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Chesapeake & Ohio Canal

Taking the Towpath

October 1, 2007
By JOHN McCABE Managing Editor

GEORGETOWN — Visiting our nation’s Capital is a much different experience after you’ve just biked 75 miles.

The buildings look bigger. The grass seems greener. The food tastes better.

And the people actually seem nice.

I experienced Washington, D.C., in a unique fashion this summer — by bike. My trek started in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and ran 75 miles east along the historic C&O Canal Towpath, which ends in Georgetown, not far from the White House.

Now some might be wondering: Why bike 75 miles anywhere when you can just get in the car and drive? Especially when you have to turn around and bike the 75 miles back to the original destination the next day, and it’s 90 degrees out?

For me, it was the challenge. As an avid mountain biker, it was a chance to experience something new, a test of my endurance and, most importantly, will power.

The towpath itself — which runs from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md. — is about 10 feet wide and consists of packed dirt and gravel, and it’s relatively flat along its 185-mile length. The only rises occur at the more than 70 locks that exist on the canal, which served to transport passengers and goods by mule-drawn canal boats from 1850 until the early 1920s.

The towpath is part of the C&O Canal National Historic Park. According to the National Park Service, after being out of operation since the 1920s, the canal was going to be filled and made into a parkway. In 1954, however, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas organized a successful movement to save the canal and convert it into its current day recreation format.

That format has proven to be very successful as bikers, hikers and joggers utilize the towpath each day. The canal itself also is still in use from Washington to Great Falls, Va., as kayakers and fishermen alike enjoy its natural serenity.

What makes the path most accessible for those looking for a long-distance jaunt is the fact that there are public campgrounds located about every five miles. There also is an operating water pump at every campsite, and the water is safe to drink, as it is tested weekly by Park Service rangers.

Having water available is especially important during the summer months, as I can attest. I drained two 24-ounce water bottles and a 100-ounce water reservoir from my backpack about every 30 miles, so not having to find a convenience store to replenish my supply was a definite plus.

My journey began in Shepherdstown, just west of the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md. This section of the path receives plenty of use from the local residents, as it provides some interesting views of the battlefield and also crosses the Antietam Aqueduct, which carries travelers over Antietam Creek.

A Civil War buff could spend a day just puttering around Antietam on his or her bike, as there are several ways to reach the battlefield from the path. A historic marker along the path at mile 75 is the Killiansburg Cave, which is located just above the towpath. This cave provided shelter to Sharpsburg residents during the battle of Antietam.

The top speed on the path for bikers is 15 mph, but it’s rare that one will achieve that speed on a consistent basis, as the somewhat rough terrain is constantly working against you. A pace of 9-10 mph is more feasible, as food and water stops also will impact one’s overall time. I averaged about 9 mph, which allowed me to soak in my surroundings — including the numerous lock houses that still stand — while also making decent time.

After Shepherdstown, the path runs to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., then on to Brunswick, Md. A section of the Appalachian Trail on South Mountain also crosses the path here, which leads to plenty of hikers. There’s also a footbridge over the Potomac that leads to Harpers Ferry at the 60-mile mark that makes for some interesting views of the river.

The next 10 to 15 miles of towpath are much the same, as the trees do their best to block out the sunlight and give some semblance of shade. A train that runs from Brunswick to a nearby power plant — and my trusty IPOD — were the only things that made this section of path bearable.

The Monocacy Aqueduct at mile 42 is the next big feature on the path. This impressive structure carries travelers across the Monocacy River and, at 400 feet long, is the largest aqueduct on the canal.

At mile 35 is Whites Ferry, which takes cars across the Potomac to Leesburg, Va. This is a great stop just off the path as there is a convenience store/diner that cooks up some of the best grilled cheese around.

The scenery from mile 35 to mile 14 is pretty much the same — trees, stagnant canal water, squirrels (they were everywhere) and the occasional snake. There’s not much traffic on this section of the path until you get near mile 14, at Great Falls, Va.

The Great Falls of the Potomac River itself is worth the price of the trip. Just a short walk from the path yields a whitewater lover’s dream setting for kayaking. The river in this area is very rough, as massive rocks similar to what one would find at Coopers Rock State Park lead to some world-class whitewater. During a 45-minute stay, I watched about a dozen kayakers test their mettle on the rocks and fast water. The exhilaration displayed on their faces made me want to jump in and take a run myself.

From Great Falls, the trip to Georgetown is rather uneventful, as by this time I was ready to get off the bike for the evening and get some solid food in my body. My spirits lifted as I headed past Georgetown University and reached the end of my destination.

I headed back after a good night’s rest. Unfortunately for me, the rigors of the ride there had taken their toll on my hide, so the journey home contained many a grimace as I sat in the saddle.

Other than pain, the ride back was uneventful (except for my IPOD’s battery dying about halfway there), as the Potomac River served as my lone traveling companion for 95 percent of the trip. I did meet a father and his 11-year-old daughter who lived near Arlington, Va., who were biking the path as part of their summer vacation.

This twosome had started at the other end of the towpath at Cumberland, Md., and had spent more than a week covering the entire 185 miles of the trail.

I spent about an hour with them between Whites Ferry and Great Falls, about 20 miles from their final destination.

“My wife is picking us up in Georgetown,” the father, Robert, said. “This is something we decided to do on summer break this year, and it’s been quite the event.”

The remainder of the day passed with me pedaling away in the 90-degree heat, until I (finally) reached Shepherdstown — tired, smelly and hungry.

As I ponder the trip now, it’s amazing to think how many people spent their lives working the towpath, either as a lockmaster or a hand to tend the mules.

Or how many people sat in a canal boat for days to reach Cumberland.

If you’re ever near a section of the canal towpath, take a day — even an hour — and enjoy it.

You won’t regret it.

Article Photos

Photos by John McCabe - One of the most impressive structures on the C&O Canal Towpath is the Monocacy Aqueduct, which carries travelers across the Monocacy River.

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