Imagine it’s 1871 and you’ve been hired to lead a team of mules down a trail while towing a boat in a canal parallel to the Potomac. They drive from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland. The canal boats are your business and your home (and a barn for the mules). Each week you travel 184.5 miles east or west, load or unload, and then repeat the journey again. You earn $15 per ride for your efforts.
Now imagine if someone had told you that one day thousands of visitors would come from far and wide to traverse these trails (mostly by bicycle), the same trails that you and your mules once walked. would you believe it
Welcome to the C&O Canal Towpath, a multipurpose trail that runs 184.5 miles along the historic C&O Canal between Cumberland, Maryland and Georgetown in Washington, DC. What began as a humble cargo transportation route has evolved into an extraordinary recreational trail.
A remarkable story
In 1825, the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Company was commissioned to build a shipping canal as a trade route connecting the Potomac River in DC to the headwaters of the Ohio River in Pennsylvania. By 1850 the canal reached Cumberland and competed with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for haulage. The canal trade peaked in 1871 when more than 500 canal boats carried around 850,000 tons on the canal.
In 1938, the US government acquired right of way for the entire canal. It’s a tale of starts and stops: They initially planned to restore the canal and towpath as a national recreation area, but then considered turning it into a highway. Finally, US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a conservationist and environmentalist, accused the canal of being worth saving because of its beauty, history, wildlife, and recreational potential (what a visionary!). In 1971, the canal was declared a C&O Canal National Historic Park.
Today, the C&O Canal Towpath is a premier historical recreational trail in the United States.
We bought the helpful TrailGuide for the C&O Canal Towpath and the connected 150-mile Great Alleghany Trail (GAP) running from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. The guide provides details on the route, towns, accommodation, food and more. It also identifies 10 “best of” day trips (“round trip” trips). My husband Dean and I chose three rides on the GAP and three on the C&O.
Here are the beautiful rides we enjoyed on the C&O Canal Towpath.
1. Aqueduct run
Maryland: Brunswick to Monocacy Aqueduct
25.6 miles round trip
This trip started in Braunschweig. The first highlight was the 27 meter high, three-arched Catoctin Creek Aqueduct, built in 1834 and restored in 2011. On these bike tours we crossed many aqueducts (over water) and viaducts (over land) that never ceased to fascinate me.
The trail is mostly flat. We expected the riding to be a bit rough but to our surprise our rides were on hard gravel with mature trees providing plenty of shade.
Another highlight was Schleusenhaus 28, which was completed in 1837. Lock keepers were hired along the canal to keep each of the 77 locks operational during the day. They carried out minor maintenance and regulated the water level of the canal. We saw lock houses on every trip and every time I felt like I had traveled back in time. Seven lock houses are available for rental accommodation and lock house 28 is one of them. We didn’t do this but I think it would be a unique and memorable stay.
Our turning point was the seven-arched Monocacy Aqueduct, recently restored by the National Park Service. Then we rode back the way we had come. It’s surprising how out-and-back rides feel new after turning; We cycled in the opposite direction and noticed things we hadn’t seen on the way out.
On the return trip, we made a detour to Point of Rocks, Maryland to see the charming, restored Victorian train station.
Pro tip: There is no fee to ride the C&O (or the GAP). Hard to believe that we have free access to such beautiful trails.
2. John Brown’s Ride
West Virginia: Shepherdstown to Harpers Ferry and back
24.3 miles round trip
We started this drive in Shepherdstown and headed east. I loved this trail for its tall trees and natural beauty. Several sections of trees were covered with vines, creating a fairytale backdrop.
At Harpers Ferry, the turning point, Dean stayed with the bikes (thanks, Dean) and I climbed the spiral staircase and crossed the long footbridge at Harpers Ferry to snap some photos. When I got back we hopped back on our bikes and headed back to Shepherdstown.
Pro tip: One of the joys of visiting in September is that insect repellent is not required. I read online that summer guests don’t have that luxury.
3. Fruit to the fort
Maryland: Hancock to Fort Frederick State Park and back
19.2 miles round trip
This drive begins in the charming town of Hancock, Maryland, formerly known as the ‘fruit basket of the nation’ for its many orchards. I was hoping to see fruit trees and roadside fruit stands in Hancock but we didn’t see any (I think former really means former – or we just missed them).
On this stretch of route, the Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) runs parallel to the C&O Canal Towpath, and since we were cycling two trips that day, we opted for the paved WMRT over the more rugged C&O. Our destination was the restored fort at Fort Frederick State Park, originally built during the French and Indian Wars.
About 2 miles before the fort a sign warned us of a steep incline and told us to turn onto the C&O Canal Towpath so we rode the C&O for the last 2 miles. At the fort we saw barracks and other buildings and got into conversation with other cyclists. The people we met on the trail were beyond friendly!
Pro tip: The barracks are free to visit and open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Our visit in September meant we couldn’t get inside.
Bonus: Hike through the Paw Paw Tunnel
The 3,118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel, the longest man-made structure on the canal, is a must-see. Located near Paw Paw, West Virginia, it was completed in 1850 and was an engineering marvel for its time. When we visited, one end of the tunnel was closed for construction, but we were able to hike to and through the tunnel. It was spectacular.
Pro tip: Be sure to bring a flashlight for this tunnel. In general, check the C&O Trail closures and current conditions and read the safety tips.
A long stretch of calm and peace
Judge William O. Douglas believed the following: “The stretch of 185 miles of land from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, MD is one of the most fascinating and picturesque in the nation…it is a sanctuary, a place of retreat, a long stretch of stillness.” and of peace…a wilderness area where we can commune with God and nature, a place unmarred by the rumble of wheels and the sound of horns.”
Indeed one of the most fascinating and picturesque. We loved our time cycling the C&O Canal Towpath. It’s a remarkable 184.5 mile trail steeped in history but also rich in natural beauty. If you don’t know the history, you’ll still love it for what it is…a sprawling trail along the Potomac that stretches for miles and is worth every pedal. If you go, I hope that you will also find refuge and refuge there.
Pro tip: Seasonally, the National Park Service operates a replica mule-drawn canal boat in Great Falls, Maryland.