C&O Canal Family Biking Trips - A Curated List

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Looking for an easy and fun bike trip, suitable for cyclists of all ages?

The trips on this curated list were selected to showcase some of the best natural and historical sites in the C&O Canal National Historical Park. Located throughout the 184.5 miles of the C&O Canal towpath, each trip highlights various features that are part of the canal experience. They're short (averaging 10 miles round trip) with access with generous parking lots and amenities. Enjoy!

For your convenience, here is a useful map of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. It shows the various Mile Markers (MM) for key points along the towpath, as well as roads to access those sites.
 
Abner Cloud House
Abner Cloud house and parking lot

NPS /  Nanette Nyce

Fletcher's Cove


Enjoy a slice of nature within Washington, D.C.

Parking Directions - This welcoming spot is located on 4940 Canal Rd. NW, Washington D.C.. To successfully navigate changing traffic patterns, we recommend that visitors use their travel app or GPS to find the best route depending on the time of day. The entrance is a narrow 2-way road passing between Canal Road and the Abner Cloud House, near the juncture of Reservoir Road and Canal Road. A traffic light at the junction controls entrance and exit. The parking lot is just beyond the House.

What You'll See - Many historical structures in this area predate the canal. The Abner Cloud House (MM 3.13), was built in 1801 by Abner Cloud. Abner also constructed and operated a flour mill on the site. From here, it's a little over 3 miles downriver along the towpath to the starting point of the canal and towpath. Parallel to the towpath at this point is the Capitol Crescent Trail, a paved cycling path frequently used by D.C. cycling commuters. You might also see the remains of Georgetown Inclined Plane (MM 2.26), completed in 1876. It was a short-cut for loaded canal boats to enter the Potomac sooner and avoid the boat back-up at the terminus. Traveling downriver brings you into the heart of historic Georgetown (founded 1751) and the terminus (MM 0.0) of the C&O Canal. Cycling in Georgetown means increased traffic on the towpath as well as some street crossings, but there is wonderful architecture and great places for a snack.

Should you travel upriver, you'll pass lock 5 (MM 5.02), as well as lock 6 (MM 5.4). Lockhouse 6 has a small, easily accessible parking lot and is available for accomodation through the C&O Canal Trust. Little Falls Dam (MM 5.64) was the site for the groundbreaking of the C&O Canal by President John Quincy Adams in 1828. The dam was built between 1828-1830 to divert water into the canal. If you look at the upper lock gate at lock 7 (MM 7.0), you might notice it's an unusual sort of gate for the C&O canal. Instead of double swinging doors meeting at the middle, the lockgate is similar to a drawbridge, lowered by a hand cranked mechanism.
 
Lock 22, Pennyfield Lock
Lock 22, Pennyfield lock & lockhouse

NPS / Nanette Nyce

Great Falls

Dense with natural beauty and historic gems, Great Falls is one of the most popular and accessible sites along the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

Parking Directions - Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is found at 11710 MacArthur Boulevard, Potomac, Maryland. (If you're using a travel app or GPS, be certain to specify Great Falls Tavern, or you could be directed to the Great Falls National Park on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.) The only fee booth in C&O Canal NHP is located here. There are also restroom facilities, a seasonal concession stand, and picnic tables.

What You'll See - These magnificent falls are caused by the Potomac River dropping about 76 feet, or greater than the height of a seven-story building over the course of a mile. There are more than a dozen trails in the area to take in the views, ranging from Easy to Difficult for pedestrians. Due to heavy visitation, cyclists are generally best off heading upriver from the Visitor Center, away from the popular hiking trails. The Great Falls Tavern (MM 14.3) was finished in 1829, and served as both residence for the lockkeeper as well as accommodation for travelers. It now serves as a Visitor Center as well as provides offices for park staff.

Traveling from the Tavern up the towpath, you'll soon see Conn Island, which has been successfully nested by bald eagles since 1986. A few miles further upriver, you will find Swain's Lock (MM 16.64), with a small parking lot. The residence built for the lockkeeper's family, lockhouse 21, is still standing and is available for overnight rental from C&O Canal Trust. Swain's Lock also provides the easternmost of the 31 hiker-biker campgrounds. These are available free of charge on a first-come basis. Each is equipped with a water pump (usually functional from mid-April through mid-November), a port-a-potty, picnic table and a fire pit. Pennyfield lock (MM 19.63) and lockhouse 22 are a few miles further upriver, and this lockhouse is also available for reservation. There is another small parking lot here. President Grover Cleveland often visited Pennyfield to fish for bass. It's also said that he enjoyed eating cooked eels from the canal.
 
Monocacy Aqueduct at autumn sunset
Monocacy Aqueduct at autumn sunset

NPS - Nanette Nyce

Monocacy - Point of Rocks

Cross over Monocacy Aqueduct - "one of the finest canal features in the United States" and the largest aqueduct in C&O Canal National Historical Park.

Parking Directions - The road leading to the Monocacy parking lot is located just north of Dickerson, Maryland off MD-85/Buckeystown Pike. From Buckeystown Pike, turn westward onto Mouth of Monocacy Road. The road will end in a little over a mile at the parking lot, (keep to the left at the fork to the boat launch). There are toilets, as well as a picnic area. Another nearby parking option is Noland's Ferry a few miles further upriver. It can be accessed in a similar way via Noland's Ferry road.

What You'll See - This section of the C&O Canal offers connections to the lives of indigenous Americans, colonial commerce, and views of historical architecture blended with scenic natural landscapes. The Monocacy Aqueduct (MM 42.19), built between 1829-1833, was overseen by Benjamin Wright, chief engineer of the Erie Canal as well as the C&O Canal. Constructed of granite blocks quarried from the base of nearby Sugarloaf Mountain, it is 516 feet long, and over 30 feet wide. The solid construction prevailed when Confederate forces were tasked to destroy it in 1862. Confederate Brigadeer General John Walker said the structure was too well constructed to be demolished by their crowbars and drills.

Your path upriver takes you further back in history. Noland's Ferry (MM 44.58) is one of the oldest known crossing points of the Potomac River. Part of the "Warriors Path", this network of trails was used by Native Americans traveling in eastern North America. The crossing continued to be used by Virginia colonists shipping produce to Baltimore, Maryland. Geologic history can be observed at "Calico rocks", an outcropping of a conglomerate limestone seen on the far side of the canal (MM 46.8). Also called "Potomac marble", polished examples can be seen in the columns of Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Another Canal Town, Point of Rocks (MM 48.2) was the source of contention between the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The B&O Railroad began construction in Baltimore the same day ground was broken for the C&O Canal in Georgetown - July 4th, 1828. The Potomac River cuts through Catoctin Mountain at this point and the resistant metabasalt cliffs come almost to the river's edge - not providing enough room for both the canal and a railroad. After several years of litigation which halted the construction of the canal and railroad, a compromise plan was reached in 1833. The canal continued in the narrow strip of land between the Potomac and the cliffs. The B&O constructed a tunnel for the rail line through Catoctin Mountain. This can be seen from the towpath, beneath the US-15 bridge crossing the Potomac.
 
Parking at lock 38
Parking at lock 38

NPS /  Nanette Nyce

Shepherdstown/Ferry Hill

Parking Directions - There are two easy C&O Canal parking sites here. A small parking lot is just a short distance down Canal Road, off Shepherdstown Pike (MD-34) on the Maryland side of the James Rumsey bridge. About half a mile further down Canal Road is a second, larger parking lot, with a port-a-potty. Both parking lots have small bridges connecting them to the towpath on the other side of the canal.

What You'll See - Commercial traffic traversed the Potomac River, as well as the length of the canal. Between the two parking lots is one of three river locks found along the canal. These river locks provided access to the Potomac River from the canal. This also allowed cargo to be easily shipped to and from the Virginia (later West Virginia) side of the river. As you travel along the C&O Canal, you may notice several sets of unconnected piers crossing the Potomac. The Potomac River is prone to frequent flooding. Many bridges have succumbed over the decades to the destructive floods. The largest flood on record occurred in March of 1936.

If you head upriver, you'll notice lock 38 (MM 72.7) with views of Ferry Hill on the bluff above. Built in 1813, the plantation was often occupied by both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War. A few miles beyond brings you to Lock 39 (MM 74.0), then to another scenic location Snyder's Landing (MM 76.65). Should you prefer boating, following the experience of historic boatmen of the canal, there are 25 different boat/canoe/kayake ramps accessing the Potomac River along the C&O Canal National Historical Park.

Heading downriver from Shepherdstown will take you to Antietam Creek. Between the towpath and Potomac is a Drive-In Campground. It's safest to cross the Antietam Aqueduct (MM 69.36) by the path running through the aqueduct bed. If you decide to cross on the stonewall, dismount and walk your bike. The stone walkway is very uneven.

Although tranquil now, Antietam had a busy, industrial past. The village of Antietam's first iron furnace opened in 1765. During the Revolutionary War, the village furnished cannons, cannon balls, and muskets. The manufacturing continued for over a hundred years. In fact, many metal parts of James Rumsey's experimental steamboat from 1787 were manufactured in Antietam. In addition to iron, a variety of mills in Antietam manufactured nails, limestone, hemp rope, flour, as well as other products.

The Antietam Aqueduct on the C&O Canal carried barges full of coal and agricultural goods over Antietam Creek from the upper Potomac to the wharves of Georgetown. If you were to go up Antietam creek for a few miles, you would find the site of the Battle of Antietam - the bloodiest day of the Civil War - September 17, 1862. A few miles along the canal down the Potomac River is lock 37, Mountain Lock (MM 66.96). Although the lockhouse is not open to the public, it is picturesque and the lock is in good repair with a small bridge crossing the lock.


 
Cushwa Warehouse and Basin
Cushwa's Coal Brick, Cushwa Warehouse and Basin with Trolley Barn in back ground

NPS / Nanette Nyce

Williamsport

Parking Directions - If you drive here, we recommend that visitors with bicycles park in River Bottom Park, next to the Potomac River. To find River Bottom Park from the Williamsport Visitor Center take Commerce Street southeast to West Salisbury Street and turn toward the Potomac River. This takes you over the canal via the Bollman Bridge to access the towpath more easily. Parking in River Bottom Park places you on the towpath side of the canal. If you park near the Visitor Center, 205 West Potomac Street, Williamsport, Maryland, you can cross over the canal using the Railroad Lift Bridge to the towpath on the other side. There's a staircase to take you up to the bridge level, then back down.

What You'll See - Located at Mile Marker 99.7 on the towpath, the Williamsport Visitor Center has a wealth of great canal sites for your family to enjoy. Please check out the Williamsport Walking Tour. The Visitor Center, located in the former Cushwa Basin Warehouse, was built between 1790-1810. Another unique site is the restored Conococheague Aqueduct (MM 99.8) where the canal water flows over the Conococheague Creek as it empties into the Potomac. Adjacent to both of these is the Trolley Barn Power Station (MM 99.8). Located about half a mile downriver from the Visitor Center is lock 44 with its restored lockhouse (MM 99.3). Should you continue downriver on the towpath there are many beautiful views, especially in late April through early May when bluebells often carpet towpath sides.

This section of towpath was traversed by General Robert E. Lee's army following its withdrawal from the Battle of Gettysburg. A few were able to ferry across at Williamsport. Others used the rebuilt pontoon bridge at Falling Waters. The canal and river were active with retreating soldiers until the crossing was completed on July 14th, 1863.

If you decide to travel upriver instead, the canal is quite narrow in places due to limestone cliffs on the other side of the canal. The remains of a two-story house where canal maintenance workers once lived can be seen (MM 103.45) across the canal. Further on are the piers of a destroyed railroad bridge (MM 104.8) that was swept away by the flood of 1936.

 
Bowles House in Hancock, Maryland
Bowles House in Hancock, Maryland

NPS / Nanette Nyce

Hancock

This Canal Town loves cyclists. Whether you're looking for food, accommodations, or bicycle repairs, this small town has resources for your needs.

Parking Directions - There are two parking lots within a mile of each other. One is adjacent to Bowles House (MM 122.85) 439 East Main Street, Hancock, Maryland. Constructed in 1785, this historical home began as a single story. The original occupants, the Yates family, had a front row seat as construction of the canal reached Hancock in 1839. The other parking lot is in the town of Hancock, at the intersection of Canal Street and East Main Street. Along this section of the towpath an old, adjacent rail line has been replaced by the Western Maryland Rail Trail. This asphalted trail begins at Big Pool (MM 112.5) and ends over 25 miles later at Little Orleans (MM 141).

What You'll See - Located just upriver from the Bowles House is the Tonoloway Aqueduct (MM 122.96). Continuing upriver, you pass by the town of Hancock where there are many places to eat and cycling services. On your way out, you'll pass underneath the steel and concrete bridge carrying US-522 over the Potomac.

To enjoy both ancient as well as recent history, visit the companion sites of Devil's Eyebrow (MM 127.24), a hollowed out anticline, and the remains of the Round Top Cement Mill (MM 127.7), which began operations in 1838 and was finally abandoned in the early 20th century. Their proximity is no accident. The cavity of the Eyebrow formed because the softer limestone that filled it eroded. There is an abundance of calcium rich limestone in the area. The Cement Mill was constructed to process the limestone to make cement. This cement was used in the construction of many canal features, as well as down in Washington, D.C. In fact, the foundation of the U.S. Capitol building used Round Top cement.
 
North Entrance to Paw Paw Tunnel
North Entrance to Paw Paw Tunnel

NPS / Stephanie Siemek

Paw Paw

One of the most wondrous sites on the C&O Canal is the Paw Paw Tunnel.

Parking Directions - The parking lot can be accessed from Paw Paw, West Virginia after crossing the Potomac on WV-9, or from MD-51, Oldtown Rd. There is a Drive-in Campground (MM 156.1) with picnic benches and campsites, and a generous parking lot. Contact the park for current camping fees and information. To access the Tunnel from the Campground, travel northward (and downriver) on the towpath.

What You'll See - Once you arrive at the southern entrance of the Paw Paw Tunnel (MM 155.78), please dismount. The trail continues for 3,118 feet through Sorrel Ridge. For your safety and others, please walk your bike through the Tunnel and carry a light source. This also allows you to better see the construction features - bricks spanning overhead, railings worn by the mules' ropes pulling the boats, and stalactites created by water from the ridge overhead dripping into the Tunnel.

Half a mile beyond the north exit of the Tunnel, you'll see locks 66, 64 2/3, 63 1/3, and 62. Originally, five locks were planned, and only four were built, so they were renumbered using fractions. These locks (MM 154.7 - MM 154.16) each raised or lowered the boats by 10 feet. Continuing downriver (and northward) brings you to lock 61 (MM 153.1) and lock 60 (MM 149.69). Many lockhouses through this section of canal were built of less durable materials. Little remains but their foundations, unlike the brick and stone houses downriver closer to Georgetown.
 
Cumberland Visitor Center
Cumberland Visitor Center

NPS / Nanette Nyce

Cumberland

Parking Directions - The Cumberland Visitor Center is located on 13 Canal Street in Cumberland, Maryland. Those driving from the east on I-68, take exit 43c. If you're coming from the west, exit 43a is recommended. There is a large parking lot in front of the Visitor Center, as well as a train depot for the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. This is also an excellent location to access the Great Allegheny Passage. This well maintained path connects Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cumberland, Maryland and is also very popular with cyclists. Downtown Cumberland Historic District has many family friendly resources.

 
Statue of child & mule at Cumberland Visitor Center
Statue of boy and mule in front of Cumberland Visitor Center

NPS / Nanette Nyce

What You'll See - Beginning at the canal's end provides a great perspective on the life of a "canawler". Less than a quarter of a mile from the end point (MM 184.5) is a replica of a canal boat - "The Cumberland". Further down the towpath, you'll cross a bridge over a redug section of canal. This area has been reshaped many times to meet commercial needs and reduce the risk of flooding. During the canal era, boat basins and raised (bermed) train tracks crossed the area. Boats and trains competed and collaborated to ship the mined coal to the ports of Georgetown.

A few miles downriver, residential neighborhoods line both sides of the towpath. Candoc Recreation Area (MM 181.83) has several tennis courts and baseball diamonds. A little further down is the furthest west and the smallest of the aqueducts, the Evitt's Creek Aqueduct (MM180.66), as well as the last (or first depending on your direction) of the Hiker-Biker Campsites (180.0). For many that live along the Maryland side of the Potomac, C&O Canal National Historical Park is their "Backyard Park." Whether you enjoy the park as a local or a long distance neighbor, we hope you'll enjoy your time here and #recreateresponsibly so we will all enjoy this treasure for another hundred years and more!

Last updated: June 10, 2021

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Mailing Address:

142 W. Potomac St.
Williamsport , MD 21795

Phone:

301-739-4200

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