The C&O Canal

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The C&O Canal National Historic Park features a wonderful vehicle free mostly flat “mixed use” trail through forests and fields adjacent to the Potomac River. 

The “towpath” as the trail is called (it originally was the path that mules took towing canal boats) begins in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC and runs for 184.5 miles to the terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage at Cumberland, MD.   

C&O Towns By Mile

The C&O Canal National Historic Park features a wonderful vehicle free mostly flat “mixed use” trail through forests and fields adjacent to the Potomac River. 

The “towpath” as the trail is called (it originally was the path that mules took towing canal boats) begins in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC and runs for 184.5 miles to the terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage at Cumberland, MD. 

The C&O Canal is an engineering marvel whose original idea of a waterway west “up” the Potomac River Valley and Mountains was conceived by George Washington.  Construction began in 1828 and the Canal operated for nearly 100 years until competition from railroads and destructive flooding forced closure. 

In the 1950’s the “towpath” was destined to become a vehicle parkway until Supreme Court justice William O Douglas and other like-minded individuals began efforts to preserve the old canal as a greenway or park.  In 1971 Justice Douglas’ vision became reality and the it became a national park. 

Today the C&O Canal National Historic park contains over 20,000 acres of historical, natural and recreational treasures.    The  National Park receives over 5 million visitors annually and is a favorite of bikers, hikers, paddlers, fishermen, and nature lovers!  With over 100 rare and threatened species of plants and animals and over 1,000 historic structures, it is an area deserving of respect and preservation.  

 

For the biker, the C&O Canal National Historic park is simply amazing and offers varied experiences.    The surface is a mix of crushed limestone and clay that is relatively smooth when dry but can be a little challenging (and who doesn’t love a challenge?) when wet.  Unlike many rail tails, there is ample tree canopy (which is very much appreciated in the summer), and consequently some roots in the trail to be mindful of.  Vehicle traffic is forbidden except for a few hundred years of shared area, and road crossing are few and very infrequent.   Once riders leave DC and ride into Maryland they are quickly transported to the natural beauty they seek.  Outside of the handful of towns adjacent to the towpath, it is mostly a wilderness type experience with hours often passing before you will see other people.    Riders can expect to see historic structures (and in fact can stay at restored lock houses), including canal locks, the Paw Paw tunnel (.6 of a mile tunnel dug by hand and the limited tools available before the Civil War) and eleven aqueducts (bridges that carried the canal’s water and towpath over creeks and rivers that were too large to bypass with culverts).   

 About every five miles are hiker-bikers; primitive campsite that feature a portable toilet, hand pump well, picnic table, campfire ring and first-come campsites.  Visitors can expect to see a plethora of wildlife.  In addition to the animals normally seen in the Mid-Atlantic area, I have seen bears, fisher, coyote, turkey and bald eagles along with many different types of waterfowl.  The Canal, where watered holds many fish as does the Potomac River, and I often will tote a rod with me and take advantage of the opportunity. 

Access points vary and are usually well marked.  Even though the canal is surrounded by so many people, even in the DC region, it is an island of green and solitude.   

How to use the map: The map below contains points of interest for this section of the trail! Click the upper left hand button to see a menu with a list of all points. Items on this map are grouped by Category or trail, and can be toggled on or off through this menu to get a better picture of  a specific category of options. All items contain their description from the table below, as well as google-maps information as available. Click on the upper right hand button to view the map in greater detail.

 
 

How to use the table: The table below contains points of interest for this section of the trail! Click on the heading of each section in order to get a sorted list of items (i.e. see all items by Mile on the trail, or all places with Food.) The upper right contains a search bar -- use this to find all items with a specific word (i.e. all 'locks' or all 'attraction'). All items below also exist on the map above, grouped and labeled by type for clarity and convenience. 

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Western Maryland Scenic Railroad

Western Md Scenic Railroad at Western Maryland Station, Cumberland MD. Photo By Tyler Clayton