Imagine it’s 1871 and you’ve been hired to lead a team of mules along a path as they tow a boat in a canal parallelling the Potomac. You’re heading from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland. The canal boats are your business and your home (and a barn for the mules). Each week, you travel 184.5 miles east or west, load or unload, and then repeat the trip all over 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 traverse (mostly cycle) these paths, these same paths where you and your mules once trod. Would you believe it?
Welcome to C&O Canal Towpath, a multi-use trail that runs 184.5 miles along the historic C&O Canal between Cumberland, Maryland, and Georgetown in Washington, D.C. What started as a humble freight transportation route has become a recreational trail extraordinaire.
A Remarkable History
In 1825, the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Company was chartered to build a shipping canal as a trade route, connecting the Potomac River in D.C. with the Pennsylvania headwaters of the Ohio River. By 1850, the canal reached Cumberland and competed with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for transportation. Canal trade peaked in 1871, when more than 500 canal boats carried some 850,000 tons on the canal.
In 1938, the U.S. government purchased the right of way of the entire canal. It’s a story of starts and stops: They initially planned to restore the canal and towpath as a national recreation area, but then considered converting it into a highway. Eventually, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an outdoorsman and environmentalist, charged that the canal was worth saving for its beauty, history, wildlife, and recreational potential (what a visionary!). In 1971, the canal was designated the C&O Canal National Historic Park.
Today, the C&O Canal Towpath is a premiere historic recreational trail in the United States.
We purchased the helpful TrailGuide for the C&O Canal Towpath and the connected 150-mile Great Alleghany Trail (GAP) which runs from Cumberland to Pittsburgh. The guide includes details on the route, towns, lodging, food, and more. It also identifies 10 “best of” day trips (“out and back” rides). My husband Dean and I selected three rides on the GAP and three on the C&O.
Here are the beautiful rides we enjoyed on the C&O Canal Towpath.
1. Aqueduct Run
Maryland: Brunswick To The Monocacy Aqueduct
25.6 Miles Round-Trip
This ride started in Brunswick. The first highlight was the 92-foot, 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 always fascinated me.
The trail is mostly flat. We expected the riding to be somewhat rugged, but to our surprise, our rides were on hard pack crushed stone with mature trees that provide lots of shade.
Another highlight was Lockhouse 28, completed in 1837. Lockkeepers were hired along the canal to keep each of the 77 locks operational during daylight hours. They performed minor maintenance and regulated the canal’s water level. We saw lock houses on every ride, and each time, I felt like we stepped back in time. Seven lockhouses are available for lodging rental, and Lockhouse 28 is one of them. We didn’t do this, but I think it would be a unique and memorable stay.
Our turnaround point was the seven-arched Monocacy Aqueduct, recently restored by the National Park Service. Then we rode back the way we came. It’s surprising how out-and-back rides feel new after turning around; we biked in the opposite direction and noticed things we hadn’t seen on the way out.
On the return ride, we took a detour to Point of Rocks, Maryland, to see the charming, restored Victorian train station.
Pro Tip: There’s no fee to ride the C&O (or the 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 made a storybook backdrop.
At Harpers Ferry, the turnaround point, Dean stayed with the bikes (thanks, Dean) and I climbed the spiral staircase and crossed the long footbridge into Harpers Ferry to take a few photos. When I returned, we hopped back on our bikes and rode back to Shepherdstown.
Pro Tip: One of the joys of visiting in September is that there’s no need for insect repellent. I read online that summer visitors don’t have that luxury.
3. Fruit To Fort
Maryland: Hancock To Fort Frederick State Park And Back
19.2 Miles Round-Trip
This ride starts in the charming town of Hancock, Maryland, formerly known as the “fruit basket of the nation” because of its many orchards. I was hoping to see fruit trees and roadside fruit stands in Hancock, but we didn’t see any (I guess former really means former — or we just missed them).
On this stretch of trail, the Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) runs parallel to the C&O Canal Towpath, and since we were biking two rides on this day, we opted for the paved WMRT instead of the more rugged C&O. Our destination was the restored fortress at Fort Frederick State Park, originally built during the French and Indian War.
About 2 miles before the fort, a sign warned us of a steep incline ahead and told us to detour to the C&O Canal Towpath, so we rode 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. People we met on the trail were exceedingly friendly!
Pro Tip: There’s no fee to tour the barracks, and they’re open Memorial Day to Labor Day. Our September visit meant we couldn’t get inside.
Bonus: Hike Through The Paw Paw Tunnel
The 3,118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel, the longest man-made structure on the canal, is a must-see. Located near Paw Paw, West Virginia, it was completed in 1850 and was an engineering marvel for its day. On our visit, one end of the tunnel was closed for construction, but we could hike to and through the tunnel. It was spectacular.
Pro Tip: Be sure to bring a flashlight for this tunnel. And in general, check the C&O trail’s closures and current conditions and review the safety tips.
A Long Stretch Of Quiet And Peace
Justice William O. Douglas believed the following: “The stretch of 185 miles of country from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, MD, is one of the most fascinating and picturesque in the nation … it is a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace … a wilderness area where we can commune with God and nature, a place not yet marred by the roar of wheels and the sound of horns.”
One of the most fascinating and picturesque, indeed. We loved our time biking on the C&O Canal Towpath. It’s a remarkable 184.5-mile path full of history but also rich in natural beauty. If you didn’t know the history, you’d still love it for what it is… an extensive trail along the Potomac that goes on for miles and is worth every pedal. When you go, I hope you find retreat and refuge there, too.
Pro Tip: Seasonally, the National Park Service operates a replica canal boat pulled by mules in Great Falls, Maryland.