• Paddling on the Potomac River

    Potomac Heritage

    National Scenic Trail DC,MD,PA,VA

C&O Canal Hike 10

Great Falls Tavern to Whites Ferry

Above Great Falls the canal takes on more of a rural feel. Soon Swain's Lock comes into view. From downstream it appears as it did in the 1830s. Moving ahead, dramatic cliffs topped with cedars and a river filled with islands grace the route. To support the towpath a two mile long rock wall was built between Swain's and Pennyfield Lock. Eventually, the cliffs fall away and the canal climbs to Seneca Aqueduct. West of Seneca Creek the route changes character. The canal, mostly watered until now, is suddenly filled with large trees. The towpath narrows and gets rougher. From here to Cumberland, on most days you will see only a handful of people. Beautiful ruins dot the route, especially near the locks. Past Edwards Ferry turf farms and grazing lands are reminiscent of earlier times.

The trail emerges from the woods at White's Ferry. Nearly 100 ferries have operated on the Potomac over the last 175 years. Now there is only one, and even this fact surprises many people when they discover it. You have to ride it. If you're traveling by car, take a short trip to Leesburg. If by bike up from Washington, you can bike into Leesburg then head home on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail. If you're hiking, just ride to the other side and back.

 

Trip Planner

Start: Great Falls Tavern
End: White's Ferry
Miles: 21.5
Points of Interest: Great Falls tavern and museum, Swains Lock, Seneca Creek Aqueduct, Edwards Ferry, Broad Run Aqueduct, White's Ferry
Parking: Great Falls (0.0 mi.), Swains Lock (2.3 mi.), Pennyfield Lock (5.3 mi.), Violettes Lock (7.8 mi.), Seneca Creek Aqueduct (8.5 mi.), Sycamore Landing (12.9 mi.), Edwards Ferry (16.6), White's Ferry (21.5 mi.)
Water: Great Falls, Swains Lock, Seneca Aqueduct, Horsepen Branch campsite, Chisel Branch campsite, Turtle Run campsite, (water at campsites normally turned off November - April)
Restroom or Privy: Great Falls, Swains Lock, Seneca Creek Aqueduct, Horsepen Branch campsite, Chisel Branch campsite, Turtle Run campsite, White's Ferry
Provisions: Great Falls (snackbar in season), Seneca Aqueduct, groceries 0.9 miles up Riley's Lock Rd. (closed on Sunday), White's Ferry (limited groceries and snackbar in season)
Camping: Swain's Lock, Horsepen Branch campsite, Chisel Branch campsite, Turtle Run campsite

 
Hike Data
Mile Navigation
0 Great Falls Tavern. During the spring and summer a snackbar operates just to the west of the tavern, and canal boat rides leave from the lock. The restored lockhouse features a museum.
2.3 Swains Lock. The Swain family operated this lock when the canal closed in 1924. The family still lives in the lockhouse. Snacks are sold here April-October. Boats and bicycles for rent.
5.3 Pennyfield Lock. The ruined house on the berm was owned by the Pennyfields. President Grover Cleveland stayed here when fishing in the area.
7.8 Violettes Lock.
8.4 Seneca Creek Aqueduct. Lockhouse tours some Saturdays. Poole's General Store is 0.9 miles to the right. To reach it follow road along creek to River Road, turn left and cross bridge to store. You can then retrace your steps, or follow the Seneca Greenway back to the canal
Seneca Greenway. Trail currently runs 21.9 miles north to Huntmaster Road. There is no sign at junction with canal. The trail begins 50 yards west of Seneca Aqueduct as a gated dirt road headed north across canal.
11.7 Horsepen Branch campsite. This is the first of the regular hiker-biker campsites.
12.9 Sycamore Landing.
16.1 Chisel Branch campsite.
16.6 Edwards Ferry. The ruins here are the remains of Jarboe's Store.
17.7 Broad Run Aqueduct, the only wooden aqueduct of 12. The wooden flume is gone but the stone supports have been restored.
20.2 Turtle Run campsite.
21.5 Whites Ferry. This is the last operating ferry on the Potomac. Snackbar operates here April-October. Sodas available outside. Pedestrians 50 cents, bicycles $1.00. Canoes and Johnboats for rent. Float trips available.
 

Explore the PHT

Seneca Creek
This is a place steeped in the past. Riley's Lock, Seneca Creek Aqueduct and the lockhouse are all built of Seneca red sandstone quarried just west of here. That same sandstone was used to build the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, DC. Just west of the aqueduct, at the junction with the Seneca Greenway, stands the ruins of the Seneca Stone Cutting Mill. The Seneca Greenway begins as an old railroad grade that meanders up the creek to River Road and historic Poole's General Store. Eventually this trail will run all the way to the Patuxent River.

Whites Ferry
This is becoming an increasingly rare experience because people love building bridges. Spend a dollar and step back into the past. This will buy those afoot a round trip on the Potomac.

Lift Locks
Locks were the key to any canal that did not traverse flat terrain. Basically the boat enters a chamber between a set of gates. If it is going upstream the chamber fills with water lifting the boat, then the upper gate opens and the boat passes through. When the boat is headed downstream the lock is full when the boat enters and the lower gate is opened releasing the water and lowering the boat so it can proceed downstream. The C&O Canal had 74 lift locks that each lifted boats an average of just over eight feet. Each boat was raised or lowered some 605 feet between Cumberland and Georgetown.

Did You Know?