Enjoy what many say is the best birding along the entire Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath, then spend the night in a Canal Quarters at Pennyfield Lockhouse. A short hike along the historic C&O Canal offers sweeping Potomac River views, and hugs close to rocky cliffs that tumble into the canal. The canal is “watered” from Pennyfield to Violettes Lock, so you’ll see kingfishers in flight and herons patiently awaiting lunch.
Location: Mile post 19.6 in Montgomery County, southwest of Darnestown. From the Capital Beltway, take Maryland Route 190 about nine miles (passing through Potomac) to Pennyfield Lock Road. Turn left and go a quarter mile to trailhead parking.
To reserve a lockhouse: The Lockhouses are managed by the C&O Canal Trust through a special partnership with the National Park Service.
Fun things to do: It’s a lovely 3.2 mile or bike ride walk upriver to Seneca Creek Aqueduct. For a trip combining hiking and paddling, stow your canoe or kayak at Violettes Lock so you can paddle back to your Quarters.
Because the canal is watered from here to Violettes Lock, as you stroll upriver you might see kingfishers zooming in the morning light like B-52s. Or, perhaps you will spy paddlers easing through the canal.
Less than half a mile on your walk, cross Muddy Branch over a culvert. The backwater here is more reminiscent of the Lower Potomac than the Piedmont. Instead of tumbling into the river, Muddy Branch finds the flatwater of the canal, creating a marshland that is favored by an abundant array of birds and waterfowl. A trail just past Muddy Branch leads into Dierssen Waterfowl Sanctuary and some terrific birding, particularly around the marsh. You can hike down to the river, too.
The area above the canal is Blockhouse Point Park. If you’re lucky, you will spy a bald eagle returning to the woods above the canal after hunting or scavenging at the riverfront.
Reach Violettes Lock at 2.5 miles. Take some time to examine the lift lock and inlet lock, where wayside exhibits describe canal operations. A dam below this spot acted as a weir, channeling water toward the inlet lock, watering the canal from here to Little Falls. If you still have some steam, continue west to Seneca Creek Aqueduct—if not, retrace your way downstream to Pennyfield Lock and afternoon libations.
The aqueduct was one of 11 built to carry the canal across major streams draining into the Potomac. The three-arch structure was completed in 1833, built of Seneca red sandstone from the nearby cliffs. The sandstone quarried at Seneca was used to build the first building of the Smithsonian Institution.