Emma and I just spent the last week riding our bikes across the state of Pennsylvania, this time from the northern border with New York to the southern border with Maryland pretty much right down the middle of the state. You may remember that a few years back we crossed the state the other way from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia following the Crush the Commonwealth route.
For the past five years we have been doing at least one large bike tour each year. Twice we’ve done the GAP/C&O route between Pittsburgh and DC, the aforementioned Crush the Commonwealth route, the length of the Spanish Pyrenees, a week in the Adirondacks as well as many other short trips. These previously trips were mostly more traditional biketouring trips that were on public roads, rail trails or other mostly maintained trails. For these trips we took our road bikes and packed our gear on rear racks with side panniers.
In the last couple years after picking up mountain biking, I got more interested in the concept of bikepacking. While bikepacking often incorporates some of the elements of a traditional tour – regular roads, rail trails, etc – the idea is to also get off the beaten path, get off road, tackle tougher terrain, etc. I especially had interest in riding some portion of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route that goes from Banff, Canada to the US-Mexico border.
In September 2015 I bought a new bike, a Salsa Fargo. Part of the reasoning behind this purchase was the hope of beginning to do some bikepacking. The Great Divide seemed like a big logistical step to start with, so I began researching more local routes that might work for backpacking. In mid-October I stumbled upon this route through Pennsylvania that was laid out by a group of folks trying to put together an “Eastern Divide” route that would mimic the Great Divide on the East Coast. By mid-November Emma and I would commit to trying to ride it in 2016 and would begin buying the necessary gear to make it happen.
Emma’s written some about us testing out our various gear on her blog here, but this is a recap of the actual journey. I may write more about the actual preparation for the trip later on, but for now this is just about the experience of the trip.
Logistics for trips like this can always be a pain – if you are starting in one city and ending in another, how do you handle that? We realized our starting point, Wellsville, NY, was very close to our friend Deanna’s hometown of Olean, NY, so we asked her if she would be willing to drive up there with us and drive our car back to Pittsburgh for us. She was down.
So on May 20th we picked Deanna up and headed off to NY. Of course not before having to run back across town to our house because I forgot to pack my multi-tool, which while not 100% necessary, is one of those things that is nice to have on such a trip. We picked up her partner Dino on the way and had a fun time catching up with them on the 4-ish hours to our destination. After dropping us off, they headed to Olean to visit Deanna’s family.
There’s not too much to do in Wellsville, so we hit up the grocery store to get some last bits of food supplies, made some sandwiches for dinner and then prepared our bikes in the hotel room. Got off to sleep at a decent hour and prepared for day one of the journey.
Woke up early, had hotel breakfast and were on the road by 9am. Light drizzle when we started. First 8 or so miles were just getting out of NY – lots of sheep, horses, cows and an alarming number of Trump signs and Confederate flags. Got to the border and took pics near the “Welcome to Pennsylvania” sign. Lots of broken glass around that sign. Figure it must be a target for the drunks of NY. Managed to get back on the road without a flat.
After successfully riding 9 miles!
Stopped in Ulysses to get second breakfast at the Corner Cafe. Barely anyone in there so figured we could get in and get going real fast. No dice. Took an hour to get a waffle, some toast and some homefries. Was nice to warm up but while we were in there the rain picked up. Paper placemats had great ads on them for local companies including one for a dog training company that used the email address “narcdog1@gmail”.
Shortly thereafter we would take some wrong roads adding some bonus miles on our day. Luckily Emma had the foresight to download a GPS app for her phone and the route file for our trip and we were able to easily determine where we made our errors and get back on track.
Then we were off on the first of our dirt roads. Davis Hill Road was only about .6 miles long but it was gutted out and steep. We were rewarded with a fabulous descent down Snay Road afterwards though. Came upon a Rest Area on Route 6 during a lull in the rain and took the opportunity to make sandwiches and rest.
Our first tastes of dirt!
After that the rain picked up again and got heavier as we proceeded down our last 10-15 miles. This mixed with some rougher surfaces – dirt roads and fresh crushed gravel really began to wear us down. We got to cruise down some muddy mountain roads in the rain which was really fun but we got filthy.
Dirt McGirt & sidekick
Finding a place to do some primitive camping in Tioga State Forest turned out to be tough. Not too much flat surfaces to set up a tent. We crawled up off the side of the road and found a decent spot, set up our tent in the rain and then made a pasta dinner in the rain. Towards the end of the day I had started to experience some hiccups, a condition I sometimes get in cooler weather when I ride long distances. While eating my dinner I started hiccuping again and almost vomited up my dinner. I took a moment, felt better and finished my dinner. We then climbed into the tent for the night around 6:30pm.
Had a few deliriously good hours of sleep and woke up shortly after midnight having to piss. It was barely raining at that time so I got out and took care of business. It was actually quite lovely at that time. From there on out woke up every couple hours to the sound of it still raining. In the morning we kept waiting for a break in the rain but it never happened. After about 14 straight hours in the tent, we opted for a Clif bar breakfast and then packed up in the rain and hit the road.
Since it seemed like it was bound to rain all day again, we made two decisions 1) we were not going to follow the day’s planned route which took us up a 6 mile, 1300 ft in elevation gain trail, and 2) we were going to get ourselves all the way to the town of Jersey Shore and get a hotel.
Early in our day we were confronted with a “bridge out” sign, but we took the gamble and rode down the road. Luckily the bridge was far enough along in construction that it was passable by foot, so we ambled across and continued down West Rim Road. This road was an absolute pleasure – lots of one lane bridges and twists and turns.
From here we hopped on the Pine Creek Rail Trail (which we had some trouble finding and put on another handful of bonus miles) but once on there the riding was easy. This trail would take us all the way to Jersey Shore. We were hoping to find a shelter along the way to make some second breakfast but apparently the stewards of this trail only believe in benches – no picnic benches, no shelters of any kind along most of the trail.
We arrived in Slate Run (where we would have originally crossed over the creek to follow up the 1300′ climb) and made ourselves oatmeal under the eave of an informational kiosk. Not the most spacious quarters but it got the job done. We were helped by the fact that the rain had pretty much stopped at this point.
The biggest shelter we could find
We then walked up to the General Store where the sweet women who worked there cleaned and filled our water bottles, recommended and got us in contact with the hotel in Jersey Shore and sold us a couple donuts. After that the sun started trying to come out and we actually almost dried out by the time we reached Waterville. Of course the last 10 miles from Waterville to Jersey Shore the rain picked up again and we were soaked and filthy by the time we reached our accommodations for the evening.
The Gamble Farm Inn looked like a pretty fancy place when we rolled up. A big old house, but once I stepped inside it was obvious that that building was just the restaurant and bar. I walked in and poked my head around looking for someone to help us out and finally a lady appeared out of nowhere saying “I thought I heard someone come in.” I gave her my name and she basically handed me a key and pointed me in the direction of the rooms. No ID, no credit card, no paperwork. Nice.
Got into our room and spread out EVERYTHING around the room to dry it out. Cranked the heat and took showers, glorious showers. Emma then used the microwave to make us our mac n cheese dinner. After dinner took the time to do a little bike maintenance down in the game room where we were able to store our bikes.
In the morning discovered I had a flat front tire. Tried finding the leak to no avail so swapped out for a new tube. Stashed the questionable tube in case I would need it down the road. Backtracked a couple miles and stopped at the Weis to stock up on some groceries. No rain so far.
Several miles out of town I realized that the cycle computer I bought for the trip stopped working. Not a major deal but we were relying on being able to track distances since we knew there was going to be a lack of signage and often all we knew was “we need to go on this road for 2.7 miles and then turn right”. Knowing when 2.7 miles happened is useful information. The computer would sporadically start working and then stop working again. Whatever. We did fine without it.
Got back to forest roads and we couldn’t find the trail that we were supposed to take off Krape Road, so we just continued along Krape which eventually would connect us with where we needed to go. Krape was a hell hill that kept going on. I think the trail that we were supposed to be on would have gone over the same hill, so maybe just evens? The hill almost broke us but the descent and the ensuing roads were so great that we got reinvigorated.
We stopped atop Pipeline Road, ate lunch and got visited by a guy in a DCNR truck. He assured us that we shouldn’t see any rain. After that we hit up our first real trail – Duncan Trail – a “drivable trail” that was really rocky doubletrack that rattled the bones.
Flatbread, peanut butter, sliced apples
Slow & steady makes it over the mountain.
Got to Raymond B. Winter State Park where we had an overly complicated conversation with the ranger and campsite host about registering for a site and which site to camp on, etc. After getting to our campsite we felt a difference in the air and it seemed like a storm was in fact going to come through. We ducked down to the bathhouse with our gear and waited out a quickly passing storm.
Afterwards we set up camp. While Emma started prepping dinner I rode back over to the beach area where there was a vending machine and got us a couple ice cold sodas. Such a treat after a hard day of pedaling. Ate a dinner of carrot-lentil curry and took advantage of having showers again.
Woke up in the morning to discover that one of the water bottles we left on the campsite’s picnic table had been attacked by some animal. Three small tooth punctures on the bottle. Seemingly smaller than I would expect from a bear but larger than most other things I can think of. Not sure what it was but it was a good reminder to be careful with packing our stuff up at camp.
The initial ride out of camp was lovely but then we would approach our nemesis for this trip – Fallen Timber Trail (FTT). FTT is a 5 mile connector trail. The comment on mtbproject.com says “A fairly miserable trail, but it makes a good connector, so what are you going to do?” The initial section had been freshly bulldozed at 10-15′ intervals, so you would have a section of soft, recently plowed dirt followed up by hard, rocky trail. We came to a clearing and thought “maybe it’ll get better on the other side”, but no, worse. It just became one big rocky mess. Then the wild rose showed up on the trail. So we’re walking this trail (cuz its mostly too rough to actually ride), bumbling over rocks, looking out for Timber Rattlers, and getting scratched up by thorns. And then Emma got a flat.
The evil that was Fallen Timber Trail
Smilin’ & Patchin’
We’re not sure if she got multiple flats at once or if one of the thorns was still stuck in her tire and kept re-puncturing her tube, but we tried 3-4 times to get the tire fixed without luck. I then pulled out her backup tube to realize that somehow we had brought an incorrect size tube. 1.5″ tube for a 2.1″ tire. We opted to put it in and see how it would work. Between the trail condition and the tube issues we ended up spending almost 3 hours on this shitty section of trail. We got to the end and took a rest and gave FTT a big middle finger.
We rolled down the hill and started up the next hill when the 1.5″ tube blew out along the seam. So we tried patching the already severely patched tube that we had again. It was still leaking but it was holding air enough that we could walk with the bike. We decided to walk over the next mountain down to Route 45 where we figured we might be able to flag someone down who could either get us to a bike shop or assist us in some other way.
It was a long walk but we did it. At 45 we were able to flag down a woman who couldn’t offer much help, but then another man came along who was walking his dog. Together they remembered that there was a “adventure summer camp” down the road in Woodward and they thought they might have what we need (or at least be able to point us where we could get it). The man had a van so he let us load up our bikes and drove us the 4-5 miles to this camp.
Woodward Camp is a sprawling horse-ranch sized complex that houses a summer camp for gymnastics, cheerleading, BMX, skateboarding and more. It is apparently an internationally known place. We rolled up and I asked a guy “You work here?” Sure enough he did. They didn’t have any innertubes at the camp but he thought he might have one at his house and he lived just up the hill. He hopped in his car and came back 5 minutes later with the right tube and a floorpump. After fixing the tire, he gave us a tour of the premises and let us fill up our water bottles.
After looking at the maps we realized we were just a couple miles off our intended route and decided to get back on track and make it to Poe Paddy State Park for the night. Woodward Gap Road was a pretty tough climb but it felt good to be pedaling again and then it brought us to Cherry Run Road which was an incredibly refreshing 4 mile continual descent that brought us to the Penns Creek Path. That trail took us through the Poe Paddy tunnel (newly reopened, but not particularly impressive. really short, but nice enough) and to the state park.
At the state park we saw that they expected you to go to the “nearby” Poe Valley State Park to register for a campsite. We said screw that and settled into an unused site. Starving as we were, food was our first course of action. While sitting there post dinner we were approached by an older woman named Ann who upon hearing our situation offered to let us set up on the tent pad on her site. Ann and her friend talked with us a long while about what we were doing and about their history with Poe Paddy. Ann had been coming there for decades since she was first brought there by her husband on their first date.
They would later invite us to spend time around the campfire at another couple’s site, more old friends who had been coming to the park for decades. We stayed up late (past 11!), ate candy and talked about adventures. Ann had offered to drive us to State College to a bike shop but during the campfire hangout time a plan was hatched for Ann to drive and pick up innertubes for us and then drive them to the next state park we were staying at. We had had such a shitty start to the day but had met so many wonderfully helpful people that day. We went to bed feeling pretty good.
The day started with some ATV trails – Little Poe Road and Panther Run Road. These road/trails were just what I had imagined this trip would be like – rocky and difficult but not excruciatingly so. We enjoyed these trails. After that, in order to make up some time from the previous day, we skipped out on some of the single track and stuck to the roads.
When we got to Stillhouse Road, the connector road between Bald Eagle and Rothrock State Forests, we saw another “bridge out” sign. Once again we decided to push forward. We found a gated bridge that was totally passable about a 1/4 mile down the road and thought nothing of it but then another short bit later we came to a true “bridge out”. It was just a series of a half-dozen steel I-beams. It was maybe 8-10′ to the stream below. The beams were wide enough that we were able to tagteam our bikes and walk them over with one of us steadying the handles and another holding on to the backend. The next section of the trail was a wonderful Rhododendron hallway followed by a rough and tumble descent that TWICE! ejected waterbottles from the cages on my bike.
Examining the situation. This was not to be a one-man job.
We did intend to take some singletrack once we got to Rothrock State Forest but never found our entry point. Once again it was hard to tell if this was a blessing or a curse as the climb over Kettel Road was relentless, but were pretty sure the single track was going to be a series of tough climbs and rocky trails. We walked our bikes a bit but we eventually made it over Kettel Road and then had a wild descent down Rag Hollow Road to the Greenwood Furnace State Park ranger station where we found our innertubes from Ann waiting for us.
While at the ranger station a park employee came rolling up on a Surly and talked with us a bit about our bikes and our trip. He told us they had a Surly Ogre built up as their park bike for employees to use. Pretty cool.
After 2 nights of staying in crowded state parks we were surprised that Greenwood Furnace was mostly a ghost town. Only like 3 other campsites were in use. It was another camp with showers, so we took advantage of that again, got our phones charged up in the bathrooms and then Emma made her best meal of the trip – peanut noodles that were really so damn good and I wish I would have had a second serving of. Got to bed early in anticipation of a big crusher the next day – trying to make up the 27 miles we were still behind on our initial schedule.
Extremely delicious (and beautiful!) peanut noodles
This day would end up being a bit of blur. We would spend almost 10 hours on the road that day, leaving camp around 7:30am and not getting into our next camp until shortly after 5pm. We would climb over 4 mountains. We made up our mileage, but at what cost? We would find out.
Guess who got another mysterious overnight flat?
The first two mountains of the day went surprisingly easy. Well, easy may not be the right term, but we conquered them and felt really strong and good. Rolling down off of Jack’s Mountain we rolled into farmland and Amish country. After so many days of being in foresting country it felt great to roll by some fields and to have some paved roads again. Also saw an establishment that advertised itself as “Angel’s Therapeutic Massage” and had a confederate flag with an AK-47 printed overtop of it on the window. Interesting.
Atop Jack’s Mountain. The graffiti said “Brave Mountain Club”. Indeed!
Stopped in McVeytown at the first convenience store that we had seen in days. Stocked up on Clif bars and got some Gatorade, potato chips and a tiny apple pie to eat. Spent some time sitting outside the convenience store like juvenile delinquents crushing a bag of chips and catching up with the outside world (first cell signal in several days).
Meal of champs
Our 3rd mountain climb of the day still went well but things went downhill a bit after that. We skipped stopping in East Waterford because I was under the false belief that there was another convenience store a bit down the road. I think I had marked it wrong on my cue sheet. Thus when we had failed to get another round of cold drinks and extra calories, our spirits (and bodies) began to flounder. Our final climb over Tuscarora mountain was a tough one and we were spent; we ended up walking much of it. We got another short burst of energy once we were over the mountain but once again ran out of steam as we needed to do another small climb to get to Fowlers Hollow State Park. After one last hike-a-bike, we got to camp, feeling completely spent.
It was another oddly empty campsite. Despite feeling completely spent, we were both in really great spirits and really proud of ourselves for tackling all of those mountains on the same day. We’re figuring we probably did over 6000′ in elevation gain that day over about 54 miles. We’re pretty tough.
We expected to wake up feeling like shit after yesterday’s epic ride, but we woke up at 6am with both of us feeling pretty great. Strong like ox! We had no more oats so it was a Clif bar breakfast with some hot beverages and then we were on the road again.
We had one really big climb to start the day which went well. We were then supposed to get on a trail for a bit. We found the trailhead and went in about a 1/4 mile or so until the trail seemed to disappear. Using the GPS we tried to re-find the trail but no matter what we did we couldn’t seem to get back on the line. At one point I walked into the forest with the GPS (leaving Emma and my bike behind) in order to see if I could get on the line and re-discover the trail. After walking for a bit I saw a guy walking down a trail. I decided to not call out to him (yelling at sportsmen in the woods seems like a bad idea) but once he passed I ran ahead and sure enough there was a trail. I turned around and headed back in the direction I thought I had come from and suddenly realized I couldn’t find Emma.
Lost in the woods, fording a stream for no good reason
Our steeds relaxin’ in the sun
I began calling her name; no answer. Ok, getting a little louder now; still no answer. Ok, time to get real loud; finally an answer. Ahhh, the thought of us both being separately lost in the woods made me feel a bit sick for a moment. Got back to Emma and said “We just need to go that way and there is a trail”. Of course once we tried to go back we couldn’t find the trail again so we re-traced out steps and went back to the road. From there we just took the road instead of the trail. It added maybe an additional 4-5 miles but at least we knew where we were (and we got to see a porcupine climb a tree).
Rolled down another killer descent into Newburg where I saw an Amish girl mowing a lawn in her bare feet. I had a cell signal so I pulled up a map. The map showed a Starbucks a few blocks away. That didn’t seem right (and it wasn’t) but we looked anyway. No Starbucks and no other convenience store or anything but we did find a vending machine outside the fire department. Got a Gatorade from the machine and cooled off in a shady alleyway.
The stretch from Newburg to Shippensburg was rolling hills on a kinda shitty section of state highway. Not too much traffic but definitely more than we had been used to seeing. Emma was feeling pretty beat up so we had some heart-to-heart talk about whether we should just get a hotel in Shippensburg for the night. After looking at the maps a bit we realized we could go off-route again cutting our one last big climb of the day and still make it to Caledonia State Park. We decided to push on.
We made a quick stop at Aldi for some grocery supplies and then pushed on. After being exposed to the hot sun for so many miles it felt good to get back into Michaux State Forest and the forest roads. We had a steady climb into the forest and then the last few miles towards camp were downhill and we passed a lovely reservoir within the forest with people out kayaking on it. I kinda wanted to stop and check it out but the siren call of the campsite was strong. We rolled into Caledonia State Park and registered for camp at the ranger station only to realize the campsites themselves were up another small hill. We gave it a valiant effort but ended up pushing our bikes up to the camp.
Last night of camp and we wound up on a weird wedge of real estate on a kinda hilly section of the campground. We found a relatively flat place to set up camp. We hosed down a container of hummus with tortillas and got washed up. An evening storm came pushing through so we took shelter under the eave of the back of the bathhouse which conveniently had an outdoor electric socket. We sat watching campers scamper around in the rain, charged up our phones and wrote in our journals. It was pleasant. Eventually the rain ended and we cooked up one last camp meal, made some tea and then ate an entire box of Aldi’s fake Girl Scout Samoas. I probably could have done with about 3 less cookies but it felt right.
Tired lil camper loungin’ & blowin’ up a sleeping pad
Last day on the road. Clif bar breakfast and had just enough gas left in the tank to heat up water for coffee/tea. The morning started with a chill 6 mile climb that went easy enough and then hit a couple sections of trail. We went off the original route a bit, opting to go on forest roads instead of single track. Waterline Road had a picked clean deer skeleton at the entrance to the trail and then as the name suggests was a bit wet, but otherwise was a really nice section of trail. We passed a turnoff for another trail and then our road came to a sudden end. After consulting the map, we figured we had to turn down the other trail and then make another turn to keep going straight. Turned out to be true. Another speedy decent down a skittish crushed gravel road let us to our final section of trail – Monn’s Gap Road. This was a really fun trail to ride and one that probably would have been more fun if we weren’t fully loaded down. Lots of relatively small (3-5″) branches across the trail which was a fun change of pace. Hop, hop, hop.
Oh, Pennsylvania – you amaze and disappoint.
The trail came to an end in a spiderweb of directions. We tried consulting some maps, picked a direction and ended up in the backyard of a tiny house (but not like a hip tiny house, a beat-up, hillbilly tiny house with “no trespassing” signs), so we re-routed a bit and found a road. After once again consulting some maps we determined we were on the right road and pushed forth towards Waynesboro. Took a little stroll down Wayneboro’s Main Street and admired the architecture of its buildings. So close to our destination we decided not to dally too long and were once again off on our bikes.
The roads leading out of Waynesboro and towards Hagerstown were pleasant rollers, at least they would have been had we not been at the end of an 8 day journey. Mostly they were fun but the lack of shoulders, some aggressive traffic and some tired legs made them a bit more challenging. When an oil truck trying to back into a driveway blocked our way, we took the opportunity to sit in the shade and grab a few calories. I realized at this time that I had a slash in my rear tire’s sidewall. Nothing very deep but definitely something I didn’t want to spend too much time on. Luckily we were like 5 miles away from our endpoint. As we sat there, a woman rode by on a bike in one direction and then minutes later a small peloton of spandex clad folks rode in the other. It was nice to see other bikers out.
Got back on our bikes and the Maryland border was really like just over a half mile around the corner. No “Welcome to Maryland” sign but there was a “Welcome to Washington County” sign, so that had to do. Stopped and took photos and then pressed on for the last few miles, which were relatively flat and made for a nice finish. We had told Deanna to pick us up at the Dunkin Donuts near the Hagerstown airport (since our hotel in Wellsville, NY had been right next to a Dunkin Donuts, we figured why not end at a Dunkin Donuts?), but then once we got in the area we saw a Sheetz and decided to end the trip there.
HEY LOOK AT US! WE DID IT!!!
We changed out of our filthy bike clothes into our slightly less filthy camp clothes, bought a heap of food and cold drinks and chilled in the cafe waiting for Deanna come to pick us up. We did it and we felt like champs.
Deanna arrived about an hour later. We loaded up and headed back towards the Burgh, blasting the songs on the radio that had been running through our heads all week. Arrived home, picked a huge pile of strawberries that had ripened in the backyard, got washed up and got dinner at Taste of India. I definitely ate too much and had to come home and lay down on the couch for awhile. It was worth it. It was all totally worth it.
For my full set of photos, go here.