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!!!