Riding, walking the Great Allegheny Passage in Fayette County

| Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

Built mainly on abandoned rail beds and comprised of packed, crushed limestone, the Great Allegheny Passage, or GAP as it is commonly known, is part of a network of connected trails that were built in the early 1990s running from Cumberland, Md. to Pittsburgh.

The trail also connects to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath from Cumberland to Washington, D.C.

In September 2012, National Geographic named the GAP one of the top 10 Best Fall Destinations in the world and compared it with such locations and events like the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, N.M.; Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park in New Zealand; Charles Dicken's 200th Birthday Celebration in Portsmouth, England; Fall Foliage Viewing in Hokkaido, Japan; Alba International White Truffle Fair in Alba, Italy; National Apple Harvest Festival in Arendtsville, Pa., and others.

A 33-mile section of the trail runs from Ohiopyle Borough to the village of Whitsett, which covers the majority of Fayette County and the collection of events and stops along the way.

Along the trail in Fayette County

In Ohiopyle, Lance Martin held rafting trips for Boy Scouts in 1964, utilizing all that Ohiopyle State Park had to offer. That grew into a business that's known today as Wilderness Voyageurs.

The business is now run by Martin's children, Eric Martin and Lynne Martin, and still specializes in what the area has to offer — tours and adventures in raft trips, rock climbing, mountain biking, kayak instruction, stand-up paddle board, fly fishing. They also sell all the necessary accessories for those activities.

The business made way for the bike trail.

“Ohiopyle was already a firmly established destination for a long time,” said Ben Scoville, operations manager for Wilderness Voyageurs. “We've shifted some of our resources to tailor to the bike trail.”

In addition, Wilderness Voyageurs evolved into the first business to offer bike-tour packages for the trail.

Scoville said much of Ohiopyle, which is a big summer destination for tourists, diversified its businesses to accommodate those on the bike trail, too.

Another established business on the bike trail that adjusted day-to-day operations because of the GAP is River's Edge Camping and Cabins in Adelaide, Dunbar Township, near Connellsville.

Originally named the Adelaide Campground, the facility was built in the early 1980s. The campground went through various owners over the years before it was purchased in 2005 by Denise Gallo and Deene Yenchochic. Both continue to run the campground and RV sites and cabin rentals.

Along with offering rentals for canoeing, kayaking and water tubing, they also have pedal cart rentals to use on the GAP.

“At the time we looked at the trail market and added the trail on as a revenue category,” Gallo said. “We look at the trail user as a customer and hopefully that will continue to grow.”

Some of the changes made at River's Edge were to increase food items for hungry trail users; adjust the two-night minimum stay to one night for those coming off the trail and leaving in the morning; and place trail users closer to the campground's showers.

“When they get here, the first thing they would like is a hot shower and food,” Gallo said.

Gallo said there also was an effort to educate the staff about the area, its restaurants, businesses, to relay information to trail users who might have questions.

“We always look for feedback as the trail users are a part of our business for sure,” Gallo said, adding that she sees an increase of trail users in the spring and fall. “We love being on the trail and think it's a fantastic thing, meeting people from other parts of the world. That's exciting.”

“We see more people in the summer — bar none,” Scoville said of Ohiopyle. “We're a summer destination. When it gets hot out there, we have the river, and this town is hopping then.”

Scoville said he has seen greater activity and a transfer of clientele in the fall season, too, as more bicyclists show up when the leaves begin to change and drift to the ground.

‘Leafer Peepers' on the GAP

Scoville said those people have earned the name “Leafer Peepers” because they like to bike the trail and see the yellow, orange and red leaves.

“It's no surprise,” Scoville said. “It's such a great area, and I think it's under recognized most of the time. It's just beautiful — you have the mountains, the rolling hills, you have the farmland, you have the woods — it's gorgeous in the fall — right up there with the smoky mountains.”

Two “Leafer Peepers” visiting Ohiopyle recently were Bill and Carolyn Griffiths of Pittsburgh. They have been riding the GAP for 10 years.

“I grew up in Pittsburgh, and I used to go to a summer camp up here,” Carolyn Griffiths said. “There's just a lot of activities you can do all in one spot, and they make it really convenient for you.”

“We come up here for all the seasons, but the fall's probably our favorite,” Bill Griffiths said, adding that they normally cycle on the trail from Pittsburgh and stay near Ohiopyle together or with their three children and make a weekend out of it.

Carolyn Griffiths said she enjoys the trail in the fall because the weather is cooler and the scenery is beautiful.

“We used to be summer people, but once we started coming up in the fall, we liked it better,” she said, adding that she enjoys getting away from the buildings and pavement of Pittsburgh for the mountains, the river and the forest. “It's quiet and peaceful. You can't beat it.”

“It's a nice environment for the kids to be outdoors,” Bill Griffiths said.

Another family that has made the GAP a tradition is the Ted Gygax family of Baltimore, Md.

“We've been coming up here (Ohiopyle) about six years,” Gygax said.

One Saturday in late September, Gygax came to go rafting on the river. Since the weather too cold for rafting, he decided to go on the bike trail with his daughter, his other daughter and her boyfriend.

Word-of-mouth advertising was how Gygax first found out about the GAP. When he found that the trail is not paved like most and is also a flat, easy ride, he decided to go and kept going.

“We normally come up in mid-September or late-September when the leaves are changing and it's not too hot, not too cold,” Gygax said. “It's enjoyable.”

Kylie Gygax said she remembered coming on the bike trail when she was younger. She still enjoys going on the GAP, especially in the fall when its cooler, less crowded, and the leaves are changing.

“It's just quiet, it's nice,” Kylie Gygax said. “You can hear the river.”

Like her sister, Morgan Gygax remembers coming to the GAP when she was younger and continues to come with her family and also brought her boyfriend, Michael Rowland.

“I like that you can hike from the bike trail and watch the people on the river,” Morgan Gygax said. “It's a really pretty trail. It's not busy. It's quiet.”

It's quite a change from the bike trail near her house, she said, which has homes on both sides and little scenery.

Rowland said his first time on the GAP was also a big change from the trail he was used to in Baltimore, which is paved, more modern and too busy.

“I like being outside and in nature,” Rowland said. “It's beautiful here. I love it. I plan on coming back.”

First-time trail riders from Ohio

A group of 15 first-time trail riders from Ohio was on the trail in late September. When they decided to ride the GAP, they decided to ride the entire trail as well as the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath, starting in Washington, D.C., and finishing in Pittsburgh — a grand total of 318 miles.

The group belongs to the Westerville Bicycle Club. They found out about the GAP from another member of their bike club who rode the entire length of the trail.

“So we said, ‘yeah, why not?'” said Ann Morahan of Westerville, Ohio. “We've done five-day trips before, but never this long.”

Morahan said while they enjoyed stopping at the trail towns along the way, which have become something of welcome centers, the biggest thing to stand out was the scenery.

“The scenery on the GAP is magnificent with the rocks and everything. You're away from the city. It's very urban where we are. This is very remote and really pretty,” she said. “The trail towns are fun. Each one has its own flavor and quaint. The people are very nice. It was really quite an experience.”

Another aspect of the trail that popped out for Morahan was the history displayed and available along the trail from Fallingwater in Mill Run to the rows of Coke Ovens in Dunbar Township.

“You read about it in books, but you have to be there to really understand it,” said Morahan, who's also a teacher. She covered some of the historic destinations in her class.

“Here, it comes to life,” she said.

“The fact that you can go from D.C. to here, no traffic and out in a rustic area, is just fantastic,” said Carl Morahan of Westerville, Ohio. “I've been on short trails, but nothing like the magnitude of this. Incredible.”

Sue Olander of Columbus, Ohio, has been involved with biking for six years. She also enjoyed the scenery on the GAP.

“The rocks along the bank are absolutely beautiful,” Olander said.

While she took in the sights and sounds of the GAP, Olander said she was most looking forward to accomplishing her goal of completing what was undoubtedly the longest bike ride of her life.

John Schultz of Columbus, Ohio, has been involved in cycling, but his experience on the GAP marked his first off-road experience, his first multi-state ride and his first week-long ride.

“The C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath) was pretty bumpy and once you get on the GAP, it was pretty smooth,” Schultz said, adding that he was pleased to visit Fallingwater. He hadn't been there in 10 years.

The idea of going on the GAP for a week-long ride was actually a scary idea for Gary Olander of Columbus, Ohio.

“I didn't start riding bicycles until I was 63,” Gary Olander said. “Now I'm 66. It was a real challenge to get me to go.”

But his age wasn't what worried Gary Olander, it was his bad knees and emphysema.

“The longest ride I've ever done was 50 miles this summer. It never went beyond two consecutive days and this is seven executive days and about 50 miles per day,” Gary Olander said. “I wasn't sure if I could do it, but it's been fun and like I said, if a guy like me can do it, almost anybody can do it.”

For information on the Great Allegheny Passage, visit www.atatrail.org.

Mark Hofmann is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-626-3539 or mhofmann@tribweb.com.

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