Maryland Volkssport Association
Maryland's State Excerise is walking!
History of the C&O Canal
The C&O Canal "is a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace ..." - Justice William O. Douglas, 1954
The C&O Canal National Historical Park winds its way 184.5 miles from Georgetown in Washington, DC to the town of Cumberland on the Allegheny Plateau in beautiful western Maryland. The trail is a well-kept towpath nestled between the Potomac River and the canal prism (the structure designed to hold the water). From tidewater at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to Cumberland on the Allegheny Plateau, the C&O Canal winds through the Piedmont, past the Great Falls of the Potomac, and then through the ridge-and-valley section of the Appalachian Mountains. Its rich floodplain forests are gifts of the river's frequent floods. It is a trip through history with 74 lift locks, restored lock houses, aqueducts, and the amazing mile-long Paw Paw tunnel. Walkers will enjoy spectacular scenery, beautiful river vistas, and abundant wildlife along the trail.
Several years ago the MVA, under the leadership of Diane Ference and Steve Duex, then president and executive Vice President, conceived an idea for a series of one-time events that would span the entire Canal over a period of three years. After much planning, the dream seemed destined to become a reality. Mother Nature intervened with a series of floods the winter before the proposed start of the series and rendered the canal "unwalkable" for an entire year. Not to be discouraged, the walks were again planned to begin the following year. This time, they were successful. Each MD Club took the responsibility for planning a 5 or 10k out and back walk for at least one segment and the MVA coordinated the distance walks complete with shuttle busses back to the parking areas. Thanks to all the efforts of countless people, 1052 people completed all or parts of the C&O Canal. In addition, a sizeable donation was made to the National Park Service as a result of the series.
Recognizing that even more walkers want to either complete or walk parts of the Canal, the MVA now offers the series as Year Round events. Our thanks go to Diane and Steve for their vision and incredible commitment of time and effort that was necessary to make this a reality.
A number of good guides to the C&O Canal's history, structures and amenities are available including Towpath Guide to the C&O Canal, and The C&O Canal Companion. Books are available for purchase in all of the C&O Canal NHPS Visitor Centers. For a free list of maps, books, and other publications about the canal, please see the Parks and History Association's website.
The C&O Canal Association has posted a comprehensive list of C&O Canal access points with maps and GPS coordinates at candocanal.org. This site also offers a great deal of information on canal history, news and activities.
The National Park Service site also has a lot of information on trail condition and activities along the towpath.
We offer several ways to enjoy the C&O Canal towpath experience. The entire length of the towpath has been sanctioned through the AVA and is available for IVV walking or biking credit. There are 4 towpath segments that have been sanctioned for walk events. The walk events may vary in distance from 5 km to 300 km. There is one event sanctioned for bicycling. The bike event may vary in distance from 13 km to 300 km. Any event can be done as a one-way or out-and-back (round trip).
The AVA walk event sanctions and the bike event sanction are:
YRE 0747 (Walking) - Georgetown, DC to Cumberland, MD
YRE 0699 (Biking) - Georgetown, DC to Cumberland, DC
For a small fee, you can download (from the AVA Online Start Box) trail directions for recommended start and finish points. The start, finish and turnaround points for bike events are entirely up to you to decide (although you are welcome to use the same trail directions as the walks).
Recommended Walks for Georgetown, DC to Cumberland, MD (YRE 0747):
All walks feature abundant wildlife and wonderful scenery.
10K - out and back - Fletcher's Boat House to Georgetown features 2 locks, Potomac river aqueduct ruins, and the Georgetown NPS Visitors Center with an operational canal boat (small charge).
10K - out and back - Lock 38 to the Antietam Creek Aqueduct features beautiful river vistas, Lock 38, view of the Shepherdstown bluffs and Packhorse Ford.
10K - out and back - Fort Frederick (State Park) features the elegantly restored stone walls of Fort Frederick and the Big Pool canal area.
10K - out and back - Paw Paw features the remarkable Paw Paw canal tunnel. Almost a mile long, this engineering marvel is well worth seeing. Bring a flashlight.
10K - out and back - Little Orleans features the 15 Mile Creek Aqueduct.
11K/21K - out and back - Carderock to Great Falls features beautiful river vistas, Olmsted Island, 6 locks, the famous Great Falls Tavern and a National Park Service (NPS) Visitor's Center.
13K - one-way - Dargan Bend to Lock 38 features the Antietam Creek Aqueduct.
14K - one-way - Whites Ferry to Nolands Ferry features the spectacular seven arch, 560 foot Monocacy Aqueduct.
14K - one-way - Oldtown to North Branch features 5 locks and some interesting vistas.
15K - one-way - North Branch to Cumberland features the Evitts Creek Aqueduct and the canal terminus at Cumberland with its full size canal boat, the historic Western Maryland Railroad Station, and the excellent Park Service Visitor's Center.
16K - one-way - Brunswick to Dargan Bend features a gap through South Mountain ridge (the divide between Maryland's Frederick and Washington counties), 6 locks, and the opportunity for short detour into historic Harpers Ferry.
17K - one-way - Georgetown to Carderock features the Georgetown Visitor's center, 14 locks, and an operational canal boat (in season).
17K - one-way - Noland's Ferry to Brunswick features a view of Furnace Mountain and, with a brief detour across the pivot bridge, the Victorian train station in Point of Rocks.
17K - one-way - Paw Paw to Oldtown features Town Creek Aqueduct, and a nicely restored lock and lock house at Oldtown. Possible short side trips include the Potomac Forks at mile 164.8 and the low water toll bridge in Oldtown.
19K - one-way - Carderock to Seneca Aqueduct features Great Falls Tavern, 10 locks and Seneca Creek Aqueduct.
19K - one-way - Fort Frederick to Hancock features Fort Frederick, Big Pool, and Licking Creek Aqueduct.
20K - one-way - Lock 38 to Big Slackwater features cliffs with caves, and Dam 4.
20K - one-way - Williamsport to Fort Frederick features the National Park Service visitor's Center in Williamsport, Conococheague Aqueduct, Dam 5, and the handsome Fort Frederick.
21K - one-way - Seneca Aqueduct to Whites Ferry features the last active ferry on the Potomac and the Seneca Aqueduct.
24K - one-way - Little Orleans to Paw Paw features interesting scenery as the tow path runs beside Green Ridge State Forest and passes through the Paw Paw tunnel.
25K - one-way - Dam 4 to Williamsport features cliffs and caves along Big Slackwater, McMahon's Mill and the Visitor's Center in Williamsport.
27K - one-way - Hancock to Little Orleans features interesting rock faces and beautiful views as the canal enters "The Endless Mountains".
Bike Event Y0699:
You pick your distance (13k minimum to 300k) and your start/finish points accessible from Interstate Highways I-495, I-270, I-70 and I-68. Bicyclists will enjoy spectacular scenery, beautiful river vistas, and abundant wildlife along the trail. The surface of the towpath is for the most part an even hard packed dirt trail with a 2A rating. The paved 22 mile Western Maryland Rail trail which parallels the canal may also be ridden as an option on this event. The towpath can be very muddy following heavy rain. There are 30 hiker / biker campsites along the trail available free on a first come basis for those interested in the longer distances. Go to nps.gov/choh/index.htm for more park information.
All walking segments are rated 1B and are on mostly flat, natural surfaces along the towpath. There may some rougher sections due to erosion but these are few and far between as the NPS does a good job maintaining the towpath. Strollers may have difficulty in places. Wheelchair users should contact the POC for segment specific information.
The towpath is accessible every day of the year. Only during periods of flooding and heavy snowfall would access be restricted. If in doubt, call the National Park Service (NPS) for park opening information. You may walk on the towpath only from dawn to dusk. Camping is available in designated areas; get info from the NPS. Leave yourself enough time to complete your walk before dusk. Pets must be leashed. Please clean up after them. The towpath is a trash-free park where you must carry out your refuse.
Everyone is responsible for arranging their own transportation. It is best to walk the more remote segments with another individual or a group as you may be far from help if you need assistance.
You must carry sufficient food and water to last throughout your walk. There are scattered locations where food and drink are available but their opening is seasonal so you should not rely on them. Water pumps are not available in hiker-biker camps between October and April. Do not rely on them for water.
Everyone is eligible to participate. An adult must accompany children under 12 at all times on the trails.
Every effort has been made to make these walks safe and enjoyable. AVA, MVA and the National Park Service shall not be held responsible for lost or stolen items, accidents, or injuries at any time. If you are walking one of the remote segments, please remember to leave an itinerary with a close friend or relative in case of emergency.
These events are available every day of the year via the AVA Online Start Box (OSB).