Some adventures are so unique they’re irresistible. When we visited Maryland, that’s pretty much what drew us to the unusual Tracks and Yaks rail bike tour from Frostburg to Cash Valley in the beautiful Allegheny Mountains.
In September my husband Dean and I took a cycling vacation on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and C&O Canal Towpath (a 335 mile combined trail from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington DC). To complement our traditional bike ride, we thought it would be fun to try this unique rail bike adventure.
Tour description on the Tracks and Yaks website: “Ride the Great Allegheny Passage hiking and biking trail along the mountain ridge. We are the only location in the state that offers this experience. Rail biking is not physically strenuous so you can enjoy the spectacular mountain views and railroad history as you cycle along your way.”
The journey begins in Allegheny County in Frostburg, Maryland and takes you east toward Cumberland, Maryland. It’s the “Mountain Side of Maryland” (west), as signs and promotional materials quickly point out, and it’s beautiful.
Pro tip: Allegheny County has a lot to offer. According to the website: “70,000 acres of majestic nature, internationally recognized biking trails, three centuries of American history, a diverse restaurant, brewery and winery scene, and an endless amount of outdoor adventure. . We spent four nights in Frostburg; Check here for more ideas and details.
There are many reasons to try this unique rail bike adventure; Here are a few.
1. Remarkable Bike Tour
This is not your run-of-the-mill bike tour! Rail bikes are custom built (no surprise) for this adventure. It’s a curious mix of aluminum frames, polyurethane wheels, mesh seats, hand brakes, seat belts and pedals! They provide the right mode of transportation for this unique trip.
2. Easy to drive
What is involved? As we climbed onto this curious contraption, a member of staff provided a quick orientation and explained how it worked. It’s easy! Just roll, pedal and use your brake if necessary to keep you about 100 feet from the rail bike in front of you. There were 35-40 people in our party, but it never felt crowded due to the distance between the rail bikes.
We were the second rail bike on our tour, right behind a Tracks and Yaks staff rail bike, which was a great place to be!
3. 10 miles on a mostly downhill coast
The trail from Frostburg east to Cumberland is a gradual downhill path, so it’s a lot of coasting topped off with some (easy) pedaling. We had already done about 25 miles on the GAP this morning, so we were happy to relax and laugh on the rail bike and enjoy the trail and the scenery in a new way.
4. Choose a tandem or quadrail bike
Dean and I booked a tandem bike for our adventure, but you can also book a quad option. Each unit travels separately at the start, but about halfway through the trip the crew will ask anyone in a larger group if they’d like to link rail bikes to complete the ride together.
Pro tip: Tracks and Yaks suggest you wear closed shoes and bring water, sunscreen, a snack, and a light jacket (even on a 70 degree day it can be cold). A small bag or backpack easily hooks onto the back of your seat, and there’s also a small bin between the seats.
5. Historic Frostburg Railroad Depot
The restored 1891 Frostburg Railroad Depot in Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) is the meeting place for rail bike tours; it is a beautiful building with lots of character and history.
Pro tip: Be sure to make a reservation for the tour. We made ours two days early and grabbed the last two slots on a midday departure. We wanted to make sure we had good weather, so we waited until the last minute. But the risk is that we could have been excluded and had to change our plans.
6. Not a long term commitment
The whole adventure lasts about two hours. They simply ask you to arrive on time as a courtesy to them and your fellow riders.
Pro tip: To save time, sign the required waiver online before you go. If you don’t want to sign online, arrive early to sign in before the tour begins.
7. Well organized and safe
Although our trip started 30 minutes late, once they started it was fine. When the ride is underway, the crew directs traffic through the few intersections (to avoid cars or places where cyclists on the GAP cross train tracks) to keep everyone safe.
When we stopped along the tour for views and narration, their “sophisticated” braking system (which consisted of the staff placing a rock in front of one of the front wheels of the rail bike) kept us in place to relieve us from constantly holding the brake hand.
Pro tip: Tours take place rain or shine. If the weather is extreme, they may cancel or delay a tour. If your tour is canceled they will refund you in full or book you another tour if you prefer.
8. Mount Savage View
Along the way we saw bridges, lookouts, farms, fields and rock ledges. The crew asked us to stop the rail bikes at a lookout point in the quiet town of Mount Savage. Located at the base of Big Savage Mountain, it is an excellent example of a 19th century mining town. According to our guide, the fame of this town is the production of glazed bricks, examples of which we can still see in local towns today.
9. The scenic gap
As we rode our rail bike, we saw poor cyclists huffing and puffing on the GAP slope and looking longingly at our rail bike ride (of course the strong cyclists were passing). Either way, you’ll be glad you took a rail bike ride to see this stretch of trail.
10. The brush tunnel
The Brush Tunnel adds variety to the ride. It is a 911 foot railway tunnel built in 1911 by the Western Maryland Railway when it stretched from Cumberland to a town called Connellsville. It’s unique because instead of looking at all the mountain ridges along the way, this tunnel takes you through one of them.
11. Helmstetter Curve
The ride ends at Helmstetter’s Curve. The horseshoe-shaped curve, built in 1912, crosses farmland owned by the Helmstetter family for over 100 years and was only recently sold. According to the story, when the first trains rounded this curve, Mr. Helmstetter could stand on the porch of his farmhouse and see the engine of the train in one direction and the caboose of the same train in the other direction. Today mature trees block the view of the full curve, but it’s still a great place to end the ride.
12. Competent personnel
At the end of the ride, everyone got off the rail bikes. That’s when the staff swung into action, turning each rail bike, one by one, in the opposite direction on some sort of portable turntable, then linking them together. They prepared the rail bikes to take back to Frostburg so they could be prepared for the next group.
13. The informative bus ride
The tour includes a return bus ride to the Frostburg depot. Along the way, a Tracks and Yaks guide provides colorful narration about the area, history, and the railroad, which was so important to this part of the country.
Frostburg is a quaint little town full of charm. Have dinner at the historic Gunter at The Toasted Goat Hotel. Try the locally sourced “Goatfather” chili and a beer from local Route 40 Brewing.
We loved Maryland
This little adventure was a big break from the norm. It’s not every day that you can ride a rail bike through mountainous terrain and ride almost the whole way! We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Maryland, and this unique rail bike adventure in the Allegheny Mountains was a memorable part of our trip.