That Dam Ride

The Rails to Trails Act of 1983 may rank as the best thing to happen to American cycling in the last 25 years. Technically section 8(d) of the National Trails Systems Act, this landmark legislation greases the skids for the conversion of abandoned and unused railroad corridors into recreational trails. According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservency, America’s rail-trail count currently stands at 1,534 open trails for a total of 15,346 miles. It’s refreshing to know that even Congress can occasionally knock one out of the park.

loadingA few weekends ago, I treated myself to a 69-mile slice of America’s juicy rail-to-trail pie, as a participant in an organized charity event know as That Dam Ride—which cruised along the scenic Yough River Trail from Boston, PA to Confluence, PA.

In “Little Boston” you drop off your camping gear, and eager Boy Scouts and their leaders load it and truck it 69 miles down the trail to Confluence, where it’s waiting for you upon your arrival. Rest stops stocked with food and drink keep you smiling and rolling along. A home cooked pasta dinner at Confluence recharges your batteries. You wake up the next day refreshed and ready to pedal 69 miles back to Little Boston, where you pick up your gear, and call it a weekend. That’s the short version.

The long version begins in 1991, when my imagination was captured by the notion of a proposed rail-trail connecting Pittsburgh, PA and Washington, DC. A tiny newspaper article told of a local group, calling themselves the Mon-Yough Trail Council, that was forming to work on converting a stretch of abandoned railroad in Allegheny county, as part of the larger Pitt-to-DC trail vision. pitt-to-dcI showed up at one of their first public meetings. One thing led to another and I ended up on the organization’s Board of Directors, and became their first newsletter editor/publisher.

Those were heady days, starting an organization from scratch, ripping out old rails and ties, removing decades of accumulated trash dumped along the trail, raising funds, and finally laying down a crushed-limestone surface for generations of trail users to enjoy. I’m proud to have played a small role in the creation of this fantastic national asset.

Alas, I’ve since relocated, and it’s no longer geographically practical to participate in the Trail Council, nor pop over to the Yough River Trail for a spur-of-the moment ride. I do keep up my annual membership, and trail-based events such as That Dam Ride give me a great reason to make a pilgrimage to ride my favorite rail-trail.

Every time I hit the rail-trail I’m refreshed. I see the future of cycling in the person of kids out for a ride with their parents. I see hordes of bicyclists who’ll never shred on singletrack, who’ll never enter a bike race, who wouldn’t know titanium from plutonium—but bicyclist just the same. I see bicyclists who sit on town councils, bicyclist who own local business, bicyclists who contact congress and tell them that they want more bicycling infrastructure. I see butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. I see hordes of examples of why the Rails to Trails Act of 1983 may rank as the best thing to happen to American cycling in the last 25 years. I see hordes of people on bikes.

Now, back to That Dam Ride. I suspect that you’d rather look at some pictures than read about me pedaling 138 miles; therefore, I offer the following photo-journal from my trip. Just click on a thumbnail to view a larger image. Enjoy.

The beginning of the ride winds through suburbia, but on the trail it’s easy to forget the hustle and bustle.

trail fishin’

There’s even a ghost town a few miles from the Boston trailhead. The Elizabeth Township Historical Society maintains this Methodist Cemetery (est. 1824) as the only artifact remaining from the town of “Old Dravo” that once stood at this site. Adjacent to the cemetery, the Apache Springs campsite offers weary travelers spooky overnight accomodations in this ghost town.

cemetery bike cemetery cemetery flags apache springs campsite

Forty miles into my journey, I rolled into the town of Connellsville, which, despite it’s rather sleepy demeanor, was a rip roaring “coal and coke” boom town in the early 1900s. While I ripped into the roaring lunch that the ride organizers had waiting there, I admired the wide variety of rigs that that were along for the ride.

connellsville connellsville connellsville connellsville

connellsville connellsville connellsville connellsville

While the overall grade of the trail from Boston to Confluence is relatively flat 0.5%, the 17 miles from Connellsville to Ohiopyle State Park is steep enough to give the legs a bit of a challenge. The reward is a spectacular bridge crossing, high above the ruggedly beautiful Ohioplye gorge—a spot where the whitewater attracts boaters from far and wide.

Ohiopyle Ohiopyle Kayaks Ohiopyle

During the final 11 miles to Confluence, a town located at the confluence of the Casselman (left in photo below) and Youghioghenny (right in photo below) rivers, I was motivated by thoughts of camp sweet camp.


After collecting our gear from the Boy Scouts, we riders set up camp adjacent to the base of the Youghioghenny Dam. The sound of the water rushing from the bottom of the dam provided perfect white noise, not that I needed any help falling asleep after a long day in the saddle.

camp camp dam

But before I filled my sleeping bag with my tired bones, I filled my belly with a home-cooked pasta dinner, courtesy of the fine ladies at Confluence’s Trinity Lutheran Church. All included with my registration fee. Umm, umm good.

church bikes hall crowd

server salads desserts let’s eat

After a good night’s sleep and a quick breakfast, it was time to reverse course and pedal back home. On the way I took a slight detour in Ohiopyle to snap a few photos of the Ohiopyle Falls, and stumbled upon some guys with RC offroad vehicles who had set up a trials course on the rocks on the riverbank. They seemed to be having a great time, and didn’t mind me photographing their action.

ohiopyle falls ohiopyle falls ohiopyle falls

rc trials rc trials rc trials

Before I wrap up this report, I’ll spill the beans on a semi-secret swimming hole, known to the locals as Smithton Beach—a great spot to cool off during summer months. Beach access is via a dirt doubletrack that’s directly across the trail from the Smithton trailhead parking lot. There is no signage, and the entrance winds down the riverbank, such that you can’t see the beach from the trail, keeping this cool spot somewhat of a secret.

smithton beach smithton beach