Ithaca to Pittsburgh 2010 – Finger Lakes Cycling Club

Bike trip from Ithaca, NY, to Pittsburgh, PA

I had ridden the Great Allegheny Passage, the rail trail from Cumberland, MD, to Pittsburgh, PA, on a previous bike tour (DC to Pittsburgh). In thinking about a 2010 bike tour that could begin at our own doorstep, I came up with the thought of heading due south across Pennsylvania to Cumberland and then turning west to Pittsburgh. Our tours are usually about a week in length, so we couldn’t complete the loop by bike. This is where the idea of using Amtrak came back — we had taken the train back to DC from Pittsburgh on our previous ride along the trail; why not take Amtrak back to Ithaca? Well, it turns out you can take the train to Syracuse; it’s a long trip with a wait for connections in Cleveland, but for an adventure it’s not so bad. When it turned out that Steve Powell had a firm requirement to be back at a certain day, the Amtrak variant became the plan for the group. Steve needed to be back in Ithaca by the 15th, so the departure date became August 5. The main ingredients of the route were Pennsylvania bike route G to go south to Cumberland and the Great Allegheny Passage to get to Pittsburgh. The only additional planning was getting from Ithaca to the beginning of PA route G. There were seven participants committed to the tour — me, Steve Powell, Steve Grossman, John Dennis, Alexey Loginov, Rena Scoggins, and Bob Barnett. The trip was planned to be self-supported, camping each night except for the day or two in Pittsburgh, where we reserved hotel rooms.

Day 1 — Ithaca to Lawrenceville, PA, 77 miles, 2675′ climbing

As so often has to happen, our departure day had the only serious rainstorm in a long time. We were going to leave from Cass Park in the flats of Ithaca around 9:00 am, but wound up waiting to see if the predicted let-up of the rain would make it more pleasant. When we finally left, closer to 11:00 am, we rode maybe 10 miles in light rain and then had nothing but fine weather for the rest of the trip.

Our group of seven consisted of five bikes equipped with panniers and two with trailers. Bob was pulling a BOB and John a Burley Nomad.

Most of this day was through familiar territory south along NY 34 through Spencer to Waverly. From that point it was new, heading west along the state line toward Lawrenceville.

This is really hilly country and the direct route is seldom the best. Whether we found the best is open to

debate, but it took quite a bit longer than we had planned so that we arrived at PA 287 about 5 miles south of Lawrenceville just at dusk and some of us were pretty tired. We had pretty good lights and blinkies on all bikes and pacelined to the campground in the dark.

Our first night’s camping was quite an unusual affair. Google found the “Redhouse Campground” in Lawrenceville, but information on it was very skimpy. When Steve Powell called them, it turned out it was more of a mobile home park but there was a grassy area we could use for our tents right next to an un-occupied mobile home with shower and kitchen. The camping went well, but the inside of the mobile home was a bit hard to take because of the smell of the dogs that had occupied its carpeted rooms. We tried airing it out, but going back out to our tents was really the only thing to do. The camping cost us $7 a piece.

Day 2 — Lawrenceville to Bonnell Flats, PA, 76 miles, 1,680′ climbing

In the morning — a beautiful sunny day — we weren’t much inclined to spend a lot of time over breakfast in the mobile home, so we quickly set off to look for a second, proper, breakfast along the way. This was the beginning of Pennsylvania bike route G as we rode south along PA 287, a fairly big highway with excellent shoulders and not much in the way of hills. In Tioga we found a great breakfast restaurant right at the corner where 287 turns and managed to spend quite a lot of time fueling up. The next leg of the trip took us down 287 to just before the intersection with US 6, where we picked up the beginning of the Pine Creek Rail Trail.

The Pine Creek trail follows a deep gorge that cuts through the steep hills of northern Pennsylvania — known also as “the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.” It’s a very pretty, isolated route that has very little road access for miles on end. We had hoped to find at least some snacks available at Blacksburg, but the place we were counting on had closed in the previous year. The route did take us through one small village with an inn and a restaurant. I was riding with Steve Powell and we found a very nice inn across the river — I’ll have to go back there with my wife some time.

It was another long day for us, what with the long breakfast and a stop at the inn. It was dusk when we arrived at the campsite at Bonnell Flats — a very nice, free, camping area with good water available, but no showers or other facilities. A small group of young men were set up at the far end of the campground next to their turcks. Their inexplicably loud mutual boasts and taunts kept us up for a while, but eventually the silence of the remote riverside took over.

The park authorities in charge of camping on the trail published a caution regarding bears in some of the campsites. Bonnell Flats was not part of that warning area, but anyone traveling through this region should keep in mind that bears may be a factor.

Day 3 — Bonnell Flats to State College, PA, 52 miles, 2,000′ climbing

Day three started with about 7 more miles of the rail trail into Jersey Shore, PA, where bike route G emerges back on the highways. Heading west along PA 150, we were again on the lookout for a good breakfast place but it took a while. I’m not sure just where it was, but we did find a superb place on the north side of the road somewhere before getting to Dunnstown.

[singlepic id=121 w=320 h=240 float=left]When I was looking for a camping plan, this night’s paart of Pennsylvania didn’t seem to have anything at all, so I inquired with some friends — the upshot was that they invited all of us to stay at their house in State College, whether camping in the yard or sleeping in their house (which turned out to have indoor space for all of us, but a couple riders preferred to tent anyway).

As a result of putting this destination on our route, we deviated from route G as we approached State College. Route G follows PA 64 for a long way toward State College but takes a left on PA 445 before getting there. I was a bit worried about that bit, which includes a hill that some other riders remarked upon as particularly horrendous. Our trade-off was to put up with a bit more traffic and stay on 64, which becomes 26, until almost in State College, then take a left on Pike St and following it around as it becomes Branch Rd and ends at Atherton near University Drive, very near my friends’ house. Continuing across Atherton on Branch would bring one back onto route G in a short while. This might be a useful modification of the route if you need to stop into State College for any of its ample services.

We had a festive dinner and socializing in the evening and slept in the luxury of actual beds in a house.

Day 4 — State College to Martinsburg, PA, 54 miles, 2,532′ climbing.

In the morning we had a superb breakfast of fresh baked goods and coffee and said good bye to John Dennis, who had decided to return to Ithaca. Our friends got their bikes out to lead us to re-connect with the bike route G. I only wish I had that route for our mapping records, because it was an extraordinarily beautiful small road through very picturesque little hill farms. After about 15 miles, our friends turned around and we continued through one of the prettiest sections of the whole route. It was also a deal hillier than any of our previous route, so the miles began to add up by the time we got near Martinsburg.

Our camping in Martinsburg was free by permit — Steve Powell had obtained the permit beforehand to camp in the municipal park, a most extraordinary place. This quite small town had a park with a huge building for bowling alleys, hockey rink, basketball courts and who-knows-what-else, a very large and elaborate swimming pool and bath-house, as well as various pavillions and additional buildings set among large shade trees. With our permit, we were entitled to use the bathing facilities and camp among the trees. We found dinner down the street at a chain pizza place that everyone we asked had recommended.

Day 5 — Martinsburg, PA, to Cumberland, MD, 71 miles, 3,060′ climbing

This morning we had to choose whether to follow our maps, which were transcribed from the Pennsylvania bike route website, or the signs we found along the streets in Martinsburg. Figuring that signs on the ground must have some basis, we followed them. Rather than heading straight west on PA 164, the marked route went south on 866 for a bit, then west on Cross Cove Rd, then right (north) on  PA 36 until it intersects the mapped route G and PA 164 in Roaring Spring. The next bit of the ride was really hair-raising. Fortunately it was mostly down-hill so we could get it over quickly — a major highway with unremitting truck traffic at high speeds and not much of a shoulder anywhere. I’m guessing that the detour must have been inserted to remove a few miles of this kind of riding from route G — much appreciated! Once in East Freedom we were once again on streets and small roads with virtually no traffic of any kind. Pointing back south again, the route is a tiny road paralleling US 220, which carries all the traffic. Bedford is a very picturesque little town where we stopped for lunch.

At about mile 65 (on our map), just after the intersection of PA 35 and 36, we turn off the highway on a small road climbing gently. This leads to a point where you can access the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail, which is otherwise nowhere near roads. You have to be very careful to follow the cues at this point. The correct route goes up Manteo Dr., an impossibly steep gravel road that looks like just a driveway to the house on the hillside. After an even steeper bump, you’re on the trail which, at that point, is sharply descending toward Cumberland.

We had arranged to camp in Cumberland in a small area across the road from the YMCA. The day had been incredibly hot, however, and there was no sign of it cooling off in the evening so Steve Grossman and I seized the alternative of renting a room in a big hotel in Cumberland. It was right at the terminus of the GAP and the C&O Canal trail.

In retrospect it’s clear that this day’s itinerary was much longer than it should have been. Including some extra miles, we were pushing 80 miles, which would have been a burden even if the temperatures on the road hadn’t been around 100 F. Given the constraints on this trip, we couldn’t really have added a day. But, if I were planning to do this route, I might just see if the entire crossing of Pennsylvania can’t be divided into different portions so that no day is longer than, say, 50 miles.

Day 6 — Ciumberland, MD, to Rockwood, PA, 44 miles, 3,000′ climbing

Passage took us up the same hill we had come in on the evening before. There is no steep climbing anywhere on the entire trail, but this section has the steepest as we climb toward the “eastern continental divide” — the division between watersheds to the Atlantic and to the Gulf of Mexico, iirc. You need to supply yourself with water on this stretch. The first place to resupply is Frostburg, which is off to the left of the trail atop a really big, steep climb. It’s better to have enough snacks and water to continue at least until Meyersdale. Shortly after Frostburg, the climbing tops out at an overpass exactly at the divide. An arts grant has funded the painting of some remarkable murals on the concrete of the overpass, commemorating the historical and geographic uniqueness of the place, worth stopping for a bit to have a look. From there, the path begins a steady descent.

Meyersdale can be a good place to stop, but the services are down the rather steep hill in town.

We’ve found a small coffee shop on a cross street a couple blocks below the railroad tracks. At 44 miles is Rockwood, with a relatively new hostel. The hostel is operated by the same folks as run the Rockwood Mill Shops — a miniature mall consisting of an ice cream parlor and pizza parlor with great coffee, food, deserts. The hostel is very minimal but has everything the traveller needs for $24/night per person. We had dinner at a restaurant a few blocks east of the hostel.

Day 7 — Rockwood to Connellsville, PA, 50 miles, 1,400′ climbing

After a good breakfast at the Rockwood Mill, we headed back out on the trail to the first destination, Ohiopyle. Some of our group wanted to visit Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which is located only a few miles from Ohiopyle.

Around this time we were a bit worried how we would make the final 10 miles or so into Pittsburgh. The trail stops around McKeesport and the roads into the city are not bike-friendly. We had heard warnings about those roads in previous years and got a bike shop to shuttle us in on our last trip. But, being pretty experienced urban cyclists, we kept thinking, “how bad can it be?” and had decided to just ride those roads and see for ourselves. However, as we met people along the trail, we asked them about that portion of the trip. Without exception, they all warned us against it, saying they would never do it themselves — this, even from natives of Pittsburgh, who presumably would have known best. So, while I was waiting for the others in Ohiopyle, I made an effort to get us an alternative way to finish the route. There is an adventure outfitting company there that does provide van support, but it turned out they were already committed for the days we would need them; and they told me that there really was no other option for us. So, the die was cast — we would be finding out what was so awful about it.
So, while the Steves and Alexey made the side trip, the rest of us relaxed and enjoyed the village and the spectacular river. The temperature was in the upper 80s F, as it had been most days, so I appreciated the opportunity to move very slowly and tend to nothing more strenuous than my hydration.

From Ohiopyle, it was another 20 miles to our campground, a private area about three miles west of Connelsville. We had stayed there previously, so were familiar with its possiblities — a laundry and swimming pool, but no dining potential. We indulged ourselves by phoning for pizza to be delivered at poolside.

Day 8 — Connelsville to Pittsburgh, PA, 55 miles, 1,400′ climbing

Another day on the Great Allegheny Passage, miles and miles along the picturesque river and through tiny villages and parks. It was clear that we were getting closer to a population center as we encountered more people. At mile 36 of our map we stopped at a rail car parked next to the trail just past a highway bridge over the river. As we were looking around at the car, an authoritative person appeared on the scene and asked if we needed information. It turned out to be one of the cycling community who was active in promoting cycling and knowledgeable about routes. He didn’t offer us much encouragement regarding our eventual entrance to Pittsburgh but he did recommend that we leave the GAP at that point, head across the bridge, and follow a newly developed bike path on the opposite side. We followed his suggestion and soon were dodging around on old, river-front streets between commercial buildings of all sorts. After a long, hot pause for a puncture, we continued on our way as clouds moved into the region, threatening rain.

And, then, there we were on a major highway, riding along the right traffic lane as the rain began to fall. We stopped to regroup at a gas station, had some final snacks and water, and then set out on the very last piece of the ordeal, Carson St. This was about a five-mile stretch of a major road of only two lanes — one lane in each direction, and not an inch more of pavement. At our right elbow was a guard rail; at the left, trucks, busses, cars at 45-55 mph. Fortunately, it was slightly down hill, so we could keep a relative speed that wasn’t too bad. But, in order to get past us, all the traffic had to pull into the opposing lane and opportunities for that were relatively infrequent. So, we had big vehicles following us for quite a stretch at a time. It was nerve-wracking. On the other hand, just about everyone we inconvenienced was polite and sensible in dealing with us. No honking, no close calls, no crazy zooming around. Like the other cyclists we asked about this stretch, we don’t recommend anybody bicycle on Carson St. But, neither do we think it’s a death-trap. If you need to ride into Pittsburgh, you can do it this way.

We arrived at our hotel in late afternoon and were very relieved to have survived the ordeal and to be able to wash the road grime off. The main part of our great adventure was finished and we set about enjoying Pittsburgh for a bit before continuing.

Dinner was particularly gratifying on this day — we wanted to have a group gathering to commemorate the completion of the trip.It was to be our last day all together, since Rena and Bob had to rent a car and return home right away. A complication was that two of the participants are vegan and a third is vegetarian. We had managed to find suitable sustenance previously mainly because, as campers, we had the freedom to mix and recombine meals in campgrounds and hostels. But in the city we needed a restaurant. I was sure there was no such place. But, then, providence sent us to “The Doublewide” — a remarkable restaurant built on the premises of a gas station, with a menu including everything from authentic (and excellent) vegan fare to rare steaks and burgers. That, and some superb draught beer. Don’t forget: Doublewide if in Pittsburgh.

Day 9 — Spent in Pittsburgh, looking around, eating, relaxing.

Our Amtrak train was scheduled to leave at 11:59 pm and the only thing that the Steves, Alexey and I had to do before then was to get our bikes to the train station and packed into the Amtrak bike boxes. Although there are countless attractions in Pittsburgh, none of us really had the energy to pursue much. We contented ourselves with another look at the remarkable “inclines” — cable cars that climb the very steep (like, maybe, 45 degrees?) hillsides that rise from the river. A century ago, there were 12 such inclines that carried people from the river level to the residential neighborhoods at the top. Today there are only two left and it seems they are more an attraction for tourists than a transportation utility for natives. The view of the city as the car goes up is truly spectacular and then one can walk along the drive at the top and go out on observation platforms that hang over the cliffside. There are very nice signs put up by the tourism authorities, no doubt, that indicate the location of ice cream and coffee shops, and we obediently followed the directions.

Taking the bikes to Amtrak was, as previously, a pleasant experience. The train officials were very helpful in providing us with boxes and even with tape and markers to finish the packing. They let us check our panniers as luggage and let us store some of our carry-on bags behind their counter. Having left our bikes in the station we walked up to the old Pennsylvania Station which is now converted to private apartments and offices; this is one of the most  remarkable architectural spaces you’ll ever see, both inside the cavernous lobby that used to be a waiting room and outside under the columned hemispherical entryway. It’s really incomprehensible how a nation with this degree of reverential devotion to trains has come to hold them in virtual contempt.

Toward evening we took our time walking around looking for dinner, dragging things out so as not to have too much time to spend sitting in the railroad station. Eventually, it came to sitting around in the railroad station anyway.

Day 10 — Pittsuburgh to Syracuse, 8 miles

Unfortunately, the new scenery that I would have liked to see on the train route was covered in darkness. We found ourselves in Cleveland at something like 3:00 am, waiting for the eastbound connection with the Lake Shore Limited. Not surprisingly, Amtrak had some problems that night and a large number of westbound people were impatiently waiting for their train.Eventually, our connection arrived and we got on the train just about in time for breakfast. I’m a big fan of dining cars on trains, so I was eager to take advantage of the opportunity. It’s amazing that they can serve a pretty good meal these days, since most of the cooking equipment has been removed from the dining cars in favor of pre-cooked items.

Once in Syracuse, we assembled our bikes and headed for Steve Grossman’s house, about 8 miles from the Amtrak Station. Syracuse is a city I grew up in but haven’t been part of for over 40 years now. It was fun picking a route on streets I hadn’t seen in years but that felt so familiar. At Steve’s, we got cleaned up and enjoyed a great meal in his back yard.

Day 11 — Syracuse to Ithaca, 63 miles, 2,475′ climbing

Steve Grossman had taken this part of the trip as his first day — he rode down to Ithaca the day before we left. So, he was finished with the complete loop and only Steve Powell, Alexey and I were left to complete this trip.

The ride from Syracuse to Ithaca is one of the treats in this region. Leaving from the eastern suburb of Dewitt, we headed south to Jamesville and, from there, were in rural New York State in a broad valley gently sloping upward. At Apulia, we shifedt into another valley and continued south through state forest lands, farms, and a ski area. From Truxton, we headed west toward Cortland along the Tioghnioga River valley and, after passing through the city, stopped at Doug’s Fish Fry for a good lunch. Next, we picked up the road that follows Fall Creek almost all the way into Ithaca. Toward the end, Alexey veered off northward to his house northeast of Ithaca; and, a few miles later, Steve Powell veered the other way toward his home on Snyder Hill. I was left to complete the loop with the gorgeous descent down Hanshaw Road and Stewart Avenue to the flats of the city and our starting point on the west side. A half mile more and I was home, too.