Stretching for more than 180 miles, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, nicknamed the “Grand Old Ditch,” once served as a route for coal, lumber and agricultural products from the Allegheny Mountains to the nation’s capital. It operated from 1831 until 1924 as packet boats were towed by mules that walked along the serpentine route.
Today, it’s a popular multiuse trail that is the centerpiece of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
Hundreds of original features, including canal locks, lock houses, aqueducts, culverts, tunnels and other engineering marvels are reminders of the canal’s role as an important transportation system.
Managed by the National Park Service, the canal is one of the longest biking and hiking trails in the United States. Free from motor vehicles, the pathway — in some stretches like a double-track dirt road, in other sections leveled with fine crushed gravel — runs from Cumberland nestled in the ridges of Allegany County, through the Appalachian Mountains, down to the gently rolling hills of the Piedmont Plateau, and past the dramatic Great Falls of the Potomac, gradually descending to Washington, D.C.
No matter what direction you travel, the towpath is basically level, with most of the gentle drops or climbs occurring in brief 10-foot intervals by way of 74 locks. As close as the towpath is to towns and cities, much of the ride feels utterly secluded. A dense, lush forest provides cooling shade even on hot days, and wildlife and geological formations are abundant enough to captivate any nature photographer.
There are some short paved sections and a dozen or so miles of manicured crushed stone, but on about 90 percent of the towpath, be prepared to navigate around roots, ruts and rocks. What do you expect from a trail that was built some 185 years ago for mules and horses? For this reason, hybrid, mountain or cyclocross bikes are the best choices. You’ll also want durable, puncture-resistant tires that perform well in muddy conditions. Also, whatever ride you choose, ensure that you bring a patch kit, a spare tube (if you are not tubeless) and a pump.
Bicycles are by far the most popular mode of travel along the “Grand Old Ditch,” but let’s not forget about hiking. While the trail’s un-groomed surface might be considered less than perfect for riding, for a hiker it should be easy, and there are enough towns along the way to make grabbing supplies a cinch. Throw on a backpack and you can experience the towpath in a completely different way.
The National Park Service provides 31 hiker-biker campgrounds every 6 to 8 miles along the trail, plus group campsites, car camping areas, picnic areas, portable toilets and lookout points. In addition, seven visitor centers sell guidebooks and provide information about the canal and points of interest. Amenities along the towpath include cafes and restaurants, bike shops, private shuttle services, museums and retail shops, as well as countless historical sites. If not camping, you can stay the night in any number of B&Bs and motels or even in one of a handful of restored lockhouses. Be sure to book ahead. Weekends are busy, especially around Washington, D.C., and Great Falls Park in Maryland.
Before you start your journey, be it a weekend or a week, try some shorter rides to prepare yourself. Most cyclists of any level find 30 miles per day is very comfortable, especially when touring with camping gear. Take your time. After all, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is not the Tour de France.
When to Go
There is no one answer for the “best” time of year to bike or hike the canal, but generally speaking, the season starts in mid-April and ends in late October. Spring through June is cooler (a good thing), but it can be wet; be ready for mud and waterlogged potholes during and after heavy rains. Late summer is warmer and can be downright muggy, but the trail is generally dry and hard-packed, better-suited for cycling. Fall is typically gorgeous with the leaves becoming red and gold.
You Won’t Forget
Around milepost 155 — near the western end of the trail — is the Paw Paw Tunnel. The brick-lined passage was built through a mountain to shorten the distance traveled by boats. The project, one of the greatest engineering feats of its day, began in 1836, and the first canal boat floated through in 1850. For cyclists, the tunnel means 3,118 feet of unlit, dripping, echoing darkness through which you must walk your bicycle along a 4-foot-wide ledge, grateful for the stout elbow-high wooden railing between you and the canal’s water 20 feet down.
Not to Be Missed
On a wide stretch of the Potomac River, only 16 miles from the White House, you’ll come upon Great Falls Park. Here the river gathers speed and force as it tumbles over a series of jagged boulders in the spectacular, cliff-lined Mather Gorge.
Some 45 trail miles northwest of Great Falls is Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. A visit here is like stepping into the past. Within the park is a small portion of the towpath that doubles as a section of the Appalachian Trail.
Near milepost 112 is Fort Frederick State Park. The stone fort, unique because of its large square with four diamond-shaped bastions, was built in 1756 to protect Maryland’s frontier settlers during the French and Indian War.
And for American Civil War buffs, there is no more profound site than Antietam National Battlefield, near the town of Sharpsburg, Md., accessed at about milepost 76 on the trail. A self-guided 8.5-mile auto tour, which also can be ridden by bicycle, will take you through this hallowed ground. The peaceful atmosphere at Antietam today belies the fact that the bloodiest single-day battle in American history took place there Sept. 17, 1862, ending with 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing.
Did You Know?
In 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an avid outdoorsman, organized an eight-day hike up the canal’s towpath in an awareness effort to save it from being converted to an automobile parkway. His efforts succeeded, and in 1971 the canal became a National Historical Park.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is easy to access. Since it is one long trail, simply drive anywhere along the Potomac River and look for a parking lot (there are plenty). You can park your car overnight for no charge at the National Park Service visitor centers in Cumberland, Hancock, Williamsport and Great Falls, Md. — just make sure to register your vehicle at the visitor center or through the online parking registration system.
Larry Rice resides in Buena Vista, Colo., and writes about some of this country’s best outdoor destinations.