C & O Canal National Historic Park

View of Cumberland, Md. (Clay Gump)

One of the nation's most oddly-shaped national parks starts right in our nation's capital. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park begins in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC, and meanders for 184.5 miles along the Potomac River to Cumberland, Maryland, rarely reaching more than 100 feet in width. This historic canal and towpath make Washington, DC, a capital place to start a biking adventure.

Construction for the C & O Canal began on July 4, 1828, and finally reached Cumberland in 1850. Its 74 lift locks raised it from near sea level to an elevation of 605 feet in Cumberland. Two mules pulled cargo boats along the canal, using towpaths, but railroads made the canal obsolete. The towpaths now provide a nearly level byway for bicyclists and hikers, while watered sections provide spots for canoeists, boaters, and anglers.

Mountain bikes provide the best way to see all or part of the C & O Canal. Several towns and frequent campsites make it an easy two-, three-, or four-day trip. The start of the path can be quite busy on good-weather weekends, thanks to its DC location, but you'll go for miles without seeing anyone as you pedal farther west.

Milepost 0 in Georgetown predates the creation of the capital itself. It was an early and busy tidal port for the east coast and Europe. The canal towpath now threads its way through the quaint commercial and residential section before making its way to Great Falls.

Located around Milepost 13, Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is a popular stop. Highlights include the old tavern, a working lock, a visitor center, canal boat rides, and food and drink for deserving cyclists.

After Great Falls, the trail is quiet and peaceful, with pretty views of the Potomac and the rest of Mother Nature. There are many campsites, though accommodations and food can also be found in Brunswick or Harpers Ferry. In any case, be sure to cross the river to Harpers Ferry, the historic town of John Brown's famous slave revolt.

After Harpers Ferry, the river curves along between West Virginia and Maryland. Williamsport and Hancock make for ideal overnight or dining goals, with camping available on the canal or fancier accommodations in these towns.

The final highlight, before reaching the end at Cumberland, is the Paw Paw Tunnel, a 3,118-foot-long tunnel straight through Paw Paw Mountain. In Cumberland, the interesting Visitor Center provides a great place to recall the highlights of this bike trip.

Contact the C & O Canal National Historical Park at 1850 Dual Highway, Suite 100, Hagerstown, MD 21740-6620; e-mail: CHOH_Superintendent@nps.gov; phone: 301-739-4200.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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