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. Mountain biking the C&O Canal Trail Southern section as it climbs for 70 miles, from the Tidewater Lock (Lock 0) in Georgetown at the mouth of Rock Creek through the low, rolling hills of the Piedmont into the northern Blue Ridge at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is a bike ride through American history and one of the best ways to discover the natural, cultural and recreational resources found all along the route.
The canal path is relatively flat and travels on a slight uphill grade towards Cumberland, MD. Although the surface of the towpath is mostly hard-packed dirt and gravel, the terrain varies from section to section. The bike path surface around popular, heavily visited attractions like Great Falls (mile 10 - 25 ) tend to be wider and smoother, while more remote stretches tend to be narrower and rougher - at some points nothing more than grassy doubletrack. After periods of heavy rain, expect very muddy trail conditions.
The C&O towpath trail is busiest between May and October and in the first 14 miles from Georgetown to Great Falls. Try riding the towpath at other times of the year or bike the upper reaches of the canal for a more relaxed, quieter cycling adventure.
Many towns along the route provide convenient services, bike rentals, refreshments and inns, making logistics for a weekend getaway or longer trip easy. 30 free hiker-biker campsites for one-night tent camping (first come-first serve basis), spaced at regular intervals, from Swain’s Lock (Mile 16.6) to Evitts Creek (Mile 180.1) offer alternative options for multi-day bike trips. The sites are primitive with port-a-potty, water pump, grill and picnic table (no showers). Five of these are drive-in (fee required). Several Hostels located along the route also offer inexpensive lodging options.
Interesting geological features include the towering cliffs and interesting rock formations at Widewater where the canal widens and the spectacular Great Falls of the Potomac.
History afficianados will find the hundreds of original structures, including 21 locks, several lock houses and the canal's longest aqueduct along this stretch a fascinating reminder of the C&O Canal's role as a major transportation system during the Canal Era.
Begin your ride at either the Georgetown or Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center (The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Visitors Center).
Mile: 14: The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is on the Maryland side at around mile 14 along the C&O Canal Trail. Facilities include hiking trails, the Great Falls Overlook, information, picnic area, restrooms and snack bar. While there are nice views of the falls, there is no bridge on this side of the C&O Canal Trail to Great Falls National Park located on the Virginia side of the Potomac.
The Great Falls section of the C&O Canal Trail is a major recreation hub. Here, the Potomac River builds up speed and force as it cascades 76 feet in two-thirds of a mile over a series of steep, jagged rocks and rushes through narrow Mather Gorge. Besides cyclists travelling on the canal path, people come to hike on the challenging Billy Goat Trail, kayak or canoe in the whitewater below Great Falls, or rock climb in the Gorge.
Mile 16.6: Once you pass Great Falls, the crowds thin out. Swain's Lock is a very picturesque place to stop for a break. It used to be a popular refreshment stop and canoe and bike rental concession run by the Swain family. Swain family members helped to build the original canal and lived at the lovely white Lockhouse 21 since the early 1900's. The concession closed in 2005.
The park forms a corridor that is just as important for travelling 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, great blue herons, 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.
Mile 27.2: A good spot for wildlife and bird watching is the section of trail that passes through the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area. You can also find Horsepen Branch, a lovely Hiker-Biker campsite located within easy access of the trail here.
Mile 42: You'll pass the 500 ft. Monocacy Aqueduct. It is the largest aqueduct on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. It used to carry the canal over the river. The bridge has no less than seven arches. It's a beauty.
Mile 58: the red brick Lockhouse 33 marks the junction of the Appalachian Trail (AT) with the towpath. The AT travels along the Potomac for a three mile stretch. At mile 61, the AT crosses over the river into West Virginia at Harpers Ferry. A footpath over the river on a railroad bridge provides easy access from the canal trail into Harpers Ferry at mile 60.2.
Mile 70: The Antietam Visitors Center and National Battlefield is the last stop on this southern stretch of the C&O Canal towpath. Driving, walking, and biking are just a few of the ways to experience this piece of history. An on-road bike route connects the Antietam National Battlefield Park to the C&O Canal towpath. Within the park, bicyclists are permitted on paved park tour roads and parking lots only.
C&O National Historic Park (South) Highlights:
Georgetown Visitors Center - 202-653-5190
Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center - 301-767-3714
Great Falls National Park - 703-285-2965
Biking to Great Falls Park is not recommended. Narrow two lane roads with no shoulders and sharp turns make it rather dicey. It's best to transport your bikes to the park by vehicle. Bike trails are easily accessible from the Visitor Center and the parking lots. Overlooks (accessible by hiking only) offer stunning views of the falls.
Tip: A bike rack is located behind the visitors center to lock your bikes. Trail maps are available in the Visitor Center and the entrance station.
Clara Barton National Historic Site
Antietam National Battlefield
For more information on the National Parks: www.nps.gov
Washington International Youth Hostel at Mile 0 has 250 beds. (202) 737-2333
The Canal operated from 1824-1924 as a tranportation route. It 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