The C&O Canal Towpath – A Review by a European Cyclist

I’ve cycle toured through ~34 countries in Europe. After years of cycling trips to Europe, this year I had decided to try cycling in the US. I’d had my third knee surgery in January. Uncertain about the recovery, cycling closer to home seemed a reasonable safety net, with the C&O Canal Towpath the easiest of those options. I also would finally not have to deal with a bicycle on a plane!

Covid-19 ended the possibility of cycling anywhere in Spring 2020. I settled in to outwait Covid. By Fall it became clear that plan had a clear flaw. I reconsidered cycling in Europe, but Americans weren’t permitted most places abroad, and I’d hate to become ill that far from home.

So back to my thoughts of cycling the C&O Canal Towpath. From all appearances the C&O appeared the Easy Button of cycle touring. Campsites every few miles, water, and a maximum 1.5% grade. A towpath of packed gravel, and dedicated cycle path for its entire length. In many respects the descriptions reminded me of cycling the section of EuroVelo 6 that runs along the Danube Rover from Passau to Budapest, passing through Vienna. Many people cycle or kayak that section of the Danube, with gentle grade, regular campsites, and mostly dedicated bicycle path.

The C&O Canal runs 184.5 miles along the northern bank of the Potomac from DC to Cumberland, MD.  The canal operated from 1831 to 1924 when flood damage (and economics) made repair untenable. The canal includes 74 locks, as well as 11 aqueducts that cross major waterways. In 1938 the abandoned canal transitioned in ownership to become a National Historic Park in 1971.

The towpath was originally built for the canal mules to “tow” the canal boats through the waterway.  That same path now serves as the bicycle trail. The towpath is lovely. You regularly cycle past old locks and lock houses. Trees cover almost the entirety of the towpath and campsites, providing welcome relief from the sun. There are a couple of dams that form slackwaters for sections where canal construction proved impossible, with the national park having created paved track along the rock face for easy cycling.

The towpath begins in Georgetown. The path changes outside of a day’s easy ride from DC. While the quality of that path degrades a bit once you move away from civilization, the crowds fall away. That said, it’s never solitary for long. There are always cyclists passing through.

The Start

Swains Lock is the first hiker/biker site at mile 16.6 from Georgetown. With one exception (also Swains Lock), all of the hiker/biker sites are at least a mile from the nearest parking area. They’re generally ~5 miles apart, with the farthest distance about 9 miles apart. They’re all free to use. Usage of the hiker/biker sites is limited to one night. Each site has a chemical toilet, water (usually via a pump), a picnic table, and a grill.

Swains Lock

The canal varies in condition (more frequently worse the farther north, usable near DC). Stagnant water fills most of the canal, interspersed with downed trees and debris. I would expect mosquitoes would be at least less in the spring. I cycled the C&O in the fall, and mosquitoes were, unsurprisingly, omnipresent. Consistent use of insect repellent is a must. Even a few bites each time you stop accumulate over the course of the canal, which can leave dozens if not hundreds of bites by the time you finish—an itchy nightmare.

Canal

The hiker/biker sites all have water pumps (disabled from mid-November to mid-April). The iodine-treated water is an acquired taste. The pumps won’t always work, so you can’t rely on water; make sure to fill up along the way. When the pumps do work, it can take 20-30 strokes before you get water—be persistent! Pumping will be loud, so try to get your water before nightfall, esp. if you plan to leave early in the morning.

The C&O is a trash-free park, so you won’t find any trashcans at any of the park campsites. Be prepared to carry your trash for a while.

Along the way there are also a few group and drive-in campgrounds in the park. Their facilities are no different than the hiker/biker sites, just readily accessible from the road.  The C&O Canal Trust also refurbished a number of the lock houses, which are available for rent for the night with a reservation and ~$110-$140. Some of the lock houses have power and water, others do not. Off the trail there are a few private campgrounds, as well as the
HI-Harpers Ferry Hostel & Campground where the C&O crosses the Appalachian Trail in Harper’s Ferry.

Power is few and far between. If you’re addicted to your electronic device, carry an external battery to recharge your device. While there are certainly sunny spots, it would be unwise to rely solely on solar. I did find an outlet on the outside of the lock house at Swains Lock, which I (discretely) used to recharge.

Cellular signal—strong in DC and Cumberland—is weak to nonexistent for long stretches in the intervening sections. I could usually get a text message out, but web access was often impossible. If you like knowing where you are on a GPS, I suggest OSMAnd, my default GPS application when I’m on tour in Europe. You can download the maps, including the Point of Information (POI) data, making map information available even if you don’t have signal—useful for when you’re looking for a resource with no Internet connection. Not all of the hiker/biker camping locations are in OSMAnd currently, making the stretches between those sites appear farther than they actually are.  I noted those missing, and submitted them to OSMAnd. Hopefully that will be up-to-date soon.

Ironically a length of the C&O Towpath is paralleled by the Western Maryland Rail Trail. In a country with few options for dedicated cycle path, the WMRT runs parallel to the C&O for ~28 miles. The WMRT is paved for its entire length, with only a few section broken by cracks caused by roots. A cyclist I met along the way suggested that option as an alternative for the C&O, as the quality of the C&O is at a low point in that section. For a couple of miles the WMRT merges back with the C&O to bypass the old Indigo rail tunnel, now a protected home to eight different bat species in decline.

In addition to the 74 locks and not quite innumerable lock houses, there are three highlights along the path: Great Falls, Fort Frederick, and the Paw Paw Tunnel.

At Great Falls (Mile Marker 14), the Potomac River narrows to between 60 and 100 feet. The falls are cascading Class V rapids and several 20-foot waterfalls, with a total 76-foot drop in in less than a mile. There’s a visitor’s center there, as well as a bicycle rack. You hike in across wooden walkways to several areas overlooking the falls.

Great Falls

Fort Frederick State Park, located at Mile Marker 112.5, is the restoration of Fort Frederick, used in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. Originally constructed in 1756, the stone walls and two barracks (originally housing 200 soldiers) have been restored. Normally open seven days a week, staff and volunteers dress in period clothing and demonstrate life in the 18th century. The interior is closed for restoration through November, 2020.

Fort Frederick

The Paw Paw Tunnel, located between mile markers 155 and 156, is 3,118 feet in length, and lined with almost 6 million bricks. The tunnel replaced almost 6 miles of canal construction, but almost bankrupted the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. Original construction was projected to be two years and $33,500, but ended up taking over ten years and $556,500 in the 1840s and 50s. To accelerate construction, vertical shafts were cut so construction could proceed from the inside! Work in the local shale was difficult and dangerous, with regular injuries during construction.

The inside of the tunnel is, unsurprisingly, dark, so you’ll want a good light. That said, there’s (just!) enough light to pick out the interior rail. While I had a light, I chose to walk the length in the dark, if occasionally interrupted by cyclists coming the other way.

PawPaw

Should you choose not to cycle the towpath in both directions, moving yourself (and your bicycle) from one end to the other should be relatively simple. A train runs daily between DC and Cumberland for about $25 + $20 for the bicycle (note that a reservation is required for the bicycle), leaving Cumberland at 9:30 am. There are weight limits, and I’ll bet a trailer might cause some grief. Bicycle reservations were sold out for the next day when I tried, so plan a bit ahead, especially around the weekends.

There are three car rental agencies in Cumberland: Rent-a-Wreck, Enterprise and Hertz. Rent-a-Wreck wasn’t renting for one-way.  I spoke with Enterprise first. Enterprise tried a bait-and-switch on me, where we clearly were talking about a one-way rental (where for a weekend I was also required to rent for three days) for $160, but when discussing payment they tacked on an additional $100 one-way fee. Car rental prices will vary; for me a one-way rental from Cumberland to DC Reagan at Hertz was $91.

Other than transport to and from the C&O, costs should be quite low. Indeed, you’ll have a hard time spending money along the way. You can carry the 3-4 days of food with you. The hiker/biker sites are free. If you want to radically increase your expenses, stay at the private campgrounds which are $25-$40 / night (per site, so less expensive if there’s more than one cyclist), which will provide access to a hot shower and power. Or splurge on a lock house (primarily on the DC side of things).

The biggest differentiator of the C&O over cycling in Europe is its remoteness. Isolated by the river on one site, and the canal on the other, and further isolated inside of a national park, there are few access points. Few bridges cross the Potomac, further isolating the towpath. Used to Europe, I also found few towns adjacent to the path. The C&O crosses through only one (Hancock) town, and runs adjacent to Harpers Ferry on the other side of the river. Several other small towns are a short distance away. Don’t expect access to anything but convenience stores (and those some distance from the towpath) except for the supermarket in Hancock—plan appropriately. A bicycle shop (again, there’s one in Hancock) is also likely to be some distance, so carry appropriate tools and spare parts.

The other differentiator of the C&O is its very uniformity. The locks, while in various states of repair, are similar. The path is always river <> towpath <> canal.That will be your view for almost the entire length of the canal. The canal will be: filled with water, filled with trees and mulch, or a combination thereof. A day’s ride can put you in a spot which appears identical to where you left in the morning!

The mosquitoes were also significant. I like to stop regularly, enjoy the scenery, eat another snack, etc. I felt constantly driven forward by the mosquitoes. Every time I stopped I’d be slapping them away within moments, and find myself rushed to move on.

If you want quiet, flat, dedicated cycle path, the C&O Canal Towpath can’t be beat. The scenery is good, the trail in great condition and mostly in shade. There have been many times I would have given anything for that when cycling in Europe. For the first few miles, that’s great. I found the day-in / day-out sameness for 184 miles to be lacking any flavor. Several days of that made me disinclined to continue on the Great Allegheny Passage, although that trail includes a bit more variation (of primarily vertical scenery; the trail itself is still <2%). Your tastes may vary.

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