In the Laurel Highlands region

On the Great Allegheny Passage

A few years ago, Confluence Pennsylvania was dying. Local businesses were closing and people were packing up and moving away. Housing prices fell as low as $20,000 USD, but no one was buying.

A few years ago, Confluence Pennsylvania was dying. Local businesses were closing and people were packing up and moving away. Housing prices fell as low as $20,000 USD, but no one was buying. Today the town is booming and you’d be hard pressed to find a house selling for less than $120,000. “Confluence may be the best example of what rail tourism can do for a town,” explained local resident, Larry Walsch. “Confluence sits along one of the first sections of the Great Allegheny Passage and the trail has been a major boon for the communities it passes through.”

Situated in the Laurel Highlands region of the state, Confluence is so named because it is located near the juncture of two rivers and a creek in the heart of Ohiopyle State Park, just 90-minutes southeast of Pittsburgh. The region is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream destination and before the trail went in, white water rafting was the main outdoor recreation in the area. Some of the rafting outfitters in nearby Ohiopyle were actually opposed to the trail before it went in fearing it would negatively impact their businesses, but the opposite has proved to be true. Area outfitters have added cycle rentals, multi-day cycle tours and Peddle and Paddle Packages to their offerings.

“Our summer staff is now larger than the population of the town,” said Eric Martin, owner of Wilderness Voyageurs, one of Ohiopyle’s oldest rafting companies. “Biking has become bigger than the rafting since the trail came in and the people who didn’t want to see it in their backyard have changed their minds.”

With land prices soaring, everyone is singing the praises of the trail – even area residents who were vehemently opposed to it in the beginning. Confluence is no longer just another backwater town with lagging real estate values.

People are moving there, new businesses are opening and tourists are travelling through, creating a vibrant economy and a community which residents take pride in – a community that has benefited from the fact that the first section of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is right in its backyard.

On a recent visit to Pennsylvania, I only had a single day to check out this amazing trail system, so I decided to cycle the section of trail where it all began – from Ohiopyle to Confluence and back. The journey is an easy 34-km roundtrip and if you stop for lunch and a little exploration, you can fill the better part of a day.

To make it interesting and to protect a back that was ailing at the time, I rented a recumbent bicycle for the first time and set off with a group of riders. The trail runs parallel to the Youghiogheny River past lush wooded areas of protected state park and though it was raining lightly when we set out, the hard-packed crushed limestone surface didn’t get mucky.

I knew early on that I was cycling with a group of kindred spirits. Nobody seemed to push too hard and several times along the way, our little group of riders stopped to check out the scenery or read the interpretive signs. When we reached Confluence, we discovered a tourist info booth right on the trail and were each handed a card for a free gift at the local cycle shop.

After visiting with the owners of the shop and receiving our free gifts (a tire repair kit in my case), we made our way to Riverside Pizza, Bakery and Café – otherwise known as “Sweeties” to the local populace. I enjoyed a fresh grilled Panini sandwich and some homemade baked goods before we decided to do some more exploring of the town. A short while later, we stopped at Sherman’s Ice cream, met Sherman the dog and sampled some custom-made ice cream in an old-fashioned style ice cream shop. We justified our indulgence by estimating the calories we surely must have burned getting there and those we were yet to burn on the ride back. I knew I was definitely with kindred spirits after the food stops.

I took it easy on the ride back to Ohiopyle and lagged at the back of the group. It might have been the fact that I had eaten more than anyone else, but I like to think I was just soaking up my last few moments on the Great Allegheny Passage and remembering good times spent in Confluence – the town saved by the trail.

Falling Water

Falling Water (www.fallingwater.org) is the most popular tourist attraction in the Laurel Highlands. It is a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and is constructed overtop of a waterfall. Some experts consider the home to be the famous architect’s finest work. Falling Water is listed on Smithsonian’s Life List of “28 places to visit before you die” and in 1991, it was named the “best all time work of American architecture” by the American Institute of Architects. The furnished house cost $155,000 when it was built in 1935. More than 200,000 people tour the house annually and it is a must-see site for anyone visiting the Laurel Highlands.

If You Go:

-The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail was built on an abandoned rail bed and today it stretches more than 240 km (150 miles). It connects with other rail trails creating a continuous non-motorized trail network of more than 520 km (325 miles) from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. For more information about riding the GAP trail, visit the official website: www.atatrail.org. Another great site for information on the trail is: www.thegreatalleghenypassage.com. For information on visiting Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, visit the official tourism website at: www.laurelhighlands.org.

-Ohiopyle and Confluence, PA are located about 1.5 hours southeast of Pittsburgh, PA. There are several companies that offer bicycle rentals and shuttle services along the GAP trail. If you bike the section between Ohiopyle and Cofluence, you’ll want to check out Wilderness Voyageurs (wilderness-voyageurs.com) in Ohiopyle or Confluence Cyclery (www.confluencecyclery.com) in Confluence. For more information on visiting Confluence, visit: www.visitconfluence.info.

-Visitors to Ohiopyle State Park typically stay in Confluence, Uniontown, Summerset or Donegal. I stayed at the nearby Seven Springs Resort (www.7springs.com), which is Pennsylvania’s largest four season resort. Rates start at $175 per night during the peak summer months, but decrease during the lower season. The resort has an onsite spa, restaurants, summer activities, a ski hill and a clay shooting range.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

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