For the 10 miles from Big Pool MD to Hancock, the only paved road is an interstate highway, and the only nearby alternative for bicyclists has long been the unpaved C&O Canal Towpath. No matter how great the charm of the Towpath (and it is indeed great), the surface isn't suitable for some road bikes. This problem has been resolved by the opening of the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a wide asphalt strip from Big Pool to Hancock. As a bonus, the paved trail goes another 13 miles west from Hancock, to Pearre on the flank of Sideling Hill.
The trail begins just west of Ft Frederick State Park, in a parking lot in Big Pool. From here it winds northwest between the canal bed and I70 for 10 miles to enter central Hancock. The highway is noticeable but not intrusive. You often get glimpses of the canal bed and towpath, including Licking Creek Aqueduct. You'll also see Little Pool, a coal tipple, and perhaps a real train between the trail and the river. Interpretive signage marks landmarks and presents railroad history. After passing behind the Main St businesses in Hancock, the trail re-enters the woods. It goes along the top of the Round Top cement plant, through woods, fields, and former orchards. It passes Polly Pond, a remnant basin of the C&O Canal after 10 miles, then ends 2.3 miles later, at Pearre.
This trail connects with the C&O Canal Towpath at both ends and at Hancock. At the Big Pool end, go north on the trail to the intersection with Ernstville Rd. Turn left (toward the river), pass the RC cola machine and the ostrich farm, go around a left-hand bend, and look for a dirt path across the canal bed. This reaches the towpath at milepost 114.52. In Hancock, go to the Pennsylvania St crossing, turn left, go a block to the end of the street, turn right, then left on a narrow bridge across the canal. This is Hancock City Park, and you cross the towpath on the way into the park. At the Polly Pond end, look for a path on the left to take you down to the towpath near Dam 6. At Pearre look for access to the towpath at Lock 56.
Vicinity: Directions begin headed east on I68 between Cumberland and Hancock MD.
Big Pool trailhead: From I68, take I70E, then take the Big Pool exit (MD56) toward Big Pool. Follow MD56 for a few blocks, bearing left where Ernstville Rd forks right. Trailhead parking is 0.5 mile from I70.
Hancock trailhead: From I68, take the Hancock exit (MD144). Follow MD144 into town for a few blocks and turn right on Pennsylvania St. The trailhead is a block or so down, and there's parking in city lots to the south.
Polly Pond and Pearre trailheads: Bike in from Hancock, it's simpler than driving.
Rest rooms, water: At Hancock City Park, a few blocks from the trailhead and at Big Pool trailhead
Bike shop, rentals: In Hancock
Restaurant, groceries: In Hancock
Camping, simple lodging: Car camping at Ft Frederick State Park and McCoy Ferry on C&O Canal. Camping for hikers and bikers (no cars) at hiker/biker sites on Towpath.
Swimming, fishing: In nearby Potomac River
Winter sports: None
Wheelchair access: Excellent—wide gates, fresh wide asphalt.
Fort Frederick State Park
111000 Fort Frederick Rd
Big Pool, MD 21711
Mary Shaw and Roy Weil. Linking Up: Planning Your Traffic-Free Bike Trip between Pittsburgh PA and Washington DC. Shaw-Weil Associates, 2002.
USGS Topographic Maps: Cherry Run, Hancock.
Text version from 2002 edition. Conditions will have changed; you are responsible for your own safety.