Description - The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal began as a dream of passage to western wealth. It operated as a conduit of eastern coal, suffered extensive and finally fatal flooding, and then resisted being paved as a highway. Today it endures as a national historical park - a pathway into history, nature, and recreation.
Copyright: Patty Elton - Interactive Outdoors, Inc.
Solitude may be yours for many miles
Running along the Potomac River from the mouth of Rock Creek in Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland, it features 74 lift locks that rise up from near sea level to an elevation of 605 feet at Cumberland. The towpath was originally built 12 feet wide as a path for mules that pulled canal boats. Today, the towpath provides nearly level byway for hikers and bicyclists. Its watered sections provide quiet waters for canoeists, boaters, and anglers.
The canal was proclaimed a national monument in 1961 and named a national historical park in 1971. Its 184.5-mile length preserves both history and nature. From tidewater at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to Cumberland on the Allegheny Plateau, the C&O Canal winds through the Piedmont, past the dramatic Great Falls of the Potomac, and then through the ridge-and-valley section of the Appalachian Mountains. Its rich floodplain forests are gifts of the river's frequent floods.
- Visitor centers are located at Georgetown (Mile 0), Great Falls Tavern (Mile 15), Williamsport (Mile 100), Hancock (Mile 125), and Cumberland (Mile 184).
Relive the canal's heyday afloat under mule power and lock through with a crew of interpreters in period clothing. Trips run from mid-April to mid-October. Tickets may be purchased at the Georgetown or Great Falls Tavern Visitor Centers. School groups welcome with advance notice. Also while visiting the Great Falls Visitor Center, stop by the exhibit of a model lock and several canal-era artifacts.
Hiking is probably the most popular recreation enjoyed along the towpath's 184.5-mile stretch. Additional side trails are available at Great Falls including Gold Mine trail, River trail, and the nationally known Billy Goat Trail. There is a handicapped accessible walkway from the towpath to an overlook of the Great Falls of the Potomac. There is also a trail over the top of the Paw Paw Tunnel. Trail guides are available at Georgetown, Great Falls Tavern, Williamsport, and Hancock Visitor Centers, Western Maryland Station Center, Antietam National Battlefield Park, or by calling the Parks and History Association.
Bicycle riding is permitted on the towpath but not the trails. The surface of the towpath varies from excellent to rough due to tree roots, rocks, chuckholes, and weather conditions. Bicyclists are asked to please avoid using the towpath for at least two days after heavy rainstorms. They should avoid the towpath at Widewater (Mile 13) near Great Falls. Follow Berma Road on the berm side of the canal at Old Anglers Inn and return to the towpath at the stop lock above Lock 16 (Mile 13.6). Bicyclists should also avoid the towpath between Dam 4 (Mile 84.5) and Charles/ McMahons Mill (Mile 88.5). Northbound, take Dam 4 Road to Dellinger Road to Avis Mill Road. During times of high water, instead of turning on Avis Mill Road, continue on Dellinger to Neck Road; right on Neck; left on Falling Waters Road to towpath at Mile 94.4. Reverse these directions southbound.
Bicyclists should yield right-of-way to pedestrians and horses. Sound devices (bells, horns, etc.) are required. Bicyclists should carry tools and materials for repairing broken chains, flat tires, and broken spokes. Helmet laws are in effect in Montgomery and Allegheny counties, Maryland. For a bicycle safety handbook, contact the Maryland Department of Transportation, Bicycle Affairs Coordinator, State Highway Administration, PO Box 717, Baltimore, MD 21203, or call 1-800-252-8776; 301-333-1663.
Horseback riding is yet another way to enjoy the C&O Canal. Groups must obtain approval in writing for all club rides and for trips lasting more than one day. Horseback riding is not allowed between Georgetown (Mile 0) and Swains Lock (Mile 16.6). Horseback riding is not allowed when the towpath is soft due to wetness. Horseback riders may not exceed the speed of a slow trot. Riders must dismount and walk their horses across the aqueducts. Horses may not cross narrow, wooden footbridges, which are not designed to carry the concentrated weight of horses. Horses are not allowed to go through the Paw Paw Tunnel prism or walk its towpath. They must take the Tunnel Hill Trail that goes over the tunnel. Horses are not allowed in campgrounds, hiker-biker overnighters, picnic areas, or adjacent parking lots. Riders may camp at hiker-biker campgrounds but must tether horses at least 50 feet from the areas' boundaries for sanitary and safety reasons and must prevent horses from damaging trees or undergrowth. No trail-rider camping is allowed in the park's campgrounds at Antietam Creek, McCoys Ferry, Fifteen Mile Creek, Paw Paw, and Spring Gap. Horse trailers are not allowed in drive-in camping areas and horses may not be loaded or unloaded in campgrounds or picnic areas. Groups must carry a loading ramp. Vehicles and/or horse trailers must not block park roadways or emergency gates.
Several short and widely separated stretches of the canal have been rewatered and offer pleasant boating and canoeing opportunities: Georgetown to Violettes Lock, Mile 0-22; Big Pool, Mile 112; Little Pool, Mile 120; and Town Creek, Mile 162-167. In park waters, electric motors are permitted on boats only at Big Pool and Little Pool. Otherwise, gasoline and electric motors are prohibited on boats. Canoeists must portage around each lock. Canoes can be rented at Swains Lock, Fletcher's Boathouse, and Thompson's Boat Center. NPS provides public access boat ramps. Canoeists are discouraged from Little Falls to Chain Bridge; Great Falls of the Potomac; and between Dam 3 and the US 340 Bridge that is downstream from Harpers Ferry.
The canal provides free primitive campgrounds for those hiking or biking long stretches of the canal. These "hiker-biker campgrounds" are located approximately every five miles on the canal from Swain's Lock (Mile 16) to Evitts Creek (Mile 180). Each site has a chemical toilet, pump water (May to November), picnic table, and fire ring with cooking grill. Sites are first-come, first-served. Camping permits are not required except for Marsden Tract where group camping is also permitted (Mile 12) $20 per night per site. Other group campsites are Antietam Creek (Mile 68) $10 per night per site and Fifteen Mile Creek (Mile 140) $20 per night per site for groups and $10 for individual site. A boat ramp is available at Fifteen Mile Creek. Drive-up campgrounds are primitive, no hookups offered at present: McCoys Ferry (Mile 110) $10 per night per site. Boat ramp available, but no drinking water. As mentioned above, Fifteen Mile Creek; and Spring Gap (Mile 173) $10 per night per site.
Fishing is allowed on the river and in the canal, subject to Maryland and Washington, D.C. regulations. Hunting and trapping are prohibited in the park.
Recreation - Maps, books, and other publications highlighting the canal's recreations are sold at the various visitor centers. The National Park Service offers interpretive tours seasonally. Hiking and biking opportunities run the full length of the canal. Horseback riding is permitted from Swains Lock to Cumberland, Maryland. Canoeing, boating and fishing opportunities vary based upon location of canal. Family campgrounds, group campgrounds, and primitive sites are offered at designated areas along the trail. Picnicking is permitted anywhere, however, campfires are prohibited outside designated areas. Swimming is not allowed.
As biking gains in popularity across the country, certain groups such as the Allegheny Trail Alliance emerge. This group consists of seven trail groups that have banned together to build the Pittsburgh to Cumberland Trail, a 204-mile rail trail that will connect to the C&O Canal Towpath NHP. For details write: Allegheny Trail Alliance, 419 College Avenue, Greensburg, PA 15601.
Climate - Washington, D.C. experiences four distinct seasons. Winters can be bitterly cold or pleasantly mild while summers can be miserably hot and humid or agreeably warm. The average January temperature is 37 degrees F (3 degrees C). The average July temperature is 78 degrees F (26 degrees C). Spring and fall are pleasant times of the year to visit the area, temperatures are mild with low humidity.
Various sections of the canal can be reached via Routes I-495, I-70, and I-68.
The canal follows the route of the Potomac River for 184.5 miles, from the mouth of Rock Creek in Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland. Milepost 0 is located at Thompson's Boat Center just west of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.