Imagine it’s 1871 and you’ve been hired to lead a team of mules along a path as they tow a boat through a channel parallel to the Potomac. You depart from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland. River boats are your business and your home (and a mule barn). Each week you travel 184.5 miles east or west, load or unload, then repeat the trip again. You make $15 per trip for your efforts.
Now imagine someone told you that one day thousands of visitors would come from far and wide to travel (mostly on bicycles) these paths, these same paths where you and your mules have once walked. Would you believe it?
welcome to C&O Canal Towpatha multi-use trail that stretches 184.5 miles along the historic C&O Canal between Cumberland, Maryland, and Georgetown in Washington, DC What started as a humble freight route has grown into an extraordinary recreational trail.
A remarkable story
In 1825, the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Company received a charter to construct a shipping canal as a trade route, linking the Potomac River at DC to the Pennsylvania headwaters of the Ohio River. In 1850 the canal reached Cumberland and rivaled the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for transportation. Canal trade peaked in 1871, when more than 500 barges carried some 850,000 tons on the canal.
In 1938, the US government purchased the right of way for the entire canal. It’s a story of starts and stops: they originally planned to restore the canal and towpath as a national recreation area, but then considered converting it to a highway. Ultimately, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an outdoor enthusiast and conservationist, said the canal was worth saving for its beauty, history, wildlife, and potential. recreational (what a visionary!). In 1971, the canal was designated C&O Canal National Historical Park.
Today, the C&O Canal Towpath is a premier historic recreational trail in the United States.
We bought the useful Trail Guide for the C&O canal towpath and the 150 miles connected Great Alleghany Trail (GAP) which runs from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. The guide includes details on the road, cities, accommodation, food, etc. It also identifies 10 “best of” day trips (return journeys). My husband Dean and I chose three laps on the GAP and three on the C&O.
Here are the beautiful walks we enjoyed on the C&O Canal towpath.
1. Aqueduct Race
Maryland: Brunswick to Monocacy Aqueduct
25.6 miles round trip
This ride started in Braunschweig. The first highlight was the 92ft three-arched Catoctin Creek Aqueduct, built in 1834 and restored in 2011. We crossed many aqueducts (over water) and viaducts (over land) on these bike rides , and they have always fascinated me.
The trail is mostly flat. We expected the riding to be somewhat rough, but to our surprise our rides were on hard crushed stone with mature trees providing plenty of shade.
Lock 28, completed in 1837, is another highlight. Lock keepers have been hired along the canal to keep each of the 77 locks operational during the day. They carried out minor maintenance work and regulated the water level of the canal. We saw locks on every trip, and each time felt like stepping back in time. Seven locks are available for gite rentaland Lock 28 is one of them. We didn’t, but I think it would be a unique and memorable stay.
Our turning point was the seven-arched Monocacy Aqueduct, recently restored by the National Park Service. Then we went back the way we had come. It’s surprising how new round trips feel after turning around; we cycled in the opposite direction and noticed things we hadn’t seen on the way out.
On the way back, we took a detour to Point of Rocks, Maryland, to see the charming, restored Victorian train station.
Pro tip: There is no charge to mount the C&O (or GAP). It’s hard to believe we have free access to such beautiful trails.
2. John Brown’s Ride
West Virginia: Shepherdstown to Harpers Ferry and Back
24.3 miles round trip
We started this ride in Shepherdstown and headed east. I loved this trail for its tall trees and natural beauty. Several sections of trees were covered in vines and provided a storybook backdrop.
To Harper’s Ferry, the turning point, Dean stayed with the bikes (thanks, Dean) and I climbed the spiral staircase and crossed the long walkway to Harpers Ferry to take some pictures. When I got back we jumped on our bikes and rode back to Shepherdstown.
Pro tip: One of the pleasures of a visit in September is that there is no need for insect repellent. I read online that summer visitors don’t have that luxury.
3. Fruit in the fort
Maryland: Hancock to Fort Frederick State Park and Return
19.2 miles round trip
This walk begins in the charming town of Hancock, Maryland, formerly known as the “fruit basket of the nation” due to its many orchards. I was hoping to see some fruit trees and roadside fruit stalls in Hancock, but we didn’t see any (I guess ancient really means ancient – or we just missed them).
On this section of trail, the Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) runs parallel to the C&O Canal towpath, and since we were doing two bike rides that day, we opted for the paved WMRT instead of the sturdier C&O. Our destination was the restored fortress at Fort Frederick State Parkoriginally built during the French and Indian War.
About 2 miles before the fort a sign warned of a steep grade ahead and told us to detour to the C&O Canal towpath so we hiked the last 2 miles on the C&O. At the fort we saw barracks and other buildings and struck up a conversation with other cyclists. The people we met on the trail were extremely friendly!
Pro Tip: The visit to the firehouse is free and it is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Our visit in September meant we couldn’t get inside.
Bonus: Paw Paw Tunnel Hike
The 3,118 feet Paw paw tunnel, the longest man-made structure in the canal, is a must-see. Located near Paw Paw, West Virginia, it was completed in 1850 and was an engineering marvel for its time. When we visited, one end of the tunnel was closed for construction, but we could walk to and through the tunnel. It was spectacular.
A long period of calm and peace
Judge William O. Douglas believed that: “The 185-mile stretch of country from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, MD, is one of the most fascinating and scenic in the country…it is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of calm and peace…a wilderness where we can commune with God and nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of car horns.
One of the most fascinating and picturesque, indeed. We loved our time cycling the C&O Canal towpath. It is a remarkable path of 300 km steeped in history but also rich in natural beauty. If you didn’t know the history, you’d still love it for what it is…a vast trail along the Potomac that stretches for miles and is worth every pedal. When you leave, I hope you will also find retreat and refuge there.
Pro tip: In season, the National Park Service operates a replica houseboat pulled by mules in Great Falls, Maryland.