As I was riding along the C&O Canal Towpath I thought to myself “This is a ride that everyone needs to do”
The C&O Canal Towpath is a ride through history running 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, DC and is a National Historic Park. The towpath surface is general crushed stone or clay and relatively flat with an approximate change in elevation of 660 feet along the full length. The towpath generally has the elevation changes at one of the many locks along the way. With the way the towpath is set up it is possible to enjoy the canal as a day trips or multi-day trips if you choose. There are numerous campsites along the route that offer space to pitch a tent, have a fire pit and or grill with a hand operated well and port a pot. These amenities make a great way to start seeing the joys of touring by bicycle. If you prefer not to camp with a little bit of planning you can “credit card” tour by staying in hotels and or B&B’s along the way. The amount of easy access to the towpath makes it easy for people who want to enjoy the canal for the day and it provides those on longer adventures easier to get food and lodging. While the towpath is very close to civilization when you are enjoying the park you feel much more with nature.
As a kid I have ridden most of the towpath over a series of trips with my uncles and cousins. Like many I have pondered the idea of trying to ride the entire 184.5 miles in a single day. I have also pondered riding from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC utilizing the Great Allegheny Passage Trail and C&O Canal together a trip of about 330 miles. Each of these trips are still on the “Trips I want to take” list.
On my most recent trip Amanda and I drove to Brunswick, MD and decided to ride towards Harpers Ferry. Brunswick is at mile 55 and Harpers Ferry is just past mile 60. With the surface of the towpath several types of bikes would work well. A hybrid or fitness bike, if you choose to use a fitness bike I would recommend a tire width of at least 35mm. Amanda rode with slightly narrower tires while she did fine she mentioned that at higher speeds the handling got a little squirrely for her. Mountain bikes and comfort bikes would work well on the canal we saw lots of them the day we rode. Another option would be a cyclocross bike. My recommendation would be a bike with 700c tires. I took a Gary Fisher Utopia which is one of Fisher dual sport bikes. The Utopia has 700c tires with a front shock and straight bars, it just might be the ultimate bike for the C&O Canal.
The parking at Brunswick is plentiful; there is a commuter parking lot by the MARC train that is very close to the towpath, more parking can be found a little closer to the trail. Brunswick has a boat launching ramp providing access to the Potomac. This area offers visitors public restrooms, some more parking and a great picnic area. For this ride we had just planned an out and back route. We wanted to ride past Harpers Ferry and see how we felt before turning around. We ended up riding to mile sixty five and turning around for a total of twenty miles. One of the reasons we chose Brunswick is that Harpers Ferry is a popular access point for the canal and the parking close by is limited, but there is parking in Harpers Ferry and a short ride will get you to the towpath. With is being a holiday weekend we didn’t want to deal with parking issues.
We came across lots of people out enjoying a day on the towpath including a family with a child riding with training wheels. The canal is a great place to ride for the entire family. This is a popular section of the towpath, Harpers Ferry is right where both the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers come together. For a few miles the Appalachian Trail uses the towpath as part of its route. These sections of the rivers are also popular with rafters and tubers. Harpers Ferry which is also a National park offers a look back into history and just across from Harpers Ferry on the towpath side is a great hike on the Maryland Heights Trail. Once you reach the top of the trail you will be rewarded with an amazing view of Harpers Ferry. When I reached the top and looked back towards Harpers Ferry it looked like I was looking down into a model train set.
Now back to the riding. When we reached Harpers Ferry we elected not to take the footbridge across to town but to continue on the towpath for several more miles. We had chosen to ride this section on Labor Day and the section between Brunswick and Harpers Ferry was being enjoyed by many people, but the further away from Harpers Ferry we got the less usage we saw.
The towpath is well marked and there are a ton of resources out there to help you plan your trip or trips. I highly recommend you take advantage of the great riding the towpath offers. It offers something for everyone and a ton of history along the way.
Bikewashington.org – A great C&O Canal Resource for cycling.