A Fall Day on the GAP

Fall seemed late in coming this year, but it’s more than made up for it with a long string of surprisingly warm, sunny days. Without a true frost yet, the leaves have changed more slowly than usual, and it seems as though the kaleidoscope of color will keep turning forever.

In Appalachia you learn to savor every sunny day. On a perfect fall day last week, we headed up to the Great Allegheny Passage for a bike ride.

The closest trailhead to Savage River Lodge is only 13 miles and just over 20 minutes away at Deal, PA. A popular ride for our guests is from there to Cumberland — Mike will shuttle you there and back for a 23 mile ride, and most of that is downhill!

Not long after embarking, you cross the Eastern Continental Divide. Did you know that most of the waters in Garrett County are part of the Ohio River watershed, eventually flowing into the Gulf of Mexico? (The Savage River drains into the North Branch of the Potomac, then on to the Chesapeak Bay.) The Eastern Continental Divide is atop Savage Mountain and divides those waters along an east-west line, just like the Mason-Dixon Line is a prominent north-south demarcation.

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The Allegheny Mountains were a formidable barrier for early settlers. Savage Mountain is named after a surveyor who nearly succumbed to voluntary cannibalism during the winter of 1736. It’s hard to imagine how challenging these mountains must have been before Interstate 68 was built until you travel through a mountain. The Big Savage Tunnel is the longest along the GAP, over half a mile in length and opened in 1912. Railways were first laid in the area in 1842, so with this late addition it must have felt like a real shortcut.

The tracks were pulled up and the tunnel closed in 1975 but reopened in 2003 after an $11 million renovation to accommodate GAP travelers. Without this link, the trail would have taken a 17-mile detour! The tunnel is well-lit and the cool concrete is a wonderful respite from hot summer sun.

Perhaps because we were travelling through on an October day, the imagination ran wild – the huge gates on either end of the tunnel make you think that you’re entering the Wall on “Game of Thrones” or a passageway to Mordor. It’s a highlight for many long-distance riders, in a triad with the continental divide and Mason-Dixon Line.

You emerge from the tunnel, partially blinded by the sudden sun, to a wide panorama of the hills and valleys of Somerset County, Pennsylvania. A line of picnic benches make for one of the best places to eat with a view we can think of!


From here, the trail continues another 5 miles to Frostburg and 14 more to Cumberland — all downhill from here.

It’s a real ride through history, particularly if you make the entire 335-mile trek from Pittsburgh to Georgetown, DC. In Cumberland, the rail trail meets with the C&O Canal Trail towpath which hugs to Potomac River all the way to tidewater. The canal was initially planned to extend to Lake Erie, but by the time canal construction made it to Cumberland in 1850, the railroads had already been forged and quickly overtook the canal as the preferred mode of travel for both cost and time. Though unused for over 100 years in some places, remnants of the past remain in telegraph lines, historic rail stations, lock houses, viaducts, and more tunnels. Portions of the trail parallel still-active CSX lines, as well as the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad which runs excursion trains between Cumberland and Frostburg.

The Big Savage Tunnel closes each winter from approximately December 15th to April 15th.

Learn more about SRL’s bike packages and read about one woman’s ‘Surprisingly Luxe‘ trip in an October 2015 article of the Wall Street Journal. We highly recommend “wine”-ing down from your ride with an in-cabin massage like she did!