Weekend Backpacker: Baltimore

C&O Canal, Great Falls Tavern
By Leonard Adkins
  |  Gorp.com

Visitors to the C&O Canal most often cite Great Falls as their favorite destination. Families enjoy kid-friendly activities around Great Falls Tavern, bicyclists welcome miles of flat riding, extreme kayakers test their mettle in the falls, and canoeists paddle the more sedate water downstream. Everybody comes to take in the dramatic scenery of the falls. Lucky for you, this outing brings you onto pathways that most people ignore. With only a few short ups and downs, it takes you through a deep forest typical of the Potomac River Basin and past reminders of the gold-mining days. You'll be surprised at how much wildlife can exist so close to large urban areas.

Old Angler's Inn to Swaines Lock Campsite. Begin the hike along the Berma Road; you'll come to a water-supply apparatus at 0.15. Turn right onto the yellow-blazed Angler's Spur Trail. Bear right onto blue-blazed Gold Mine Loop Trail at 0.7 mile. The trenches and depressions beside the trail were dug to facilitate gold mining. Following the Civil War, gold fever gripped the area, and by 1901 there were at least six mines close to the river. The trail to the right at 1.2 miles goes about 0.2 mile to the ruins of the Maryland Mine, which processed close to 6,000 tons of ore. There is a major intersection just as the trench comes to an end at 1.5 miles. You need to turn left for just a few steps before bearing right onto the trail marked as leading to the tavern. Turn left again at the T-intersection at 1.9 miles. This is the roadbed of the defunct Washington and Great Falls Railroad, which ran trolleys to the falls and tavern. The roadbed splits in two at 2.1 miles to form the circle upon which the trolley turned around. Soon after this split, bear right, drop off the elevated right-of-way, and make a left turn onto the trail marked as leading to the towpath. Descend to Lock 19 and you'll come to the visitors' center housed in the former Great Falls Tavern, which served as a lock house and hotel for canal travelers and visitors to the falls. Next to the tavern, you may see Lock 20 in action, as the mule-drawn Canal Clipper prepares to take visitors upstream. Cross the canal and turn right along the towpath, coming to Swains Lock Campsite at 5.1 miles, your home for the night. Return to the visitors' center in the morning, continue along the towpath, and bear right to cross a footbridge onto Olmstead Island for a view of Great Falls. Resuming the hike downstream along the towpath, your car will be reached 10.0 miles after leaving it.

South on I-95 to I-495. Heading west, take Exit 41 onto the Clara Barton Parkway for 1.5 miles to where it ends at MacArthur Boulevard. Turn left onto that highway, continue for another mile, and turn left into the trailhead parking area across from Old Angler's Inn.

No permits required.

Because the trailhead parking lot is also the starting point for the popular Billy Goat Trail, it can fill up early on nice weekends. Do the hike some other day to avoid the parking hassle.

Trails in the Potomac Gorge Area, published by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club; free park service map of Great Falls Recreation Area.

50 Hikes in Maryland; Hikes in the Washington Region: Part A: Montgomery and Frederick Counties in Maryland.

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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