The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park is a 184.5 mile continuous linear trail that travels along Maryland's Potomac River Valley from Georgetown, Washington D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland on the old C&O Canal towpath. The surface of the towpath is mostly hard-packed dirt and gravel. 74 lift locks raise it from near sea level to an elevation of 605-feet at Cumberland.
The Potomac River runs a little bit wilder through the northern section of the C&O Canal Trail as it travels through the ridge and valley section of the route, at points highlighted by steep cliffs. The wildlife is more abundant and the trail is quieter and less crowded. It is a more rugged and remote mountain biking adventure than the southern section. On the last leg of your journey, as you approach Cumberland, the Allegheny Mountains provide a scenic backdrop.
Many towns along the route provide convenient services, refreshments and inns, making logistics for a weekend get-away or 4 to 5 day trip easy. Free Hiker-Biker Campsites (first come-first serve basis), located at several points from Swain’s Lock to Seneca at various intervals, offer alternative options for multi-day trips.
Williamsport is the gateway to the northern section of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail, and a good place to start your bike trip. It is the only place on the canal where you can view examples of major canal structures within a half-mile stretch. Lock 44, a lockhouse, a re-watered section of the canal, the Cushwa turning basin and the Conococheague Aqueduct are all located in this part of the park. One of the only Bollman Iron Truss Bridges still in existence today crosses the canal at Williamsport.
The National Park's Visitor Center is located in the old Cushwa Warehouse right on the canal. Stop here for trail guides and information about the route ahead. The center also contains exhibits and canal artifacts.
History afficianados will find many fascinating reminders of the canal’s role as a transportation system during the Canal Era. Two of the most impressive structures along the northern stretch of the C&O Canal Trail include the Conococheague Aqueduct and the impressive Paw Paw Tunnel, a 3,118-foot-long tunnel that bores straight through the Paw Paw Mountain. The canal path also passes by Fort Frederick, the Site of Maryland's frontier defense during the French and Indian War, and Green Ridge State Forest. Both places provide an opportunity for interesting side trips. Camp overnight at Green Ridge State Forest and try the 12 mile designated mountain bike trail.
The park forms a corridor that is just as important for traveling wildlife as it is for hikers and bicyclists. It preserves a floodplain forest and wetlands habitat that supports a wide variety of flora and fauna. River otters, beavers, deer, red foxes, wild turkeys, songbirds and a variety of waterfowl are fairly common. You have a good chance of spotting some of them on your ride. Less common are the black bear, bobcat and bald eagle.
Cumberland, listed on the National Historic Register, is the C&O Canal Trail's western terminus. The Cumberland Visitor Center is located on the first floor of the historic 1913 Western Maryland Railway Station. Top off your bike trip with a scenic excursion through the mountains on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, a restored early 20th century train.
Note: In 2006, The Allegheny Passage, a 150 mile multi-use trail system, made a connection with the C & O Canal Towpath in Cumberland, creating a continuous non-motorized corridor, 318 miles long, from McKeesport, near Pittsburgh, to Washington, DC.
C&O Canal National Park (North) Highlights:
C&O Canal National Park Visitor Center
Paw Paw Tunnel
Fort Frederick State Park
Cumberland Visitors Center
The Canal operated from 1824-1924 as a tranportation route. The towpath was originally built 12 feet wide as a path for mules that pulled canal boats. The Canal played an important role in western expansion, transportation, engineering, the Civil War, immigration, industry and commerce. For communities and businesses along its route, the Canal was a lifeline bringing coal, lumber, grain and other agricultural products to market. It provided a link between the growing west and the east. Devastating floods and competition from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad closed the canal trade by 1924. Some of the historic towns along the canal with Visitor Centers, are Cumberland, Brunswick, Hancock, Williamsport, Great Falls Tavern and Georgetown.
For more information:
Trail Website: Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park