For some reason we don’t consider our region a destination for others. For us this is a home, familiar, even humble. We assume the excitement and distraction is elsewhere – on the waterfront or in a big city.
But unless you live right in a city that has come to be known here as the “Wandering City”, you may be overlooking the obvious truth that this is a place where thousands of visitors from all over the country and around the world can grow. While we locals often want to get away, we are numerically among the people who want to come.
There are many reasons for it, but a standout attraction is a recreational, economic and environmental asset of international importance – the Great Allegheny Passage. Many of us locals simply refer to it as “the bike path”, but it deserves consideration of its true title; That’s part of the attraction it has for visitors.
The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is a 150-mile non-motorized trail – primarily for cyclists and pedestrians, but also for riders in restricted areas that span the Allegheny Mountains between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Maryland. There are simply not many similar things in the world in which a person can travel between two cities for days in an engaging – even breathtaking – environment, free from noise and danger of motorized traffic, that captures the natural and cultural history of an important company Region on the way.
Some trail user comments posted on the GAP website demonstrate the importance of the trail. “We cycle many routes in the United States,” wrote one traveler. “This is the best way in the US”
“We come from Spain, Barcelona. Great trip. Two years in the pipeline, ”wrote another.
A survey of GAP users conducted by St. Vincent College last year found that between 1.1 and 1.6 million people used the trail in 2020. About 10 percent of them made long-distance trips lasting several days and spent money in trail cities along the way.
Aside from its length, another appeal of the GAP is the flexibility it offers users. You don’t have to go on a heroic 100 mile odyssey to enjoy it. Easier options for users are rooted in GAP history. Almost the entire route was once a railway line connecting cities as the track layers sought the easiest incline through a rugged landscape. Of course, the tracks followed the Casselman, Youghiogheny and Monongahela Rivers, which had already carved a path through the ridges.
The railway line connected places like Connellsville, Confluence, Ohiopyle, Layton, West Newton and many others. Today, drivers can take short day trips between hiking cities and still feel the unique splendor of the GAP. The most popular route in the entire GAP is also one of the most visually spectacular. It’s the 9-mile journey through the deepest river canyon in Pennsylvania between Ohiopyle and Confluence, where Youghiogheny whitewater, wayside waterfalls, and towering cliffs flavor every foot of the journey.
The same route was the first piece of the GAP that was ever completed. In 1978 the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy acquired the 27-mile stretch of the abandoned railway between Connellsville and Confluence from the Western Maryland Railway Company. The 9-mile Ohiopyle to Confluence section opened to riders in 1986, and its popularity spurred the rest of the trail’s completion.
The CAP is “user-friendly” everywhere. Its surface is made of finely crushed limestone and most of its grades can barely be noticed while pedaling a bicycle. The steepest section is between Cumberland and Deal in Somerset Counties, where the incline hits 1.75 percent as the trail descends (west) or down (east) the Allegheny Front. The incline for most of the 150 miles is less than one percent.
Herald Standard columnist Jack Hughes writes frequently about his adventures along the CAP, the interesting people, and the wildlife he encounters. At the 2019 Christmas bird census in Ohiopyle, avid bird watchers wanted to add a bald eagle sighting to the list of logged birds. Someone suggested a careful look down the river corridor along the CAP, and then within minutes spotted three bald eagles hovering over the river.
Some visitors use the cap for endurance training, others use it to achieve other pleasures. Fishermen lean their bikes against trees as they look for rainbow and brown trout, and wildflower lovers admire spring blossoms.
The GAP is a testament for committed people on site who recognize something special and donate their time, effort and often their money to construction and maintenance for a greater good. While government agencies have played an important role in the CAP, it would not be possible without the work of dozens of volunteer groups and individuals in cities along the corridor who build and maintain the trail every day for others to enjoy. These groups share their common interests as the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy, formerly known as the Allegheny Trail Alliance.
In the near future, the Sheepskin Trail, which has already been completed through parts of the townships of Point Marion Borough, South Union and Dunbar, will connect the GAP to Morgantown and a popular network of trails across West Virginia. As coal and steel have been the identity of this region for generations past, the amazing appeal of the CAP and its connected paths will be its future trademark for the world.
Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.