Stretching 184.5 miles from Cumberland, MD to Washington, D.C., the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath follows the Potomac River. The historic, man-made canal was built in the 1800s, and stayed open until 1924. It was an engineering marvel back in its day, using 74 lift locks to elevate the river 605 feet. Running alongside the canal is the towpath, originally designed for horses, vehicles, or even humans to pull a boat down the canal. Today, the towpath is a perfect route for you to take a bike ride through history.
What Makes It Great
For almost 100 years, the canal was the main transport for coal, lumber, and other products along the Potomac. Today, the remains of the locks, buildings, and other structures that line the canal will make you appreciate the amount of manpower it took to build it in the 19th century.
Mile 0 of the towpath is in the Georgetown section of D.C., on the Potomac River across from the infamous Watergate complex. From here, the trail has a gradual incline for the next 184.5 miles, and the surface varies from gravel to dirt. The canal and the towpath never cross into West Virginia, but they snake along the state's border with Maryland for more than 120 miles. (The Potomac River is the natural border between the two states.)
If you're heading west on the towpath, you can take the footbridge at milepost 60.7 marks the spot where historic Harpers Ferry. The town has restaurants and shops to refuel and recharge. From there, the towpath and the canal continue to follow the Potomac, and pass some of the larger towns in West Virginia, including Shepherdstown.
There really isn't a bad section on the trail, because each mile gives a unique glimpse into American history. In 1825, President James Monroe signed the bill to build the canal and there was a groundbreaking ceremony in 1828, which included an appearance by President John Quincy Adams. The first 17 miles, stretching from what is now mile 5.8 to mile 22.8, were completed by 1830. The canal was extended down to Georgetown by 1831, then built outward until the final section into Cumberland opened in 1850. When the canal was in use between 1831 and 1924, it mostly brought coal from the Allegheny Mountains into the D.C. area.
The towpath is a perfect place to bring out your mountain bike or cyclocross bike for a ride. Serious cyclists have been known to ride the entire C&O Canal towpath from end to end in one ride, which makes for a long day in the saddle—but a fun one, if you're prepared!
Who is Going to Love It
Cyclists love the towpath for its gentle profile, forgiving surface, scenic views, and peaceful setting. It’s a great place for families with children, or for cyclists to put in some serious mileage. History buffs will love that the canal passes through several old cities and towns as it snakes northwest from Georgetown to Cumberland.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
There are countless on and off points along the canal and towpath, so check the map ahead of time. A great place to start is Harpers Ferry, so leave your car there and ride over the footbridge to the towpath, then head either upstream or downstream.
Entering the C&O Canal National Historic Park is free, but you will have to pay a fee to stay overnight in a campsite or restored lockhouse.