The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical 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; 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, portable toilets and lookout points along the way. You’ll also find amenities including cafes and restaurants, B&Bs and motels, bike shops, museums and retail shops, as well as enumerable historical sites. A handful of visitor centers operated by the National Park Service sell guidebooks and provide information about the 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 as a dividing line between North and South. Troops on both sides of the conflict lobbed ammunitions across the water, crossing the river and canal numerous times to raid enemy camps, sabotage canal operations and march to and from battles, including the Gettysburg Campaign. Though many aren't marked, several sites along the canal were the scene of events both tragic and heroic. (Again, the National Park Service visitor centers sell books that relate these sites and events.)
Most of the trail is heavily wooded, and river views are best during early spring, late fall and winter, when trees are leafless. Not to be missed, is the Paw Paw tunnel at mile post 155.2 at the northern end of the trail. 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.
From Cumberland, the trail connects to the Great Allegheny Passage where you can extend your ride all the way to Pittsburgh. The towpath also has multiple connections to the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a paved 22-mile route paralleling the Potomac River.
Various sections of the towpath can be reached via Interstates 495, 70 and 68.
To access the trail in Cumberland, visit the Cumberland Visitor Center at the Western Maryland Railway station. From the east, take exit 43C off I-68. At the bottom of the ramp, make a left onto Harrison St. and follow Harrison to the Visitor Center in the Western Maryland Railway Museum.
To access the trail in Great Falls National Park from Maryland, take exit 41 (Carderock/Great Falls, MD) and follow Clara Barton Parkway to the end. At the stop sign, turn left onto MacArthur Blvd. Follow MacArthur approximately 3.5 miles into the park. There is a fee at the Great Falls National Park entrance to the C&O.