Cycling the Greater Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal // DAY 3

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Check out DAY 1  and DAY 2 of our GAP adventure here! And here's a link to our latest video!

We began Day 3 back at The Manhattan Social for fresh, delicious breakfast sandwiches and lattes. Then we went to the trail head parking lot across the street, at the site where the Greater Allegheny Passage ends and the C&O Canal begins. Wiehan wanted to change from casual wear into his cycling kit, so he went looking for a bathroom. A sign indicated that the restrooms in the visitor center were on the second floor of the building, but the door to the second floor was locked. The neighboring shops were closed. Strange for a Monday at 9:30 in the morning. The previous day in Meyersdale, I also was disappointed to find that by 5:45 pm, the trailhead visitor center had already been closed for several hours. So for those planning their trail ride, I don’t suggest relying on town visitor centers for restrooms. As a backup, port-a-potties can generally be found along the trails.

Having eventually found a bathroom, Wiehan was finally set for his ride and went off for what turned out to be a strange day for both of us. I drove the car to the next town down the trail, Paw Paw, West Virginia.  Following signs for the town, I passed a fuel station and continued down the main road, which basically only consisted of housing. As I came to a stop at a stop sign, a little chihuahua ran out to the edge of his yard to greet me. With no other cars in sight, I snapped a photo quickly from the car window. Then I drove on to look for the trail. The plan was for me to cycle from Paw Paw toward Wiehan. But this town was looking totally vacant, and I was totally confused about the trail’s location. I took a few photos of the Potomac River from Paw Paw’s Oldtown Road bridge, then got back in the car ready to give up on this town and let Wiehan know I’d go looking for a better spot to park the car. But I saw a small side road on my way out of town and decided to follow it. A fortunate find, this turned out to be a parking lot and campground for the C&O Canal and there were several small groups of cyclists hanging out. Happy to see signs of the trail, I parked the car and set up my bike to find Wiehan. The only problem was that the signage wasn't clear and I didn't know which direction would lead me to Wiehan. I decided first to explore the Paw Paw Tunnel, one of the most notable and impressive structures along the C&O Canal. 

The Paw Paw Tunnel was built in the 1800s to bypass 6 miles of winding riverbanks.

The Paw Paw Tunnel was built in the 1800s to bypass 6 miles of winding riverbanks.

Built in the 1800s to bypass 6 miles of winding riverbanks, the Paw Paw Tunnel stretches nearly a mile in length. The tunnel, as well as the town, is named after the pawpaw tree, which, native to the U.S., produces a large, tropical fruit similar to mangos, but somehow lost its popularity over the centuries. I cycled a half mile from the campground to the tunnel, took some photographs and chatted with a woman also serving as vehicle support for a group of cyclists. She was under the impression that, also coming from Cumberland, the cyclists would be arriving from the other side of the tunnel. I’d looked on Google Maps, and really thought Cumberland was in the opposite direction. The trail felt pretty eery in any case and even though I was pretty certain I’d figured out the correct direction to head toward Cumberland, I didn’t feel safe going off on my bike by myself in this area. So I decided just to stay put at the campsite and wait for Wiehan to arrive. 

Two hours later, he finally arrived and then spent another hour eating up snacks from the car and cooling himself off with a water pump at the camp site. When he was ready to continue on with the trail, I watched him disappear into the Paw Paw tunnel, with a headlamp lighting his path. Later he told me that the tunnel was incredibly creepy and that he half expected someone to jump out at him at any moment. If you're planning to cycle the full C&O Canal, a strong headlamp is essential for this section. It's advisable to get off your bike and walk the tunnel's pathway, but Wiehan cycled at a slow pace instead. The surface of the GAP trail is flat and wide, and really well-maintained. While not a smoothly paved surface, with small, bumpy rocks, it turned out to be much easier to ride than the C&O Canal, which is more like double dirt tracks formed by a car. This meant there was a ton of mud to dodge, thanks to rains from the previous week. And this was the point that Wiehan was especially thankful he’d chosen his mountain bike for the trip, rather than fixing his road bike with broader tires. While beautiful, the forest views along the GAP were monotonous. This repetitive state played tricks on Wiehan's mind, feeling like he'd cycled further than in reality. In contrast, he actually enjoyed the broken up and more challenging terrain along the C&O Canal. Built between 1828 and 1850, there are 75 locks spread out along the canal, which were used to control the amount of water entering the canal for the purpose of transporting long, narrow boats carrying goods like coal and lumber. Each lock is numbered along the path, providing the mind with something to grasp in terms of distance and achievement, as well as a visual break from the forest.

And then there’s my experience driving from Paw Paw to the next town of Little Orleans. I didn’t look up routes beforehand, relying solely on my phone’s Google Maps. And the route selected by Google Maps turned out to be unpaved gravel for about eight miles! Wiehan was having a bumpy and muddy ride on his bike, as was I, in our car! To make matters worse, I was getting low on fuel, and my cell signal was flat. So Wiehan and I couldn’t communicate to each other, and I had no idea where I could fill up the car. Meanwhile, it was 2:30 in the afternoon, we hadn’t eaten lunch and our blood sugar was crashing. When I finally arrived at Little Orleans, I realized that this was just as rural as Paw Paw, with just a campground and a pub. I walked into the pub, sheepishly approaching the bar, where the owner was surrounded by a few friends. How can we help you? he asked. How far is the nearest filling station? I asked. Not for another 200 miles, he responded. Gulp. Oh no! I uttered. He shook his head and corrected himself. Take a right and follow the road all the way down to the highway, ten minutes, there’ll be a filling station on your left, he advised. I thanked him and quickly turned around, heading straight out the door and back to the car. I followed his instructions, and sure enough, there was a filling station, complete with a well-maintained bathroom. I headed back up the road to the campsite at Little Orleans to wait for Wiehan, whom I still couldn’t reach, with such poor signal. 

He arrived right at the point that I was having a minor meltdown due to a low blood sugar crash and general frustration of the weird day and the wish for a cute cafe in Paw Paw or Little Orleans. Wiehan was feeling the same way, and as he hoisted his bike up on the roof rack, I cut open an avocado and offered him a slice. After gobbling that down, we ate up grapefruit slices, something Wiehan would normally never eat, but he was in desperate need of some electrolytes. We got out of Little Orleans as quickly as we could. Though I will say that the campground was beautiful. If we ever do this trip again, maybe we’ll consider bike packing, as there are very nice camping facilities all along the way. We detoured on the way to our accommodations in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to Berkeley Springs, a very interesting town named after the warm mineral springs that run through it. This is a great little place for a day trip, with quaint shops and cafes along the main street, as well as a public pool open in the summer time, and fresh springs for wading. We actually returned to Berkeley Springs a few weeks after our GAP and C&O Canal trip for some road cycling exploration. 

We had a nice late lunch along N. Washington Street. I’m not going to mention the restaurant's name, on account of the prices being unexpectedly high and flies swarming our indoor table. But I will recommend the place we visited on our second trip here: The Black Dog Coffee Company. The ice latte is great and, while they’ve scaled down their hours and food options, the protein bowl suited my dietary needs well, with nitrate-free roast beef, a hard-boiled egg, several cheese slices, locally sourced hydroponic greens, and a pickle. I also highly recommend stopping in to the Community Garden Market, which is like a mini Mom’s Organic Market. As Wiehan and I walked up and down the main street, dark clouds rolled in, with lightning off in the distance. We sped up our walking pace to check out the springs before the storm's arrival. After splashing our feet for just a few minutes, the wind picked up speed and the lightning grew closer, and we rushed off to our car. We drove off in the thunderstorm through beautiful rolling hills to our luxurious accommodation for the night: The Bavarian Inn. After skimping the previous night in Cumberland, we treated ourselves to a night at this unique and historic lodging. We saw this as an early 4th anniversary present to ourselves. Though to be honest, for less than $200 per night, it really wasn’t much more of a splurge than other, far less inviting, accommodations in the area. For both price and quality, we give this place a 10/10! 

Upon our arrival, we brought our bags to our room and noticed a pool on the premises that looked awfully inviting. So we rushed to put on our swimsuits and headed that way. As it turns out, The Bavarian Inn has an infinity pool with a gorgeous view overlooking the Potomac River. Swimming here at sunset was glorious. To end off the day, we dressed up, and headed for the inn's formal dining room in the Greystone Mansion, where we both ordered the Traditional German Specialty of Schweinebraten, which as described on the menu is “Juniper Scented Roasted Pork Loin, Rosemary Natural Jus, Sauerkraut and Potato Dumpling.” It was delectable! 

And now, for just one last day to go, along the trail! Be sure to check out DAY 4 from this adventure here!

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- Christin

And tell us! Have you ever been to the C&O Canal? If so, what's your favorite section to visit?