Fort Frederick to Little Orleans via WMD Rail/ C&O Canal. 54 miles Trail Loop
A wonderful loop ride can be found in Washington County, Maryland on the mixed-use Western Maryland Rail Trail and the C&O Canal National Historic Park. The Rail trail section of the ride has several road crossings while the C&O Canal towpath section has two. While there are several starting spots, critical ride planning components for me are good lunch options, scenic beauty, and little crowds. This ride has all of that.
While there are several access spots on this ride, I recommend that consideration be given to start in the small town of Hancock, MD just off Interstate 70. Access and parking is easy with city lots at Church Street (South of Main Street) and at Canal and Williams. There is also the C&O Canal Day Use Recreation area located on Berm Road that has plenty of shade, Port-a-Johns, and picnic tables.
I recommend you start your ride on the WMD Rail Trail heading East. The trail is paved and even on most weekends it will not be too crowded. This section of the rail trail east of Hancock is a straight paved path that offers nice views of the Canal and the Potomac (when the leaves are off the trees), but some (like me) might find the Interstate traffic noise which runs at times close by the trail a little distracting. Ride about 9.5 miles east from Hancock on the trail until you come to a crossing at Ernst Road. At this point you want to leave the rail trail and go right On Ernst Road 75 yards to the C&O Canal and turn left 2.3 miles to Fort Frederick. Proceed past Big Pool to next crossing to Fort Frederick State Park .
Another option which I avoid because I hate riding on the roads, would be instead of turning right on Ernst Road, stay on the WMD rail trail another mile until its' East end, and then proceed east on MD RT 56, ¾ mile to Fort Frederick State Park, Unfortunately Route 56 does not have a bike lane and no side berm so you are riding directly on the highway. The 585 acre Park has all of the amenities one would expect at a Maryland State Park and features a wonderfully restored French and Indian War fort that is well worth seeing.
Tip: For folks who are doing overnight trips east or West on the C&O Canal, Fort Frederick is an excellent place to leave your vehicle. Check with the ranger upon entering and explain your intentions. I have done this several times and they have always been very accommodating!
After your visit at Fort Frederick, access the C&O Canal National Historic Park Towpath west for the ride back to Hancock. The towpath, while rough in the sections that have received new gravel overlay, will be slower than the WMD Rail trail, but the scenery is considerably better, and you are more insulated from the Interstate traffic. And as a bonus, most folks ride on the arrow straight rail trail, so you should have the towpath mostly to yourself.
One must-see that some folks miss is the C&O Canal NHP Hancock Visitors Center accessible by both the rail trail and the canal towpath at milepost 123. The center features a beautifully restored brick farmhouse located adjacent to a canal lock and the Tonoloway aqueduct. The farmhouse was constructed in 1785 and is open to visitors on Friday, Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day to end of September. After crossing Tonoloway Aqueduct (C&O aqueducts were wonderfully engineered marvels build by hand out of stone that carried the navigable water of the canal over creeks and rivers that were too large to pass over as culverts), the towpath becomes smooth mostly single-track for a short while.
On our recent ride in Hancock , Cheryl found that she needed bike repairs beyond my limited capabilities. C&O Bicycle bike was able to get her up and running quickly with little delay to our ride. The owner Jimmy Barnhart is a friendly gentleman who also own a lawn and garden store as well as the hostel next door to the bike shop. The mechanic Jonathan Barker, is a 13-year veteran bike mechanic and knows his stuff!
If you started your ride around 9-ish and spent a little time at Fort Frederick, you should find yourself back in Hancock around lunch time (good call Steve). Hancock is a favorite dining stop for inexpensive food for travelers on the Interstate, so you should have no problem finding some simple fare to meet your needs. Buddy Lou’s is worth a stop (good sandwiches and ice cream) as is Weavers Restaurant On Main Street (Country style cooking and excellent pastries). Once you have (over) indulged in lunch, get back on WMD Rail Trail and proceed west. This section of the paved trail at this point will be even less crowded then the East of Hancock section and is considerably more scenic with beautiful views of the Hills and Potomac River Valley. Of casual interest is the old Fleetwood Travel Trailer factory now converted to Harvest of Maryland LLC’s marijuana production facility ½ mile from the town on the right side traveling west on the Trail.
Tip: On past bike trips, we have stayed at the Riverhouse B&B located right on the C&O Canal and WMD Rail Trail in Hancock. Very bike friendly, with clean modern rooms, friendly owner, and even a sun porch that overlooks the canal and Potomac River. The Inn is located within walking distance of everything in Hancock!
You will ride through acres of abandoned apple orchards (once a thriving industry for the area) and past the Woodmont Outdoor club property. The club built in 1870’s was once a prominent sportsman’s paradise and has seen visitors including presidents James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt.
Your 11.5 mile ride from town on the rail trail will end with intersection at the C&O Canal. Turn right (west) on the C&O proceeding ¼ mile to crossing the Sideling Hill Aqueduct than another 4 ¼ miles to Fifteen Mile Creek and Little Orleans. At the campground, turn right at access road (short tunnel) to Bill’s General Store…a type of place you may have only read about. Stop by for a cold beer, or two (for hydration purposes of course) and /or a bite to eat. The clientele at “Bills” is often eclectic but always friendly.
Head back east on the Canal passing several old canal locks and hiker/bikers (Port-a-Johns and well water) and past the Round Top Cement Mill. The Mill, built in 1837 provided hydraulic cement for the Canal as well as the Washington Monument, the Cabin John Bridge, and the U.S. Capitol.
The combination of a great little bike friendly small town, a paved rail trail, and the scenic C&O Canal National Historic Park makes this loop ride a great day trip!