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Article: Bicycle Touring Guide - The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath - C&O Canal (FREE)
 
 

 
Article: Bicycle Touring Guide - The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath - C&O Canal (FREE)
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Author

 

Rev Johannes Myors
In 2010: Cycled 17 years across the USA, including 16 coast to coast crossings!
www.pedalprayers.org


Intro


 


CLICK TO ENLARGE



Rev Johannes Myors bicyle-toured the C&O canal several times and it is one of his favorite route in the USA. In this article he gives a description of the route with some useful tips, bicycle shops and visitor centers locations. He also wrote some historical facts to give you a background of the canal.

Presently, the park includes nearly 20,000 acres (80 km²) and receives over 3 million recorded visits each year. Flooding continues to threaten historical structures on the canal and attempts at restoration. The Park Service has re-watered portions of the canal but the majority of the canal does not have water in it.

The twelve foot wide towpath is not paved or prepared like the G.A.P. (Great Allegheny Passage) between McKeesport (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania and Cumberland. Cyclists who go on to Washington, DC after completing the G.A.P. say that they are disappointed with the ride along the C&O Towpath but they have to realize that the G.A.P. is a business venture and the C&O Towpath is historic. Most cyclists use hybrids or mountain bikes but during my two trips, I met people on racing bikes, recumbents (long and short-wheelbase, and tandems. The surface is typically clay and crushed stone so it is a bit rough. Also, there are some sections that are quite rocky. In some places, the route is two narrow paths the width of a car or truck tire. After a good rain, the towpath might be muddy so there could be mudholes. Also, the C&O Towpath is a "Trash Free Park". This means you MUST carry out your own trash! There are plastic trash bags provided at each H/B campsite.

The current record (totally unofficial) is 11 hours and 41 minutes and held by Paul Gruenberger and Ralph Olinger during their ride in October 1994. This was a supported ride starting from Cumberland, Maryland. Paul Gruenberger also claims the unsupported record time of 12 hours and 36 minutes set in September 1991. Usually cyclists take either three or four days to cycle the towpath.

If you begin in Cumberland, Maryland (as I did in 2008 and 2010) you will have a slight downhill advantage. There are 75 locks on the canal and at each lock the towpath makes a short 6 to 8 foot incline. By starting from Cumberland, Maryland, you get to go down each of these 75 inclines.

Cumberland, Maryland is about a 2 ½ hour drive from Washington, D.C. You get there by taking I-270 North to I-70 West. Follow I-70 to Hancock, Maryland where you will pick up I-68. This takes you out to Cumberland, Maryland. The Cumberland Trail Head is easily accessible from Exit 43C on I-68. Keep in mind that it ends just north of I-68 where the interstate crosses the river. The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad Station is right near the where the towpath terminates.

The main shuttle services between the trailheads is "Freedom Trail Riders" (http://www.freedomtrailriders.com). It has been offering shuttle services since 2000.

In this article you will find descriptions and highlights along with useful tips like bicycle shops, campings and visitor centers locations.
 

 
MILE 0 to MILE 40

 

  • DESCRIPTION AND HIGHLIGHTS

The towpath begins in the Georgetown section of Washington D.C., at the edge of the Rock Creek Parkway, between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Whitehurst Freeway. This roughly marks the inland most point of the navigable Potomac River. Directly south of the trail head, in the rock creek stream bed, lies the remains of the canal's "watergate" (from where the nearby infamous hotel complex gets its name). The watergate was used to transfer canal boats between the Potomac and the canal. This is where you will find the original Mile 0 marker (right next to Thompson's Boat Center).

The canal's first few hundred yards is lined with shops and a series of lift locks. Barge rides are also available here during the summer months. The towpath begins as a red brick walkway along the north side of the canal bed. After a few blocks, the towpath's gravel/clay towpath surface begins. The path is very narrow here and considering all the pedestrian traffic makes it very difficult to navigate by bike. The towpath crosses over to the south side of the canal just prior to Key Bridge.

For the first three miles or so, the towpath surface is fairly rough due to the heavy traffic load in the section. This is why I recommend that you use the parallel Capital Crescent Trail (CCT) (http://www.cctrail.org).



The paved CCT begins at the western end of K Street (under the Whitehurst Freeway). At this point it is not apparent that the two trails are next to each other, as there is a 40-50 foot elevation differential and forest growth between the trails. The two trails meet at Fletcher's Boathouse (Mile 3.1). In addition to a snack bar, boat and bicycle rentals are available here. The CCT trail crosses over the towpath about a half mile past the boathouse and heads north to Bethesda and Silver Spring.

By Mile 5, the towpath traffic reduces significantly. Between Mile 8 and 10 is the area known as "Seven Locks" (since there are seven lift-locks here, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locks_on_the_C%26O_Canal).




The canal passes under the Capital Beltway at Mile 9.3 and you enter the area known as Carderock. The half mile long building to the north is the David Taylor Model Basin where the Navy tests scale models of new ships 
 
The miles between Mile 10 and Mile 25 are probably the most heavily used section of the canal. Generally, the towpath here is in excellent condition, and the canal basin still contains water. In April 2006, after more than 30 years, the Widewater towpath breach (between Mile 12.6 and Mile 13.7) was finally repaired.
 
The major point of interest in this section is Great Falls located at Mile 14.



During nice weather, this area is crawling with folks out to enjoy hiking on the challenging Billy Goat Trail, rock climbing in Mather Gorge, kayaking in the Potomac rapids below Great Falls, or just enjoying a stroll along the towpath. Use caution and be courteous around the pedestrians.

Once you pass Great Falls, the towpath quickly becomes less crowded. Swain's Lock is a nice place to stop for a break. At Mile 22.8 are the remains of the Seneca Creek Aqueduct. This three arch aqueduct is the first of eleven such structures along the canal. The western most arch was destroyed by a local thunderstorm flood on Sept 11, 1971.

Once you pass the Seneca Creek Aqueduct, the conditions change radically. If you are thinking about biking the entire canal, you may want to try a practice ride in this section to see what it will REALLY be like. First, the canal bed is no longer watered and thus has been completely reclaimed by forest growth.

This makes the towpath quite shady, which is great during the summer months, but it does greatly limit the scenery. Also, the wide towpath you had enjoyed eventually changes into a dual track trail. The frequent access points are a thing of the past so you pass very few folks here. 
 
The major point of interest in this section is the historic Whites Ferry (http://canal.mcmullans.org/whites_ferry.htm). This is the only working ferry on the Potomac River.

You can use the ferry to cross over to Leesburg, Virginia ($1 for bikes, $3 for cars) where lodging is available. Leesburg (http://www.leesburgva.org/) is about 4 miles from White's Ferry via Business Route 15. Route 15 is a very busy highway however there are now paved shoulders along the busiest section.

 
  • BICYCLE REPAIR

"Bicycle Outfitters" (http://www.bikeoutfitters.com) at 34-D Catoctin Circle, SE, Leesburg, Virginia (703) 777-6126?

"Bicycle Pro Shop" (http://bicycleproshop.com) at 3403 M St NW, Washington, D.C. (202) 337-0311

"Bob's Bicycle" (http://bobsbike.com) at 19961 Fisher Avenue in Poolesville, Maryland (301) 349-2453 about eight miles from Whites Ferry via Whites Ferry Road.

"CycleLife USA" (http://www.cyclelifeusa.com) at 3255 K Street NW, Washington, D.C. - (202) 333-8883

"Plum Grove Cyclery" (http://plumgrovecyclery.com) just north of Leesburg off of Rt 15 at 16286 Rockland Lane. (703) 777-2252

"Revolution Cycles" (http://revolutioncycles.com) at 3411 M Street, NW , Washington, DC (202) 965-3601


  • VISITOR CENTERS

Georgetown Visitor Center at 1057 Thomas Jefferson Street NW, Washington, D.C.  (206) 653-5190 . Exhibits on the history of the canal and the urban canal setting.
 
Great Falls Visitor Center at 11710 MacArthur Boulevard; Potomac, Maryland (301) 767-3714. The building was originally a locktender's house but was later expanded. 

 

MILE 40 to MILE 50


 

  • DESCRIPTION AND HIGHLIGHTS

This section contains the beautiful Monocacy Aqueduct. It is a 500 foot long stone bridge with seven arches. It was used to carry the canal over the Monocacy River. The aqueduct took 4 years to build and was completed in 1833. Next to the tunnel at Paw-Paw (Mile 155), the aqueduct is probably the second most impressive structure on the canal. In the 1970s, the Park service erected temporary exo-skeleton supports around the aqueduct due to damage caused by repeated flooding. In 2005, aqueduct repairs were finally completed, and so the exo-skeleton has been removed.
 
The only other point of interest that you "might" see in this section is the Dickerson power plant (Mile 41). In 1992, a training course was built in the power plant's warm water discharge spillway for the U.S. Olympic Kayak Team. You might be able to see it through the chain-link gate at the south side of the complex.
 
Trail conditions are historically poor in the mile or two prior to the town of Point-of-Rocks, Maryland (http://www.pointofrocks.org). Expect to navigate around many mud holes in this section. The rest of the path is typically in good shape.
 
Access to the town of Point-of-Rocks is by way of a small, wooden, one-lane bridge over the canal bed. The town is mainly a collection of run down homes. However, there are two stores/deli's about a block off the towpath. This makes the town a good lunch/re-supply stop.
 
Just after the wooden bridge, the C&O Canal passes through the Catoctin Mountain Range. During the canal construction, the B&O Railroad mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge for the narrow right-of-way through this pass. As a result, the railroad was forced to tunnel through the mountain. After the canal failed, the railroad built a second track in the abandoned canal bed. However, the towpath is still intact through the pass.

 

MILE 40 to MILE 70escription

 

  • DESCRIPTION AND HIGHLIGHTS

After about 30 miles of "remote" wilderness, things start to get crowded as the canal enters the Appalachian Mountains. In the narrow valleys, river, canal, railroad, and highway must compete for limited real estate. During the early 1800s, the canal and railroad companies were constantly involved in legal battles surrounding these right-of-ways. In some of the tighter sections, you will note that the railroad has since taken over the abandoned canal bed.
 
Mile 51.5 is the site of the Catoctin Creek Aqueduct (http://www.catoctinaqueduct.org).


 

This aqueduct completely collapsed several years ago and has since been replaced by a footbridge. It is being replaced right now.
 
A few miles past, you enter the Brunswick, Mayland (http://www.brunswickmd.gov/) area. This town contains a small railroad yard and an RV campground along the river.
 
The towpath is typically quite bumpy here because for almost three-quarters of a mile it is a stone road and traffic uses it to access the campground. Route 17/287 also crosses the Potomac here at Mile 55. This road runs south to Purcellville, Virginia (via Lovettsville) where you can catch the western terminus of the W&OD Trail. However, Route 287 is not very cyclist friendly (fast traffic and no shoulder).

Mile 55 - The rail station at Brunswick, Maryland
 
At Mile 58, a red brick lock house marks the point where the Appalachian Trail (AT) (http://www.appalachiantrail.org/) joins the towpath. 
 
 
The  AT is a hiking trail that runs some two thousand miles between Maine and Georgia across the top of the Appalachian Mountain Chain. After making the short hop across Maryland, the trail comes down off the ridge for a three mile "stroll" along the Potomac. 
 
 
At mile 61, the AT crosses over the river into West Virginia at Harpers Ferry.
 
The highlight in this section is the town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (http://www.nps.gov/archive/hafe/home.htm) located at the fork of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The town is now a National Historic Park and has a long history of floods and wars. A walkway along one of the railroad bridges provides easy access from the canal. 
 
Mile 60.2 - View of downtown Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
 
Mile 60.2 - Footbridge to Harpers Ferry and Maryland Heights cliffs. Around one of the legs of the railroad bridge is a winding stairway to the walkway next to the railroad tracks. The stairway has about two dozen steps and the walkway is at least five feet wide. 
 
 
 
 
Mile 60.5 - A view of Hilltop House from the towpath.


  • BICYCLE REPAIR
 
"3 Points Cycle" at 4328 William L Wilson Fwy, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia? - (304) 535-3176?


  • VISITOR CENTER
 
Brunswick Visitor Center - 40 West Potomac Street, Brunswick (301) 739-4200



MILE 70 to MILE 82


 


  • DESCRIPTION AND HIGHLIGHTS

 

This section, noted by its big curves, is located near the Antietam National Battlefield (http://www.nps.gov/ant). Antietam was the site of the Civil War's bloodiest battle. The auto tour route through the battlefield also provides an excellent side trip for cyclists.

 

At Mile 72.8, the towpath crosses under the Route 34 bridge. You can use this crossing to reach Shepherdstown, West Virginia (http://www.shepherdstownvisitorscenter.com/) which is located just across the river. While on the bridge, you can't help to notice the charming Bavarian Inn, which sits on a cliff overlooking the river. This town is the home of Shepherd University, and thus has several restaurant and lodging options. In January 2000, the town was briefly in the international spotlight when it hosted the Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

 

Other than the big curves, there is not very much of interest along the towpath. The Killiansburg Cave (http://mcmullans.org/canal/killiansburg_cave.htm), located about 50 feet above the towpath at Mile 75.7, provided shelter to the town folks during the Antietam Battle. The foliage is fairly heavy in this section which makes it seem quite remote, however it also makes this section quite cool in the summer. Despite the remote feel, access points are fairly common. 
 

  • BICYCLE REPAIR

 

"Shepherdstown Pedal & Paddle" (http://www.thepedalpaddle.com) at 115 W German Street, Shepherdstown, West Virginia - (304) 876-3000

 

 

MILE 82 to MILE 106


 

 


DESCRIPTION AND HIGHLIGHTS

 

Williamsport, Maryland (http://www.williamsportmd.gov) highlights this section of the towpath. The town was a major inland port during the canal heydays. 


 

 
 
Today, the town is mostly just an exit off Interstate 81. However, it still supports a pretty sizable residential population and several small businesses. As a result, a number of convenience marts and restaurants are available here.


Just north of Williamsport lies the Conococheague (Con-ni-ca-jig) Aqueduct (http://mcmullans.org/canal/conococheague_aqueduct.htm). In 1920, the upstream wall of the aqueduct collapsed after being struck by a canal barge. The barge crashed through the opening and remained stuck in the creek until 1936, when a flood washed it down the Potomac. A wooden wall was hastily reconstructed in order to get the aqueduct back in service. This fix remained in place until the canal ceased operation 4 years later in 1924.


Mile 84 through Mile 88 is the only impassable section along towpath until at least 2012. As a result, a bicycle detour has been established between Dam #4 and McMahons Mill (http://www.nps.gov/.../choh/ppMaps/big_slackwater_add_detour.pdf). After 85 miles of towpath riding, this detour is actually a very pleasant diversion. Note that the detour signs are yellow. Traveling to Cumberland, there will be a steep (at least 8% grade) climb for about a mile on Dam #4 road. The road detour is about seven miles long. To get back on the towpath, you go through a closed down farm.


 



BICYCLE REPAIR


"River City Cycles" (http://rivercitycyclesinc.com) at 16 N Conococheague Street, Williamsport - (301) 223-6733



VISITOR CENTER


Williamsport Visitor Center - 206 West Potomac Street , Williamsport (301) 582-0813



MILE 106 to MILE 116




 

This section is one of the most difficult to ride. The towpath surface consists of a coarser gravel base which makes riding rough. Plus, the long straight sections can become quite tedious. Also, the towpath follows very close to Interstate 70, so the highway noise becomes quite noticeable. However, the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail (http://www.westernmarylandrailtrail.org/WMRT/) runs parallel to the towpath between Mile 115 and Mile 132. 


You can get on the paved trail at M.P. 1.0 and follow it 9 miles into Hancock and 12 more miles to Mile 132. Note, there is no access from the Western Maryland Rail Trail to Leopards Mill, Licking Creek Aqueduct, Little Pool, and White Rock H/B Campsites.


There are some points of interest along these miles. Four Locks marks one of the few spots were the canal strays from the Potomac River Basin. Fort Frederick State Park (http://www.friendsoffortfrederick.info/) was used for various purposes between the French & Indian and the Civil Wars. Today, it provides several recreation facilities including boat rentals and a launch. Big Pool Lake, just west of the park, was constructed to reduce the amount of digging required for the canal basin. The single arch Licking Creek Aqueduct (http://www.mcmullans.org/canal/licking_creek_aqueduct.htm) is said to have the largest stone arch in the U.S.

 

 


MILE 116 to MILE 130



 


  • DESCRIPTION AND HIGHLIGHTS


The town of Hancock, Maryland (http://www.hancockmd.com/) highlights this section of the canal. During the heydays of the canal, Hancock was a major inland port. Today, it is mainly just a small junction town located in Maryland's thin neck between Pennsylvania and West Virginia. After the 12 long mile long, nearly arrow straight ride from Fort Frederick, this town is a sight for sore eyes!


Located at Mile 124, Hancock makes a great overnight stop when using the three or six day trip options. A Super 8 Motel is within a half mile of the towpath, and Cohill Manor B&B is about 1 mile west of town on Route 144. There are also several restaurants in town. Other points of interest in this section include the Tonoloway Creek Aqueduct ruins, and the Round Top Cement Company ruins. 



  • BIKE REPAIR


"C & O Bicycle" (http://www.candobicycle.com/) at 9 S Pennsylvania Ave, Hancock, Maryland - (301) 678-6665



  • VISITOR CENTER


Hancock Visitor Center - 326 East Main Street, Hancock (301) 678-5463



MILE 130 to MILE 150


 

  • DESCRIPTION AND HIGHLIGHTS


This beautiful section is probably the most geographically remote along the entire canal. The rugged mountain terrain provides wonderful scenic vistas, but really limits access points.

 

The only "town" in this section is Little Orleans, (http://maryland.hometownlocator.com/md/allegany/little-orleans.cfm) which is basically just four or five buildings.

The main hangout spot in Little Orleans is Bill's Place, a combination general store and pub. Be sure to drop in and perhaps pin a dollar bill to the ceiling. If you need lodging, check out the new Little Orleans Lodge, located just outside of town. There are many Hiker/Biker campsites in this section. Fifteen Mile Creek Recreation Area (at Little Orleans) also provides drive in campsites.

This section always seems to be much more "buggier" than the rest of the canal, so make sure you have lots of repellent!



MILE 150 to MILE 168


  • DESCRIPTION AND HIGHLIGHTS

This section contains the single most impressive engineering feature on the canal, the Paw Paw Tunnel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paw_Paw_Tunnel). 
 
 
 
 
Located between Mile 155 and 156, the 3,100 foot long tunnel was constructed between 1836 and 1850 and was the final link joining Cumberland to the Chesapeake Bay. The decision to build the tunnel was made over several other options to traverse the shear cliffs in this area along the Maryland side of the river. One idea was to dam the river thus creating a lake for barge traffic, however this still required blasting a towpath into the cliff walls. Another option was to create a series of aqueducts to cross back and forth between the Maryland and West Virginia sides. The tunnel option was eventually chosen mainly because it was expected to be completed in about 18 months (the actual construction took 14 years!).
 
Be aware that the tunnel is VERY dark so I highly advise you to carry a headlamp or flashlight. The park service has erected a sturdy railing along the walkway, so you need not fear falling into the canal basin (it is quite a drop!). Soon after exiting the south portal, the towpath passes a camping area and then goes under Route 51. The town of Paw Paw, West Virginia (http://www.pawpawwv.com/) is about 1 mile down Route 51. The town has a general store/deli, a convenience mart, and at least one B & B.
 
Other points of interest include the Town Creek Aqueduct (restored in 1977) and a fully restored section of the canal at the historic area called Oldtown . Oldtown was the sight of one the country's last privately owned toll bridge. In August 1995, Maryland closed this bridge due to serious safety concerns. However, repairs have been completed and the bridge is now "officially" re-opened ($1.00 toll). 


 

MILE 168 to MILE 184


 

DESCRIPTION AND HIGHLIGHTS


The final section of towpath is quite interesting. It seems the scenery changes constantly as the path winds the Potomac Valley between Oldtown and
Cumberland (http://www.ci.cumberland.md.us).



One moment, you're riding through deep secluded forests, and the next moment you are passing a quiet suburban development. Then you find yourself riding through a peaceful mountain meadow, and the next thing you hear is the clanging of railroad cars being switch at a nearby by yard.

These days, this final stretch of towpath is in excellent condition. The path ends at the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad Station, located just north of the Interstate 68 bridge. The canal itself was filled in back in the 50's for flood control, so the towpath is all that remains.

 

An on going waterfront revitalization project is working to restore the canal to its formal glory.



Originally, the canal was supposed to continue farther west to Pittsburgh, thus joining the Ohio River to the Chesapeake Bay (hence the name). However, by 1850 the railroad had won the race to the west, so further construction plans were scraped.

  • BICYCLE REPAIR


"Cumberland Trail Connection" (http://www.ctcbikes.com) at Canal Place, 14 Howard Street, Cumberland - (301) 777-8724

"Cycles & Things?" at 165 N Centre St, Cumberland - (301) 722-5496?


  • VISITOR CENTER


Cumberland Visitor Center - Western Maryland Railroad - 13 Canal Street, Cumberland (301) 722-8226


Useful Websites


http://bikewashington.org/canal/index.php
http://www.candocanal.org/
http://www.fred.net/kathy/canal.html
http://www.nps.gov/choh/



 

RELATED ARTICLES


- History of the C&O Canal
- C&O Canal - Campground and Lodging Guide

 

 
     

 
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