Monday, September 29, 2014

Pittsburgh to DC Part One: The Great Allegheny Passage

We spent last week with a friend riding from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and the C&O Towpath - 335 miles, almost all of which is completely traffic free. Talk about heaven for a cyclist. The first 150 miles of the trip is on the GAP trail, which is a rail trail. The remainder is on the C&O Towpath, which I'll cover in my next post.

The GAP Trail starts at Point State Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Our friend Horizontal Tread's wife provided transportation from Maryland to the beginning of the trail. We owe her one because transportation to and from the two ends of the trail is the biggest logistical hurdle making the trip from Pittsburgh to DC. Every cyclist we met going all the way through asked about how we were handling that part of the trip. 

Getting dropped off 350 miles from your destination with nothing but your bikes and what is packed on them helps you focus on the ride ahead! After lunch at Primanti Brothers in downtown Pittsburgh, we headed over to the fountain in Point State Park, took some pictures and were on our way. We promptly missed a turn and wound up at a dead end. Fortunately, another pair of cyclists set us straight. We also stopped on Pittsburgh's South Side for a milkshake at The Milkshake Factory, which was totally worth the detour. And then we were really on our way. The trail quickly took us out of downtown and down the median of a freeway - probably my least favorite part of the trip. Then we wound through the industrial graveyards of the outskirts of the city along the Monongahela River. 

Our ultimate destination on the first day was Cedar Creek Park, where there was a hiker/biker campground. We rolled in just as the last light drained from the sky, after having ridden 40 miles that afternoon.
Michael, me, and our friend at the fountain at Point State Park in Pittsburgh with our bikes.
A route sign at the Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh.
Looking towards downtown Pittsburgh from the Hot Metal Bridge, which once carried molten steel across the Monongahela River.
Our shelter at Cedar Creek Park. In the morning, one of the park rangers stopped by and wound up giving us a brief history lesson for the area, which was pretty cool.

The history lesson delayed us a bit, but it turned out to be a good thing. In addition to learning a bit about the area, we were still packing up when a rain storm blew through. We waited it out in the shelter. Half an hour later, we began pedaling southeast. Just seven miles into the ride, Michael got flat. He patched the tube and booted the tire with duct tape and a plastic wrapper. The tire was ruined, but we need it to last until we could find a bike shop. Connelsville was our best bet, but it turned out that the bike shop was closed since it was Sunday. He wound up riding that booted tire for 100 miles (he did put it on the front wheel, which is under less strain than the back wheel).

We lucked out with rain in the morning of the second day, but not in the afternoon. We got soaked on the trail. In fact, the storm blew through with enough force to cause lots of branches to fall around us as we were riding, which was a little scary. We went into the town of Ohiopyle and got a tire, a cup of coffee, and some cookies. Then we rode the mile back to the state park to get to the campground. That was interesting. We had a reservation for a walled tent in the campground. Getting to the campground involved a 0.5 mile hike, pushing the bike (riding up the trail isn't allowed), straight up to the top of the ridge. Of course, the moment we started up the trail, it started pouring again. It didn't stop until we reached the top, so it was more like hiking up a stream. It was awesome. Or not. Our walled tent was pretty nice, though and it was nice not to have to pitch the tent.
Michael with his booted tire.
A pretty archway on the edge of Connelsville, Pennsylvania. The ridge in the background is the westernmost ridge of the Allegheny Mountains.
A railroad bridge in Connelsville. I found the variety of railroad bridges to be a surprisingly interesting part of the ride.
Our "walled tent" at Ohiopyle State Park. It isn't the prettiest structure, but it was dry and had room for us to spread our gear out.

We woke up to sun on the third day. I made a miscalculation in mileage. I thought we had 48 miles to ride that day, but it turned out to be 58 miles. We climbed steadily for nearly 50 miles. The grade was never very steep - at most it was 1.5% according to the signs, but after 50 miles, I felt like I had been climbing all day. It turned out to be my favorite day of the trip anyway. The trip started with a beautiful ride through the woods along the Youghiogheny River. We slowly, very slowly climbed past various little towns, through tunnels, and over bridges towards the Eastern Continental Divide and the Big Savage Tunnel. The landscape up near the divide was spectacular and the leaves were just beginning to change. Then we got the reward for all the climbing: an 8 mile descent into Frostburg, Maryland.
Our friend and Michael (in yellow) riding through the woods near Ohiopyle State Park.
 The Youghiogheny River near Confluence, Pennsylvania.
 The view west from the Salisbury Viaduct. This was one of my favorite things on the trail. The viaduct is nearly 2,000 feet long and perched over a beautiful, wide valley. In the distance, there are wind turbines along the ridge (click to enlarge).
 Another view of the Salisbury Viaduct.
 The Keystone Viaduct, just south of Meyersdale, Pennsylvania.
Riding through the woods near the Eastern Continental Divide. The leaves were just starting to change up there.
The Eastern Continental Divide, the high point, literally, of our trip.
Big Savage Tunnel. This restored tunnel is almost 3,300 feet long. Unlike the Paw Paw Tunnel on the C&O Towpath, Big Savage has lights.
 The inside of the Big Savage Tunnel.
Not too far south of the Big Savage Tunnel is the Mason Dixon line. Here I am with one foot in Pennsylvania and one foot in Maryland.
 We camped behind an inn in Frostburg, Maryland. It was cold that night - down in the 30s. I woke up early to a spectacular sunrise.
A sculpture in Frostburg.
We made it to Cumberland, the end of the GAP Trail and the beginning of the C&O Towpath on Day four. A slow start due to the cold and another flat on Michael's bike meant that we arrived in town (after a 15 (!) mile descent) right at lunch time. We visited the local bike shop to get a new tire and have the rim checked out before setting out on the C&O Towpath. More on that in my next post.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Few More Miles of the Appalachian Trail: Hogback Mountain to Compton Gap

We got out for a hike on the Appalachian Trail on Sunday with two friends. We hiked about 11 miles from Hogback Mountain to Compton Gap in the north district of Shenandoah National Park. The weather was stunningly beautiful: It was in the 50s when we started. The hike is generally downhill in the direction that we did it, although there are several big mountains to climb over, including South Mount Marshall, North Mount Marshall and Compton Peak. We saw a few people along the way, lots of flowers, and an old house foundation and orchard. It isn't an isolated hike by any means. The trail through the park mostly follows Skyline Drive and this is no exception. It crosses the drive in several places and one can almost always hear cars driving on it. That being said, it was pretty and we got lots of nice overlooks.
Hiking through open forest near Hogback Mountain. This was a very pleasant section of the trail. Hay-scented ferns carpet the forest floor.
Symphyotrichum undulatum (Wavy Leaved Aster). The asters are in full bloom right now. This was just one of many species that we encountered.
Eutrochium purpureum (Joe Pye Weed)
Helianthus divaricatus (Woodland Sunflower). I love these plants. The roadsides and meadows are full of them right now.
The view from South Mount Marshall.
Looking down on a stand of oak trees.
The view from North Mount Marshall.
Eregeron annuus (Daisy Fleabane) on North Mount Marshall.
A little purple mushroom along the trail.
A signpost at a road crossing.
A butterfly (Great Spangled Fritillary) on Ageratina alstissima (White Snakeroot).
Smilax herbacea (Carrion flower). These blue berries were in a clearing near Compton Peak. Thanks to David Cox for the comment identifying them. I have no idea what they are. The leaves around them are on the same vine as the berries. The cluster is about the size of a baseball. If anyone knows what they are, let me know in the comments.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Old Rag: Late Summer Flowers and Storms

We volunteered on Old Rag with Old Rag Mountain Stewards last Sunday (I've been a bit behind in getting a post up). It was crowded and my first interaction with a visitor was him telling me he was basically going to hike the mountain come hell or high water (dogs are not allowed on Old Rag). After that fabulous start to the day, though, everyone was pretty friendly. The late summer flowers are blooming like crazy. It was hot and we wound up providing chlorine tablets to more than one group who ran out of water. Hopefully, next time those folks will bring a bit more than a 20 ounce bottle of water for a 9 mile hike on an 85 degree day. All in all, it was a pretty good day.
Corallorhiza odontorhiza (Autumn Coralroot). This was a pretty spectacular find, even if it is a pretty plain-looking flower. It is a member of the orchid family and I had not seen one of them before.
Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal Flower). There is a great stand of these in a damp area near the junction of the Weakley Hollow Fire Road and the Old Rag Fire Road.
A spider on a rock at Byrd's Nest Shelter.
 Ageratina altissima (White Snakeroot). These were blooming all over near Byrd's Nest Shelter.
This butterfly hung around for quite a while and let me photograph it (if anyone knows what it is, let me know in the comments and I'll post it here).
Another shot of the butterfly
Helianthus divaricatus (Woodland Sunflower)
 Campanula divaricata (Southern Harebell). These are such pretty little flowers.
A building thunderstorm north of Old Rag. We watched storms pass to the north of us all afternoon and just got lucky that they missed us until early evening when a small storm passed over us.
The ravens were out in full force on Sunday. One of my favorite things about fall is watching them play in the afternoon winds.
Another raven.
 Oclemena acuminata (Mountain Aster) near the summit.
 The spot where I always take a picture. The summer vegetation is starting to die back.
 Rudebeckia triloba (Three-lobed coneflower). I'm not sure about this one, so if it appears to be wrong, let me know.
Lespedeza hirta (Hairy Bush Clover). This is another new species to me. It is amazing that one can hike the same trail as many times as I have and still run across new species. I love that about the mountain. There is always something new to see, even where I've walked dozens of times.
When I'm out on Old Rag now, I try to take pictures in areas where I haven't done so before. This is looking down the staircase formed by a basaltic dike.
Evening storms rolling across the Blue Ridge. The wall of rain over the mountains in the left of the photo hit us about 15 minutes after I took the picture.