By CALVIN WOODWARD
CUMBERLAND, Md. - I warned them about those Great Allegheny Passage tunnels. Make sure you get off the bikes and walk, I told my dozen cycling companions. Did they heed?
Not much. Most plunged into the disorienting void, one wearing sunglasses no less, gazing through dark lenses upon what was already dark. Expressions of concern, let us say, echoed off the walls. I flashed back to a friend's mid-tunnel wipeout a year earlier. Were they all going down?
The episode proved to be a harmless hiccup in a gem of a bicycle trip.
The Great Allegheny Passage between Pittsburgh and the Western Maryland town of Cumberland is a smooth-rolling romp through the mountains that pleases cyclists of varying ability and just glows on fine autumn days. It does not have much in the way of hazards, if you'll just listen to me and walk when I tell you.
It stretches for 141 miles (227 kilometers), offering sparkling river views enlivened by the screeches of whitewater rafters. It gives you a passing panorama of wind-farm turbines beating lazy arcs in the sky, and loads upon loads of peace and quiet.
The GAP links up with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath in Cumberland, which then carries on to Washington, D.C., 185 more miles (298 kilometers) away. The C&O trail is rougher and wilder but there's no slam-dunk case that one is more beautiful than the other. They're different, and together they form a 326- mile (525- kilometer) off-road expedition without parallel in the nation.
These days, the Great Allegheny is getting the buzz because it's newer, more carefully maintained and growing.
The recent completion of an eight-mile (13-kilometer) section connects the trail to the old steel town of Homestead on Pittsburgh's outskirts, leaving just one section to be finished to link with downtown.
It's a family-friendlier trail, much less apt to rattle your eyeballs than the venerable C&O, faster to dry out after a rain and more suited to short rides near fun towns. Among them, in Pennsylvania, Ohiopyle is a vibrant intersection for river lovers, cyclists, hikers and campers deep into fall. Nearby Fallingwater, the mountain retreat built over and as part of a waterfall, gives popular tours of the Frank Lloyd Wright masterwork.
Even so, an end-to-end ride on the GAP requires careful planning.
Skip one lunch opportunity and you may not find another for a long way. Refilling water bottles can be hit and miss. Accommodations are well spaced for doing the whole trail in three or four days but they aren't numerous.
As well, getting to a starting point on the trail, biking to the other end and finding a way back to cars, the train or the airport is a logistical knot that throws many people off.
Here's how we did it this past summer (though the trail makes a fine destination for autumn rides, too):
DAY 1: Homestead to Connellsville, Pa., 50 miles (80 kilometers)
Grouseland Tours, chosen because of its rain-date flexibility and rates ($50 each in groups of four) picked us up in Cumberland, where multiday parking is free by the Amtrak train station, and shuttled us nearly three hours to Homestead.
The trail's early progress goes from rust to rustic, winding through old industrial tracts before suddenly swinging off into pastoral lands of the Youghiogheny (yock-a-gay'-nee) River, your new and glittering companion for many miles to come.
Lunch 25 (40 kilometers) miles later was at the Trailside Cafe in West Newton, one of the few options this day, and a good one. It sits over a bicycle shop, to boot.
Still on the Pennsylvania side, in Connellsville at day's end, we scattered to four B&Bs booked months earlier, none large enough to hold us all. The Victorian Rose and quilt-themed Seams Like Home were a little outside of town; the owners picked up their guests and bikes. Downtown, the Connellsville B&B hosted the most, and its pumpkin-cinnamon pancakes in the morning were a hit. Also in town, the Greenwood House offered a bare-bones breakfast, the tradeoff for a lower price.
DAY 2: Connellsville to Rockwood, Pa., 47 miles (76 kilometers)
In no time we're in one of the most remote and gorgeous parts of the ride, an 18-mile (29-kilometer) leg to Ohiopyle, much of it high above the Youghiogheny. A steady rain begins; you can see it rustling the river but it comes down only as a cooling spritz on your face, under the trail's thick tree canopy. This feels like the heart of the ride.