Biking Along the C&O Canal Tow Path

November 6, 2010

By Shari Bernhard

Jill and Pete Stresing and Jeff and I joined 40 other riders on a marvelous and historical tour from Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia over 3 different trails. The tour was expertly organized and efficiently run by Bike and the Like headed by Suzie and Roger Knable, with an assist from Mary Menne. Most of the riding was done on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal Tow Path. The path runs 184 miles between Washington, DC, and Cumberland, MD.

From the Bike Washington website:

"The canal was built between 1828 and 1850, and it operated sporadically between floods until 1924. In 1954, US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas organized an eight day hike up the canal's towpath in an effort to save it from being converted to a parkway. His efforts succeeded, and in 1971 the canal became a National Historic Park. Today, much of the canal has been drained of water and reclaimed by the forest. However, the canal's towpath remains a favorite of hikers, joggers, and bicyclists."

We had great weather almost the whole time. Other than about half-hour of misty drizzle and temps a bit colder than we Floridians are used to, it was just lovely. It was quite chilly every morning but it usually warmed up by lunchtime. It was mostly sunny, with the overhanging canopy of trees filtering it beautifully.

Day 1: Deal to Cumberland — 25 miles

We started out from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor's Center 14 miles north of DC, and after bikes and gear were loaded onto a trailer, we took a comfy bus up to Deal, PA. From there we had a lovely ride, downhill the whole way, on a smooth cinder trail called the Allegheny Passage Trail. We stopped in Frostburg for lunch after 10 miles. This is a minor tourist trap whose whole claim to fame appears to be an old train that ends there. More on this train later.

After a no-so-great greasy lunch at a little local joint, we came to find out that there was a whole actual town with real restaurants up a long steep flight of stairs. We trudged up to see what we might have missed, and other than a few interesting food spots, not much. We headed back down, jumped on the bikes and continued south.

A half-hour later, we heard the sight-seeing train from Frostburg a-comin' down the tracks also headed south. We waved at the folks on the cars as they went by; the train was traveling maybe 2 mph faster than we were. Had I known what to expect as the last car passed, I'd have pedaled a lot faster.

Black, carcinogen-laden soot belching from the rear engine enveloped us and obscured the view. I decided to stop and wait, and watched Pete, Jill, and Jeff disappear into the cloud. Even worse, there was a tunnel coming up. No way would I want to go through that tunnel along with the train. After the air cleared, I continued on, breathing fresh(er) air.

Cumberland, MD, is a nice little town with a walking mall right near our hotel. Jeff, Jill and I moseyed over to a cafe and had a drink at an outside table. We were joined by Steve and Janet, a terrific couple from Canada. Dinner that night was a buffet (as were all the meals), and as tired as I was, sleep was not easy for me. Jeff and I had a room on the train side of the hotel. I was awakened at 12:22, 2:45, 4:15, and 5:55. I hate trains.

Day 2: Cumberland to Little Orleans — 45 miles with 8 mile uphill option

Here we transitioned from the Allegheny Trail to the C&O Canal Tow Path. This path is much rougher, mainly hard-pack dirt with attendant roots, rocks, and divots. Luckily for us, it hadn't rained since the previous week so it wasn't muddy. We were treated to fine skies, a light breeze and temps in the mid-60s.

The leaves, turning beautiful fall hues, were drifting down like multi-color snowflakes, glinting in the sunlight. Suzie set up a great picnic lunch in a park next to the canal, and afterwards, Jeff, Jill and I, joined by a few more of our group, took a ½ mile side trip to a little cafe for some hot coffee and a real bathroom.

This stretch was mostly flat. Pete was about ½ hour ahead of us, and Jeff left Jill and me in the dust shortly after the coffee stop. A few miles later, Jill and I arrived at Paw Paw Tunnel, over 3100 ft long, built between 1835 and 1850. We were warned to bring lights and to walk through because the path inside the tunnel was very uneven.

As we got out our lights, we thought, "Oh, this can't be that long — you can see the light of the exit on the other side." What an optical illusion! We kept walking and walking and walking, without ever seeming to get closer to the end. It took about 10 minutes to get through it.

When we finally emerged out of the darkness, we noticed that we were in an entirely new climate. Between the time we entered the tunnel and the time we exited, it clouded over and started a light drizzle. We could tell it was raining by looking at the Potomac to our right, but because of the overhanging trees, we didn't really feel it, and within a ½ hour, it cleared up.

By the time we got to Bill's Place Bar & Grill, the meeting place for those who wanted to shuttle up to the B&B at the top of the hill, where Pete and Jeff were waiting for us, we were all pretty beat — 45 miles on the path is like 75 miles on the road. My reward was to be greeted by Belle, Bill's adorable 6 month old beagle puppy. My other reward was a nice cold beer. About 10 intrepid souls from our group braved the 8 mile climb, parts of it reported to be a 10% grade, but we were not so, ahem, inclined. We took the van up.

The Town Hill Bed & Breakfast is a beautiful home that handled our large group just fine. They had refreshments for us on the veranda, and fresh coffee available all evening. The buffet-style dinner included several excellent home made dishes and was top notch. Jeff and I had a very comfortable room with big fluffy comforters. I slept like a log.

Day 3: Little Orleans to Hancock — 31 miles

We awoke to a thick fog at the top of the hill but no threat of rain. After a sumptuous breakfast buffet, we loaded our gear into the trailer, then headed 8 miles downhill (some opted to shuttle down rather than risk the steep hill on the wet road). The descent was challenging. There were a few moments of pucker, followed by flashes of sheer terror, but I kept it civil and only got up to 32 mph. Everyone who rode down made it with no casualties.

After 3 miles of tow path, we stopped for a photo op. A few minutes later, Ben and Tonya from South Carolina came rolling up with little Belle, the beagle from Bill's Place, in hot pursuit. Tonya said the puppy would not stop following them. After I got a few more doggie kisses, we continued on the trail, with Belle running alongside, happy as can be, darting into the woods, nose to the ground, on the hunt.

A couple of miles later, we detoured over to the West Maryland Rail Trail, a beautifully smooth paved path that parallels the tow path for the next 18 miles. What a relief to be on blacktop! After a few more miles, Jeff and I started to worry about the pup, who was still following us, and would have run the full 23 miles, risking injury.

We decided she needed to ride. I was able to hold her on my lap on the recumbent, tucked warmly inside my windbreaker. She sat there, quite satisfied with her new position, for several miles. When she started to get antsy, I set her down to run for awhile, chasing some squirrels and sniffing for who-knows-what. When she started to tire, I picked her up again for a few miles, and we did this the whole rest of the way to our destination.

In Hancock, we stopped at the C&O Bike Shop. Our tour leader, Roger, called Bill's son, Jack, whose phone number was on Belle's collar, to let him know where his pup had gotten off to. The bike shop owner knows Bill and Jack, and he agreed to hold onto Belle until someone could come for her. I hated to say good-bye. She was one of the sweetest dogs ever.

We made our way to the quaint but comfy '60s-style motel and after settling in, we took the van to Berkeley Springs, a touristy little village. Pete and Jill had gone in earlier and called us with their recommendation for lunch. Great choice! Several in our group visited the local Bath House or had a massage, and we walked around a little, enjoying the terrific weather. I also called Jack to make sure Belle got home okay — she did, which was a great relief to me.

That evening, our tour group gathered in the parking lot and walked a mile or so through town to dinner at the Park & Dine, followed by a talk on the history and future of Hancock by the town mayor and a local historian.

Day 4: Hancock to Williamsport — 25 miles plus a visit to Fort Frederick

It was really freezing when we started out, around 36°F, and it didn't warm up past the mid-50s the whole day. We rode to Park & Dine for breakfast, and going up a short hill, I cross-chained it and messed up my cable. Unable to shift, I walked up the hill and then coasted to the restaurant. After wolfing down some food, I headed over ½ mile to the the C&O Bike Shop where Tim fixed me right up.

We were soon on our way on the West Maryland Trail for the next 11 miles. The Trail ended at Fort Frederick State Park. We were treated to a short film describing the history of the Fort, which was built in 1756 during the French and Indian War, and housed Union soldiers during the Civil War. Next was a guided tour with two volunteers in period dress. They showed us around the fort and through the barracks, describing the life of the soldiers stationed there. The finale was a demo of the firing of a musket. Very loud, and very cool.

From Fort Frederick, we headed back onto the C&O Canal tow path for the next 15 miles. We became keenly aware of how spoiled we were with the Maryland Trail blacktop, but it warmed up nicely, the Potomac was beautiful, and this section included a lot of interesting scenery and historical markers.

We finished up at Williamsport and after cleaning up, we walked a few blocks to a community center for a catered dinner, followed by square dancing. This wasn't many people's cup of tea, so about half the group headed back to the hotel while the rest of us enjoyed some huge laughs and worked off some additional calories.

Day 5: Williamsport to Harper's Ferry — 28 miles on-road with a visit to Antietam

There were two options today: 39 miles on the tow path or 28 miles on the road. You can bet most of us took the road. The route was extremely scenic and offered many photo opportunities, including some beautiful fall colors and mountain vistas.

As we got closer to Antietam, the site of one of the most horrific and bloody battles of the Civil War, we stopped to read the many roadside historical markers. The loss of life that occurred in that battlefield was sobering. We took a break at the Antietam Memorial and Visitors Center. The sun was shining and the weather had warmed up, so we hung out for a while to enjoy some of the views from the top of the hill before heading to Shepherdstown.

What a beautiful and quaint college town! Jill, Pete, Jeff and I were joined by Janet and Steve at a little sandwich and sweet shop. We enjoyed a pleasant lunch of sandwiches, soup, and fresh-baked donuts at an outside table on the main boulevard. After lunch, we girls took a walk, visiting some shops (Jill found some really interesting jewelry), while Jeff and Pete got lost in the bookstore. Steve remained at our sidewalk table to enjoy a beer and keep watch over the bikes. On our way back, I got sidetracked by an adorable husky puppy lounging on a front stoop, who was all too happy to shower me with kisses.

Refreshed, we continue back to the C&O tow path for the last 9 miles into Harper's Ferry, a tastefully touristy village with interesting little shops. Jill and I bought some wine for dinner, then she and Pete rode off for the hotel. Jeff and I hung out with Steve at a local pub for a beer before heading up a dreadful ½ mile long hill (we walked) on the way to the hotel. The Quality Inn was pretty upscale. Dinner was great, and we were treated to a local entertainer in 1860s clothes who played a keyboard and sang some old Civil War era songs, interspersed with historical stories.

Day 6: Harper's Ferry to Great Falls Tavern Visitor's Center — 45 miles

After riding mostly rough path through the woods of Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia, we could have used an easy day, but this wasn't it. Pete and Jill left about 15 minutes ahead of us. The steep downhill through Harper's Ferry was a white-knuckle experience, but we got down safely. A photo op or two, and off we went. We had 25 miles to go before our lunch stop, and despite the gorgeous weather and scenery, we were all pretty cooked by this time.

There were more people on the trail here, as well as more roots, ruts, holes, and puddles. Jeff had a close encounter with catastrophe. After avoiding two back-to-back mud holes, he was in a bad line for the third, and thanks to his top-notch bike handling skills, he avoided going down the embankment or smashing into a tree. He ended up with his front wheel resting sideways against the trunk, but no harm done.

We were going at a pretty good clip, when we saw Pete and Jill about 100 yards ahead. Suddenly, I noticed my bike handling funny — sure enough, I had a front flat. A 10-minute delay and we were back on track, but didn't see the Stresings until the break.

Lunch was a picnic on the side of the trail. Simple sandwich fare can taste SO good when you're hungry. We didn't tarry long, knowing we had a long drive ahead of us once we were on the road, but unfortunately, the path got rougher and more rutted for the next 15 miles. Everything started to blend in by this time. We passed more and more people riding and walking on the path as we got closer to civilization. We watched the mile marker posts go by, looking for MM 15, knowing our exit was just south of there.

We passed MM 16, and my bike again felt odd: another front flat. I pumped it up and kept going. We could see the parking lot across the canal. At MM 15, I had to stop and pump up again. I heard Pete yell, "Hey, why don't you just swim across??!" I actually considered it. I hopped on and kept going, pumping up one more time at the south end of the parking lot for the ½ mile ride to the north end.

We got the bikes all loaded up, but unfortunately, we had to wait for the van to arrive with all our gear, which didn't arrive until 2:15 PM. We grabbed our gear, said goodbye to our wonderful tour leaders and new acquaintances and by 2:30, we were on the road heading home. We were sore and slightly battered, but smiling just the same. It was a great trip with wonderful friends and lots of fun. View photos from the trip.

Learn more about our C&O Canal bike tour.