When you ask “what’s the trail like?”, you probably have two things in mind: trail surface and hills. Trail surface will make a major difference in your choice of bike. You can see photos of typical trail conditions in our trip reports for 1997 and 2001 in the Biking Trip Reports section of http://mary-shaw.org
On the Great Allegheny Passage between Pittsburgh PA and Cumberland MD the trails are built on railroad grades. The finished sections are mostly smooth packed crushed limestone. A few sections are paved (asphalt).
Most of the C&O Towpath from Cumberland MD to Great Falls MD is two-track, similar to a one-lane dirt road with two packed tracks spaced about 6-8' apart and a modest hump in the middle. Some sections are better, some a bit rougher. The last 15 miles, from Great Falls MD to Washington DC, is packed crushed limestone. Detours around gaps in the trail are paved, but they have big hills.
Rain can affect trail conditions. The Great Allegheny Passage drains pretty well and isn't too bad in the rain. The towpath east from Cumberland MD to Great Falls MD gets sloppy when it rains. There will be puddles in the tracks and a few muddy sections, but it's still passable. We rode from Paw Paw WV to Hancock MD in an all-day rain on Memorial Day weekend a few years ago. We were soaked, but we didn't have trouble riding. In case of really heavy, torrential rain, certain sections of the towpath could flood, though. The National Park Service has been improving the surface, especially the soft area north of Seneca.
There are no significant hills on the finished trails. The Great Allegheny Passage sometimes has a noticeable grade, but nothing you'd call a real hill. The 22-mile climb from Cumberland to the Big Savage Mountain Tunnel is quite noticeable (about 1.5 to 1.7%). This trail is now complete from McKeesport PA to Cumberland MD, but Savage Tunnel is closed in the winter, and there are definitely hills on the winter detours around the tunnel. Instructions for this road detours are here we do not recommend biking this.
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