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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. For its first few miles, the pathway also parallels the paved Capital Crescent Trail, which forms an arc around D.C.'s western and northern boundaries.
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, 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 Trail; 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.
As of February 2017, the Paw Paw Tunnel, located about 150 miles upstream from the District of Columbia, is closed for maintenance work.
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.
I’ve ridden the entire C&O Canal Trail three times and shorter sections several other times. It is a great trail for its natural beauty as well as historic significance, with one big caveat. You need to pay close attention to the weather and trail conditions because it can become an awful mess after heavy or extended rains and flooding. The first two times we rode the entire C&O (as well as the GAP), we had dry weather and the trail was very rideable except for occasional mud puddles. However, the third time in June 2018 followed several weeks of heavy rains and flooding, and the trail was impassable in many spots. We had to hire shuttles to carry us around two sections, and we were bogged down by thick mud and downed trees in some of the sections we rode. I will follow trail and weather reports more closely if I ride the C&O again.
I started at lock 6 and rode up to Great Falls Tavern. It was a great day. I saw a deer, a few herons, and the water was high on the Potomac. Trail was under construction in two places along the trail during my ride including at Great Falls. Still it is an enjoyable ride with lots of share on hot days.
A friend and I just recently finished this trail. It was an amazing ride with plenty to see along the route. The trail was very well maintained with the grass having been recently mowed and some sections of the trail having been repaved.
We completed this trail in 4 days going from Cumberland to DC; I was quite surprised at how empty the trail was, so if you want a nice peaceful ride and learn some historic facts about the area this is a great trail for you. There are plenty of free camping spots along the route as well as port-a-potties (not the best well kept many had wasp nests inside). Also their are water pumps along the route to stop and refill so you do not need to carry too much water.
We stopped at Harpers Ferry and were told by at least 3 park rangers that all you have to do is put your bikes on the bus at the Visitors Center ...cross the bridge and get on the trail. None of those people told us that when you cross the bridge there is a spiral staircase and about 40 metal stairs you have to carry your bike down to get on the trail. It was not fun and very dangerous. Luckily a few nice strong young men carried our bikes. The trail at the bottom of the stairs was nice, but very muddy. All I could think of was how are we gonna get our bikes back up the stairs. When I mentioned this to the business owners in Harpers Ferry, they all said yes, you need to complain to the park service. No where on any of the trail information is this problem listed.
This is an absolutely beautiful trail with lots of nature and serene sideways along its path.
I went on a 11 mile run through swains lock and it was so fun, you would occasionally see other runners but not too much. I also enjoyed the scenery around me. It is mostly dried dirt but has some mud. Really great if you are going with family members.
It is a shame to bike 185 miles and not find Mile Zero and the River Lock in Georgetown. When biking the towpath when I meet thru bikers I offer the following advice. At Fletchers Boat House mile 3 switch from Towpath to Capital Crescent Trail. (Old RR) This takes you into Georgetown on K street under the overhead highway. Go to the end just before Rock Creek and go around the last building on your right (Georgetown Univ. boat house) and walk around to your left down stream and there is the river lock and ground zero. Youker
History, engineering, and (often) mud.
Great fall colors in October, amazing canal engineering, and civil war hisory thrown in for good measure. Tow path drains poorly, so be ready for mud if it has rained recently. Lots of hiker biker campsites every 10 miles or so, but be aware some are near the busy mainline railroad tracks.
I was concerned about using a two-wheeled trailer on the sometimes double track path, but no serious problems.
Easy to connect to GAP in Cumberland, MD and ride on to Pittsburgh.
I loved this trail. I was surprised that there were so many people riding it--especially from DC to Pittsburgh or vice versa. The scenery is terrific. My only complaint--the riding surface is very uneven, and between Cumberland and Hancock--very muddy with many puddles even 4-5 days after rain had fallen. It's not easy, but it's worth it in the end. But compared to the best parts of the GAP trail, the surface leaves a lot to be desired. Glad I did it however.
Cumberland MD to D.C. It rained but enjoyed it. Will do it again.
I rented a brand new Cannondale mountain bike with front suspensions and disc brakes from Cumberland Trail Connection and set off towards Washington DC. The bucolic views of the farms, and lock houses was thrilling. But after a few hours, all I could think about was the next rest stop - a latrine with water pump. Not used to the weight and the drag of a mountain bike, especially with on a muddy trail, I finally succumbed after 24 miles and headed back. Luckily at Old Town (mile 167) there was an outdoor festival with barbeque and music where I wolfed down lunch in a flash. I admire people who can make all 185 miles to Washington.
My friend and I rode the GAP trail last year. So we decided to do the C&O trail over the Memorial Day weekend. We both agree that the C&O is overall more scenic than the GAP.
The most important decision to make is what type of bike to ride. The trail was mostly dry but there were many muddy spots. I rode a hybrid with 33mm knobby tires. I was able to ride with minimal fishtailing. My friend rode her road bike with 28mm knobby tires. As she is a seasoned and intrepid cyclist, it was fine. However, she fishtailed more than I did. I would definitely recommend wider knobby tires for cyclists who are less experienced. We were not overloaded with panniers and racks on our bikes. If you ride with a lot of equipment, wider tires are highly recommended.
Cumberland to Williamsport (first day)- The highlights are the Paw Paw Tunnel (have a light as the tunnel is very dark with an undulating surface) and the area around Dam 5. If you need food along the way, there's a town called Little Orleans with Bill's Bar where they have a very limited pub grub menu. It's located out of the Fifteenmile Creek campground. We stayed overnight at the Red Roof Inn, which is about a mile uphill (ugh) from the Williamsport Visitors Center. It's the only place near there. I suggest you book ahead of time. If you have AAA, make sure you carry your membership card in your pack. They won't honor it if you don't have your card.
Williamsport to Point of Rocks (second day)- This is the most picturesque part of the trail. Particularly beautiful are the miles right along the Potomac on the boardwalk and the area around Dam 4. We stayed overnight at the rustic Lockhouse 28. This lockhouse is rustic, in that it has no electricity or water. It was an experience. The major downside of it is its proximity to the railroad tracks. There were trains screeching throughout the night (think Freddy Krueger's claws). It was an experience and I'm happy to have done it.
Point of Rocks to D.C. (last day)- The very small town of Point of Rocks has a deli (not open on Sunday morning) and a gas station store a short distance from the trail. They can be accessed from the Point of Rocks parking lot. It also has one of the most photographed train stations in the country. This is the most wild or ungroomed part of the trail. The highlight of this area is Great Falls. However, it's the most crowded. There's a very short trail after you pass the Visitors Center that allows you to see the Falls from the bridge. There are also some lovely spots along the canal in this area. We were not able to find the exact end of the trail in D.C. The signage near the end wasn't good. However, we ended up not far from our hotel, the Georgetown Marriot. We had no problems with bringing our bikes to our room. The beds were comfortable and the service great - a nice reward at the end of an amazing journey.
Rode the trail from DC to Cumberland the last week of May 2016. After all the great reviews I was really disappointed in the condition of the trail. Entire sections covered in mud and puddles with no options to get around made it slow going for most of the trail. Large roots and tall grass down the middle of some sections. LONG sections with over 30 miles of same tree lined scenery. Think of old video games with the scene loop. Honestly, I counted less than 5 wow spots the entire trial. Most folks we encountered said the GAP trial was better in both repair and scenery .This trail would serve a purpose for local folks on a day ride, but I would not recommend it for those looking for a longer trip.
I rode this trail in May 2016 (combined it with the GAP - riding from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington, DC). It was apparently one of the rainiest May's the area had seen in a long time.
I rented a great crossover bike and was bike-packing (stayed in B&B's but carried my own luggage). The bike was great and I wouldn't ride anything with narrower tires - although I did see a few people doing that - and those same people were having flats. As I had pre-booked all my lodgings, I had no choice to ride, and 3 of the 5 days on the trail, it was raining. From milepost 55 to milepost 21, it is absolutely miserable if it's raining, or after it's raining. The mud holes were enormous and there was no way around them. Due to the weather, there were also very few other riders on the trail, which made it a bit stressful as I was riding solo, and thus was extra careful to make sure I kept the bike in tip-top shape and made no foolish or distracted moves.
I took 5 days to ride: Day 1 was Cumberland to Little Orleans; Day 2 was Little Orleans to Williamsport; Day 3 was Williamsport to Shepherdstown; Day 4 was Shepherdstown to Leesburg; Day 5 was Leesburg to DC. Because it was raining so much and the trail was a mess, these days were long enough. I would not recommend trying to go any further in inclement weather. On the sunny days, I could cruise about 12mph, but in the rain and mud, I was down to 5-6mph.
It's a beautiful ride with tons of history. However, there's also long gaps of nothing but trees, the Potomac and stagnant canal water. In good weather, this would not be an issue, but when its cold and rainy, one gets really anxious to see towns, people and a place to warm up and dry off!
I would like to ride parts of the trail again, but I think I'd base at a central point and do day trips, allowing for flexibility if the weather's rotten. Too much of the trail is decidedly unpleasant if it's muddy.
overall very nice ride. somewhat flat. be prepared to get muddy if you do trail after a heavy rain. a lot of puddles to get around. interesting Cemetery along the way to the lock. nice piece of history.
I started in Cumberland staying at the Decatur house and made friends quickly with Gail the owner.
The trail was easy since mostly flat and thankfully a bit down hill after Williamsport. Being 53 and someone who has been behind a desk for the last 30 years it was a comfortable trip for me.
Hancock has the wonderful 1828 B&B with bike storage and Bill bakes great cookies. Darlene loving packs lunches for the trail reminiscent of school lunches my mom made. Don't miss eating at Buddy Lou's in Hancock.
Williamsport is picturesque. You must eat at Desert Rose café, named that because the owner is named Desert Rose. Healthy food and trail supplies. First restaurant I have ever seen that sells bike tubes. Elmwood is a B&B just out of town that is wonderful and there is a Red Roof Inn there as well. I loved Elmwood. The farm is where Robert E. Lee camped waiting for the Potomac to go down after retreating from Gettysburg. The owner is a former Lady pro-golfer and my new hero.
The Bavarian Inn is sight for sore eyes in Shepherdstown. Food very German and not so great if you are mostly vegetarian like me. Take a thing suit as the pool is lovely.
This trip can be done at any age if you start north and go south. I loved watching the Potomac change character all along the way, seeing deer, turkeys and meeting other cyclist.
Different sections present a unique vibe, from the relative isolation north of reily"s lock to the expansive vistas of violets lock. Lots to see along the way!
Lots of shade, bird watching, kayakers and stand up paddle boards. 4m up, 4m back. Interesting lock system.
I did my last leg of round trips on this trail 29th of June after a day of rain and it was wet and muddy. It just blows my mind that the last canal boats used this back in 1926 and the tow path is still holistic. I hope to bike from Cumberland to Pittsburgh in the fall with my Wife as my driver. As bad as and muddy as it was there was still a lot of hikers and bikers on this trail. Oh I was on my 29in Mountain with a true Mt Bike tire and I did need the extra traction. The Pow Pow tunnel was the highlight of the trip and you do need a light as it dose get very dark in there.
An amazing trail
It takes some determination and preparation, but it's possible to do the entire 184.5 miles in a day. I did it on June 28th, 2014; here are some highlights and background bits.
Me: 52 years old, male, 5'8" 155 lbs.
Bike: Cannondale Quick 6 (a "sports hybrid" with no front or seat post shocks).
Pedals: no clips / toe clips, I would just end up falling. Used a stiff running sneaker on regular "egg beater" pedals.
Lights: One bike lamp plus another 4 cheap LEDs of various types
Clothes: expensive riding shorts with "assos" cream to reduce chafing/pressure points (highly recommended), nothing else of note
Day: perfect for this time of year: no rain, max daylight, low humidity, high in the low 80's.
Trail: Mostly gravel, sometimes a bit rocky. Not too much mud on this ride, thankfully, or I might have postponed. Going west-to-east, the trail descends about 650 feet in total, mainly by way of 75 locks that are generally each a little 8-foot drop. Otherwise it's flat, but the surface does not afford any real coasting.
Food: probably 3000 calories of cliff / odwalla bars, bagel w/ cream cheese, choc chip muffin, trail mix, etc. Did not stop to buy food along the way.
Drinks: Five bottles of gatorade, after that it was all iodine-treated well water with some flavor tablets. Bought one Coke near the end (had to have something cold!)
Also in my one pannier: tools, shorts and tee shirt from night before, three spare tubes, ipod, cell phone, sunglasses, lightweight jacket
Start time: 4:07 am from Cumberland, mile 184.5
End time: 8:53 pm at Georgetown waterfront, mile 0 (yes, you have to go past Thompson's boat house and over the little footbridge to find the marker - the ride doesn't count unless you go and touch it!)
Total duration of ride: 16 hours 45 minutes = 11 mph overall pace
Estimated resting time: 1 hour 30 minutes = 12 mph pace excluding rests
Support: this was an unsupported, solo ride
Lodging: stayed at the Fairfield Inn right at the head of the trail in Cumberland.
- Riding in the woods in the dark is a bit scary, and I had done it only once before. The rabbits do not really get out of the way, they zigzag in front of you to evade capture when all you want them to do is move aside
- Enough sunlight by 5:30 am to turn off the LEDs
- I crashed at 10:15 am on some roots and loose gravel, gouged my elbow to the bone, had to fashion a compression wrap from my sleepwear and ask some nice but frightened people to help me secure it. In a way I think the pain took my mind off other discomforts (butt and neck mostly) - although some advil would have been nice. Lost about 20 minutes between bike fixes and compression wrap.
- Stopped about every 90 minutes for a 5-minute break, to refill bottle or grab some food or pee.
- The trail is beautiful, very serene and with nice views of the Potomac River, some parts of the Canal with water, railroad, and a couple towns (although I did not venture off the trail, in order to save time). Occasional wildlife including turtles, herons, fox, vultures, rabbits, snakes, etc.
- Would sum up the riding as "try not to think about it, just keep pedaling"
- Harpers Ferry was the only place I talked to anyone. "How far you going?" "You don't want to know". One guy pratically wanted to interview me; I couldn't talk for long.
- With around 40 miles to go I think I slowed down and lost time, was in danger of not getting to the end by my goal of 9 pm. Really wanted to finish before it got dark.
- I live just a bit inland from mile 16.6 (Swain's Lock) so it was tempting to head home and call it "close enough"! Here I picked up the pace again (home stretch sort of thing)
- Once you get to Great Falls (mile 14.5) you hit a lot more "trail traffic", families with little kids dodging around, dogs, etc. Have to be careful and slow up a bit.
- After Fletcher's Boathouse, mile 3, I switched over to the paved section (Capital Crescent Trail) since it goes directly to K street and the waterfront. Staying on the towpath puts you up closer to M street, then you have to come down some stairs or a side street.
- Everyone at the Georgetown waterfront was dressed up and partying, so I was quite out of place in my grimey, sweaty condition. It's really not worth trying to tell anyone what you just accomplished! Wife was there to drive me home.
Actually, I didn't go home, my wife (a doctor) took me to the ER where I spent two hours getting the gravel washed, tweezed, and scraped (scalpel) out of my elbow. I wasn't dying, but there was no other way to get it cleaned up. The thing oozed for over two weeks, and no stitches because there weren't really edges that could be sewed together. Some of you probably have the same "purple elbow"; six months later I'm wondering if it's ever going to return to a more natural/less noticeable color.
Since I live very close to the trail, I used it every weekend for training, including more than 5 rides each in excess of 100 miles. The longest was a 145-miler, so clearly I'm a proponent of being prepared - especially after telling so many people that failure would have been evident and embarrassing.
A year before this ride, a friend and I did the GAP-to-C&O ride, a total of 335 miles spread out over 6 days. While I was training for that and asking the great staff at REI in Rockville for all the advice I could get, I was hearing the younger guys chirping about the "solstice ride" of the entire C&O in one day. Mainly they were thinking of doing it, asking if anyone had done it, etc. No one ever said they had done it or knew anyone who had. I've still not met anyone who's done it, but my orthopedist (also a biker and former runner) knew quite a few who had (all patients of his, I think!).
If you crave a challenge, are long on stamina, and are willing to "train up", I'd highly recommend giving this a try. It's probably better not to do it alone if you can find another crazy to go with you - even if just for parts (especially pre-dawn).
I rode the entire C&O Canal Trail from Cumberland, MD, to Georgetown, DC, with two friends in June 2014. (We actually started in Pittsburgh, PA, and rode the GAP Trail as well.) We were fortunate with the weather and only encountered rain late one afternoon, despite a very wet summer in the area. However, the C&O trail still had puddles and muddy spots in many areas, but the surface was generally decent for riding if you had wider tires with treads. Fortunately we also had fenders on our bikes.
Despite the nearly flat terrain, the C&O is a challenging ride due the rough and muddy surface in spots and the lack of facilities for long stretches. Essentially there is nowhere to get food or water (not counting the pumps along the trail) for a 40-mile stretch between Cumberland and Little Orleans, and a similarly long stretch from Brunswick to Great Falls.
Altho the scenery is not as nice along the C&O as the GAP, it makes up for that with attractions such as historic towns, forts, canal locks, lock houses and dams. There are some great towns to stop at along the way for lunches, breaks or overnight stays. Great Falls is highlight for scenery and very spectacular, with the entire stretch from there to Georgetown very appealing. Harpers Ferry is also a must see as well as Fort Frederick near Hancock.
We came down from Maine with intentions to ride from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. We had just finished the Great Allegheny Passage the day before and left Cumberland at 11:30 in the morning to set out for Hancock. Had I not had a mechanical issue on the Western Maryland Rail Trail 5 miles from Hancock, we would have completed the 62 miles by sunset. The towpath is just splendid. A month later I'm still daydreaming about the many lock houses, each having a unique identity. The best trail towns were Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry. After passing through the Paw Paw tunnel, we climbed the stone steps to a great perch above the entrance to enjoy a late lunch. When we got to Georgetown and the trail spilled out onto the Rock Creek Parkway, we ventured back to the Potomac and around a boat house only to turn around. I found out later that had we kept making our way around the boat house, we would have found the Mile 0 marker. Bummer! I'll make it a point to come back to reach that marker. If you're contemplating a ride on the Tow Path, do it!
On July 6th I road from the Western end of the Western Maryland Rail Trail to mile marker 165 about 60 miles round trip. This is my fifth ride on this very nice trail. The high light of this trip was the Pow Pow tunnel. One more trip and I will make it to Cumberland and the end. Evey time I do a ride on this trail it just blows my mind on just what a great engineering feat the canal was back when it was built. I ran into a group of Boy Scouts from Medina Ohio, there were about twenty of them and they where having a great time on there way to D.C. Being a Holiday weekend there was a lot of traffic seeing that this is the western end.
I have camped along this trail several times, the last being a 7 day trip from Pittsburgh to DC with a couple friends.
This is a great trail with many accommodations. There are campsites all along the trail only a few miles apart which are free to anyone hiking or biking the trail. Every one has a water pump and primitive rest room (AKA port-o-let). The trail isn't the most well maintained with many potholes and roots throughout but that is what adds to the fun. The northern portion of are some especially fun sites including the Paw-Paw Tunnel and Harpers Ferry. Several towns along the trail are especially accommodating to those using the trail with great places to eat or if you aren't the camping type there are also many Bed and Breakfasts along the way.
C and O towpath 9/15/2013 thru 9/21/2013
If you are considering a supported through ride, my itinerary may help you plan your ride.
I chose to start in Cumberland, since in 2011 I ended my G.A.P. ride here. I did not camp along the way. I have camped and backpacked quite a bit, at 64, I want a hot shower, and clean sheets at the end of the day. My wife followed in our truck, and dropped me off and picked me up everyday. At the end of the day we would find a hotel for the night.
Day1 - Mile post 184.5 to 156.1 Cumberland to Paw Paw Tunnel.
Started around 10:30 a.m. The trail was full of rocks, ruts and roots. This proved to be about the worst part of the entire towpath. Took my time and got to Paw Paw Tunnel in 3 hours.
Day 2 - Milepost 156.1 to 113.8 4hours 22 minutes. Paw Paw Tunnel to Big Pool
I started the day walking though the tunnel. The tow path is stone, and about eight feet above the canal. There is a wooded railing along the towpath, and there is water running in the canal. Bring a headlight, this place is DARK!
Upon exiting the tunnel there is a wooden board walk, and then the trail picks up where it left off on day one. More roots, ruts, and rocks!
But, what do you expect from a trail that was built almost two hundred years ago for mules, and horses.
I had decided from the start that I would pick up the Western Maryland Rail trail, and follow it. The WMRTT is twenty miles south of the tunnel. There is a sign pointing the way. This was a welcome change for a couple of reasons. 1) It is paved, and, 2) I was able to go much faster than the nine - eleven mph I was going on the towpath. Given that I traveled the entire length, 23 miles, on day two. I ended the day in Big Pool, near Fort Frederick.
Day 3 - Milepost 113.8 to 76.6 3 hours 48 minutes.
Big Pool to Snyder’s Landing. The trail in this area gets better every mile, at least in my estimation.
Fort Frederick is very impressive. The towpath that was rebuilt at Big Slackwater was a welcome site. This paved section makes for a nice ride. Snyder’s Landing is in Sharpsburg. Since today, 9/17/2013, was the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, we stopped at the battlefield after the ride. You could easily spend the better part of a day there.
Day 4 - Milepost 76.6 to 42.2 3 hours and 53 minutes.
Snyder’s Landing to Monocacy Aqueduct. Not a bad ride. We were planning on meeting in Harpers Ferry for lunch.
Upon arriving there, my wife found that parking was in a park, on the outskirts of town. The lot for the towpath, was taken over by commuters, so she parked on a street. She was warned by locals that the parking is strictly limited to 2 hours, and that if you stay longer, you will be ticketed!! Welcome to Harpers Ferry!
I carried my bike up the stairs and across the pedestrian bridge to meet her. After hearing about the situation here, and her two hours were almost up, we skipped lunch, I continued my ride.
I came into Brunswick, only to find the towpath becomes a cinder road that is shared with vehicles. On one side is a rail yard, on the other is a sewage treatment plant. Not very scenic. The road ends in a city camp ground. Once the towpath leaves the park, it is in very poor shape, due to folks riding their ATV’s on it. A couple of miles from here, the towpath passes through rural areas again.
Day 5 - Milepost 42.2 to 14.3 2 hours 51 minutes.
Monocacy to Great Falls. The closer you get to the end the better the trail, and more people. Pedestrians walking dogs. As long as you exercise trail courtesy, and announce you are passing, everyone I passed held their dogs and waited for me to pass. Most thanked me, and I them.
Day 6 - Mile post 14.3 Great Falls to Georgetown, 1 hour 50 minutes. I made sure the last day would be an easy one. The trail was in good condition. At Fletchers Cove, you could pick up the Capitol Crescent Trail, which is paved. I opted to stay on the towpath. There was only four miles remaining, and the Crescent Trail had a lot more cyclists.
When I arrived in Georgetown, I called my wife only to find I had gotten there before her. She had encountered road closures returning from Great Falls, and had to find another way back to Georgetown.
I stayed in Georgetown until I heard from her. She finally called, and was back at our hotel. So, I took a picture of myself in Georgetown(need proof that I was there). I carried my bike up a flight of stairs, and rode across the Key Bridge to our hotel.
When all was said and done, with side trips and the like, I rode 189.7 miles, and, not one flat tire!!
I have read other reviews, and most seemed to complain about the condition of the towpath. Like I stated at the outset, the towpath was constructed nearly two hundred years ago, for use by mules and horses.
I think the NPS has done a good job maintaining it, and was actually surprised at what good condition it is in.
So, don’t believe everything you read. Try the towpath, and judge for yourself. I plan on riding sections of it again, and doing some camping next time.
A copy of Recreational Guide by Milepost is available at the
I found this and the map of the towpath to be quite helpful in planning my trip.
We just returned from a memorable 90 mile adventure on the C & O Canal. I am sharing our trip in hopes the info may somehow help future Canal riders.
We left our home in New Jersey around noon on Thursday, June 6th, 2013, and headed to Williamsport, MD. Thursday was designed to be nothing more than a travel day with stops along the way. Our first night was spent at a Red Roof Inn in Williamsport which is located about two miles from the C & O. The Inn is a favorite among bikers. The property is in need some cosmetic touch up, however the room was relatively clean. It should be noted this truly is a “no frills” property. There is no pool, no breakfast. For us however, it served its purpose as we wanted nothing more than a clean place and a hot shower in the morning. The hotel did not honor our request for the first floor so we had to carry our bikes up to the second floor, which thankfully was not a big deal to me.
Friday morning we loaded our bikes on our car and drove down to the Williamsport Visitor’s Center located in an old Warehouse, right on the Trail. Semi-shaded parking was available for our car which we left there until we returned on Sunday. You may register your car at the Visitor’s Center, (they claim the info is given to the Police Department for security purposes so if you are on the run from the law you may want to park elsewhere). I know leaving your car anywhere can be a little stressful, so for whatever it’s worth, we felt very safe leaving our vehicle there. Maps, bathrooms, and even t-shirts can be found at the Center, however you may want to check on their hours should you have questions or need information.
On the way to the Visitor’s Center we passed a “Sheetz”, (no it’s not anything we stepped in, it’s a Convenience store). Though not very clean and appealing, this may be a good stop to pick up any last minute beverages or snacks for your journey.
At about 9:30 AM, Friday, the stress started to roll off my back as we headed out on the C & O, for the first time, rolling toward Shepherdstown, WV. I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning. We are used to “Tow Paths” as we have an incredible one in New Jersey which we frequently ride on, however this was different, and for that reason, exciting!
At first I was surprised at the changing trail surface which seemed to include everything from smooth packed dirt, to crushed stone. It wasn’t as smooth as what we were used to but more than adequate to ride on. We have hybrid bikes which is probably the bike of choice for this trail. We saw everything from road bikes to mountain bikes.
The thirty approximate mile ride from the Williamsport Visitor’s Center to our hotel in Shepherdstown was like a good movie with plenty of surprises for the eyes and senses. Though the Potomac plays hide and seek behind the brush it does make some truly special appearances along the way. We took our time because we had the entire day to enjoy the ride. We stopped at the Locks, read the Historic Plaques, checked out the little Picnic Areas, and even played with one of those Water Pumps. In case I didn’t mention it, our ride was during the first heat wave of the year with temps in the 90’s. Despite the heat, the Trail was doable because 95% of the Path is under a beautiful canopy of trees which kept us cool and out of the sun.
Just as a point of information, until last year, you had to take short a detour as there was a missing section of the Tow Path. The detour temporarily placed you on back roads. In 2012 the great people involved with this Trail created a spectacular concrete boardwalk along the water keeping you right on the trail so you no longer have to detour on the road. (They probably knew we were coming!!!) Just another one of the many surprises along the way!
By afternoon we made it to the “Big Bridge”, (the bridge in Shepherdstown). And though it’s not really that big, it certainly looks that way when you are at the bottom. Though there is little to no signage we made our way to the left side which has a wide ramp that snakes you up the side of the hill to the top. A nice little platform/lookout is waiting for you which I thought was an awesome design. From there a generous wide shoulder takes you over the bridge and gently sends to towards Shepherdstown College. There is some “uphill riding” here so be prepared if you have been riding all day. The hills are not drastic and could easily be walked if you prefer.
According to the information we obtained, the Bavarian Hotel is a great place to stay and eat. Unfortunately rates were high so we booked the Comfort Inn which is about a mile and a half from the Trail. We could not have been happier. A clean, well equipped room, (fridge, microwave, etc.), a friendly staff, and an over the top hot continental breakfast made this the perfect choice for us. I appreciated the hotel allowing us to bring bikes right in the room. I believe some people who drove to the hotel left their bikes on their car racks. (You can check out Trip Advisor under “Island Wayne” for my complete review of the property.)
Once we checked in, took showers, (did I mention we biked through a heat wave?), it was back on our bikes to roll into downtown Shepherdstown for some brew and munchies. We chose the “Blue Moon”, a colorful college town type restaurant which was fun and funky. The only complain we had was the beer was warm!! After a relaxing dinner it was time to explore a few shops, including of course the Bike Shop. We also picked up some info at their Visitor’s Center.
I was surprised to find Shepherdstown was not very bike friendly. An unfinished bike lane by our hotel and a couple bike racks in town was all that could be found.
On Saturday morning, after a good night’s sleep, it was on to the Historic town of Harpers Ferry, WV. I should stop and explain, we stayed two nights at the Comfort Inn, (Friday and Saturday). We unloaded most of our gear, (not that we had that much), at the Hotel on Friday and returned to the same hotel after biking down and back to Harpers Ferry on Saturday. The round trip to HF was approximately 30 miles making each of three days about 30 miles each. We had originally planned to spend only a short time in HF and go on to Brunswick however we had so much fun exploring and hiking around this historic gem of a town we stayed most of the day.
The Tow Path brings you right to the bridge at Harpers Ferry where you have a choice to lock and leave your bike at one of the racks located at the bottom of the bridge, or carry your bike up the stairs and walk it across the bridge. For the most part, those who wanted to bike around HF carried their bike up, while others, who just wanted to walk around the town, simply left their bike.
Harpers Ferry is a diamond in the rough. The State Park acquired many buildings and created a main street of what a river town looked and felt like when the town was booming. Unfortunately after several floods, the close of the canal, and other unfortunate incidents, the town never fully recovered. For us, the tourist, there is lots to see and do from interesting boutiques to quaint eateries. Hike up to see the Church and then beyond to “Jefferson’s Rock” for a view that no photo could capture. Take some time to catch up on your history as there are plenty of stories associated with this town.
After a day of exploring at Harpers Ferry we walked back across the bridge, picked up our bikes, and headed back to Shepherdstown. It felt like a hundred degrees with 90% humidity on the way back. I don’t have a problem with heat as I bike in Mexico every year, however, my better half looked like a wet dishrag when we rolled into the Comfort Inn, (sorry honey!) After another nice shower we decided to walk down to the Dominoes as they were having a special customer appreciation week where all pizzas were $6. We brought it back to our room and chilled for the remainder of the evening.
Sunday morning we enjoyed another great breakfast at the Hotel before heading back to Williamsport. We left nice an early to beat the heat. Thankfully the heat wave broke and it was a beautiful ride back. Some people do not like going back over the same path, however for us it was great as we saw some things we missed the first time.
The ever changing scenery of the Canal was a little work as I found myself taking pictures around every bend!! Sometimes I thought I was on a back road in Vermont while other times I thought I was biking through Ireland. I can only speak for the ninety miles we toured, however, it truly was an exceptionally relaxing experience.
I would suggest brining plenty of water with you as some of the water pumps did not work while others were spitting out some pretty bad discolored water. Bottom line, I wouldn’t drink out of the wells. I would also advise you to take your time. Walk down to the river, take a snack break, enjoy the day, after all, it’s not the Tour de France.
We wanted to get a small taste of the C & O over a long weekend. We also wanted to utilize hotels instead of the campsite along the way. At 30 miles a day this formula seemed to work nicely for us.
It would be inconceivable to close without thanking the scores of people, both dreamers and doers, who generously volunteered so much of their time and talent over the years to make this Trail a reality. Like any project there were countless obstacles however thankfully each and every one was conquered. It shows the American spirit is still alive and we truly can do anything. I saw a little girl learning to ride with her training wheels. I thought to myself, what a memory she will have. She learned to ride on the C & O! I saw an elderly couple sharing a conversation while taking a break by one of the picnic tables. I even saw some people with a small dog in their front basket, (I wonder if the dogs are embarrassed as they look?) What I did not see is people playing with their darn phones, or walking aimlessly stressed out from their jobs. The Trail is a happy place. It’s a place you can go for free, the reason being, is because the memories you make are priceless.
Thanks for letting me share our ride with you. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to ask. Enjoy the ride … it goes by fast!!!
While it has been almost a year but I did get back to do another segment of this great trail.
Started at Mouth of Monocacy rd in Dickerson mm 42 and road down to Whites Ferry mm 35 and then up to mm 75. It was a very hot day and last ten mile back took me over two hours. The total ride was 80 mile and that was as much as I have ever done on a Rails to Trails ride. My total ride was just over 8 hrs. It was a Saturday and I was just blown away by the amount of people on foot and bikers on this trail. I ran into a couple from Indy that where doing the Great Passage and then on into D.C I rode with them from mm 75 to Harpers Ferry and they set a great pace. I was on a Old Mt Bike with a Town a Country Tire and it worked for me, I saw every thing for 29in Mt Bikes to road bikes and almost everything in between. If you do this on a Road Bike make sure you have a touring tire as a road tire would not be enough tire. In closing it will not be another year before I come back and do another segment. this is one great trail
I have only walked part of the trail from Harpers Ferry. The park near town charges an entry/parking fee, and buses take you to and from town. You cross a river next to a train bridge, sometimes a train comes next to you. If you bring a bike this way, you need to carry it up and down some stairs to cross the bridge. It is very peaceful in that area, nice and flat. The town has nice places to eat and shop and see Civil War history. You can also go tubing and boating in the area.
Gravel to mud, depending on what part of the trail. Interesting Civil War history along the way, but gets a bit boring north of White's Ferry. The ferry itself is an interesting attraction.
Oct 22-24, 2012 I biked towpath from mile 77 to mile 107 and ran into two different bikers who had received punctures at about mile 80 from sharp little rocks shaped like arrow heads. The Park Service is using a tan gravel with these little bits of sharp flint rock. One puncture is unusual, two is a disaster. Warning is to be prepared to fix a flat or take a long walk. Youker
We did this ride on 10/6/12 and it turned out to be a nice day, weather wise, for riding. We got a late start - around 10 am. I typically start my rides no later than 7-7:30 am to avoid the crowd and be finished by the time folks are getting out of bed. I rode the mountain bike today and as stated in other reviews the trail is not conducive for a road bike, but a cyclo-cross bike would be at home on this trail; I saw a couple of them on the trail today. We started the ride at Jack’s Boathouse on Water St., NW, which is about 28 miles round trip. The trail has bathrooms just in case you have to go. I recall seeing three such facilities on our ride. We rode the Capital Crescent trail the first 2.25 miles and then crossed over to the C&O canal trail. The 1st mile or so on the C&O trail is a bit rough, but it becomes less jagged afterwards. The trail was not too busy for about the first 8 miles; however, from that point forward we encountered groups of people that were part of 1 of 2 events (a walk or a run event), so maybe this was not the typical capacity. Also, when we got closer to Great Falls (about 1.5 miles out) the volume of people increased significantly; the trail gets really narrow in this area, so be prepared to slow down and be very vocal (loudly state on your left), sometimes folks are too engaged in conversation to hear you. We encountered groups walking 4-6 wide and taking up the entire width of the path and walkers and runners “smack-dab” in the middle of the trail with earphones, so again be prepared to be quite vocal (loudly state on your left) so they hear you, especially the elderly. We, the cyclist, are required to yield to walkers, runners and horses and make them aware of our presence, but sometimes they make it difficult to do because of the reasons stated above (i.e., walking or running in the middle of the trail, taking up the entire width of the trail and wearing earphones). In conclusion, it was a nice ride to the falls as I’ve never seen the falls from the Maryland side and this was my first ride on the C&O canal trail. However, the next time I ride this trail I will get a very early start to avoid grandma, grandpa, the kids and the crowd. If you want to ride the trail and not encounter what we did, you may want to ride the trail early Sunday morning. I’ve found that early Sunday morning is the best time to ride just about any trail if you want to avoid crowds.
I spoke with two sets of thru bikers near Glen Echo Tues and Wed 9/25 and 9,26 and the 6.5 mile detour at Slackwater is no more with the construction of the towpath complete with NPS using funds from the Stimlus. Great news since the detour on narrow roads was awful. By the way I have done the whole 184 mile twice with a narrow tired hybrid bike with absolutely no trouble. Youker
The trail meet all of the features I was searching for in a bike adventure. There is almost no auto traffic to detract from the quiet beauty of the trail and Potomac River. There is far more history than can be experienced in 3.5 days. The trail is essentially level and under a tree canopy for most of the distance. There are restored canal arcthitecture, dams, tunnel, locks, falls and a unique lift bridge. Wildlife included deer and otter. The stay in Harpers Ferry offers the restored town and across the river a trail up Maryland heights which offers a Norman Rockwell view of small town America. My only regret is that I cannot experience riding the trail in each season as the views and colors change making the experience unique.
I started the trail at Georgetown and ended 60 miles later in Harpers Ferry, WV. The condition of the trail was excellent for a mountain bike, although I would not recommend a hybrid and certainly not a road bike. The trail is well maintained with very little litter and well marked mileposts. There are a sufficient amount of porta-potties along the way, and opportunity to buy snacks/food at White's Ferry, Point of Rocks and Brunswick, MD. In Brunswick the restaurants are quite close to the trail, not so much in Point of Rock. Along the way, Great Falls is stunningly beautiful as is the approach to Harpers Ferry. For the rest of the ride you are essentially riding a trail through the woods with little view of the Potomac river and the murky, still, algae-covered canal on the inland side. For this reason I would say this is one of the most boring and monotonous rides I have ever done in the Northeast. If you are looking for something to eat in Harpers Ferry, time your arrival before 7am as restaurants start to close early as it is primarily a day-trip/rafting town.
My wife and I rode this trail, starting at the Monocacy Aqueduct and heading south, in July 2012. It's in great shape, it's a great trail, and we look forward to going back!
Rode the entire length summer of 2011. Had considered road bikes. Used a tandem with 2" tires and an unsuspended mountain bike for three of us. Pity the fool who tries this on skinny tires. DC area, sure, but the rest is rugged. Loved it! Great historty. Most sections remote, quiet and natural. Water available at frequent campsites,, but towns are far apart on sections. Use a quality, rugged bike with wide tires if you intend to go the distance.
What a great trail this is. It was not a great day but with hot weather rolling in I did a 68 mile round trip any way. I started just north of I495 and road down to Georgetown and then up to Edwards Ferry. We had showers off and on most of the day and both the bike and I got a little dirty but I had a great day. The whole trip you can see the Potomac River and there is a great canopy. There is very little grade so it is a very nice ride, oh yes once you leave Georgetown there are no cross streets. There are lots of Historic markers along the way and lots of Port a John's. Being a poor day weather wise there was not much traffic except for around Great Falls. I was going to ride to Indian Flats but after Seneca Aqueduct the trail got a little to slick for my Town & County tire and I almost went down twice so I cut the ride a little short but I will be back to do another leg some time in late Summer or early Fall. There is a detour at mile marker 12 for about three miles and you have to go up some stairs and then down at the other end and I am sure that though riders are not happy. You could do this on a Road bike with a Touring tire but a Hybrid or a Mt bike would work better.
In the spring of 2011, starting in the last week of March and for about 2 and1/2 weeks I hiked the C+O Canal Trail from end to end. I started in D.C. and walked it's full length into Cumberland, MD. It was early in the season so the river was still high and it rained a lot of the days. I arrived just as spring was awakening from a long winter's nap. Flowers were bloooming, wildlife was awakening and those who enjoy the outdoors were every where. Although another hiker was the only one I ever shared a campsite with there were plenty of cyclists enjoying the trail too. Some were out for day rides while there were plenty of individuals and groups of riders going the distance from D.C. to Pittsburg or the other way around. While the trail's surface was less than perfect for riding none of the cyclists ever complained to me, and for a backpacker the trail was down right easy. No rocks, no roots and no mountains to climb over. Towns along the way were trailside and so I was able to resupply with no problems. If there was a problem, and I wouldn't even call it that, the handles for the water pumps, which are removed for winter, weren't installed until I was half way finished. I went slow and read every historical sign and went into every visitor's center that was open. I learned a lot. This trip was well worth the time and effort and I'd advise anyone to take it.
I just completed a bicycle trip this weekend with my daughter along the trail from Silver Spring to Brunswick, MD. In the spirit, hopefully, of constructive criticism, here are my experiences and thoughts...
The idea was to cycle from our home in Silver Spring, MD to Harper's Ferry, WV. It didn't quite work out that way in the end. We nearly got there, but the trail conditions made it more of a chore than I was willing to accept.
We cycled 18 miles along the Capital Crescent Trail, then along the C&O and camped at Swain's Lock on June 2nd. There are water pumps at every campground, but the one at Swain's Lock wasn't working. Fortunately I had a day's supply on the bike, so water was not a pressing need - yet. We saw very few campers on the trail. We only saw one other tent in the campgrounds between DC & Brunswick. Lovely weather and we saw lots of nice scenery and wildlife. Not a big fan of the trail itself though - gravel, pebbles, pot-holes and the occasional mud patch made cycling very uncomfortable, slow and dangerous. I understand the trail is an historical towpath, and clearly part of its appeal lies in its preservation as such, but it would, I feel, take some imagination to honestly describe this as a trail fit for a bicycle. The first day was just 18 miles, and would normally take 2 hours tops, but it took me over 3 hours.
The second day, with the state of the trail getting worse, I almost gave up and headed onto the road to Point of Rocks via Darnestown and Dickerson. But not having brought detailed road maps I decided to stick it out for one more day until we reached Brunswick. I reckon the state of the trail made cycling about twice as difficult and twice as slow as cycling on asphalt. The trip to Brunswick was 38 miles and we averaged about 5mph - about what a cyclist would expect over a poor dirt track (which is what the C&O Trail really is). That, and the lack of any nearby food and water supplies from Great Falls Tavern until Point of Rocks made it a bit of an endurance test. The supposedly potable water from pumps along the trail looked very suspicious - so much so that my daughter pleaded with me not to drink it. I think it was Chisel Branch where I found a dead deer in the canal within about ten yards of the water pump. This didn't exactly fill me with confidence about the water. Shortly thereafter we met a park ranger whom I notified about the deer - she was kind enough to offer us a couple of bottles of water. At Brunswick I cut the trip short and met my wife and we drove the final six miles to Harper's Ferry.
I must admit, I'll not be trying this again until the surface is better-suited to bicycle travel - although I'm not sure that will ever happen. My back just can't take all that jarring, and to be honest I was worried about the bike, since it was carrying/dragging about 350lbs-worth of humans, trailer-bike and equipment. I suppose it proved my bike's ability to withstand abuse, but still, not something I'd ever think of repeating unless I was forced.
It will be a lovely trail - fit even for bicycles - when it's finished, LOL. Hopefully in the meantime, hikers and can get more out of it than I did.
After logging my first 28 miles (Cumberland to Paw Paw) on the C&O in April 04 on a Next brand bike I started into the historical aspects of the canal. This trail defines America in its infancy from the surveys of George Washington through the industrial revolution. I often ride along and imagine the workers digging the trench coupled with illness, feuds and floods. No; this trail needs to be rough to remind the riders of the hard work that went into building and running the canal. Definitely not for road bikes (mine is a full suspension)
On the biking side; the canal is good for biking the total length or just some great day rides for beginners and serious riders. But by all means be prepared to fix things that come up on the trail or depend on the other courteous riders or find yourself walking out. Some sections during week days you may not see any one for 15 to 20 miles other week end days you may trip over bikers and hikers. Since my first ride I have logged many miles on the C&O (some with scout troops) and have enjoyed every one of them.
We did the trail from DC to Cumberland and on to Pittsburgh early this summer. Lucked out in that it was unseasonably hot before and after our trip. The scenery was spectacular. Wish I could say the same for the trail surface. Something I heard repeatedly was the suggestion that the C&O assign sections to various outside groups to maintain, much the same as the GAP. I found myself longing for a full suspension the further we rode from DC. One cyclist claimed the bird watchers didn't want any more bicycles on the trail so they discouraged maintenance. I found that hard to believe. The biggest issue was not being able to enjoy the scenery as much as I would have liked because I was too busy dodging pot-holes. I was quite thankful we didn't encounter any rain while we were touring. Campsites are frequent and nice and over all it was enjoyable and quite the adventure, but the second leg of the trip on the GAP shed a bad light on the first leg. If you need any help on the trail, please shoot me an email!
My family and I rode this trail at the end of July. We rode from Georgetown to the Great Falls of the Potomac. From our hotel in DuPont Circle it was approximately 30 miles round trip. My 10 and 8 year old sons rode the trail without any problems. The 8 year old only has 16 inch wheels on his bike-he peddled his heart out. The views were breath taking all the way along the path. Riding past the locks out to the falls was a great lesson in history. We missed riding the Capital Crescent trail on the way out but certainly caught in on the way back. It made it easier to finish the last few miles strong. As noted, the trail roughness is a 2-certainly not a path for slicks. We ran into trouble about 8 miles into the ride, my 10 year old son's chain froze. 2 passer-bys stopped to give us a hand. We didn't have any tools and thankfully one of the men had just what we needed to fix the chain. There are no stops to buy anything along the way so make sure you bring your tools and any food or drink you may want. The boathouse is so early on in the trip if you start in Georgetown, so that really doesn't count and the food and drink at the Falls isn't all that great. There is a bathroom and water fountain. The view of the Falls was breathtaking. I would love to see it full of rushing water. This is certainly a trip we will do again.
The C&O Canal is a great ride, but it's not for everyone. It's not a smooth, paved urban trail. It's a double-track dirt or gravel path over most of its length, and it can get muddy. But if you want to have an adventure beyond where the pavement ends - this is a great trail. For anyone contemplating doing this trail, be sure to check out the Bike Washington web site for the trail which lists campgrounds, hotels, restaurants, bike shops and a lot more for the 184.5 miles of the trail. As for being rough going after a rain - it can be. It shouldn't be attempted with a street bike. But it was not a problem with my trusty steed - a 1995 Schwinn Searcher Express with 700 x 38C tires.
I rode threw there this past summer on my way from Ohio to DC. The C & O and the Allegheny were the best trail I have ever ridden. The Allegeny was a bit smoother than the C&O. The C&O looks like it could be very miserable if it is raining. Fortunately I had dry weather. Camping was plentiful and there were great things to see. For the comment about tire size, I use a touring bike (Trek 520) with 700X32 Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires and they worked great.
We took a 260 mile trip both ways from Brunswick to Cumberland, late last summer. Very nice campgrounds and
they have old fashioned water pumps( water very rusty) would suggest boiling water before consuming. Very nice trip would suggest anybody do it. most scenic and relaxing campsite was devils backbone
What is the narrowest tire can one ride a tandem on the C & ) Canal?
I rode from Pennyfield Lock into Georgetown on a beautiful April day. The scenery around Great Falls was spectacular. It would have been nice with more amenities and a nearby convenience store or cafe every now & then. I've gotten used to asphalt trails in MN & find the pace on limestone tedious.
I have been riding on the C&O Canal for more than 15 years, and leading group tours on the trail for 14. In all those years, the trail has never lost its charm, beauty, or intrigue, and each time I ride it, I see something new that I was not aware of previously. For those who have ridden it once, it is a different ride going the opposite direction. For example, when riding east to west and passing the cliffs along the slackwater section west of mile 89, you see the beauty of the Potomac River and its backdrop, but you easily miss the cave in the bluff above you, while riding west to east, you will very likely see it plain as day. As another example, the structures look very differnt when viewed in the morning or the afternoon, depending on the direction of the sun and amount of light, so if you have the chance to ride both ways, you will get different views (and photos).
Spring and Fall have been ideal for this trail, as the brush is not so overgrown onto the trail, where you could brush up against tall stinging nettles (if allergic, they itch for a few weeks), and the views through to the river are great. In the fall, the color of the leaves makes for a very special ride.
We have noticed an increasing variety and number of wildlife along the remote trail sections. Deer, great blue herons and turtles (in the watered areas) are very common. Just west of Old Town (mile 167), there are some impressive beaver dams and beaver trails in the water, and near to Cumberland (around mile 178), there is a watered section that has american river otters.
With the connection to the Great Allegheny Passage now complete, continuing west includes many wild turkey frequently crossing the trail (or just hanging out along it). The dichotomy of the water-powered history and way of life contrasts with the steam-engine powered railroad history, the travel over the mountains, as opposed to around and through them, and the railroad inspired towns are evident along the trail. The two trails together have been extremely scenic and enjoyable -- all within just a few miles of many towns, including the two major cities that anchor the ends, Washington, DC and Pittsburgh.
Whether you ride a section of 10 miles, or the entire length of the trail, you are likely to see locks and lock houses, and depending on where that 10 miles is, aqueducts. These are the main features of the trail, and each is different. You will never tire of the many features. The National Park Service keeps the port-a-potties at the hiker-biker campgrounds supplied, and they do a great job keeping the park in top shape. The communities along the trail(s), and their businesses appreciate the cyclists that bring business to their towns, and they treat trail users well. If you are lucky, you will run across a local, now aging of course, who recalls the days of operation of the canal and can tell stories of their family residing along the canal, working in the boatyards, or of themselves playing amongst retired canal boats after the demise of the canal, and ice skating on the frozen canal in the winter. That is perhaps my favorite experience in all my years on the trail.
--Tom Knoerzer, Tour Director, Get Out & Go Tours LLC
"As a 53 year-old woman traveling alone in June 2006, I flew from Kansas to Reagan National in Washington, DC, picked up a one-day/one-way rental car and a mountain bicycle with a backrack for a week and drove to Cumberland, MD. I loaded up my rental bicycle with panniers and dropped off the Hertz rental car at Wayne's Citgo Station in Cumberland only a few blocks from the start of the C&O. After a recent rain, the first 60 miles were muddy, but passable. The ground was firm at the bottom of the puddles so I rode right through them! For safety and comfort, I stayed at hotels and B&B's. My miles ranged from 17-52 miles per day. I stayed at the Little Orleans Lodge B&B (wonderful new place), Super 8 in Hancock, Days Inn in Shepherdstown, Norris House Inn in Leesburg, and Holiday Inn Historic in Alexandria. The history of the many locks, the grooves in the original wooden rails in the Paw Paw Tunnel, and meeting so many friendly people were super. A short detour on the Maryland Rail Trail provided a paved respite with beautiful native flowers. In Georgetown, I had a little trouble finding the Tidewater and Milepost Zero, but finally found it just east and behind the Thompson Boathouse at the mouth of Rock Creek. I rode the Mt Vernon trail to my hotel and later to Mt. Vernon and back. The Holiday Inn Historic in Alexandria stored my large suitcase while I was on the C&O and I stayed a few more days to tour the museums and zoo in DC. It was a wonderful adventure. "
"The C&O is a great trail if you want to get away from it all (cars, towns, people, traffic, etc.). The trail is mostly secluded, but there are many small towns it passes along the way (Oldtown, Paw Paw, Little Orleans,Hancock, Williamsport, Shepherdstown, Harpers Ferry, Brunswick, etc.). This makes through trips fairly easy to plan out as there are alot of stopping places along the way to get food, or to stay for the night. Most people riding it as one trip do it in 3 days, at around 60 miles per day. Lots of hiker/biker campsites along the trail, and lots of information about the trail on the internet to plan your trip.
I've ridden the whole length of the trail in a series of day trips over the years, just to see what it's like and to take pictures. My favorite trips would be both ends, and the middle of the trail.
Cumberland to Oldtown is a favorite, it goes from in the city, to suburbs, past farms, and then into the woods before reaching Oldtown. In Cumberland you've got the Western Maryland Railroad terminal, the C&O Canal Museum in the same building, and also The Shops At Canal Place, all at the end of the trail. Very nice place to start or end your trip at. I like to start in Cumberland (Mile 184.5) and ride down to Lock 68 at Potomac Forks (Mile 164.8) just past Oldtown. There's a nice stretch of the canal from Oldtown to Potomac Forks that's water filled, and the locals use it for fishing. In Oldtown you can go to the Schoolhouse Kitchen, which is about 1/4 to 1/2 mile East on the Main Street to get drinks and snacks.
The middle section of the canal is also a favorite, specifically Shepherdstown to Harpers Ferry. At Lock 38/mile 72.7 you can cross over the Potomac to West Virginia on the newly renovated James Rumsey Bridge using the new ramp they've built at the West/left side of the bridge foundation. Along the way to Harpers Ferry you pass Antietam campgrounds and the aqueduct, several locks, the Shinhan kilns, and get a great view of the Potomac around Harpers Ferry. You'll often see lots of boaters in the river in the Summer, especially on weekends. Climb the circular steps at the railroad bridge and go across the river to check out the historic town of Harpers Ferry. Back on the canal side of the river the view from the overlook at Maryland Heights is well worth the climb to get up there...bring your camera...the best time to take pictures is morning and early afternoon.
My other favorite section is from Great Falls to Georgetown. This is the most used section of the trail, especially on weekends, but there's a good reason for that. Great Falls is a must-see stop when riding the canal, and the view of the falls is excellent. The whole area around Great Falls Tavern and Widewater is very picturesque. The canal trail still has a secluded feel to it for most of the trip from here into Washington D.C., and you get a real suprise at the end of the trail when you find yourself actually IN the city at the end of the trail.
Other favorite points along the trail....Paw Paw Tunnel, Round Top Cement Mill, Western Maryland Trail near Hancock, Fort Frederick, Conococheague Aqueduct and Cushwa's basin in Williamsport, riding along the cliffs near Dam #5 and McMahon's Mill, Monocacy Aqueduct, and White's Ferry.
The actual canal itself varies greatly in it's condition depending on location...it ranges from restored canal, to water filled swampy ditch, to barely recognizable tree-filled shallow impression. If you plan on stopping while you're biking or are hiking or camping along the canal bring bug repellant...the mosquitos can be pretty bad in mid-Summer in some of the more wooded remote locations. "
"My wife and I (and dogs) have been biking this trail from Cumberland to D.C. every Fall for the last 15+ years (except once when it was closed due to flooding) and hope to continue for the next 15+ years. We started with a 3 1/2 day trip but kept going slower and slower to enjoy it more. We have been including the Great Allgheny Passage and starting at Boston Pa. for the past 5 years and now take about 2 weeks. We're slow, I know, but that just gives us more time to enjoy the scenery and camping. "
I had the time of my life riding the C&O and Great Allegheny Passage in May 2006. It was beyond my greatest expectations---a thoroughly enjoyable adventure from beginning to end.
"I thoroughly enjoyed cycling this path. It is packed with wildlife, wildflowers, and picturesque views. In addition, I highly recommend the great allegheny passage."
"I'm training for the Marine Corp Marathon and run on this trail for my long runs on the weekends. I find that this trail is the best trail that I have run on since I started training. It's dirt so it's easy on my knees and it's level so there are no hills (I get that training during the week.) I love it and I seem to run into the same people every week when I'm running, so I see familiar faces. I highly recommend running on this trail."
"I did this trail in May of 2004 for the second time. This time we went the opposite way, from Cumberland to Georgetown, so our ride was all downhill. We stayed at B&Bs and at a family member's place and completed the trail in 7 days with 2 nights in Harpers Ferry to give us a rest day. I highly recommend doing the whole trail. I liked all of the sections but do it by the end of May or after August to avoid the buggiest, busiest, hottest times. Rich history and incredible flora and fauna."
"For most of the trail length, there are free little hiker/biker primitive campsites, with water pumps and portable toilets. The trail tends to be muddy if there has been rain any time in the previous three days. A hybrid or mountain bike is required in many parts due to the rocky trail."
"Back in my college days (1969) a group of my friends and I took the B&O's Capital Limited (pre-Amtrak), with our bikes checked in the baggage car (no boxes!), from Pittsburgh to Cumberland. There we experienced for the first time ever the joys of riding on an exclusive trail. We did a round trip between Cumberland and Oldtown, including a trip over the toll bridge into West Virginia. And we had more than enough time to catch the evening train back to Pittsburgh.
Those days are gone, and new cycling trails abound (thanks to Rails to Trails, among others!), but the C&O Canal is still unique and incredible. I've never ridden all of it, but I've done most of it in sections, and despite the washouts and detours in places, and the ever-present roots and mosquitos, it still is the granddaddy of all trails - and one of the best!
I-68 makes it convenient for me in Pittsburgh as I can be in Cumberland in about 2 1/2 hours. I often ride the Oldtown-Cumberland segment (recommended) as well as the sections east and west out of Hancock. Little Orleans is another area that is a good place to start. You can stay at the Town Hill B&B (if you're not into camping), right on the top of the hill (with a great view) and only a few miles from the Little Orleans trail access point.
Don't miss it. It's like the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty. A legend.
"I rode on the trail with my son Nick, my friend Tony and his son Tony for four days. This is the best trail I have rode in 15 years of riding trails. In one day we saw so much wildlife I could not list what we rode by. And don't forget the historic aspects of this trail. The tunnel at Paw Paw is the most impressive structure on the canal. If you can only visit for one day I suggest riding from Hancock to Williamport."
"I live just outside of Cumberland, Md, and I visit the trail often. I have yet to hike the whole trail but plan to in 2004. I love the trail and love hiking and camping on it. The longest hike I've done on it was from Paw Paw Tunnel to Cumberland (about 30 miles)."
"Since I don't have anyone to pick me up at the other end, I do the trail in parts. This has always been the high point of the year for me! There are always new and interesting things to see on the trail and I like camping out and hearing the train, it just seems to rock me to sleep. It seems that I always meet new and interesting people every trip! "
"I frequently ride this trail along the 75 miles around D.C. It is flat and well maintained. There are scattered muddy spots after rain esp away from Great Falls. If riding miles through woods bore you, go elsewhere. It is a good workout and a few miles away (north) from Great Falls the trail is suprisingly uncrowded on weekdays.
I did 35 miles today (8/1/02) and saw three other riders. Busier on weekends, and especially around population centers like H Ferry/DC. The only car traffic is from a few campgrounds and boat launching ramps. A nice ride, a treasure for long rides. The surface is gravel/dirt with a few roots. NOT FOR ROAD BIKES."
"Mother (50) and daughter (23) biked trail from Georgetown to Cumberland, May 20-24. One short day to hike in Harpers Ferry. Except for the 30 miles around Whites Ferry, we loved it. That part was dull, just like riding thru woods. Spectacular scenery at H. Ferry and after passing Hancock, as you enter the Appalachians. We will definitely do it again."
"I rode about 50 or miles of this trail into Georgetown about 15 years ago. I am surprised that some have found this a poor trail; it is actually very nice. To find yourself in the center of a great city (Washington, DC) after riding without cars is wonderful.
I currently live at the beginning of the proposed Willapa Hills Trail and wish we had such a good trail here on the Pacific Coast Bicycle route. Ther proposed trail is on the Milwaukee, St. Paul and Chicago RR grade acquired in the early 1900's. Too bad it is not on the nearby Northern Pacific abandonned grade owned by Weyerhauser Co. built on the federal land grants! This grade is a logging road right of way."
"We did Cumberland to Shepherdstown staying at Berkeley Springs the first night and Bavarian Inn at Shepherdstown which is neat. This is not a great ride. The trail is gravel and mostly unscenic unless you like a ride in the woods on a two lane path (for miles and miles). Potomac RIver is nearby but mostly out of sight and the canal is in total disrepair and mostly a dry ditch. Some interesting old stonework and lock houses, many birds and other wildlife but I would not do it again unless it gets paved or the surface is improved somehow. "
WE DID 100 MILES OF THE TRAIL-eND OF JULY.SHADED-BEST TO GO FROM MD. TO WASH.DC-ALL DOWN GRADE AND NOT MUCH OF THAT.WE STAYED TWO NIGHTS AT INNS.WOULD GET LIFT TO STARTING PT.IN FUTURE.VERY SCENIC. MY GROUP HAD 17 PEOPLE.NEAT TO END UP AT CAPITAL AND TAKE A DAY WITH THE BIKES ALONG THE MALL.WE HAD AGES FROM 8 TO 60(ME).VERY WELL MAINTAINED.
"Perhaps the most scenic section of the trail is between Sharpsburg and Harpers Ferry. Cliffs, caves, rapids, ruins, and a Civil War Battlefield nearby. You will see deer and occasionally bear on this stretch also. Start at Snyder's Landing (Sharpsburg), go to Harper's Ferry for lunch and return."
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