The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park (a.k.a. C&O Canal Towpath) follows the route of the Potomac River for 184.5 miles between Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Maryland. Hundreds of original features, including locks, lock houses, aqueducts and other canal structures, are reminders of the canal's role as a transportation system during the Canal Era, which peaked in the mid-19th century.
The C&O Canal Towpath was one such engineering feat that, unfortunately for investors, was largely outdone by the competing railroad that parallels the towpath in many places. Today, however, recreationists of all types can enjoy this mostly level, continuous trail through the spectacular scenery of the Potomac River valley. Every year millions of visitors hike or bike the C&O; the peak season is from May through October. Weekends from spring through fall are busy, especially around Washington, D.C. and Great Falls National Park in Maryland.
The trail provides campgrounds (both private and public), picnic areas, porta-potties and lookout points along the way. In addition, you'll find many amenities, such as cafes and restaurants, B&Bs and motels, bike shops, museums and retail shops, as well as sites of historical importance. A handful of visitor centers operated by the National Park Service sell guidebooks and provide information about the canal towpath, its history and local points of interest. You can even stay the night in one a handful of restored lock houses (visit the National Park Service website for more information).
Of particular importance is the role the canal itself played during the American Civil War, which was as a dividing line between North and South. Troops and both sides of the conflict lobbied ammunitions across the water and crossed the river and canal numerous times, raiding enemy camps, sabotaging canal operations and marching toand retreating frombattles, including the Gettysburg Campaign. Though many aren't marked, several sites along the canal were the scene of events both tragic and heroic. The Park Service visitor centers sell books that relate these sites and the events that took place there. You can also pick up a small booklet that summarizes these sites by towpath mile marker.
Most of the trail is heavily wooded, and river views are best during early spring, late fall and winter, when trees are leafless. Also, because the path requires regular maintenance, some sections may be closed for repairs. Visit the National Park Service website for current information on trail detours.
Parking and Trail Access
Various sections of the towpath can be reached via along Interstates 495, 70, and 68. Call Park Headquarters for more information. There is a fee at the Great Falls National Park entrance to the C&O.