Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Belated Canal/GAP Bike Trip video

Ok, I actually finished this a while ago, but never posted it here on the blog. But here it is, functioning as a summary of our trip, an advert for next year's trip, and an educational video about life on the trail (you can click over to Vimeo if you want to see it in a bigger size):

2009 C&O Canal/GAP Bike Trip from Eric Hittinger on Vimeo.

Monday, April 13, 2009

2009 Canal/GAP Bike Trip Summary

This year, we're doing the usual 3 1/2 day bike trip up the C and O Canal Towpath trail (183 miles) from DC to Cumberland, with an added 150 miles from Cumberland to Pittsburgh for those interested in extending the trip a bit. The plan is to leave DC on Thurs, 23 July afternoon (meet up around 4:30PM), with the Pittsburgh people coming in that day or the night before. Leaving DC after work, we will do about 20 miles on Thursday, about 60 miles (each) on Fri and Sat, and the remaining 40 miles of the Canal on Sunday. From Cumberland, anyone heading back to DC will catch a ride (pre-arranged outfitter) back to DC, so that they will be home at a reasonable time for work the next day. Anyone heading further on towards Pittsburgh will continue for another 2.5 days (60 miles/day average).

I have biked the canal 7 times, and it is a delightful bike trip.... the path is level (except for 10 ft rises at each lock) and is packed dirt/gravel... yes, you are in the woods pretty much the whole time, which is nice, but there are small towns every 30 miles or so where you can eat or restock. The Canal is a National Historical Park, so it is well maintained and there are *free* hiker/biker campsites (clearing with well water pump, porta-potty, picnic table, and fire pit) every 10 miles or so. Additionally, there are many interesting natural/historical sites along the canal that make for a fun break from biking.

I've only done the GAP twice, but this section is also great - the trail is smoother and has more towns than the Canal, but is still in the woods. The GAP also features the "easiest" (note: relative term) 2000 ft climb you will ever do, a number of tunnels, the Mason-Dixon line, and the Eastern Continental Divide.

For this trip, it sounds like there will be a large Pittsburgh contingent and a generally large group. Hopefully, we are looking at a big rolling party - don't miss out!

2009 Bike Trip: Things to Bring

There is not that much equipment that is critical for this trip - just the camping basics, really. Some people (poor Co-ops) like go cheap-and-light. Others (professional engineers) like to travel with fancy, high-tech gear. This trip is a great time to try out experimental camping gear arrangements, if you are so inclined.

Things each person will need (I suggest):
-Bike (mountain or hybrid, not road bike... also, it can be cheap and crappy - my bike cost $120 at Walmart 6 years ago... note that bikes can also be rented pretty easily around here)
-Panniers / storage for your stuff (you can buy/borrow panniers, a trailer, or just put your stuff into bags that you bungee onto your rack - there are many options that will work depending on how fancy you want to get)
-Food (snacks and a few meals, and more if you don't want to do restaurants)
-Tent (or space in someone else's)
-Sleeping bag
-Proper clothes (probably 2 sets of clothes, plus rain and cold gear - this is plenty. You can get "high tech" clothes or just wear old tshirts)
Inner Tube - in case you need it - chances are someone will have a flat

Things you probably want to take (or ensure that someone takes for you):
-Headlight/tailight (in case of night riding)
-sunblock/bug repellent (I don't use it, but I take it anyway)
-personal hygiene stuff
-TP (not everyone needs a whole roll, but you don't want to run out either)
-spare change
-bathing suit

Other things to maybe take:
-duct tape
-short rope
-pad and pen
-"blue" polyethylene tarp
-extra cords/straps

I will be taking a whole bunch of bike maintenance stuff, but everyone should make sure that they have at least 1 inner tube for their bike.

The costs for the trip depend mostly on how fancy you want to get with the equipment. Bike rental is probably about $30 a day (this is a guess) or you can straight up buy a passable bike at Walmart/Target for $125 (make sure it has mounting holes to mount a rack). Buying a bike rack (needed for most people) will cost you about $30. Transportation back to DC will probably be about $85 a person. Campsites are free, and the remaining costs depend on you - you guys already know how much a meal in a restaurant costs if you want to go that way (I highly suggest restaurants), and the equipment above ranges greatly in cost from nothing (if you borrow it or already have it) to big bucks.

Getting in Shape for The Bike Trip

As far as being in shape/getting in shape for this trip: I should start by saying that 60 miles in a day sounds like a lot, but isn't too bad over the course of 14 hours of sunlight. You will need to be in shape, but you don't need to be an athlete (I am not). Anybody in good health who has practiced a bit on a bike should be able to do this trip, but I will say that the more you ride now, the less pain you will be in during the trip.

My suggestions for "training" for this trip are:

1. Ride a bike often - the best way to get in shape for bike riding is to ride a bike (big suprise).

2. Remember that the goal here is distance, not speed - If you drop your speed a little when riding, you greatly extend your endurance (on long rides, I try to maintain the cardiovascular equivalent of a brisk walk)... I have actually found that I have had trouble getting myself to go slow enough on long rides.

3. Practice going long distances - At least once, take a weekend day and do a 50 mile (or more if you want) ride. When you do this, remember to take your time, maintain endurance (not too fast!), and bring food. Remember to eat! Make sure you eat before you go and probably at least once during the ride - your body will thank you...

4. Try your equipment set-up - If you can, put all your gear on your bike as you plan on doing it on the trip and go for a ride. This will give you the feeling for how the load will affect your handling, inertia, and speed.

2009 Canal/GAP Bike Trip Schedule

This is the approximate schedule that we have done a few times (and it worked pretty well). The Canal milemarkers for various stops are given in (parentheses). There are many restaurants, but people will still need to bring some of their own food (dinner the first night and 2 breakfasts). A bunch of granola bars will do the job for these meals, if you can stand eating a bunch of them.

Day 1 - Thurs, 23 July (dinner on trail)
Leave from Key park (or so) around 4:30PM
(15) Great Falls
(21) Camp here

Day 2 - Fri, 24 July (breakfast+ on trail)
(55) Brunswick (lunch)
(60) Harpers Ferry (ice cream, snacks)
(72) Shepardstown (dinner)
(79) Camp here

Day 3 - Sat, 25 July
(84.4) Detour to Williamsport
(100) Williamsport (breakfast)
(112) Ft. Frederick
(~114) Detour onto WMRT
(124) Hancock (lunch)
(141) Little Orleans (dinner)
(144.5) Camp here

Day 4 - Sun, 26 July (breakfast+ on trail)
(156) Paw Paw tunnel
(166.7) Oldtown, MD
(184) Cumberland (lunch) - DC people get a ride back from here
(GAP 16) Frostburg (dinner) - Camp here

Day 5 - Mon, 27 July
(GAP 32) Meyersdale (breakfast)
(GAP 63) Confluence (lunch)
(GAP 74) Ohiopyle (dinner)
Camp at either Ohiopyle (GAP 74) or Connelsville (GAP 91)

Day 6 - Tues, 28 July
(GAP 91) Connelsville (breakfast)
(GAP 116) West Newton (lunch)
(GAP 135) McKeesport (dinner)
(GAP 150) Pittsburgh

Sunday, March 22, 2009

C and O Canal Campsite Guide

So this long blog entry is my little piece of public service for those planning on biking the C and O Canal. I know that when I first went along the Canal, I was able to find some descriptions of the campsites but no pictures or anything that gave me a real feel for them. Hopefully this guide can serve as a planning tool for those who are doing the Canal for the first time or as a memory tool for those who are trying to recall where that "really neat" campsite was or which one had the lockhouse right next to it. This guide only covers the Park Service campsites along the way (there are private campgrounds as well). To learn more about biking the Canal, I would recommend two books: "The C&O Canal Companion" and "Linking Up: Planning your traffic-free bike trip between Pittsburgh, PA and Washington, DC". I carry both of them any time I bike the Canal. Finally, I should note that there are a few campsites that I do not yet have pictures of (I hope to fix that this summer). The missing campsites are all in areas where I normally bypass the Canal (the Slackwater/Williamsport bypass, or where the Western Maryland RailTrail runs parallel).

To start off, the C and O Canal is a National Historical Park and is thus maintained by the Park Service. Importantly, this means that the camping is free along the Canal. Campsites are located right on the trail every 5 to 10 miles of the Canal's length (with a few longer stretches here and there). Each campsite is basically a clearing with a picnic table, fire pit, port-a-potty, and a well-water pump. Many of them also have access to the Potomac River (though it is often muddy access).

Starting on the DC end of the trail, with pictures beneath each entry (Canal mileage in parentheses):

Swain's Lock (16.6) - This first campsite breaks a few of the Canal campsite rules: it is accessible by car and has running water (up near the lockhouse). Because of it's location and accessibility, this site often has many campers (occasionally of the loud/drunk variety), but is sufficiently sized for many groups. Finally, there is a secluded (secret) site here separated from the others - go into the camping area, then head down towards the river and upstream, follow the little path you find until it ends at this separated campsite.
Horsepen Branch (26.0) - Standard campsite in the woods, though it is pretty narrow and right on the trail. I frequently camp here since it is a good short ride from DC but far enough out that it is not crowded.

Chisel Branch (30.5) - Standard campsite.

Turtle Run (34.4) - Standard campsite.
Marble Quarry (38.2) - Standard campsite. The site has a section that is clear of trees and gets sun in the afternoon.

Indian Flats (42.2) - Standard campsite just past the Monocacy Aqueduct (0.2 miles).
Calico Rocks (47.6) - Nice deep campsite, lots of room for a large group.
Bald Eagle Island (50.3) - Standard campsite. Caution: railroad is near to the site and can be noisy at night.
Huckleberry Hill (62.9) - Standard campsite, somewhat crowded against the trail.
Killiansburg Cave (75.3) - Standard campsite, but crowded against the trail. Also, not much room here for any sizable group.
Horseshoe Bend (79.7) - Standard campsite. Best place to camp before the Slackwater detour at 84.4, since Big Woods has a water supply issue.
Big Woods (82.5) - This site is notable because, as the C&O Canal Companion says, "the water pump is rather inconveniently located a fifth of a mile downstream". This makes fetching water a chore. Note that this is also the last site before the Slackwater detour.
Opequon Junction (90.9) - Standard small campsite, a bit crowded onto the trail.

Cumberland Valley (95.2) - Standard campsite, nice trees for shade.

Jordan Junction (101.3) - Campsite relatively close to Williamsport. Supposedly has a funny smell sometimes because of a nearby tannery.
North Mountain (110.0) - Standard campsite on the side of a hill. Looks like a nice place to camp, though I have never stayed here myself.
Licking Creek (116.0) - Small campsite removed from the trail a bit.
Little Pool (120.4) - Nice secluded campsite between the Potomac and Little Pool.
White Rock (126.4) - Standard campsite. (no picture)

Leopard's Mill (129.9) - Standard campsite. (no picture)

Cacapon Junction (133.6) - Standard campsite with nice view of two rivers and some railroad bridges. This is opposite the point where the Cacapon River enters the Potomac. (no picture)
Indigo Neck (139.2) - Campsite at the foundations of an old lockhouse (and lock).
Devil's Alley (144.5) - Nice campsite opposite a good size mountain that you can climb on if you have extra time. Also, good (non-muddy) access to the river at this campsite.
Stickpile Hill (149.4) - Nice site in the woods. Has a small bridge over a ditch, which makes it even more fun.

Sorrel Ridge (154.1) - Large campsite at a lock. Note that the sign is missing, though it would be pretty hard to miss the campsite itself.
Purslane Run (156.9) - Standard campsite.
Town Creek (162.1) - Possibly my favorite campsite on the whole Canal, Town Creek is many times larger than most of the other sites. Additionally, the view of the river and mountains opposite is great.
Potomac Forks (164.8) - Campsite at the point where the Potomac forks into the "North Branch" and the "South Branch". This campsite is situated at a lock with a standing lockhouse and a railroad bridge. The canal is watered here (with many water lilies growing in the Canal) and has a number of small wooden bridges.
Pigman's Ferry (169.2) - This campsite is a fenced-off area surrounded by farmland. There are not many trees here, so shade will be harder to find.

Iron Mountain (175.4) - Large, deep campsite.

Evitt's Creek (180.0) - The trainyard here is so close that you can see the trains sitting just across the canal, which means occasional noise at night.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

NationBuilders Bike Route

So I have been working on a bike route which I am calling the NationBuilders Bike Route (link here). The route is themed after Early American industry (Canals, Railways, etc.) and was inspired by my realization that by traveling the C and O Canal, then the Great Allegheney Passage trail, you would be pretty close to the Erie Canal and were starting to make a big loop along historical industrial routes that are also conveniently bike-friendly (about a third of it is on trails). For the portions that are not covered by the above routes, I use rail trails or Adventure Cycling Routes to patch the gaps. I have personally ridden about 75% of this route and can say that it contains some really great areas. The only problem is that the route is suprisingly long: 1500 miles (!).
The route basically goes like this, starting from DC (but you can start anywhere you want):

1. Leave DC on the C and O Canal heading towards Cumberland. The Canal is 183 miles that requires almost no riding on roads (hopefully they will raise enough to connect through at the Slackwater area). The trail is flat, in the woods, with occasional historical sites or small towns. I can't say enough good things about the canal - easily my favorite place to bike.

2. At the end of the Canal in Cumberland, MD, you can pick up the Great Allegheney Passage, which is a rails to trails crushed limestone path going about 140 miles from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. This is also a nice route - slightly easier rolling than the canal and slightly more civilization than the canal, but you have to pay for camping.

3. Next is the Pittsburgh section, which I patched together from the excellent and free Bike Pittsburgh bike map. Just outside of the city (Coraopolis), you pick up the route laid out in the Cleveland/Pittsburgh Connector (a map set available from Adventure Cycling). We use this route for 57 miles into the Lordstown area.

4. At this point, you can pick up the Western Reserve Greenway, a 42 mile rail trail that runs straight as an arrow north until it hits Astabula on Lake Erie.

5. At Astabula, you can pick up the Adventure Cycling Northern Tier route, which basically runs along the lake on decent biking roads. This route heads through Buffalo and into Niagara Falls (Well, not "into" Niagara Falls...).

6. From the Falls, you can continue along the Erie Canal all the way to Albany (350 miles). The Erie Canal has bike paths for some portions and local roads for other portions. Regardless, it is a nice ride through many small towns along a still-active Canal.

7. From Albany, I invented a 50 mile route along the Hudson River that takes you south to meet up with the Adventure Cycling Atlantic Coast route in Rhinebeck. From here, Adventure Cycling takes you through mid-state NY, Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and into DC (while avoiding NYC, Philly, and Baltimore).

I would really like to do this route at some point, but it is probably a good month of riding on a mountain bike. The one great benefit that the route has is that many (many!) people live close to it and could therefore do the entire trip without having to fly or ship a bike - you can just roll out from your house, then roll back in a month later!