Steel City Loop
The forecasters have predicted thunderstorms this afternoon, but as I mount my loaded bike I only see blue skies and white puffy clouds. I left for this overnight tour from the “south side” of Pittsburgh, a diverse area that attracts all kinds. My plan is to circumnavigate the south hills of Pittsburgh utilizing a variety of rail-trails and only a minimal amount of trafficked pavement (about 10% of the 90 mile route).
The start of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail begins with a series of short community trails, all of which follow the Monongahela River towards McKeesport. With the “Mon” as my constant companion on the left, I reach the small stretch of trail that finally completed the famous route from Pittsburgh to DC. This short stretch has been a “thorn” in this trail for years, causing cyclist to modify their tour to DC. In the spring of 2013 this section of trail finally opened and my “south hills” tour is finally becoming a reality. However I got more than I bargained for on this new section of trail. In this past year the city has witnessed bald eagles nesting within city limits. I take this opportunity to spot the nest and actually catch one in flight. The city even has a bald eagle cam (http://www.pixcontroller.com/eagles/)
I continue down the trail past Sandcastle Water Park (https://www.sandcastlewaterpark.com/) and Kennywood Amusement Park (https://www.kennywood.com/). Both establishments are worthy stops if it wasn’t for my late-in-the-day departure. Soon I cross the “Mon” and enter McKeesport, where the first navigational test is encountered. After crossing the Youghiogheny River, the Gap trail follows the “Yough” while the Steel Valley trail (which leads to the Montour Trail) continues to follow the “Mon”. I now realize that I have failed to bring or put on sunscreen. I make a quick stop for a drink and some SPF before I cross the “Mon” yet again and jump on the Montour Trail. In just seconds you transfer from city to country. The Montour trail (http://www.montourtrail.org/) is a 46 mile crushed limestone path that stretches from Glassport to Coraopolis while passing through both Allegheny and Washington counties. The trail is not complete but the bypass routes are minimal, safe and getting fewer each year. The first bypass I encountered travels along Peters Creek in Large, PA. This was a beautiful stretch for fishing. I even spotted a deer getting a drink.
The trail passes through various communities but keeps its rural feel. One of the bypasses takes you through the town of Library. The traffic picks up a little here as a wedding party is taking pictures. Here the detour takes you up the only steep incline I encountered (200 yards). Soon you are back on trail. This might be my favorite stretch of the trail. A lot of families use this section of trail and for good reason. Although a bit busier, the heavily shaded picturesque setting was relaxing.
The Montour trail has several branches. The first I encountered was the Bethel Branch. This short trail leads into Bethel Park. I keep left to stay on the main trail. The sky continues its non-threatening look as I encounter more rural southwestern PA including a beautiful horse farm. The Arrowhead Trail soon emerges from the left. I stay straight. As I approach the last detour, encountering a tunnel that I carefully approach and travel through I begin thinking about my final destination for the day, the Kurnick camping area. This is the only place on the Montour Trail designated for camping. First, I need dinner. My original plan was to briefly exit the trail in Hendersonville for a restaurant, but right alongside the trail I stumbled across the Tandem Connection (http://www.tandemconnection.com/index.htm).
Things change constantly on the trail and the updates don’t always make the website quickly. This change was a bonus for me and for riders to come. While enjoying my pulled-pork sandwich I spoke with the owner about my surprise find and his future plans. Currently the shop does rentals, sales, has accessories, drinks and food. They have the capacity to create a “hostel” type environment on the top floor of the shop. I think this place is going to have a promising future.
I’ve got just a few more miles until my camping spot. As I approach, I have to say I wasn’t greatly impressed, but hey it’s free camping. The camping spots share a port-a-potty and drinking fountain on the north side of the trail, next to the access parking lot. The spots, including two trail shelters are on the south side of the trail. I decide to put my tent up (w/o rain fly) inside a trail shelter. It was a warm night, so I opted for airflow without bugs. I finished the day with 38 easy miles. Oh yeah, it finally managed to rain overnight.
The next day I rose early to make it to McDonald, PA for breakfast. I had 10 miles of riding to do and although energy bars are OK. I need real food for breakfast. Within a mile I rode through the National Tunnel. This tunnel originally built in 1938 is paved and is now lit as well. The trail traffic in the morning was busier than expected. After crossing the McDonald Tressel (960 feet long with great views), I left the Montour Trail and headed east on the Panhandle Trail (http://www.panhandletrail.org/).
A significant trail in it own right, it runs 29 miles from Cecil Township to Collier, West Virginia. This will be a short out and back for me this morning. I wasn’t having much luck finding anything open for breakfast. I opted for the local supermarket. With a smile, I was able to get the deli workers to microwave a few breakfast sandwiches for me and I was on my way. I found a park pavilion to enjoy my newly acquired breakfast and noticed a potential storm moving in. With further inspection I determined that I was on the edge of it and would stay dry.
Back on the Montour Trail, the trail turns east and into Allegheny County and carries a rider across the original section of completed trail. By far the most widely used section of the trail, featuring the Enlow Tunnel and the new airport connector branch. This airport connector would allow a rider to fly into Pittsburgh International then ride to the Montour Trail connecting to the GAP trail, the C & O trail and then finish in DC. Here one could fly home out of Dulles International.
Arriving in Coraopolis means leaving the Montour Trail behind and heading out into traffic. There are plenty of options to connect back to the rail-trails. I choose what I believe is the easiest and safest route back. Traveling west on route 51 and then crossing the Ohio River on the Grand Ave. Bridge into Neville Island. The four-lane road looks intimidating but has a 25 mph speed limit. Neville road connects back to route 51 in McKees Rocks after crossing back over the Ohio River. McKees Rocks is famous for Pierogies Plus. So if you are ready for lunch, I highly recommend it. I headed back over the Ohio River again on the McKees Rocks Bridge (first views of Pittsburgh). Pedaling up to the Brighton Heights neighborhood, I carefully (can be tricky navigating) made my way back down and the connected to the North Shore trail.
The North Shore trail is a little rough in spots, but before long you see all the iconic Pittsburgh sites, the stadiums, bridges, inclines, and new casino. One site of particular interest to cyclist is Bicycle Heaven (http://www.bicycleheaven.org/). Bicycle Heaven is part bikeshop, part museum and is a must visit. Eventually, the North Shore trail accesses the Fort Duquesne Bridge. This will take you to Point State Park (http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/point/). The park is the location of the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers. It also contains the remains of Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne established by the French during French and Indian War (Seven Year War).
By following Smithfield Street Bridge signs you will get back to the south side trail and back to the start. Day two runs at 48 miles. A trip like this has several options for visitors. While staying in Pittsburgh the trip could be done as described. However, if you have to fly into the area you could also become your own shuttle by riding from the airport to the city, exploring and then riding back to airport. The city is slowing improving and becoming bike-friendlier every day. The Three Rivers Heritage trail system is a 24-mile network of trails paralleling the city riverbanks. It is a great way to discover all that Pittsburgh has to offer. This is not the “dirty” city of mills. It is an ethnically diverse community, with a variety of entertainment options and friendly locals. You have to experience it for yourself.
Tip for this adventure: Take time to explore all that Pittsburgh has to offer. Watch a game, play on the rivers, check out the museums and take in the nightlife.
Favorite local bike shops:
Bicycle Heaven - Part bike shop, part bike museum and a must experience.
The Tandem Connection - Rentals, repairs and food (pictured above)
Thick Bikes - http://thickbikes.com/