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North Hills Monthly

The Great Allegheny Passage: Pittsburgh’s Rail-Trail Gem

Apr 30, 2015 02:42PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Stunning views, easily accessible paths free from motor traffic, and enticing trail towns draw in thousands of bikers, hikers and runners every year to the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), which runs 150 miles between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, MD, and connects all the way to Washington, DC. 

Thomas Baxter, executive director of Friends of the Riverfront and a board member of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, explained that the GAP is not the result of one person, but of an alliance of many different groups with a shared vision who came together in the late 1970s and 1980s to begin developing old railroad beds into a continuous path of biking and walking trails. “This project could not have reached completion without such an extensive alliance,” he said, crediting its success to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Regional Trail Corporation, the coalition of individual trail organizations that maintain their respective sections of the GAP, and extremely generous and engaged philanthropic partners in the Pittsburgh community. 

“This extraordinary collaboration has resulted in Pennsylvania having more miles of trails than any state in the nation,” said Baxter, adding that the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which runs for 24 miles along the Pittsburgh riverfronts and includes the downtown Pittsburgh section of the GAP, gets more than 800,000 visits yearly, and has an estimated annual economic impact of $8.3 million. 

Jim Trautmann, a Wexford resident and parent of two young children who frequents the GAP regularly, has biked or run the entire length of the GAP as well as a large portion of the C&O Canal Towpath which connects the GAP to Washington, DC. He explained, “The GAP is great for families because there are very few road crossings, and it’s safe. These trails are such a good investment; towns are always looking for ways to get people active, and I see so many families out on the trails.”

Seneca Valley Senior High School teacher Bruce Clark is also an avid biker and an experienced GAP traveler. Having led his oldest son’s Boy Scout troop on a bike excursion from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh, he has plans to recreate the trip for his younger two sons and their fellow scouts this summer. “The original experience turned out to be an incredible trip, and one that the boys have all talked about for years,” he said.

Clark said that he often bikes shorter sections of 30 to 40 miles per trip with his youngest sons, aged 10 and 13, and that the trail is definitely family-friendly. “It’s smooth, flat and level, and people are really friendly on the trail,” he added.

Both Trautmann and Clark tout the beauty of the GAP as well. “There are some amazing sections of the GAP trail if you’re willing to drive just a little south of Pittsburgh,” said Clark. “The section around Ohiopyle is extremely scenic, extremely beautiful and extremely peaceful, and it’s an incredible experience. The view out of the eastern side of the Big Savage Tunnel is spectacular.” 

“The whole section around Connellsville is nice; you’ll see rapids and beautiful wooded areas,” agreed Trautmann, who also enjoys the portions of the GAP in and around Pittsburgh. “As you head out past Homestead, just south of downtown, you go through all these old steelworks. You can actually see up into Kennywood. If you’re into the history of Pittsburgh, the areas around downtown are really cool.” 

For those new to the GAP, Trautmann suggests that bikers and hikers pick larger trailheads off of main roads. “The busier trailheads have a lot of parking,” he added. He also recommends that users take advantage of the many dining options in the towns along the trail. “Sometimes we pack lunch, but we have had a lot of fun trying out new restaurants in each trail town. There are a lot of neat little places. It’s great because you can stop, eat, rest, let the kids run around and play, and then head back on the trail.”

Clark’s recommendation is to start downtown. “All of the trails right in Pittsburgh are paved and flat, and they go up and down all three rivers,” he said. “The biggest advantage here is that you’re still in civilization if there’s a problem. You’re never far from help.” 

Baxter, also an enthusiastic biker, has helpful practical advice. “I would encourage anyone interested in the GAP to pick up a copy of TrailBook; it’s an entire guide to the experience of a lifetime on the GAP,” he said. The guide includes detailed maps, information on amenities and services in each trail town, and the levels of experience needed, providing bikers with everything they need to know about planning a trip on the GAP. 

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