Bike Pittsburgh to Rockwood to Cumberland and back in a long weekend, and discover the best in small-town America.
Looking for a bike trail where you can ride in natural surroundings? A path you can follow without resorting to maps or GPS? Maybe you want a path where you can find unique rest stops all along its length? How about 141 miles of riding utopia? How about the Great Allegheny Passage?
From Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, the Great Allegheny Passage is a bike rider’s dream. With nearly level terrain, any bike rider can enjoy this trail. Frequent trailheads and quaint small towns along its length make for great usability and easy access.
Presently the trail ends in Homestead, Pennsylvania – just outside of Pittsburgh, but the plan is to complete the trail into Pittsburgh itself. You can check on construction progress here.
So what does it take to ride the Great Allegheny Passage? Just about any bike will work. The trail is packed, crushed limestone so the trail is relatively smooth throughout. A hybrid or mountain bike is ideal, but you will see bikes of every size and description enjoying the trail. Hikers share the trail so ride politely.
With the entire trail being almost 150 miles one-way, it’s probably a long weekend adventure for most accomplished riders. About 100 miles south of Pittsburgh, luckily you will find a convenient stopover point in Rockwood, Pennsylvania. On day one you could bike Pittsburgh to Rockwood. Day two would take you to Cumberland and then return to Rockwood. Day three would have you back in Pittsburgh again.
Rockwood, Pennsylvania is a peaceful little gem of a community that people fly by daily. The Amtrak Capital Limited and all its passengers roll through each day without stopping. About 10 miles north, the Pennsylvania Turnpike carries thousands more on its east-west route. If only they knew what they were missing.
One of the truly hidden gems of Western Pennsylvania is a collection of businesses started by Judy & Terry Pletcher. In February 2000, Judy first discovered that there had been an opera house in the town where she grew up. On the second floor of an old feed and lumber mill, the opera house hadn’t operated since 1916. While she had been looking for a location to start a business, the thought of all this potential in one building was just too strong to resist. Unfortunately, the building was covered with seven coats of paint, grime, soot and who knows what else. No problem – Judy and her husband gathered a hefty load of cleaning supplies and dove in.
“I bought every cleaning solution I could find,” said Terry. He had hoped that one would be the magic elixir to speed up the process. With help from their two adult children and spouses, this became a real family project and a true lesson in what can be accomplished if you put your mind (and a great deal of elbow grease) into a worthy goal.
Within four months of purchasing the building, a mini-main street was created on the first floor with a coffee shop, an ice cream shop, a bakery and a few specialty shops. A pizza shop filled out the first floor tenant list. The Rockwood Mill Shoppes was ready for customers. Two months later, work was completed upstairs in time for the first show to be held in the Opera House. The dinner theater event opened to a sold-out audience.
All at once, becoming the hottest address in not only Rockwood, but for miles around, additional tenants filled up the building. A day spa, tanning salon and hair salon moved upstairs. In the basement, a fitness center opened.
With the historic preservation efforts complete, Judy filed for and received a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. But she and Terry were far from being done. A residence situated next to the Rockwood Mill Shoppes became their next business adventure as Mill Shoppes Antiques. That was followed in 2009 by The Hostel on Main, which in this writer’s opinion, is one of the nicest hostels I’ve had the occasion to come across.
“While I had never stayed in a hostel,” Judy said, “I could see the advantage of having one convenient to the Great Allegheny Passage.” After just mentioning it to her husband, Terry took it upon himself to create the cleanest, most comfortable hostel most biking enthusiasts will ever discover. Extremely roomy, bright and cheery, with modern beds and facilities, this is a wonderful stopping place only three blocks off the trail. Dorm and private rooms are available at very reasonable rates. Free Wi-Fi is offered over in the Mill Shoppes.
With all your food needs only a couple doors away, it can’t be much more convenient. Homemade, made-from-scratch pizzas are perfect in the evening and cinnamon rolls and coffee start the day off right. Morning is also a perfect chance to meet the locals, as the coffee shop is where- the-action-is in the morning. Seated around a dozen small tables, it’s an eclectic mix of farmer’s bib overalls and bikers shorts, but everyone comes together here to discuss their day’s plans.
If Judy’s around and you ask nice, chances are she’ll give you a tour of the facility. You’ll most likely want to come back for one of the performances in the Opera House. Offering a variety of music, mystery and entertainment, it’s bound to be a memorable experience.
Keep Rockwood in mind as you bike the Great Allegheny Passage. Don’t be like those other thousands who fly by daily, missing some of the best that small-town America has to offer.