Visit the bike-friendly town of Confluence, Pennsylvania
When visitors arrive in the small rural Pennsylvania hamlet, Confluence, it is often by bicycle. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, the town is home to around 600 people and biking hasn’t always been so popular here. For generations, life in Confluence revolved around coal mining and logging. The city established a pace of life familiar to rural Appalachian outposts for more than a century until those industries began to dry up. When the opportunity failed and left, the city was left full of closed storefronts and empty restaurants. Residents wondered what would save their city. They didn’t expect it to be bikes.
“Let’s consider what happened. This city has been through the ups and downs of lumber, coal and the railroad. And now it has been revived by cycling,” says Larry Walsh of the Confluence Tourism Association. The overflowing bike racks located outside the various shops in Confluence are there because the Great Allegheny Passage– a 150-mile bike path that connects Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Maryland – now runs through the heart of the city. Locals and bike enthusiasts call it the GAP.
With the steady increase in bicycle tourism in the United States throughout the pandemic and the increasing emphasis on non-motorized infrastructure systems, now is a good time to change the industry. But it’s not just a bike path anymore that calls people to Confluence. With old warehouses now housing cafes, art spaces, bakeries, restaurants and hostels, it’s the kind of town you dream of stopping in on a road trip or trail run. Here’s how the city’s unexpected turnaround happened and what to check out in Confluence if you decide to see what it’s all about.
Welcome to Turkeyfoot
Confluence used to be called “Turkeyfoot” (so bikes surely aren’t the only welcome change). The much less appealing nickname was given by George Washington’s guide, Christopher Gist, in 1754 after seeing the unusual shape of the land here, created by three intersecting rivers. Confluence, we might say, is a more appropriate name.
Washington and his team inspected the entire area before building nearby Strong Necessity-which is now a national park. Over the years, through the boom and bust of coal towns, Confluence limped with fewer than 1,000 residents and above-average poverty rates for decades. It is located in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, an area known for its natural wonders like waterfalls and architectural marvels like six Frank Lloyd Wright Houses. Despite the ideal location, the town seemed unable to tap into the tourist market. That is to say up to the bike path.
Bike enthusiasts have long envisioned an entirely non-motorized corridor through the Appalachian Mountains for years before it came to fruition. The section of the trail that connects Confluence and nearby Ohiopyle was the first completed section of the GAP.
Today, the GAP connects to a larger rail-trail system which runs from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC But in the late 1980s, the 10.5-mile section of the trail at Confluence was known simply as the “River Trail” to locals. It will take several more decades before Confluence becomes a paradise for cyclists.
Visit many cafes and art studios
When this first section of trail was completed in the 1980s, it attracted interest from tourists as well as entrepreneurs. Originally from Pittsburgh, Anna Marie Yakubisin and her late husband, Robert Benns, came to Confluence to hike this first section of trail as day trippers. They spotted a For Sale sign in a ramshackle riverside house along the GAP. Falling in love immediately, they sealed the deal with $200 cash before returning the following week to officially buy the house. In 1989 they opened River’s Edge Cafe and B&B, the first company born from the renaissance of cycling in Confluence. Even today, cyclists often enjoy a glass of wine on the wraparound porch while otters play in the nearby river.
“I think it’s a misnomer that urban equals culture. Culture is everywhere.
But it wasn’t until 2013 that Allegheny’s grand passage was fully completed, and that’s when things really started to look up for Confluence. Others came to town and ended up opening a cafe, an art studio, and an artist residency in a former car dealership. Called fabric farm, owners Suzanne Ragan Lentz and Jeffery ‘Pope’ Pankey had been caught by the city on the brink of revitalization during a visit to Seattle. They bought the closed dealership on a whim.
“The number of riders keeps growing, especially with the pandemic,” says Pankey. “E-bikes have added accessibility to the GAP Trail. We keep seeing people here who wouldn’t normally be on the trail. The trail adds so much to the livelihood of the town.
Moving from Seattle to rural southwestern Pennsylvania may seem like a huge change, but Lentz and Pankey can’t imagine being anywhere else. “I think it’s a misnomer that urban equals culture. Culture is everywhere,” says Lentz. “The people, locals and visitors, and the natural beauty root me in this small Appalachian town.”
His partner agrees. “There is nothing more rewarding than building a café and a community and cultural centre. You become the link between people who live in the same city and who may not have met. The bike rack outside Tissue Farm is often crowded as day trippers and long-haul cyclists stop for an iced coffee or a freshly baked savory scone.
Just down the street, the Cyclerie Confluence handles tune-ups, bike rentals, and trail-related advice. Sometimes they fix your bike for you, and sometimes they give you tools and a rag – it’s a low-key place. A collection of other restaurants now abounds in town, with more guesthouses and Airbnbs being added each season. There is even a seafront camping also at Confluence, operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Parker House country inn is also a few minutes from the trailhead. Plastic bins and towels for muddy trail gear greet guests just past the parking lot. More bikes than cars are parked at the Parker House most nights as guests stretch their weary legs on the covered porch.
Have your luggage delivered to the next town on the trail
Confluence is the perfect stop for motorcyclists along the GAP, but it is only one stop among many. The 150-mile trail features a smooth surface of crushed limestone as it passes through 12 trail towns, three tunnels, two viaducts and a bone cave (yes, we had to search for “bone cave” too). Over one million visitors walk all or part of the trail each year.
Beyond the increase in dining and accommodation options brought by the trail, other industries have also entered the picture. Angela Bonnell founded the Sunshine Baggage Shuttle on the outskirts of Confluence in 2012, as the trail neared its end. His team transports luggage from one city to another so that cyclists can enjoy the scenery without being weighed down. Her first season, she carried less than ten sets of luggage. This year, it will transport hundreds of orders through the GAP and its towpaths.
For those who have already been drawn to the charms of Confluence, they have no intention of going anywhere. “The lake, the rivers, the rafting, the hiking, the biking – it has those things in abundance,” says Pankey. “It’s so pretty, and these people are the salt of the earth.” And when it comes to comparisons with big urban cities, he says, “Confluence isn’t that different. Just no Door-Dash.