This is a fine little urban jaunt along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., following the C&O Canal from mile 3.1 to mile 0.5. There are terrific views of the Potomac River and the Rosslyn, Va., skyline. And the canal in Georgetown was once its Main Street, where buildings were oriented to take advantage of the waterway.
Coming into Georgetown from the west, you see how the canal once connected the countryside to the city. Above Georgetown, today’s canal traffic consists of canoes and kayaks. While out for a walk, you might be passed by a mule towing a boatful of tourists out of Georgetown. Plan to have lunch in Georgetown after an easy walk of about 5 miles roundtrip—which you can cut short to suit your desires.
Trailhead parking: There is parking at Fletcher’s Boathouse and at parking meters in Georgetown. If you’re coming into the city by car, from I-495 Beltway, take the exit for Clara Barton Parkway west toward Carderock. Take the first right exit at Carderock Recreation Area and Naval Surface Warfare Center. Turn left at top of the ramp and cross over Clara Barton Parkway. Turn left again and reenter Clara Barton Parkway eastbound. Continue east under the Beltway to the end of the parkway at Canal Road. Continue on Canal Road to Fletcher’s.
Options: You can walk in the reverse direction by starting in Georgetown, reachable by public transportaiom.
Start: Abner Cloud House, Fletcher’s Boathouse. Fletcher’s Boathouse has been operating since the 1850s. There is a canoe and boat rental, refreshment stand and bait shop, picnic area and a lot of friendly old-fashioned charm. It was operated by the Fletcher family for generations, and since 2004 has been managed by a park concessionaire. Fletcher’s is still the place where many city kids get their first fishing experience.
Across the towpath from Fletcher’s is the Abner Cloud House. It is the oldest structure on the canal, built in the early 1800s and predating the C&O project by more than two decades. Cloud’s house was a residence and storeroom for the grains and he shipped to Georgetown.
The paved trail running parallel to the canal and visible from time to time is the Capital Crescent Trail, built on the former bed of a B&O line.
0.9, Incline Plane site. This ranks among the canal’s more peculiar stories. During the go-go years of the canal, there were huge traffic jams clogging the final four locks and the terminus at Rock Creek. Traffic was especially bad when canal boats docked at Georgetown docks. The incline plane was built to get Potomac-bound boats around Georgetown without having to crawl through traffic—the same problem facing motorists today. The incline was a giant wooden ramp. At canal level, a 112-foot caisson was filled with water, allowing the boat to enter. Then, using a system of pulleys, the canal boat floated in the caisson like a toy boat in a giant bathtub. It was then lowered to the river. Despite numerous problems and accidents, the plane sped up traffic and remained in use until it was destroyed by flood in 1889.
2.1, Key Bridge, Alexandria Aqueduct. Passing under the Key Bridge, there is a pocket park and exhibit on the Alexandria Aqueduct—another curious C&O story. Not to be left out of the massive public works project that was the C&O, Virginia built an aqueduct over the river. This connected to another canal on the Virginia side that carried canal boats to the port at Alexandria. To country folks visiting the city in the canal era, seeing boats sledding down the incline plane or floating high above the Potomac was the 19th century version of a
George Jetson universe.
2.2, the 34th Street footbridge.
2.6, C&O Canal Visitor Center; C&O Canal National Historical Park