August 12th, 2011
By Phil Wu
Having been on small portions of the Great Allegheny Passage from Boston all the way to Cumberland, starting out at the McKeesport trail head was a very different experience. Seeing all the private boats docked along the Youghiogheny River near its confluence with the larger Monongahela River was pleasantly surprising. The trail head, in a way, was almost like an oasis from the city above, a place where you could see water, boats, parkland, and bridges but not be too close to the traffic on the city streets or the industrial and commercial sites abutting them.
Once our group got started southward, though, the trail did take us through commercial and industrial landscapes on city streets, which was a drastic difference from what we were accustomed to on the rural portions of the trail in Fayette and Somerset Counties. However, as someone who enjoys traveling in both cities and the countryside, I marveled at getting to see the grit of the old industrial neighborhoods of McKeesport and appreciated the diversity of landscapes that this world-class trail has to offer. It was also interesting to note how some of this part of the trail ran along city streets and how it crossed over the Yough on the 16th Street Bridge—quite a different experience from the many-mile stretches of dedicated right of way that characterizes most of the rest of the Great Allegheny Passage.
Once the trail did veer off onto its own path and away from the heavy industrial sites, however, it certainly wasn’t ordinary or predictable. Warm-weather foliage dominated the hillsides and cliffs, for instance, and while it might sound like an exaggeration, I felt like I was in a subtropical forest at times rather than in Southwestern Pennsylvania. There was additionally an old, abandoned railroad track running next to portions of the trail, which abruptly ended at a place called Dead Man’s Hollow, in a rather eerie twist.
Not long after I had departed McKeesport, it seemed like the majestic, light blue Boston Bridge was just right around the corner. Biking through the Boston area, the trail went through an interesting mixture of residential, light industrial, and commercial zones. There was definitely a strong neighborhood component to the trail, with many local walkers and bikers using that portion of the trail. The developed area lasted for about three miles along the trail in Boston, before we were thrust into the woodlands again.
The woodlands, coupled with hillsides down to the river and beautiful views of the Yough, became the norm all the way to West Newton, with small, sunny residential areas interspersed between, such as Buena Vista and Sutersville. Along the way, it was good to see that maintenance crews had cleared out large stands of invasive plants, such as Japanese knotweed, that I had seen along the trail previously. It was also nice seeing that there were plenty of trailheads, parking areas, and restroom facilities to serve both local users and those coming from farther away. Once we reached West Newton, we stopped for lunch and took photos with artist Bill Secunda’s Pioneer’s Point Sculpture (affectionately known as “Spike”), a six-foot tall sculpture made entirely of old railroad spikes.
It was interesting once we got going again to note the foliage change past West Newton, where areas of intense sunlight and scrubby trees soon gave way to the dense, shady forest of Cedar Creek Park just a couple of miles to the south, a nice reprieve for a hot day. During this stretch, wildlife also started to come out, from groundhogs busily scrounging for food to wild turkeys crossing the path. Going under a few viaducts, such as the one crossing Interstate 70, was similarly neat, and I thought about how complex those engineering marvels of bridges were, built hundreds of feet up into steep hillsides to cross the Youghiogheny River.
I was often surprised by much smaller things. Near Smithton, for instance, we passed a few children and their mom, who had set up a table on the side of the trail, selling Kool-Aid to thirsty bikers, and about a mile later we saw a domestic cat resting in the grassy area next to the trail. I also saw two interesting birds, one a very small brown bird just slightly bigger than a hummingbird and the other a bird with brilliant blue plumage, which I later discovered was a male indigo bunting. It was enthralling to see the old coke ovens along the trail and to think about the history of the path we were on.
It was also nice to see that all along the trail, people living nearby seemed to understand the value of it, having opened up stores, cafes, and ice cream shops right next to the trail, even in locations not very accessible from major highways. Names such as “The Trailside” (a restaurant and bar in West Newton) and “Trail View Convenience Store,” which I saw in Buena Vista, certainly suggest that a number of business owners know the trail’s value and want to take advantage of it.
Additionally, it was refreshing—literally—to see that in Whitsett and other towns along this hot, sunny stretch, property owners understood the benefits of having the trail adjacent to their lands, having set up little booths in their backyards where they sold or gave away bottled water, cold drinks, and snacks. A hydroponic lettuce garden next to the trail was also a pleasant surprise, as was seeing a number of campgrounds and shaded rental pavilions for trail users and locals alike.
By the time we reached Connellsville, forty-four miles from McKeesport and where we ended our trip, I was pretty exhausted and ready to call it a day. Reflecting back on the ride, I thought about the great circumstances and hard work that led to this trail being built, the impact the trail has had on the region, and the friendly people we met along the way. Most of all, though, it was those small things that made the trail that much more pleasurable to ride—the various animals and plants, the refreshment stands, the trail-related businesses, and the diversity of natural and manmade landscapes along the way.
Phil Wu is a member of the SCA Trail Town Outreach Corps. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The SCA Trail Town Outreach Corps, an organization focusing on sustainable economic development in the towns along the Great Allegheny Passage supported by the Trail Town Program and the Student Conservation Association, rides the GAP each year to experience the journey that brings people from across the region, the country, and even the world to bicycle in the Laurel Highlands.
TAGS: Bike Trail · Biking · Boston · Connellsville · Cumberland · Fayette County · Great Allegheny Passage · Laurel Highlands · McKeesport · Rail Trail · SCA Trail Town Outreach Corp · Somerset County · Trail Town Program · Trailside · Youghiogheny River
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