New Zealand Herald: by Heather McCracken

Despite the weather not co-operating, Heather McCracken finally gets her wheels in motion on the Great Allegheny Passage.

April may be springtime in Pennsylvania, but winter has not quite let go yet.

Today, on what should be our first day biking the Great Allegheny Passage, it's barely 0C, with a wind chill of several degrees below. It's grey and cold.

We're starting our rail trail cycling trip from Ohiopyle, a town about 90 minutes drive from Pittsburgh, and ground zero for outdoor activities in the Laurel Highlands.

Rafting on the Youghiogheny River is a big attraction here - Ohiopyle comes from a Native American word meaning white, frothy water - and as we're trying to warm up with coffees in the bakery, a long line of wetsuit-clad paddlers walks past us to the river.

"First day of guide training for the season," the barista tells us. "If they can cope today, they can cope with anything."

The river doesn't look too inviting today, and neither does the town's other big drawcard - the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile (240km) trail from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cumberland, Maryland.

There the trail connects with the C&O canal towpath, which follows the Potomac River, creating an entirely off-road 335-mile (539km) cycle route between Pittsburgh and Washington DC.

Through this part of Pennsylvania, the trail follows an old railway route alongside the river, with glimpses through the trees of chilly rafters as they negotiate the snow melt-swollen rapids.

We have warm clothes and wet weather gear (still a bit wet from the previous day's hike), but it's bitterly cold, and staff at the bike hire shop suggests we wait for the sun to come out before heading off.

By midday the temperature hasn't risen but the wind has, and we admit it just won't be any fun on a bike.

So we come back the next day, a Sunday, and with the sun out and the temperature up to a much more pleasant 10C, Ohiopyle's historic train station, now a rest stop and information stand for cyclists, is a hub of two-wheeled activity.

We decide to cut our bite of the Great Allegheny Passage to a one-day ride from Ohiopyle to Confluence - the meeting point of the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers and the Laurel Hill Creek - and back again.

This part of Pennsylvania is a popular ski area in winter, and the hard-packed snow on the slopes hasn't yet melted. Trees are still bare and the landscape is almost uniformly brown, with little sign of spring growth after long months under snow.

But even without any sign of greenery it's starkly beautiful. Later in spring the colours change dramatically, and an autumn ride through this forest would be something quite special.

The trail's popular with walkers as well, and, close to Ohiopyle especially, we found ourselves sharing the wide track with hikers, kids on bikes, parents with prams and other cyclists.

Our 22-mile (35km) route closely followed the Youghiogheny River, winding through trees on a mostly flat, crushed limestone surface.

There's a slight uphill gradient from Ohiopyle to Confluence - barely noticeable, but just enough to make it slightly easier coming back.

Because it largely follows railbeds, most of the elevation changes are slow and gradual - the steepest gradient is 1.75 per cent.

The trail is easy riding and there's no chance of getting lost. There are clear mile-markers along the route to track your distance, and regular spots to stop and picnic or just take in the views.

It's also not too far between towns, which do their best to cater for hungry cyclists keen to park the bike to grab a coffee and a bite.

If you're doing the whole Passage, or spending a couple of days on the trail, there are campsites in most towns, as well as B&Bs and other lodging options.

Several tour operators will organise your transport from the end of the trail, outfit you with gear for the entire trip, and shuttle your luggage to every stop along the way.

But after spending too much time waiting for a break in the weather, we settled for a packed lunch, eaten at a good viewing point over the river, before turning our bikes around and heading for Ohiopyle.

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