? Where will I eat?

There’s plenty of lodging, but you should plan carefully and make reservations. Hotels, B&Bs, motels, and hostels provide indoor lodging close to the trail every 30 miles or so (see amenities on trail maps). Campgrounds are closer together, especially on the C&O Canal Towpath (see amenities on trail maps). Grocery stores and restaurants give you a choice of preparing your own food or eating someone else’s cooking (see amenities on trail maps). See our sample itineraries for ideas.

Do I need reservations?

Yes, except at some primitive trailside campsites that are designated for use by through-hikers and bikers. Reservations are especially important if you won’t be able to drive your whole group 20 miles to an alternate motel.

How do I get to the trailhead to start the ride and then back home at the end of the trip? Where can I leave my car during the trip?

Take the train. Take a plane. Have friends drive you. Have a support car big enough to carry everything. Run a shuttle. Hire an outfitter. For long-term parking, see our suggestions.

What time of year is best?

Any season except winter. Spring offers flowers but the weather can be chancy. Summer gives the longest days, but they can be hot. Fall has autumn colors and generally good weather, but days start getting short after late September. The Savage tunnel is closed from late November to early April, which means you will have to shuttle on roads between Frostburg and Deal during the winter.

What if it rains?

You get wet. So take a rain suit. If you plan the trip for warm weather, riding in the rain isn’t horrible. It rarely rains all day for several days. If it rains for a few minutes or an hour, you can sit under shelter until it stops. We carry a small waterproof tarp to stand under. If you’re camping, you can stop at the next campsite. If you have room reservations, you slog on to your motel, but you get to dry out. If it rains for days at a time, you’ll probably find a motel, get dry, and consider whether to wait out the rain or cancel the rest of the trip.

Is it dangerous?

Not particularly. You should know how to fix a flat tire and recognize poison ivy. You should be able to control any children in your party. If you’re camping, you should know how to pitch your tent and operate your stove safely. This is not, however, an amusement park. Everything you see is real. You can, if you choose, stand on the edges of historic structures with no safety rails. The wild animals are actually wild. There are no absolute guarantees of safety and no one else to blame for any problems. Please read the discussion of judgment and personal responsibility.

You shouldn’t have to worry about serious automobile traffic except on the Dam 4 detour and between the trail and your lodging. We recommend against biking the detours around the trail gap near Pittsburgh; if you ride it anyhow, you will encounter traffic – some of it heavy and fast.

As with any physical activity, you may be at risk of overuse injuries if your activity on the trip is more strenuous than your normal routine. If you decide to skimp on advance training, plan an easy pace on the trip. If you are not already active, consult your doctor about getting started.

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You are visiting Linking Up, copyright © 1999,2002,2007 by Mary Shaw and Roy Weil. We encourage you to link to these pages or print copies for personal use. However, if you want to copy the material for any other use, you must ask us first. The contents of these web pages is also available in a book. See other outdoor publications by the authors.