January 13, 2015
Adventure Cycling’s Family Fun, Great Allegheny Passage bike tour was a fun-filled adventure which provided participants with the joys and challenges of self-supported touring. Eighteen participants along with leaders Steve, Lee, and Julie, rode the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail in 2014. The ride began in Pittsburgh along the Allegheny River and ended in Cumberland, Maryland, at the junction with the C&O Canal towpath. Families consisted of parents/children, grandparents/grandchildren, and Great Aunt/nephew combinations. The tour format was typical for Adventure Cycling's self-contained tours. We shared cooking duties and other chores while splitting group gear and food to be carried among the participants.
Child participants were sent Donkey Boxx bicycle panniers by Adventure Cycling, which meant they needed only a rack on their bike to be ready to carry their gear. We had a variety of bikes and gear combinations used by the cyclists including mountain bikes, touring bikes, and a tandem. Several people pulled BOB trailers while others used panniers. People used a variety of panniers including commercial models, Donkey Boxxes, and kitty-litter panniers. They all worked fine.
The group met on a Saturday afternoon outside the dorms at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Following our introductory meeting, we had a quick dinner prepared by the leaders. We loaded into cars and drove to nearby Station Square where we rode the incline to the top of the river bluff. There we were treated with great views of Pittsburgh, our tour starting point, and a peek at the trail we would follow. Setting the tone for the trip, we then went in search of ice cream and other assorted goodies.
Sunday morning dawned gray, but dry. Following breakfast, we loaded up group gear and food and made final adjustments to our bikes. The first leg of our trip lead us a few miles through downtown Pittsburgh to Point State Park, which will soon be the official terminus of the GAP trail. The Sunday morning streets held little traffic which made our ride pleasant. We gathered for group pictures and then road another mile on city streets to the current starting location for the GAP. With rain threatening, some took off down the trail while others lingered at the Golden Triangle bike shop for last-minute adjustments.
The first 20 miles of the GAP are paved, which spoiled us. There were some intermittent crushed limestone sections which caused some problems for a few riders. There were opportunities for ice cream at two stops along the way which was welcomed as the day had turned rather sunny and warm. Leaving McKeesport the trail turned to crushed limestone as we rode to our destination — primitive camping at Dravo’s Cemetery Campsite.
Dravo was a lovely campground on the banks of the Youghiogheny River. As there were no showers available, most of us chose to clean up by going for a swim. We were entertained by a trio of kayakers making their way down the river. As thunder rumbled we scrambled out of the water and changed into dry clothes. And then the rain came. We huddled as a group under the shelter of a pavilion, trying to keep warm and somewhat dry from the blowing downpour. We learned several lessons from this storm about how to pitch a tent and the importance of closing up tents when rain is looming. One of the day’s cooks made the ultimate sacrifice: he had ridden to the next town to buy ice cream and got caught in the deluge. We cheered him into camp. After dinner, the last rays of the sun were used to dry gear, while the kids engaged Lee in a rousing game of frisbee.
Monday morning again dawned gray and damp. We quickly broke camp, ate breakfast, and headed the 10 miles to West Newton where we had a second breakfast planned. Fortunately, most people got there before it rained. Steve had arranged a short class for the kids at the local bike shop. All participants in the class were given money to buy something for their bikes. Sunglasses and streamers were the most popular purchases. Needed repairs were made, extra rain gear was purchased, and we were off into the now pouring rain. We got wet, and not just a little wet. We got wetter than wet, but maintained an amazingly positive outlook through it all.
Our campground for the night, just outside of Connellsville had everything we needed — hot showers, laundry services, a hose to clean the bikes, and electricity to power devices. The sun came out as we had a meal of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers. We deserved a special treat after our rainy day and had ice cream from the campground store for dessert during our map meeting.
We awoke Tuesday to another gray day but we were able to pack and leave under dry skies. We had a short 20-mile ride to Ohiopyle State Park where we had a raft trip planned for 1 pm. Of course, it rained as we approached Ohiopyle, but that did not stop people from making a stop at the store for ice cream. We went to the outfitters where the adults stood under the awning with their game faces on as they watched the rain pour from the roof. We loaded the bus in the rain and made the hilly trip to the put in. The rain had quit as we got our boats and the sun peeked out as we got on the river.
It was a laughter-filled raft trip. We all got stuck on at least one rock, There was swimming, albeit some unintentional. We arrived back in Ohiopyle around dinner time and headed to our quarters which were two houses we had rented in town. While most of us went to settle into our houses the cooks headed out to get pizza for dinner. We were a happy, tired group.
We took a day off in Ohiopyle and people chose their activities for the day. Some opted for another day on the river while others hiked or visited one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Kentuck Knob. The kids fit in a visit to the zip line course. Leaders Steve and Julie, showing an uncharacteristic lack of common sense, went to the natural slide which was dubbed the “slip and bleed” by locals. They did both and were seen hobbling home holding various body parts and laughing.
Thursday morning we were treated to a magnificent breakfast by the day’s cooks: bacon and french toast with real maple syrup and a delicious homemade blueberry sauce. That fueled us on our cool morning ride to Confluence where we enjoyed fresh cinnamon rolls at the Sisters Cafe. We then had a noticeable, but still gentle climb to our destination in Rockwood.
Our campground was a peaceful, rustic site across the river from Rockwood. Our evening cooks treated the group to bicycle-shaped pasta and homemade pies from a bakery in town. The campground rec room kept many of the kids entertained that evening while the rest of us sat around the campfire, fending off the chill of the night and perfecting our marshmallow roasting skills. We were once again serenaded by the sound of trains from across the river. Loud whistles accompanied the now familiar roar of the engines and rumble of the wheels.
Our last riding day was the longest with over 40 miles to Cumberland. However, the last 22 miles were downhill which made the distance manageable. We got an early, chilly start and rode to Myersdale where we enjoyed our now habitual second breakfast. Then it was another 10 miles of gentle climbing to the Eastern Continental Divide. The ride down into Cumberland included 3 tunnels. We quickly learned that sunglasses were not a good idea in tunnels. Lights were helpful in some of them. The trail had loose gravel in spots which caused a few in the group to go down. We suffered some scrapes, but nothing that kept us from riding on.
As we approached the last tunnel, a group rode by saying the steam train would be there in 5 minutes. We hurried through the tunnel as we had heard it was not fun to be in there with the train. Some of us slowed down after the tunnel, waiting for the train to overtake us. We rode into Cumberland alongside the steam engine, racing it to each crossing, waiting for it to pass and chasing it to the next one. We laughed, hooted, and waved to the passengers. It was a fitting end to a fine journey.
That evening at our farewell celebration, awards were given to each participant reflecting a special skill or characteristic they had demonstrated during the trip. Needless to say, there was a lot of laughter shared by the group.
The plan for our last day was to ride some of the C&O towpath and then catch our shuttle back to Pittsburgh. But, the rain had returned and the group made the decision not to ride and to change the shuttle time to late morning. The kids swam and we said our goodbyes to those in the group who were not shuttling back to Pittsburgh. A little after 11 we climbed aboard the shuttle. Steve showed up with a mysterious bag and a mischievous grin on his face. It was ice cream from Queen City Creamery in Cumberland! So, as we headed back to Pittsburgh we had our last taste of our favorite summer biking food.
Family bike touring is a great way for a family to have an active vacation. One way to do this is to join a group tour such as the ones led by Adventure Cycling. Both fully supported and self contained options are availabile.
However, planning and doing a trip on your own is also quite feasible. While the idea of a bike tour with your family can seem to be daunting, it can really be done rather easily, keeping a few key points in mind.
The first consideration is the route. Adventure Cycling has found that rail trails make ideal routes for family tours. The terrain is gently graded and traffic concerns are minimized. A good resource for the rail trails throughout the country is TrailLink.com.
A second consideration is the length of the tour, both in terms of the total trip and daily mileage. Generally speaking, kids are going to be happier with less mileage and time in the saddle each day. Participants on Adventure Cycling’s Family Fun, Great Allegheny Passage tour used many different strategies to break up the day for their kids. Some stopped at every playground to enjoy the features offered. One group stopped every 4-5 miles for a short break and snack. Others rode town to town, stopping for ice cream or another good treat. Breaks are important.
Another consideration is your accommodations. Staying indoors is an option which will let you travel with less gear. However, you will often have less flexibility in terms of available stopping points and daily mileage. Camping requires more gear and thus a heavier load to carry. However, you will have more opportunities to stop for the night as there are many outstanding camping spots to be found along trails. A combination of overnight accommodations is another option which provides the best of both worlds.
An important, but at times overlooked point is to build in fun off-bike activities. Part of the joy of bike touring is exploring your surroundings. There are usually plenty of fun things to do off-bike; take advantage of these! Making room in your pack for frisbees, cards, etc. will also make your trip more enjoyable.
Other tips for planning a bike tour can be found at Adventure Cycling's website. A good starting point is the how-to section. When planning a family tour of your own, consider taking friends and extended family along, especially other children. Having several kids on the trip makes for a more pleasurable trip for everyone.
Give family touring a try. You won’t be disappointed.
Post by Julie White | Eastern Continental Divide Photo by Larry Brock | Other Photos by Steven Powell
ON THE ROAD is written by the tours team — Lydia, Darrah, Mike, Mandy, and Arlen — tours specialists and intrepid bicyclists, covering all things related to the Adventure Cycling tours department. Check out our 2015 Guided Tours today!