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Rev Johannes Myors
In 2010: Cycled 17 years across the USA, including 16 coast to coast crossings!
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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 40 to MILE 50
MILE 70 to MILE 82
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.
"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.
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.
"River City Cycles" (http://rivercitycyclesinc.com) at 16 N Conococheague Street, Williamsport - (301) 223-6733
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
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.
"C & O Bicycle" (http://www.candobicycle.com/) at 9 S Pennsylvania Ave, Hancock, Maryland - (301) 678-6665
Hancock Visitor Center - 326 East Main Street, Hancock (301) 678-5463
MILE 130 to MILE 150
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!
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.
"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?
Cumberland Visitor Center - Western Maryland Railroad - 13 Canal Street, Cumberland (301) 722-8226
- History of the C&O Canal
- C&O Canal - Campground and Lodging Guide