C&O Canal Towpath - Trail Running

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Summary

A trail run on the C&O Canal towpath is a peaceful experience. The trail stretches 184.5 miles from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md.

Written by

Jason Devaney

Distance

184.5 miles

The trail’s full length is 184.5 miles, but there are several spots along the way to turn around for a shorter run. You can just as easily run 2 miles as you can 10, or the multi-day 184.5.

Destination Distance From Downtown

2.6 miles

Difficulty

2 of 5 diamonds

A run on the C&O Canal towpath can be a few miles, or you could take the full 184.5 miles.

Time To Complete

1 hours

A trail run on the C&O Canal towpath can take an hour or several days, depending on distance.

Seasonality

All Seasons

Dog Friendly

Yes

Fees Permits

No

Land Website

C&O Canal Towpath

Review

Intro

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath runs alongside the Potomac River for 184.5 miles, from mile 0 in the Georgetown section of D.C. to the final marker in Cumberland, MD. Along the way, the towpath—which was made for horses to pull boats and barges on the canal in the 1800s—passes through several historic towns.

The canal and towpath snake along the border of West Virginia near [Harpers Ferry National Historical Park](https://gotowv.com/company/town-of-harpers-ferry/?utmsource=Roots%20Rated&utmcampaign=Real&utm_medium=Content) at (mile 60.7). You can take a pedestrian bridge across the Potomac River right to the small historic town and park, where you can find several places to grab a bite or explore the historic village. It's also a great starting point for a trail run along the towpath.

Each mile takes runners back to days of old when coal, firewood, food, and other supplies were shipped up and down the canal. Over the course of 22 years (ending in 1850), the canal was extended out from Georgetown one mile at a time. The canal ceased shipping operations in 1924, but you can still uncover the skeletons and foundations of the its 74 lift locks, 11 aqueducts, and more than 150 culverts along your run.

What Makes It Great

The surface varies from gravel to dirt and even a few grassy sections, which gives runners' knees a break from pounding the pavement. And, it’s essentially flat. The towpath gains only 605 feet from Georgetown to Cumberland—over the course of 184.5 miles, that equals a change of about 3 feet per mile. No matter which direction you’re heading, you don’t have to worry about any challenging uphills.

If you have lofty goals, run the entire length of the towpath straight through, breaking up the trip into a few days. Stay at the local hotels, in hiker/biker campsites that line the canal every 6-8 miles, or even in some of the restored lockhouses.

For most runners, though, it takes a few years to cover the full length of the path. You might run 10-15 miles here, 10 miles there, as you work your way upstream (or downstream, depending on where you live). Or maybe you just want a place to run some easy miles in a tranquil setting—the C&O Canal towpath is just the place.

Who is Going to Love It

The towpath's gentle elevation profile and surface are forgiving on runners' bodies, while the views and the serene setting will beg you to return for another visit. Ultrarunners take the towpath straight through, stopping only to sleep and eat. Bur more novice runners, hikers, and history buffs also enjoy the path.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

There are countless on and off points along the canal and towpath, so it's best to map out your run before you get there. Entering the C&O Canal National Historic Park is free, but there is a fee for overnight stays in a campsite or a restored lockhouse.

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Location

C&O Canal Towpath - Trail Running

38.909189, -77.064737

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