Many people don’t know that the densely-populated, often traffic-clogged Washington, D.C. metropolitan area boasts a surprisingly large network of hiking and biking trails.
In addition to trails that connect different neighborhoods of the District plus parts of surrounding northern Virginia and western Maryland, there are others that extend for miles outside of the city. One of these is a former commercial barge canal and mule towpath that stretches almost 185 miles along the Potomac River from D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland – the C&O Canal (Chesapeake and Ohio Canal) National Historical Park.
I’d never had a chance to see any of it when I lived in Virginia a few years back, so when I spied a brown C&O Canal historic site highway sign while driving west through Maryland toward Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, I exited immediately and followed it.
There’s no better feeling than having time to follow a sign to explore something I’ve wondered about for years (and taking a Maryland Scenic Byway road to do it, too.)
After some turns, going up and down hills, and bumping across some railroad tracks, I found myself at Lock Number 29 on the old canal, looking at the house where the lock-keeper lived even decades after the canal officially closed in 1924.
The house is opened for a few hours on Saturdays if you want to tour, but I was there on a weekday so couldn’t do much except wander the grounds and enjoy the quiet isolation, which was enough for me.
You can’t stay overnight at the Lock 29 house, but you can stay in seven of the restored Canal lock-keeper houses….
“Each Canal Quarter lockhouse has been furnished with furniture and accessories from a different time period, and each tells a different story about the development of the C&O Canal. We encourage you to spend the night at all seven – each provides a unique experience! Each Canal Quarters lockhouse can sleep up 8 people.”
Next to Lock 29 was an historic placard that explained canal history and showed photos of some of the devastating flooding that finally forced the closure of the canal system.
As I stood next to the former towpath, a couple of cyclists went by. I waved down the next one that passed; he explained that he lived in the area and regularly enjoyed nice rides along the path that was formerly trod by mules pulling heavily-loaded barges, before the railroad made the canal system obsolete. He also recommended always checking current C&O Canal path conditions before heading out on hikes or rides, because there are often closures and detours due to weather conditions, repairs, and construction.
This set my brain to ticking through the possibilities of trail-linked trips on foot or by bike that could use connections to nearby trails like the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, or the famous Appalachian Trail. At the C&O Canal trail endpoint in Cumberland, Maryland, you can pick up the Great Allegheny Passage trail and go all the way to Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Across a little bridge and down a dirt road from Lock 29 is a small parking area and boat ramp. You can walk right up to the Potomac River….
The Potomac moves quickly, and there was a big stick poking out that caused the river water to make rippling sounds as it rushed past.
It was peaceful and quiet at the end of the boat ramp, and I imagined that it would take me quite awhile to bike the length of the C&O Canal trail because I’d constantly be stopping to read placards and admire sights like this, steeped in beauty and history.
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