Nature & Science

view of great falls at sunrise
A View of Great Falls at sunrise.

NPS Photo

C&O Canal Natural Resources

Although the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal never achieved its goal of linking Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River, it provides for us today a window into the North American continent's geologic past and a pathway through the rich natural system of the "Nation's River."

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park includes 19,236 acres paralleling the Potomac River from the densely urbanized Washington D.C. upriver for 184.5 miles through pastoral farm country and forest to Cumberland, Maryland. Many of the park's three million annual visitors come here to enjoy the outdoors, access the river, hike and bike, jog, ride horses, and observe wildlife.

The C&O Canal begins in the Atlantic Coastal Plain and crosses through portions of the Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Valley and Ridge physiographic provinces. This diverse landscape, with the influences of the Potomac River, results in the rich geological, ecological, and biological diversity found within the Park's boundaries. Over 1,500 different species of plants, including a significant number of state and nationally rare plant species, take refuge in the many habitats that the C&O Canal provides. Interesting geologic formations exist in the park such as Great Falls and limestone caves.

The natural resources provide scenery and backdrop to our daily lives. Found along the second largest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, these natural resources are also an important part of the larger bay ecosystem. Much of the park preserves floodplain forest and wetlands that contribute to the conservation of the Chesapeake Bay. The forest and wetlands can act as a "sponge," slowing down the flow of water during floods. Plants in the forest and wetlands can also absorb (and use for their own growth) some of the many nutrients that run off surrounding lands in the Potomac River watershed. This can lower the amount of "excess nutrients" that can harm the river's and bay's ecosystems.

Great Falls panorama
Panoramic view of Great Falls

NPS Photo

  • Eastern box turtle

    The many habitats along that journey from sea level to the mountains rank C&O Canal among the most biodiverse national parks.

  • Looking upriver at the Great Falls from Olmsted Island
    Natural Features & Ecosystems

    Diversity of ecosystems, natural communities, geologic formations, and waterways that the C&O Canal contains and protects.

  • Youth on towpath.

    The park has recorded over 1,500 species of vascular plants, including over 260 non-native plant species.


Researching Nature at C&O Canal

C&O Canal is a natural oasis for visitors and for scientific researchers because of its protected natural landscape. The research done here provides the accurate and current natural resource information we need to provide to best care for the park. Scientists look at what key resources are present in the park, if they are stable or changing, how ecosystems are changing over time, and how much change is normal.

Like a physician monitoring a patient's heartbeat and blood pressure, National Park Service ecologists with the National Capital Region Inventory & Monitoring Network collect long-term data on forest vegetation, bird and amphibian communities, water quality, and other key resources at C&O Canal, analyze the monitoring results, and share them with the park.
Read more in the articles below about researchers studying nature at C&O Canal and nearby national parks.

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    Last updated: April 22, 2024

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