When the C&O Canal and the adjacent towpath first opened in 1828, it was used to transport goods like coal, firewood, and food up and down the Potomac River. Barges were towed by horses and mules walking up and down the towpath until 1924, when the canal ceased operation.
Today, the 184.5-mile towpath is an ideal place for a hike. Stretching from the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, MD, the towpath is mostly flat, averaging a gentle 3 feet of elevation gain per mile. That said, serious hikers that summit mountains often will also love the towpath because of the many miles that they can travel along the trail.
What Makes It Great
Following the Potomac River the entire way, you will see ruins of the old locks and buildings, and with parts of the canal mostly dry, you can also get a good look at how the locks worked.
The path varies from gravel and crushed stone to grass and dirt. Small roots stick up in some spots, but don't feel like you need heavy duty boots to hike the towpath. A pair of lighter boots or even sneakers will work just fine here.
There are several places to start and end a hike on the path, including Harpers Ferry, WV. At mile 60.7, a pedestrian bridge goes across the Potomac River and drops you off at this historic town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Aside from its Civil War history, Harpers Ferry has food, drinks, and other basic supplies you might need for a hike.
While many people enjoy just a couple miles on the trail, some set a lifetime goal to hike the entire towpath, and others try to do it all in a single year. Of course, there are also people who aim to hike the path all at once. There are several campsites, lockhouses, and hotels on and near the path, so it’s definitely possible to take your time and get in some serious mileage.
Who is Going to Love It
Hikers of all abilities can enjoy the towpath, from serious hikers to families with children. It’s easy to pack a stroller or a baby carrier and go for a walk. School-age children can also get a history lesson along with their exercise.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
There are countless on and off points along the canal and towpath, so check the website to decide your route. There is no cost to enter the C&O Canal National Historic Park, although there is a fee for an overnight stay in a campsite or a restored lockhouse.