The C&O Canal Towpath – biking North in two days

The C&O Towpath (trail) is 184.5 miles long and runs parallel to the Potomac River and the partially-completed Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. It runs from Washington DC to Cumberland MD (it never made it to the Ohio River). I have a history with this trail. On two occasions I have attempted to complete the entire trail from start to finish. Both times I failed due to poor preparation. I was overly prepared this time around.

Day 1

I returned to my workplace in the morning and spent about 30 minutes repacking my bags. I hadn’t done much the night before as I was too tired. My effort to lose weight off of my bike failed. I actually gained weight by buying roughly ten pounds of food after the previous day’s ride. I was only able to cut a pound or two from my non-food payload.

I departed the workplace at 8:30. Luckily the Anacostia trail is right across the street and I was able to follow it all the way into Washington DC. DC has become very bike friendly over the past few years, and the Anacostia trail was extended from Nationals Stadium and connected to the tributary trails in Prince George’s county and Silver Spring MD. Besides a few minutes going through the waterfront neighborhood in DC and the National Mall, I stayed on the trails all day. I crossed the Anacostia at the Frederick Douglass bridge, which brings you right to the Nationals stadium.

Setting up for this picture, I finally realized the Troll’s massive cargo load
I’ve been here a hundred times, but it’s a cool shot

After scooting around the Lincoln Memorial, I rode a short distance along the river to Georgetown to catch the C&O. It’s a confusing area to bike (and drive). I turned too early and wound up on the Capital Crescent trail (which parallels the C&O) for the first few miles. The Capital Crescent trail is paved and much more comfortable, but it splits off toward Bethesda after a few miles and there is an “interchange” shortly before the split which allowed me to get on the Towpath.

Part of the reason the Towpath is so challenging is due to it not being paved anywhere and that it can become flooded, eroded, or both. Depending on the trail surface (it changes over the course of the trail) it can feel almost like you are on pavement, or it can be as bumpy as a gravel driveway. Usually there is some degree of bumpiness, and it’s killer on your butt.

The first road block

Signage

At mile 51, there was a blockade with a sign saying that the trail was closed. In my pursuit of completing the entire trail, I ignored the sign and continued on. About a mile down the trail, I realized why the trail was closed. There was a tree blocking the trail. Why couldn’t they just chop it up rather than blocking the trail? It was a big tree, but it hardly seemed worth closing the trail. I hauled my bike over the tree and continued down the trail.

After another mile I stumbled upon the real reason for the trail closure. A bridge carrying the trail over a creek had collapsed. Rather than turn back, I decided to haul my bike up the hill to the adjacent railroad and walk across the creek on the railroad and return to the Towpath. This was not easily accomplished (and probably illegal). I had to push and then delicately lower my 80 pound loaded bike up and down a rocky hill to complete the “detour”. So the lesson is, signs are there for a reason, and you should probably follow them.

View from the railroad. There should be a bridge there.

The canal carried boats via a series of locks; 75 in total. Each lock provides about 6-8 feet in elevation change. Along the trail, there are campsites spaced every 8 miles or so, most of which have a water pump (these came in handy). This makes it easier to tour the trail at your own pace. Unfortunately not all campsites on the C&O are created equally. I made a poor choice in campsite selection at mile 90 as it was swarming with mosquitoes. I used nearly a full can of bug spray fending them off just long enough to make dinner and set up my tent.

In total, I rode over 100 miles with 90 miles on the Towpath (just under half of the towpath).

Opequon Junction – all to myself (if you don’t count the mosquitoes)
First night outdoors. Didn’t see a soul.
Well pumps are located at most campsites. They look like they were constructed when the canal was built.

The sounds of nature

I left the rainfly off the tent to see the stars. I heard what I thought was rain, however it was some sort of mass noisemaking ritual by the insects. It seemed to move from tree to tree. There was also a barred owl in the area. There always seems to be a barred owl making noise when I camp out. At one point two of these night birds had a dispute and began a short (and loud) fight nearby. I was so tired I fell asleep hoping it didn’t rain, and that the owls had settled their differences.

Day 2

The next morning I woke up at 6 and was on the trail by 7. I just packed up and left as the mosquitoes were just as persistent as the previous night. I stopped at Lock 45 to eat breakfast and reconnect with the outside world (very limited cell service the previous night). There is a dam at lock 45 and it’s apparently a popular fishing spot.

The only other detour on the trail was at Williamsport where another bridge was being reconstructed. This time I had no choice but to follow the detour signs.

The Towpath maintenance gets a little dicey north of Hancock. There is less gravel and more dirt/mud. At mile 140 it started raining, and then pouring. I kept riding for another mile or so, but it got so unbearable, when I stumbled across a park with a little shelter I took refuge. After about 15 minutes, the rain had passed and I continued on. For the next 15 miles, until the Paw Paw tunnel, the trail was flooded with a few inches of water. On top of the flooding, the ditches along the trail are difficult to see when they are underwater. So when you ride your bike through the water, you could very well be hitting a major pothole. It was mentally and physically exhausting pedaling through water and mud. I thought I would have to do it for the rest of the day, but after I got through the Paw Paw tunnel, the trail was muddy in spots, but not flooded.

Entrance to the Paw Paw tunnel. Some people ride it. I walked .

It took me another four hours to get from Paw Paw to Cumberland! I was amazed at how muddy the trail was for the last 30 miles. I had to constantly slow down to avoid falling at mushy mud ruts made by previous cyclists. I was out for 12 hours today and only managed 95 miles. I was happy to complete the towpath, and in two days!

Never again

I am happy to ride sections of the Towpath in the future, but I don’t know about riding it end to end again. If you want to complete the towpath, I highly recommend taking more than 2 days to do it. Your butt will thank you.

Luxury

I have a few free nights at Marriott so despite being early in the trip, I decided to burn one to clean up my bike and gear. The Marriott in Cumberland caters to cyclists since it is located right at the end of the Towpath. There is a bike-washing station outside the hotel which I heavily utilized. Today was quite likely the muddiest day of my life.

End of the line. The transition from C&O to GAP
Brilliant! Thank you LBS!
Gear bags after some preliminary cleaning

After a little repacking and free breakfast in the morning I will start working on the next trail: the Great Allegheny Passage.

One Reply to “The C&O Canal Towpath – biking North in two days”

  1. Enjoy the GAP trail (after you get up to the Continental Divide). You’ll “breeze” your way to Pittsburgh. Leslie is in Bridgeville, PA if you need shelter. I’m sure she’d meet you. Then again, I have no idea what the distance is from the GAP to Bridgeville. Be safe, my boy. Luv ya. CL

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