Experience the Great Allegheny Passage

If, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Life is a journey, not a destination,” we have a glorious path right in our backyard. The Great Allegheny Passage is a nearly flat 150-mile bicycle and walking trail running through parts of our own Westmoreland County as it connects Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, as part of a network of trails that runs all the way to Washington, D.C.

The passage traces America’s westward expansion through a chain of family-friendly towns, past winding rivers, over soaring viaducts and through historic railroad tunnels. It’s safe, serene, and spectacular – as I found out on a recent ride.

I joined Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and two dozen other regional leaders earlier this month to bike the first leg of the trail. Those initial 36-miles took us from the fountain at Point State Park to West Newton. I experienced western Pennsylvania like never-before. It stunned me, and I was born and raised here.

Watching the sun rise over the Point on a warm late summer morning was the perfect beginning. Navigating the city rewarded us with intimate views of Downtown, the developed waterfronts, and underappreciated postcard-like images of Pittsburgh, like the northwest view from the historic Hot Metal Bridge.

Biking up-close to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, the training center for the Steelers and Pitt Panthers, provided athletic inspiration as we navigated alongside the Monongahela River on the city’s South Side.  The Homestead Waterfront provided the perfect pit-stop as the trail runs right along the massive shopping and dining complex.

The mill in the Mon Valley is a reminder that people are still working to produce steel in our region. While former mill sites offer opportunity for new technologies. Crisscrossing railroad tracks and the river over restored bridges showed off both the industrial and the serene. (And the grades up to the bridges offered one of the few tests of your legs!)

Traveling past the McKeesport marina and hostel demonstrated the trail’s potential for downtown redevelopment. Transitioning to the path of the Youghiogheny River brought us through revitalized towns like our region’s own “Little” Boston and through some of the most tranquil nature in our area.

Entering Westmoreland County through Sutersville, Colinsburg and West Newton I was struck by how residents there have embraced the trail — and by the great untapped potential. Right now, there are affordable bike, canoe and kayak rentals, fishing, and family-friendly riverside eateries. These towns are a great place to visit and live. Coming into the county this way offers a whole new perspective – one we need to maximize.

The trail is not just for biking. We passed young families with baby strollers. We chatted with seniors. Even petted some dogs. With multiple access points, the journey can be what you want it to be. Remarkably, it’s all maintained by chapters of dedicated volunteers.

More than one million people used the trail last year, coming right through our county. As we work to rebuild, and reimagine, Westmoreland County, the Great Allegheny Passage offers a tremendous opportunity.

This is a new view of the place we call home. Enjoy the ride.

(Editor’s Note: The above was published as an op-ed in the September 29 edition of the Tribune-Review For more on the Great Allegheny Passage, visit www.gaptrail.org.)