So here I was at 8AM on a mid-July Sunday at the Wilderness Voyageurs home base in Ohiopyle, PA ready to load my bike and luggage onto their rig for another trip down the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Rail Trail. Twice before I’ve been here at 7AM to start a 6-day tour along the GAP trail and C&O Canal Towpath — and indeed there is a 6-day tour just ready to pull out as I arrive — but this time I’m doing what I expect to be a much easier trip. I’ve met the challenge of the 6-day with its high-mileage days and rough, muddy riding on the C&O, and now I’m looking forward to taking my time and getting to enjoy the scenery and the overnight venues more thoroughly.
With only three overnight stays and an average mileage of about 35 it was an easy trip to prepare and pack for, but I did have some indecision about which bike to take. In the end the Felt VR5 would have done fine, but given the type of riding and advance (wet!) weather predictions, I decided in the end to go with the tried and true Crosstrail which had already proven itself on even the more difficult route two years ago.
We had the full complement of 12 riders which, along with our two guides, filled up the seats in the van. Our bikes were soon stowed on top of the van or in the trailer, and by about 9AM we pulled out for the somewhat long drive to our starting point in Homestead.
Day 1 – Sunday, July 15, 2018 – Homestead, PA to Perryopolis, PA
One attraction of this tour is that it started closer to the actual start of the GAP trail than does the 6-day tour. It was also a longer drive to get us to the trailhead in Homestead as we passed through a couple of the older neighborhoods on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The environment here reminded me a lot of my home area of Detroit, but instead of old, abandoned auto factories they had old, abandoned steel mills. I felt right at home.
After unloading, introductions, and other instructions from our guides, it was almost 11:30AM by the time we were ready to start riding. I’m used to riding at least a couple hours earlier and we were starting out right in the height of the midday temperatures and humidity. The first section had us paralleling a number of still-active railroad tracks as we started out going upstream along the Monongahela River. At a couple of points we actually had to cross over the tracks using purpose-built bridges with ramps.
Our first major river crossing took us away from the tracks and over to the town of McKeesport, which was the official starting point of the GAP trail for a number of years. There is not really a distinct trail through the downtown area and I was fortunate to be following two young women from our group who live in the area and know the route well. If not for them, I probably would have had some doubts in a couple places about whether I had lost the trail or not!
Outside McKeesport we went off the pavement and onto the familiar crushed limestone surface of the rail-trail that we would be following for four days. It was also at this point that we left the Monongahela and began following the Youghiogheny. Our first stop was for lunch — which I was certainly ready for by this time! — at the trailhead in Boston, PA where I had been twice before as the starting point for the 6-day tour. It was really heating up, but at least it wasn’t raining as it had been on the day we started out here two years earlier.
Another attraction of this tour is that two of the nights have stays in places that were new to me, and I always enjoy taking a look at the old towns in this area. After about 38 miles — a significant distance after such a late start — we departed the trail and went up a gentle climb for about a mile to our lodging’s at Lenora’s Inn in the quiet little town of Perryopolis. Lenora’s is a real gem and Lenora herself quite an interesting character. I have to say that the first night’s dinner was probably the best I’ve had on a Wilderness Voyageurs bike tour, and the breakfast the next morning was not far behind. It had been a good start!
Day 2 – Monday, July 16, 2018 – Perryopolis, PA to Ohiopyle, PA
The second day was certain to be a short one since we were leaving at around 9AM and had only 31 miles to go to the finish back at Voyageurs’ HQ in Ohiopyle. But that was fine with me since it was one reason why I chose this trip. The weather was again sunny, hot, and humid — standard fare for the middle of July in these parts. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves so far. This trip was rated beginner/intermediate vs. the intermediate/advanced rating of the 6-day and I would have to agree with that. Most anyone could do this with a minimal amount of experience and training.
I arrived in Ohiopyle about 12:30PM and our guides fixed us a lunch under the pavilion and told us that we’d be departing for the Trillium Lodge about 2PM or so. This gave me time to change into some more presentable clothes and walk into town for an ice cream cone. The lodge, which is owned by the company, is high on the Laurel Ridge above Ohiopyle and is a nice relaxing place to spend the night, with the only drawback being the necessity to share the bathrooms and showers. But for a night it’s an OK place, and we got there at mid-afternoon.
Both this tour and the 6-day offer the option of visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater masterpiece, which is quite near Ohiopyle. It’s a measure of the difference in the two trips that on the 6-day trips that I’ve been on, and after 50+ miles on the first day, nobody has opted for the house tour. In contrast, everybody on this trip signed up to go. I’ve been there before on a personal trip so opted out. This gave me a lot of quiet time to unpack and shower after everyone else had gone, and then I spent most of my time relaxing and reading a book in the gathering area. When everyone returned, we spent the time socializing while our guides prepared our dinner. It was a nice way to wind down from the previous days’ riding as we anxiously looked at our smartphones trying to predict whether or not we’d be getting wet the next day…