The tracks that cross-country skiers, snowshoers and sled dogs left in the snow on the Great Allegheny Passage have disappeared, the 3,300-foot-long Big Savage Tunnel is open for the bicycling season, and the first wildflowers of the spring are winking at passersby.
Two experienced long-distance bicyclists, one westbound, one eastbound, pedaled along the soft-surfaced passage last month in Somerset County. It was slow-going for both of them -- and windy. The eastbound rider had to wait a day until 4 inches of wet snow melted.
"My wheels won't turn in this stuff," he told me.
Because the Big Savage Tunnel wasn't open, both riders used Route 40 and local two-lane roads as a detour. It's a detour that isn't for the faint of legs, lungs or heart. I don't recommend it.
Allegheny Trail Alliance board member Paul g Wiegman said volunteers from the Somerset County Rails-to-Trails Association and Mountain Maryland Trails opened the giant doors of the Big Savage Tunnel April 3.
The trail travails of the two hardy souls were mentioned Thursday during a five-hour Great Allegheny Passage Hospitality Summit at the Hyatt House Pittsburgh South Side. It was sponsored by the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau and Visit Pittsburgh, which market the GAP.
The summit was attended by representatives of hotels, bed and breakfasts, guest houses, bike organizations, chambers of commerce and historical organizations.
Nearly one million men, women and children visited the trail last year, said Linda McKenna Boxx, secretary and immediate past president of the alliance.
The alliance consists of seven rail-trail organizations that built the trail and now maintain it. The trail was constructed on the almost-level rights-of-way of the old Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad and the Western Maryland Railway. It took 40 years and almost $80 million to complete.
The 10-foot-wide trail, which has a crushed limestone surface that drains quickly after it rains, provides "safe off-road traveling [that is] good for all ages and all physical abilities," Boxx said.
She said last year's trail users spent more than $50 million while riding all or some of the 150-mile trail from Point State Park to Cumberland, Md.
She said two-thirds of the trail users are 46 and older, 80 percent have at least a college education, 25 percent make more than $100,000 annually, and 60 percent earn more than $50,000 a year.
Boxx said the alliance's marketing campaign includes its website -- www.GAPtrail.org -- which had 1.4 million page views "from around the world" last year. Its Facebook page has more than 10,000 fans and 1,700 Twitter followers.
The alliance distributed more than a million trail maps and brochures last year, she said. And its TrailBook, a visitor's guide for "the ride of your life" that includes almost 200 advertisers, is "a must-have" for the 334.5-mile trip from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
Information: 1-888-282-2453 and 724-537-6900.
Join me from 2 to 6 p.m. April 27 for an 8-mile bike tour to and from the best site on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail to see the bald eagle nest.
We'll be accompanied by a National Aviary ornithologist who will explain the significance of the urban nest, the birds' behavior and their current status. At the moment, the eagles are very busy parents with three hungry kids to feed. Bring binoculars and a camera.
We'll depart from and return to Southside Riverfront Park. The tour is one of the continuing education workshops offered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The cost is $35. To register, visit www.post-gazette.com/pgu or call 412-263-1741.
Larry Walsh writes about recreational bicycling for the Post-Gazette.