About this Itinerary
The Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) is one of the region’s more scenic trails and with the bonus that you can make a roundtrip of your explorations by incorporating the equally pleasing C&O Canal. The friendly town of Hancock, at the trail’s midway point, is the perfect launching pad, located in the narrow strip of Maryland’s western arm and only a stone’s throw from Pennsylvania to the north and West Virginia to the south. You’ll find the locals welcoming and eager to share a bit of regional history.
Fly into Thurgood Marshall Airport in Baltimore and take I-70 100 miles west to Hancock. (Dulles Airport in Virginia is only slightly closer but requires navigating more roads to reach Hancock.) Check into the Riverrun Bed & Breakfast, housed in a historical building once owned by a family of early settlers, the Taneys, and used as a storage facility during the C&O Canal’s shipping heyday. The building has been beautifully rehabilitated with simple yet tasteful décor. A top floor lounge and library offer lovely views of the C&O Canal right below. This section of the canal is one of the few places still “watered,” which means it’s maintained and full of water to allow for some paddling.
You can rent bikes from C&O Bicycles and you can also arrange a shuttle if you don’t want to ride out and back. If you want to stay in town on the cheap, they also have a communal bunkhouse, which is really just a shelter with bunk beds, open to the elements on one side. Your stay includes hot showers and BBQ grills for your DIY meals. The owners of both Riverrun and C&O Bicycles are full of information about area trails, restaurants and attractions.
The best way to experience the 22.5-mile paved rail trail is during two days of riding. The pace allows for stops along both the WMRT and the C&O to discover the area’s history. Civil War buffs will especially delight in what’s on offer here. If that’s you, we recommend a “Pocket Guide to the Civil War on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal” and the book “Trembling in the Balance: The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal During the Civil War,” for notes on what skirmishes took place where. Both available at the C&O Canal visitor center just east of Hancock.
Day 1: Hancock to Fort Frederick; 10.5 miles on the WMRT outbound and 11.6 miles on the C&O inbound
After your continental breakfast at the Riverrun, hop on the trail right next to the B&B and head east on the WMRT. The route is mostly wooded corridor and quite closely parallels Interstate 70, which can be noisy in places. A return journey along the C&O Canal towpath offers a break from the din.
Not far past downtown Hancock, the Blue Goose Fruit Market & Bakery is on the bench above you to the left. Here you can buy home baked goods, drinks, local produce, gourmet foods, locally made fruit pies, old-fashioned candy and gifts. The market recently replaced Hepburn’s Orchard Market (a Hancock institution for many decades on the same site) and is a nod to the area’s renown as a fruit tree orchard. In the 1920s, Hancock grew all sorts—apples, peaches, pears, plums—shipping the fruit across the country as well as overseas.
The WMRT follows part of the route of the Western Maryland Railway, an important transport corridor among Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The Cumberland Extension of the railway arrived in Hancock in December 1904 and was both a passenger and freight line. Sadly, the old Hancock Railway Station burned down in 1983; the site is now a parking lot for trail users. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources purchased what is now the trail section of abandoned line and maintains the trail today.
Another mile or so past the Blue Goose, you’ll encounter Little Pool on your right, a section of ancient river channel cut off from the Potomac and now great habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife that thrives on the water’s edge.
Around Licking Creek, stop by the little graveyard at Park Head Level to explore some headstones dating to the early 1800s in a tiny burial ground among the tall grass. Near here on the other side of I-70 is the Park Head Church, built in 1833 along what was once the National Road (now US 40), which also contains some old burials. The National Road officially ran from Cumberland west to Vandalia, Illinois, and was the first major improved highway in the country.
Beyond the graveyard, continue through the countryside past a few farmsteads and through a tunnel under an access road. You’ll parallel the still-active railroad tracks (on your right) for a short distance before coming to trail’s end at a parking lot at Big Pool. Like Little Pool, its “Big” counterpart is an ancient section of the Potomac River that was cutoff from the main river. It, too, provides excellent wildlife habitat and you’ll likely see a few anglers enjoying their sport from a boat. You can get a better view of Big Pool on your return journey along the C&O Canal.
From the end of the WMRT at the parking lot off Big Pool Road, take Big Pool Road (MD 56) east (right as you head out of the parking area) to Fort Frederick State Park, only a mile. Plan to spend at least a couple of hours at this well preserved fort, which has excellent interpretation. Check for opening hours before your arrival because they change seasonally. There is a modest admission fee.
The 20-sided wall of Fort Frederick was built in the 1750s during the French and Indian War to protect Maryland’s western frontier from attack. Inside the fort today are two reconstructed barracks with reproductions of period artifacts and a museum depicting area history. You’ll also find a visitor center (with snacks and drinks), campground, and nature trails. Living history programs are available throughout the summer. During the Civil War, Union troops were stationed here to protect the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad.
When you’re done exploring, return to Hancock along the C&O Canal towpath, which you can access at the end of Fort Frederick Road (no need to return via MD 56). Use caution crossing the railroad tracks and follow the signs to the towpath.
During the Civil War, the C&O Canal and old B&O Railroad formed a battle line between North and South. The Potomac River and the canal were frequently crossed by troops from both sides on the way to and from various campaigns. Troops traded volleys across the water, and smaller battles erupted here and there along its banks. Confederate troops confiscated boats, destroyed locks, and raided supply stores. As you ride along the towpath, imagine what it must have been like during that time, with the sound of shots and cannon fire echoing off the bluffs.
When you reach Big Pool, stop to look for waterfowl and other wildlife. During the building of the canal, the C&O Canal Company filled Big Pool with water and used it for a turning basin, where—as the name implies—“canawlers” turned their boats around.
At mile 116.1 you’ll reach Licking Creek aqueduct, built between 1839 and 1840. This is one of many aqueducts along the towpath, which were filled with water to allow boats to cross the larger creeks that emptied into the Potomac.
Two miles farther west at Millstone, Union troops were stationed here to protect the canal. In another 1.5 miles or so you’ll come to Little Pool again, on your right then another couple of miles toward Hancock, you reach the beautiful Bowles House. Originally a one-story home built around 1780 by William Yates, the house is now a visitor center for the C&O Canal. The Yates family lived in the house when the canal was being built through here in 1839. At least two other families owned the house, and it was occupied until the 1980s. Though the house has seen better days, it remains one of the C&O’s treasures. Two rooms on the ground floor showcase early photographs and the history of both the house and canal. Opening hours are limited, so plan your visit accordingly.
Also in this short stretch of trail you find the Tonoloway aqueduct, built between 1835 and 1839, and the remains of Locks 51 and 52. The foundations of an old lockhouse are visible near Lock 51. From here it’s just a mile or so back to Hancock, where you can have a hearty meal at Weavers Restaurant & Bakery.
Day 2: Hancock to Pearre; 12 miles on the WMRT outbound and 13 miles on the C&O inbound
The western leg of the WMRT from Hancock is a much quieter stretch than the eastern leg, and the scenery is more dramatic, too. You’ll enjoy views of the bluffs high above the Potomac River. You may come across a snake or turtle warming itself on the paved trail. You’ll also likely see deer and maybe even a band of wild turkeys. Black bears occasionally appear, so do take care if you see one. They’d prefer to get out of your way than cause trouble; but if startled, they could pose a threat. You’ll be fine if you keep your distance and make some noise to frighten them off.
From your B&B head west on the trail through a short section of homes in the woods. Beyond the houses, at the end of Berm Road, you’ll pass a lovely stately home on your right, where the trees give way to a stretch of more open space. This is where the fruit orchards were in the early 20th century. As you continue along the paved trail, you’ll find yourself high above the Potomac River but also hugging a high cliff on your right. This section forms part of Round Top State Natural Heritage Area, which contains some rare plants that thrive in this geologically unique part of the state. Below is the ruins of the old Round Top Cement Mill, which you can see on your return trip along the C&O Canal.
The WMRT veers away from the Potomac for a short while before nearing the river again by Seavolt Road. You’ll pass a house here and there as well as a cultivated field or two. About 1.5 miles after the trail rounds the elbow bend of the river, you arrive at the Lock 54-55 area, which is part of the C&O Canal. You can either cut down to the C&O from here and return to Hancock, or carry on another 2.5 miles to the end of the WMRT at Pearre (PARE-ree). At the very end of the WMRT, past the trail parking lot, you can turn left down the path to pick up the C&O Canal towpath near the ruins of Lock 56 and the old house for your return journey to Hancock.
On the C&O, it’s about 2 miles from Lock 56 to Lock 54-55. Stop to explore the locks, which demonstrate the outstanding stonemasonry still standing more than 175 years later. Also in this area you’ll find the ruins of Dam 6; remnants of the earthen dam jut into the river here. Wooden cribbing once held it together, and Confederates attacked both the dam and locks to sabotage Union supply lines along the canal. Across the river Great Cacapon, West Virginia, was also fired on by Confederate troops stationed on Cacapon Mountain. A half-mile farther east on the trail, you can stop at Cacapon Junction campground and view the lovely stone-arch bridge across the river. It was first built for the B&O Railroad, and still carries rail traffic today. Stonewall Jackson’s troops burned the original bridge during their attack on Hancock in 1862.
Continue along the densely forested towpath to mile 127.5, where you encounter the ruins of Round Top Cement Works, striking against the cliff face. You’ll find the remains of eight kilns once used to burn lime to ash. Mill foundations and the smoke stack still stand. During the Civil War, the plant was Hancock’s largest employer, providing jobs for 100 people. The mill suffered from numerous fires until a final blaze in 1903 shuttered the doors for good. The discovery of Portland cement, stronger and slower setting, hastened the plant’s demise.
Just beyond the cement works, heading east on the C&O towpath, look for the Devils Eyebrow, a unique geological formation in an exposed rock strata, which was thrust upward millions of years ago to form an anticline. The soft calcium soils below the anticline have eroded, forming a shallow cave. From the cave, here it’s about three miles back to Hancock.
If you have more time to explore, the area is rich in history to learn about. Europeans began arriving in the Hancock area as early as the 1730s, and George Washington, whose family owned property in nearby Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, was a frequent visitor. Between the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal arriving a century later, followed by a toll pike on the National Road, followed by the railroads, Hancock boomed between the early 19th and early 20th centuries. Take time to explore the area’s history on a self-guided walking tour of town, available online from the Canal Towns Partnership. In addition, the Hancock Visitor’s Center and Museum (42 W. Main Street) can guide you. The Hancock Historical Society also features a small museum and a wealth of area information.
Near the western end of the WMRT is the historical Woodmont Lodge. The property once served as a private premier rod and gun club but is now operated by Fort Frederick State Park and Maryland’s Wildlife & Heritage Service. The property has hiking trails open to the public from April 1 to September 30; the 1930s stone lodge is open for tours for a fee (call the lodge manager for more information: 301-678-7924). In September of every year, there is an open house, so the lodge is free to tour that day. For more information, contact Fort Frederick State Park at 301-842-2155.
You may also want to explore Berkeley Springs, just six miles south on US 522. If Hancock is your grandmother, Berkeley Springs is your wacky auntie. You’ll find more, and different, shops, as well as art galleries and—as the names suggests—hot springs that you can soak in. Berkeley Springs State Park, right in the center of town, is an old inn and spa dating to the 1930s and includes soaking packages, massages and showering in the special mineral waters said to have healing properties. If nothing else, the pleasant grounds offer a nice place to relax after a long bike ride.
Meal options in Berkeley Springs are plentiful. Tari’s menu includes as much fresh locally grown produce and meat as possible and includes unique sandwiches and salads for lunch and dinner includes seafood, steaks, local lamb and pasta. Lot 12 Public House is in a beautifully restored home where you can dine out on the wrap-around porch in warm weather. They serve seasonal food, fine wines, microbrews, and spirits (dinner only), including roast duck, pork tenderloin, salads, steaks, and seafood. For meal that’s lighter on your wallet but perhaps a little heavier on the gut, check out Earth Dog Café, which serves a mean BBQ, corned beef hash, brisket, and ribs.
And, if you come in September, enjoy Canal Apple Days, a festival hosted by the Lions Club and including arts and crafts, food vendors, a parade and a Tournament of Bands.