The Cumberland Coast along the Great Allegheny Passage
What about a biking experience that includes a 20-mile downhill cruise involving little-to-no pedaling, a scenic vista available only to cyclists and hikers, a 3,300-foot long tunnel, a 140-year old iron bridge and ice cream? Welcome to The Cumberland Coast, a scenic ride, and sometimes a “coast” from Meyersdale, Penn., to Cumberland, Md., on the Great Allegheny Passage.
The Particulars: Set Up a Shuttle
Arrange a shuttle if you are interested in a one-way ride only, although you will pass many bikers who do the reverse trip climbing the 10 miles of a 1.5% grade from Frostburg to the Big Savage Tunnel. There are shuttle services available in both Maryland and Pennsylvania but if you are with a small enough group, a good friend with a van can meet you in Cumberland.
Drive to Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, “The Maple City.” There is plenty of parking available at the historic Western Maryland Train Station, which also serves as a visitors’ center. One of the Western Maryland Railway’s gems, the building has been lovingly restored by the Meyersdale Area Historical Society. Inside you’ll find artifacts and photographs showing the beautiful southern Somerset County countryside, a little gift shop and, thankfully, restrooms! Be sure to put a dollar or two in the donation jar–the MAHS is an all-volunteer organization and keeping the lights on is a community-wide effort www.atatrail.org/docs/meyersdalebrochure.pdf.
Spend a little time in Meyersdale (www.meyersdale.org) before you leave. This small community, renowned for its tasty maple syrup is just down the hill from the trailhead. The town has a number of charming shops and places to stay, including the fabulous Levi Deal Mansion (www.levidealmansion.com). Great sandwiches and soup are available at the Java Café (on Center just off Main Street); and the Morguen Toole Company (www.morguentoole.com) offers lunch Friday, Saturday and Sunday in a beautifully restored historic building at 130 Center Street.
Before heading down to Cumberland, ride two and half miles north to the Salisbury Viaduct. This 1,900-foot long bridge is one of the most spectacular structures on the Passage.
The Coast – Meyersdale to Cumberland
The Coast is about 32 miles. The first 7 miles from Meyersdale to Deal is mostly level, then you‘ll climb a bit from Deal to the Eastern Continental Divide. From the Divide to the Big Savage Tunnel is a pretty level cruise; then take your feet off the pedals and coast.
At Milepost (MP) 30.5, is the Bollman Bridge. This little bridge might not look like much but it’s an historic iron truss bridge of a design created by Wendell Bollman, a self-taught B&O engineer. built in 1871, the bridge was relocated in 2007 by the Somerset County Rails-to-Trails Association (www.bikesomersetcountypa.com)–a project four years in the making!
Only a half mile further down the trail, at Milepost (MP) 30, you find Keystone Viaduct, almost 1000 feet of curved railroad bridge. It’s a great place to watch trains pass by, so you have a train-watcher in your group, expect to spend time here.
The little settlement of Deal, hardly more than a few houses, at MP 25 is a popular trailhead. At only a little over two miles from the Big Savage Tunnel, many walkers and families with younger riders like to start here and enjoy the easy trip to Big Savage. A very slight climb takes you to the Eastern Continental Divide at MP 23.5, the highest point, at 2,392 feet, on the Great Allegheny Passage. No matter which way you go, it’s all downhill from here!
At MP 22 is the Big Savage Tunnel. Without the lights installed during the $25 million rehabilitation of this masterpiece, it would be quite dark in the middle.
It’s difficult to describe the view from the eastern end of the tunnel. Suffice to say on a clear day, you can see forever. It’s fun to point out to the novices in the group that the gap in the mountains “way down there” is where we’ll be ending your ride in a very short time.
At MP 20.5 you cross the Mason-Dixon Line—one of the most famous boundaries in the Nation–into Maryland.
Borden Tunnel (MP 18) is about 950-feet long and, unlike Big Savage, is not lit. Some folks have a little difficulty adjusting to the darkness on a bright day and since you’ve been picking up speed on the downhill, you may prefer to walk your bike through the tunnel.
Frostburg, Maryland (www.frostburgcity.com) is at MP 16. Just before you reach the trailhead, there’s a curving climb. When you reach the trailhead for Frostburg, you’ll see a switchback trail leading up to the Frostburg Depot. Here is the western terminus for the Western Maryland Scenic Railway. If your timing is right, you can climb up to the Depot and catch a glimpse of “ol’ 734” as the steam engine is turned around on the turntable for its return trip to Cumberland. And while you’re there, stop in at the Thrasher Carriage Museum for a look at the amazing collection of horse-drawn carriages. You can pick up a sandwich or treat at the Trail Inn & Café, or keep going up the hill a bit to Frostburg’s charming Main Street shopping area. There you’ll find several excellent restaurants and cafés and a fantastic book store. It is worth the climb!
As you leave Frostburg, you’ll find yourself accompanied the rest of the way downhill by the Scenic Railway. Be alert when the train is running (you can find their schedule on their website, www.wmsr.com) – it is a wonderful photo opportunity.
At MP 10, is Woodcock Hollow. This is a favorite rest stop with a covered picnic table and a port-a-potty.
At MP 5 you’ll find 900-foot long Brush Tunnel. Also unlit, again it makes sense to walk through this little tunnel – and to stay out of it completely when it’s occupied by a train!
MP 4 is where you will find the Bone Cave where is 1912 a partly filled cave was found during an excavation for a Western Maryland Railway cut through Wills Mountain. A Smithsonian Institution excavation later recovered the bones of a Pleistocene cave bear and saber-toothed cat, on permanent display in the Ice Age Mammal exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.
Your destination of Cumberland, a gateway to the West, is a robust and vibrant town, a hub for travelers for hundreds of years and also MP 0. It is in Cumberland where the Great Allegheny Passage meets the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath, both the longest segments of the Potomac Heritage Trail network. The official guidebook of the Great Allegheny Passage, TrailBook (published by the Allegheny Trail Alliance, www.gaptrail.org), recalls the event: “The Passage’s “Cumberland connection” to the Towpath and to Hall of Fame recognition was celebrated with 500 cyclists from 34 states in 2007. With the Towpath’s 184.5-miles, together they form one of the most magnificent trail systems in the United States.
Stop at the National Park Service Visitors Center and explore Canal Place shops and restaurants. Cumberland is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, evidence of which can be found in streets lined with handsome historic buildings. Arts, culture and many events add to the liveliness of this lovely town. You will want to spend some time here before returning to your vehicle in Meyersdale.