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Following the Potomac River, the C&O Canal Towpath traverses the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park 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. Both trails are part of the Capital Trails Coalition—a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy TrailNation project that aims to develop an 800-mile trail network connecting the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan region.
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 an 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. The towpath is primarily dirt and gravel with about 50 contiguous miles surfaced with crushed stone. (Additional miles are planned to be resurfaced in the coming years.) Every year millions of visitors hike or bike the C&O Canal Towpath. Peak season is May–October. Weekends from spring through fall are busy, especially around Washington, D.C., and Great Falls Park in Potomac, Maryland.
The park provides campgrounds (both private and public), picnic areas, indoor and portable toilets, innumerable historical sites, and lookout points along the way. In adjacent canal towns, you’ll also find amenities such as cafés and restaurants, B&Bs and motels, bike shops, museums, and retail shops, as well as additional 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 of the restored lock houses.
Of particular importance is the role the canal played during the American Civil War as a dividing line between North and South. Troops on both sides of the conflict lobbed ammunition across the water and crossed 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 saw events both tragic and heroic. The guidebooks sold by the National Park Service describe 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. Don’t miss the Paw Paw Tunnel at milepost 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.
In Cumberland, the towpath connects to the Great Allegheny Passage, where you can extend your journey all the way to Pittsburgh. Both trails are part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Great American Rail-Trail, which spans the United States between Washington, D.C., and Washington State.
The towpath also has multiple connections to the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a paved 27.5-mile route paralleling the Potomac River.
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 Park entrance to the C&O.
Parking is available at various locations along the towpath:
Parking in Washington, D.C. is located at Fletcher’s Cove (4940 Canal Road NW). Parking is accessible only from northbound Canal Road NW. Note: Canal Road NW uses timed, one-way routing. The trail properly begins 3 miles east in the Georgetown neighborhood, but this is the first opportunity for free trailside parking.
In Bethesda, parking is located at Lock 6 (6100 Clara Barton Pkwy). Parking lot is accessible only from southbound Clara Barton Pkwy.
There are two options for parking in Potomac: the Carderock Recreation Area on Carderock Road has four high-capacity parking lots and Great Falls parking on Macarthur Blvd has two parking areas located 150 feet apart that are often filled to capacity.
In Darnestown, parking is located at Riley’s Lock (Lock 24) on Riley’s Lock Road, 0.7 mile south of River Road.
Point of Rocks parking is at 3703 Canal Road.
In Sharpsburg, parking is on Canal Road, 0.5 mile south of Shepherdstown Pike/MD 34.
In Williamsport, parking is located at the Williamsport Visitors Center (205 W. Potomac St).
In Clear Spring, parking is at Four Locks on Starliper Road, 300 feet south of Four Locks Road.
Parking in Little Orleans is by the Fifteen Mile Creek on High Germany Road, 0.1 mile south of Orleans Road SE. Pass through the one-lane tunnel, turn right (south) and cross the one-lane bridge.
Parking in Oldtown is by Lock 70 on Green Spring Road SE, 600 feet south of Opessa St.
Parking in Cumberland is at the Cumberland Visitor Center and Western Maryland Scenic Railroad Station (13 Canal St).
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