Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Introduction to Bike Touring: Biking the C&O Towpath

Michael and I have talked about getting into bike touring for a while. We have all of the gear from backpacking. Basically, all we needed was a way to carry it on the bikes. A couple of racks, sets of panniers, and the long weekend presented an opportunity to try it out. On Saturday, Horizontal Tread shuttled us to Cumberland, Maryland, which is the western end of the C&O Towpath (and the eastern end of the Great Allegheny Passage). He would pick us up at Taylor's Landing (milepost 81) on Monday, for a total of 105 miles.

We had a blast! Riding the towpath is a lot different than the road riding we do. For one, there are no hills to speak of, which means no climbing, but it also means no coasting. We barely noticed the weight of the panniers. Our gear is pretty light anyway, but we are also used to carrying it on our backs, rather than having it on racks on wheels. We also ride a lot slower touring. Between knobby tires, the unpaved riding surface, loaded bikes, people to chat with, and things to take pictures of, we were lucky to do 10 miles per hour. We will definitely do something like this again and have been talking about doing the whole trip from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC.

We started around noon on Saturday in Cumberland. The weather was bright and sunny, but unseasonably cool: I had long sleeves on while we were eating lunch just before we got underway.  It was also quite windy, but fortunately, it was a tailwind.  Since I took so many pictures of different things along the way, I decided to write less on this post (and it turned out long anyway).
This is the arch over the end of the C&O towpath and the beginning of the Great Allegheny Passage, which goes all the way to Pittsburgh.
The markers for the two trails in Cumberland, Maryland.
We saw a lot of Canada Geese and their goslings.  We had a couple of geese get a bit defensive, even though we tried to give them plenty of space. They were moving the goslings to other parts of the river or the canal.
Looking southwest from the Towpath towards the mountains of Western Maryland. Most of the time we were riding in the green tunnel (picture below), but occasionally, we would break out into a pasture and get nice views.
 A lockhouse along the canal.
The green tunnel I mentioned earlier. This is actually a pretty representative picture of a lot of the Towpath.  Most of it is two dirt or gravel tracks.
One of the prominent features of the first day was the Paw Paw Tunnel, a half mile passage through a mountain.  We brought lights and I initially thought I would be able to ride through it (you can see the railing and path on the right side of the tunnel). Once we got in there, the lights really didn't do much to distinguish the path from the walls and the path was pretty uneven. I found it really disorienting and had to walk. Most of the other cyclists we saw coming through wound up walking as well. It wasn't bad, though, and it was a brief break from sitting on the bike seat.
The inside of the tunnel lit by the camera flash. Our lights were not nearly this bright.
Coming out of the eastern end of the tunnel.
We spent quite a bit of time at this end of the tunnel, taking pictures and looking around.  I climbed up to the top of the stairs and Michael took this picture of me.
Looking east from the top of the tunnel.
Stickpile Hill:  Our first campsite at milepost 149.  As I noted earlier, it was actually pretty chilly, especially for late May. It got down into the high 30s that night. We joked about having mountain weather, without the actual mountains. We shared our campsite with a nice couple from Reading, Pennsylvania. They were biking from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC on their tandem.
Day 2: We had a great ride on Sunday.  It was a little warmer than Saturday and less windy. There were also lots of interesting things to see. This is the ruins of a concrete plant near Hancock, MD.
Another view of the kilns at the concrete factory ruins. Below the kilns is a great example of an anticline.
 Turtles sunning themselves on a log in the C&O Canal.
 A lockhouse along the way.
Sunday afternoon, we took a short detour up to Fort Frederick State Park. The star-shaped fort was originally built in 1756 and was restored in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The gate at the front of the fort.
Sunset over the Potomac at the end of day 2.  We camped at North Mountain campsite, along with three other groups. It was cold again on Sunday night.
Day 3: Since we got started earlier, we had to ride longer in the cool weather, but eventually it warmed up.  This is a picture of the standard water pump at the campsites.
 Michael riding ahead along the Potomac.
The bikes at Dam 5, just above Big Slackwater.
This is the brand new Big Slackwater section of the Towpath.  For years, riding through this section required several miles of road riding to get around the washed out path between miles 84 and 88.  The repaired path opened late last summer.
The stopgate and winch house at Dam 4, three miles above where we were picked up.

Later this week I'll do a post about the flowers along the towpath.

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