In August 2021 Charles and I finally hit the road for the 2021 Excellent Adventure, a three day unsupported bikepacking trip. We have been collecting camping gear over the last year and have been looking for a real world test (beyond the initial silly afternoon test I did during the early days of the Pandemic) before doing any significant trips. We wanted something that was remote, yet had some level of service (uh, a place for the morning business that did not involve a shovel), was scenic and interesting, and we wanted to spend multiple nights. We’ve been eying the Pine Creek Rail Trail (PCRT) in north central Pennsylvania, but it’s only about 65 miles a longs which is better suited for a single overnighter and furthermore it is a long drive from Annapolis for a 2 day ride. So we decided to make it 3 days, with days 1 and 3 as short riding days to and from the overnight stop at Petticoat Junction Campground plus the drive to the beginning of the trail in Jersey Shore PA and back. The middle riding day was a long riding day with an exploration of a bunch of surrounding gravel roads and hills finishing off with the northern part of the trail back to the campground. Here’s the short version in video form:
For the long version, read on…
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the unsupported bikepacking trip, what’s the cutesy post name hinting at? As you might have guessed if you read prior posts, specifically the only post I’ve ever done on my day job, I retired from NASA as of August 1, literally 35 years to the day from the only (professional) job I’ve ever had and this trip was symbolic of my “hitting the open road” in retirement as they say. I had every intention of just sending it on a really long multi-day ride right after, but things got complicated with the plans for the fall. I’ll have more to say about retirement and the events that took place in September at a later time.
So now onto the trip. The logistics were as follows:
Day 1: Drive from Annapolis to Jersey Shore and ride the PCRT 35 miles to Petticoat Junction campground.
Day 2: Leave the tents and gear at the campground and ride 40-50 miles to Wellsboro at the north end of the PCRT via the local gravelly hills, eat lunch in Wellsboro and ride the PCRT 30 miles back to the campground.
Day 3: Ride the PCRT 35 miles from the campground to Jersey Shore, have a local beer and drive back to Annapolis.
The valley that contains the PCRT is known as the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania” because Pine Creek cut a gorge heading to the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, which eventually flows down into the Chesapeake Bay. Like most other old growth forests that had railroads through them, this was clear cut in the late 1800s and was literally barren in the early 1900s. The resulting ecological damage took more than 50 years to undo, but thanks especially to the conservation efforts begun in earnest in the 1950s (all this great stuff you learn from reading the signs on the trail!) it has recovered well into a full second growth forest. It’s quite remote and begins in the city of Jersey Shore (interesting actually named after the shore in NJ – read the Wikipedia article) and heads north ending at Wellsboro. Unfortunately for bikers and fortunately for rail buffs, the railroad still runs north from Wellsboro as a tourist line in order to maintain the tracks in case they ever want to restart freight services. This is a weird byproduct of how rail rights work as outlined in the rails to trails book that talks about how complex the legalities around converting rails to trails is. It’s really too bad because the trail could go all the way to the finger lakes region pretty easily and make a really nice off road multi-day trip.
The drive up was fairly long, but uneventful. We got to the trail head and given it was a Thursday, there was plenty of room in the parking lot. We did our usual load ’em up routine, took a few pictures and headed out in the early afternoon of a nice 80 degree August day. My and Charles’ setups are a little different but there is no right answer, it just depends on what bags and stuff you have. This is what this trip was all about, to see what one actually needs, how to carry it and how to use it. The details of my equipment up are here. In general I found his setup to be weighted heavier on the front and mine heavier on the back, I think largely due to the location of the extra water bottles. Personally, I’d rather have it weighted aft for better handling, although either way the bike feels a little “drunk” at about 45 lbs.
We spun up the trail pretty easily as we always do. These trips are not a hammer fest, rather an endurance effort for long periods of time, averaging about 10-12 mph. It looks pancake flat at about about 1%, the typical rail trail grade and it felt good to be moving after sitting in the car so long. I was warned earlier about biting flies and that was an accurate warning. Even with 40% DEET lotion, if you stopped for any significant time, you were swarmed, but as long as you were moving, you out ran them. Interestingly, they were not at the campground though. A lot of the trail reminded me of the C&O with a much better surface but he scenery along the trail when the view opened up was quite amazing.
When we got to the Petticoat Junction campground we took a swim in the river, set up the tents, just chilled and “cooked” dinner. The campground was a typical “full service” campground, mostly geared towards RVers or people in tents who arrive in cars, typical of most State Park or commercial campgrounds I’ve stayed in during the last year in my van. These are a great compromise between cost and amenities, waaaay cheaper than a hotel, but not “wild” camping which can be awkward or even impossible in many places unless you are Steve Wallis (side note: check his Stealth Camping playlist on You Tube, it’s pretty funny). There were no other walk or ride ins that I could spot, but that’s not surprising and it’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It had nice bathrooms and even laundry (which we did use) as well as outlets to charge and good water. But, it’s basically in the middle of nowhere so there was really no place close to purchase any food and we had to eat what we brought. As anyone who knows me knows, I am no culinary genius so I packed something really simple: refried beans, tortillas and Ramen. Charles was a bit more sophisticated with his Patagoochie freeze dried meals. Charles brought the camp stove which was necessary to boil water, both for Raman/dehydrated meals and coffee in the morning. One huge lesson learned for me is that I have to really rethink what food I pack for a completely unsupported trip. Emulating Ryan Van Duzer with the refried bean and tortillas idea did not work well for a variety of reasons (one I’m sure you can guess). Ramen is good though as it’s light, packs well and is pretty calorie dense.
We were tired and once it got dark the bugs came out, so we climbed into our tents. I was quite apprehensive about how well I would sleep on such a minimal surface, especially given my history of lower back issues. Yeah, yeah I know by “real” backpacking standards this stuff is pretty Gucci, but compared to sleeping in my van, it’s down right primitive. That said, I was quite comfortable. Both nights I got a decent night’s sleep and my back didn’t hurt. If anything it was just very loud (both people and nature noises) early on, but quieted down as the nights went on. So in general, I found the equipment to be a success. But then again it was clear and no rain, so not the most severe of a test. The only issue I had was how to pack it up. The dry bag with my Salsa handlebar cradle was a little weird in that it opens at both ends and thus uses up some of the width with the closures and makes it fit a little tight between the brake levers. Also it was just slightly too small in that I could not also fit in my sleeping bag which I had to put in my underseat bag which would have been better used with decent food. I have since acquired a slightly larger single opening dry bag (a sailing trophy!) which will be a good substitute and can also act as an anti-bear food bag to hang from a tree.
Here is the Strava route for the spin up the trail to the campground: https://www.strava.com/activities/5745254087.
We got up and made breakfast – Bran Buds and water for me, oatmeal for Charles – got kitted up and took a bunch of stuff off the bikes for our long day. We left the tents set up, and took all unnecessary bags off the bikes (seat/handlebar) that were not needed for just a day ride. I kept my frame bag on because that had on bike food and repair equipment that might be needed and I left the Salsa handlebar cradle on because it’s just not worth taking it off. So we definitely were “lighter” for a hilly ride day. Charles originally mapped out a route that was maybe 85 miles, but after a number of sweet gravel hills, we decided it was appropriate to cut the hilly section to Wellsboro a little shorter. While I had a lot of miles in my legs at that point in the season, he did not. The climbs were on the hills were 5-8% and since my gearing is a bit higher than Charles I had to go a bit faster. I may go down from a 38 to a 36 front chain ring for this kind of hilly stuff in the future.
We arrived at the Wellsboro House or lunch in the early afternoon and sent it with beer and a big lunch knowing it was a flat 35 miles back to the campground and we had less than stelar food there. Leaving Wellsboro, we really wanted to find a place to buy a few singles of beer to have some refreshments back at the campground, but evidently PA does not sell that stuff in grocery or convenient stores. After asking around a bit we found a dive bar (no windows and bud lite signs out front) that would sell to-go singles. I haven’t been in a bar like that in a long time. For one, everyone was smoking; no way you are going to find a place like that in Maryland… We did get some pretty odd looks being the only dudes in spandex, but we chatted a little with a patrons and exchanged some pleasantries about what we were up to. You know, people are people and I have found especially in rural areas, people are friendly, so it’s always nice to connect on a personal level. We picked up a few Yuenglings, stuffed them in our frame bags and hit the trail. We limbered along full and tired, but even at that it was hot and with 10 miles to go I started to smell the barn, put the hammer down and made a bee line right for the swimming hole, kit and all.
The Strava track from Day 2: https://www.strava.com/activities/5750003095
That evening we ate our exquisite cuisine and hung out a the common areas of the campground while we did laundry so we’d have a fresh kit the next day. It was cool and foggy in the morning, but we packed everything up and got rolling for the last 35 miles back to the car. The fog cleared and we separated a little going at slightly different paces down the trail. The scenery was even more beautiful as the fog cleared, but in general it was a pretty uneventful ride back. Of course we had a local brewery – Bald Bird Brewing Company – picked out that we hit on the way out and it was excellent.
The Strava track from Day 3: https://www.strava.com/activities/5754103699
All in all it was a successful trip with no real fatal flaws and some basic lessons learned that I need to work on for the next trip:
- I need to pack all my sleep stuff in the handlebar bag as the sleeping bag took too much room in the seat bag (fixed).
- I need to have some shoes that are easier to deal with. I purchased some Shimano off road shoes that are reasonable to walk in but have SPD cleats. Just need a pair of flip flops for other use, especially wet.
- I need to purchase a lightweight camp burner so I can at least make my own coffee if I am alone.
- I need to figure out where to put food on the bike.
- I need to get a better set of casual clothes to wear.
- “Ride back” videos are definitely worth the trouble to do.
The planning for the next and biggest bikepacking trip is in progress for Spring 2022: MD-VT. More on that soon.