Biking on the Historic C & O Canal

Written by Kim and Lynn Reed
My wife and I recently had the opportunity to do a multi-day ride on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. The path starts in Cumberland, MD goes all the way to Washington, DC.  We found the path to be a quite enjoyable 184 miles of well-maintained, pancake-flat, packed gravel dual-track.
c&o canal
We had mostly dry weather for our trip, but I could imagine how the path could get muddy in spots if you were unfortunate enough to run into rain.  For this reason, I would recommend at least a hybrid bike and maybe consider a hardtail for this trip (the front shock was helpful on some of the rougher spots).  Between the railroads running parallel to the path, the Potomac River and historic locks, lockhouses and aqueducts associated with the towpath, there is plenty of scenery to keep your mind off of your tired legs. 
If don’t mind leaving the path for a moment and traveling on country roads, there are many historic areas to explore.  Our tour included a trip to Fort Frederick, the famous civil war battlesite of Antietam and Harper’s Ferry.  There are also great museums along the way, such as the one at Canal Place in Cumberland, MD and the one just off the trail in Williamsport , MD.
c&o canal

For the more adventuresome crowd, many parts of the trail are sprinkled with camping spots, with port-a-johns, potable water, a pit for a campfire and grills.  We saw many people riding the trail that were self-supported.  Some were going into the nearby towns to stay in inns each night, but a few were hauling their tents and food with them.   

This time of year you will find yourself riding through a canopy of trees sporting a full array of fall colors.  The path is so well shaded, in fact, that it might even be a ride to consider in the hotter summer months.
canal trail

At first glance, the flat terrain of the towpath may not seem like enough of a challenge to the serious rider, but there are some challenging climbs on the backroads that lead to the nearby towns.  If it’s exercise you want, you should be able to find it within a few miles of the path.  And, if 184 miles is not enough for you, the trip length can be nearly doubled by starting your trip in Pittsburgh at the start of the Allegheny Passage, which connects with the C & O Canal Towpath in Cumberland, MD, .  Here’s a company that has several trips a year from Pittsburgh to Washington DC on the trails,
Our journey actually started in Deal, PA on the Allegheny Passage, near the Mason-Dixon Line.  Three towns along the way that we found particularly
interesting were Frostburg, MD, Shepherdstown, WV and Harper’s Ferry, WV.  Frostburg is all about the railroad, complete with a turntable for turning engines around.  Shepherdstown was a small college town on the river with nice hotels and even better eateries.  There’s a lot of history to be experienced in Harper’s Ferry and the streets are filled with magnificent craft shops, inns and pubs.
c&o canal

We chose to do this ride with a company called Bike and the Like.  We had previously done an 8-day road ride out of San Francisco with them and thoroughly enjoyed it.  They are one of the best values out there in multi-day rides and we’ve gotten to know the owners, Suzie and Roger Knable.  The two of them bend over backwards to make sure that everyone is having a good time. And people are starting to take notice.  They were mentioned in an article entitled “15 Trips We Love” in this years December issue of Bicycling Magazine. 
Even if you don’t end up doing the trip with them, their website has tons of information about the towpath and nearby towns and inns: .  Another very useful website with maps, points of interest, restaurants and more is