The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath was built between 1828 and 1850, opening progressively from Washington toward Cumberland as sections were completed. These years were also the heyday of railroad development, and the C&O Canal competed with the B&O Railroad for both business and right of way. On the canal, 74 manually-operated lift locks raised the water level from nearly sea level in Washington to an elevation of 605 feet at Cumberland.
Floods in January and September of 1996 caused over $20 million in damage to the towpath. After Herculean effort by the Park Service and many volunteers, the entire towpath is open again, except for a detour near Dam 4 (mile 85) that remains from 1972 flooding. Much of the 184.5-mile length is now in good condition, but some sections still require a mountain bike or sturdy hybrid.
The canal was always vulnerable to flood damage. The devastation from the great flood in 1924, together with competition from railroads, spelled its doom. It is now a National Historical Park. The towpath has been restored, and in some areas the canal has been re-watered. Many traces of the canal era remain, most notably locks, lockmaster's houses, aqueducts, dams, and weirs that controlled water levels. Indeed, the special attraction of this trail is the extensive evidence of a bygone transportation era.
From Washington DC to Great Falls the trail is packed crushed stone. North of Great Falls, trail use is lighter and investment in trail surfacing is correspondingly lower. The trail becomes double-track, much like a one-lane dirt road. It gets progressively rougher the closer you get to Cumberland. Avoid riding within two days of heavy rain. Road crossings are relatively far apart, and most of the busier roads cross over the towpath. The canal alongside has sometimes been restored to hold water, and the path is usually shaded by trees that have grown back since the Canal ceased operations. Wildflowers and birds are abundant. You're likely to see small furry rodents and turtles. Where the canal holds water, you'll also find abundant mosquitoes.
This is one of the finest bicycle camping trips in the region. Every 5-10 miles or so, a primitive campsite alongside the trail offers a water pump, picnic table, river access, and chemical toilet. On the northern end of the trail an active rail line is just across the river. The night trains add a special dimension to the camping experience. Cumberland is surprisingly convenient to Western Pennsylvania, so this is a great weekend option from Pittsburgh. Moreover, the distance from Cumberland to Hancock is about 40 miles by highway (I68) and 60 miles by towpath, so it's easy to set up a shuttle for a one-way trip.
The trail surface does not encourage speed, but the frequent remnants of the canal operation provide excuses to stop and examine the stabilized and restored ruins. Hahn's excellent guidebook is a good companion, especially for historical details.
This trail is perhaps the archetype for recreational trail conversions. It was conceived in 1954, when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led 29 people on a hike from Cumberland to Washington along the route of the canal. At the time, the route was being considered for a scenic automobile parkway. Justice Douglas' hike called attention of Washington policy makers to the value of maintaining the route as a sanctuary—and to the need to halt the deterioration of the canal. It was named a National Monument in 1961 and became a National Historical Park in 1971.
The trail is as history-laden as any we've ridden. The remains of the canal have been carefully stabilized or restored. Hahn's guide, Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal, identifies even the most obscure of features, down to the hundredth of a mile (though his mile marks don't exactly match the Park Service mileposts).
The City of Cumberland is preserving and restoring the part of town that once served as the terminus of the canal. They plan to re-water a section of the canal and offer canal boat excursion rides.
The Georgetown terminus connects to the Washington DC trail network and offers easy access to the Washington & Old Dominion and Mount Vernon trails. You can ride west on the Washington & Old Dominion some 30-odd miles to Leesburg and, at the expense of two miles downhill in fast traffic on busy US15, connect back to the C&O Canal at Whites Ferry. (Some of the W&OD supporters are trying to develop a bike trail along this section of US15).
By the end of the year 2006, trail developers hope that the Great Allegheny Passage will reach Cumberland to permit a traffic-free trip between Washington DC and Pittsburgh.
Vicinity: The C&O Canal follows the Potomac River from Washington to Cumberland. For access from interstate highways, use I270 from Washington to Frederick, I70 from Frederick to Hancock and I68 from Hancock to Cumberland. To reach I68 at Cumberland from Pittsburgh take the PA Turnpike east to Somerset, US219 south to I68, and I68 east to Cumberland. Alternate route: From Berlin on US219, it's slightly shorter to take PA160/MD36 directly to Cumberland. Another alternate route: Take I79 south to US40, US40 east to I68, and I68 east to Cumberland.
Williamsport trailhead: Leave I70 to go south on I81 near Hagerstown. Exit I81 on US11 in Williamsport. This is East Potomac St. Follow it 1.1 miles west to center of town, turn left for 1 block on West Salisbury St, turn right for 3 blocks into River Front Park.
Hancock trailhead: Take the Hancock exit from I68. Start east on E Main St. Turn right on Pennsylvania St, go two blocks 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.
Cumberland trailhead: Take the main Cumberland exit from I68 and follow signs to the Western Maryland Train Station. Park in the lot. The trail leaves from the platform one story up. If you're using the alternate route and entering Cumberland on MD36, continue straight to the train station; don't follow AltUS40 over the overpass.
Other trailheads: For access closer to Washington, consult the park brochure. For the more obscure access points, consult Hahn's guidebook.
Rest rooms, water: Rest rooms and water at information centers. Water pump and chemical toilets at hiker/biker campgrounds every 5-10 miles and also at major access points. The water is drawn from wells and treated by the park service. Sometimes it tastes strongly of iodine; we've seen oatmeal, potatoes, and other starchy foods turn blue—anyone for patriotic spaghetti? The water is tested regularly; if it fails, the pump handle is removed until it's good again. Before a camping trip, check with the Park office on the status of the pumps.
Bike shop, rental: In Cumberland, Hancock, Williamsport, Shepherdstown, Sandy Hook, Leesburg, Swains Lock, Cabin John, and the Georgetown section of Washington.
Restaurant, groceries: Within a few blocks of the trail at Cumberland, Paw Paw (WV side of river), Little Orleans, Hancock, Williamsport, Shepherdstown (WV side of river), Sandy Hook, Harpers Ferry (WV side of river), Brunswick, Point of Rocks, Whites Ferry, Seneca, and many places as you enter Washington.
Camping, simple lodging: Hiker/biker campgrounds (no road access) every 5-10 miles for tourers. Primitive automobile camping along the canal at Spring Gap, Fifteen Mile Ck (Little Orleans), McCoys Ferry, and Antietam Ck. Camping near the canal also available at Fort Frederick State Park and Brunswick. Lodging in Cumberland, Hancock, Williamsport, and Shepherdstown.
Swimming, fishing: The canal water isn't attractive, and swimming and wading are prohibited anyhow. Many swimming and fishing spots along the Potomac River, especially near campgrounds. River currents are strong, deceptive, and unpredictable, so be careful, especially if the water is high.
Winter sports: Cross-country skiing; best chance of snow is at the western end, in the mountains. No snowmobiles.
Wheelchair access: Much of the trail is moderately rough.
free list of publications or to order:
C&O Canal National Historical Park Parks and History Association
Box 4 PO Box 40929
Sharpsburg MD 21782 Washington DC 20016
(301) 739-4200 (202) 472-3083
Trail brochure, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Official Map and Guide. Also brochures for specific locations such as Great Falls, Four Locks, Paw Paw Tunnel.
Mary Shaw and Roy Weil. Linking Up: Planning Your Traffic-Free Bike Trip between Pittsburgh PA and Washington DC. Shaw-Weil Associates, 2002.
Thomas F. Hahn. Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal. American Canal and Transportation Center 1991, 226 pages. (Available at Park Service information centers in Georgetown, Great Falls Tavern, Hancock, and Cumberland.)
Mike High. The C&O Companion. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
The Railfans Guide to the Cumberland Area. Brochure with map of Cumberland showing points of interest and vantage points for WMSRR.
Text version from 2002 edition. Conditions will have changed; you are responsible for your own safety.