An Expert Guide to Biking the C&O Canal Trail
Looking to ride the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail but not sure where to start? Cycling Expert Jared Fontaine walks you through what you need to know on your trip.
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Bike Trail, C&O Canal, or "The Grand Old Ditch,” is a historical landmark you can cycle through. Perfect for history nerds, the trail showcases the race between the technology of canals versus the invention of the railroad to transport coal and other resources from the western colonies to the East. The trail follows the Potomac River from Georgetown Washington, DC all the way to Cumberland, Maryland.
The C&O Canal trail is also part of the developing, country-wide, 1500-mile U.S. Bicycle Route system—starting at US Route 50 in Delaware and ending in San Francisco. Riders pick up the C&O Canal at Brunswick, Maryland, and take the towpath to the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP). For more information about the U.S. Route system, cyclists are encouraged to refer to the Adventure Cycling Association.
The C&O Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad started construction the same day: July 4, 1828, when President John Quincy Adams supported the canal system and Charles Carroll, the last living signatory of the Declaration of Independence, supported the railroad. However, the C&O Canal eventually went bankrupt, whereas the B&O railroad thrived because trains could transport coal and other resources faster and cheaper. After years of disrepair and flooding damage, C&O Canal Towpath was established as a national historic park in 1961.
The bike trail is a great way to cycle through history. Most of the 184.5 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland, follow the towpath used by donkeys to drag boats down the canal. Riders can see the 74 locks and 11 aqueducts along the trail; plus, the path has areas to camp and is nearby to hotels and hostels. Although the western portion of the course is a bike trail that is well maintained with fine gravel, when you ride towards Cumberland, the soft dirt path becomes very rough and rocky.
Because there are no cars nor steep hills, the C&O Canal is an excellent route for beginners and advanced cyclists. It is also perfect for seniors looking to ride from DC to Cumberland. Plus, hikers and riders can see deer, black bears, turtles, and other wildlife.
Here are a few highlights from along the trail.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
The Canal passes through Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, at mile marker 69.5. It is a great place to refuel carbohydrates and spend the night.
The town is famous for John Brown's failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry from October 16–18, 1859. After fighting in the "Bleeding Kansas" abolitionist campaign, he and 22 others met their end in a raid to take over the government and free a group of slaves. The attack is considered the prelude to the American Civil War. Riders can visit John Brown's Fort, the only surviving building from the period, which was his refuge during this insurrection.
Paw Paw Tunnel, West Virginia
One of the most famous attractions of the route is the Paw Paw tunnel at mile marker 155.2, close to Paw Paw, West Virginia. Construction on the 3,118-foot-long tunnel began in 1850 and was projected to last two years and cost $33,500. It ended up taking 14 years to complete at a final price of $616,478.65. The tunnel was built with six million bricks to salvage six miles of the route; it is the most significant engineering marvel of the Canal.
The tunnel is closed during the winter and is pitch-black inside, with hidden potholes and leaks along the route. You will need at least a 400-lumen front light to see inside. I suggest the rechargeable Niterider Lumina Micro 850 Headlight, as you get a light with 800-plus lumens to see where you are going. Though the park service also installed a railing to hold for biker safety.
Paw Paw, West Virginia
Paw Paw is a lovely town of 500 people. I mention it because I went to high school there, and the locals are very friendly. There are a few Airbnbs in town and a nudist camp nearby—if that’s your thing! Moreover, there is a campsite with an outhouse and grill site for your convenience. It is a nice last place to base before the final push to Cumberland, Maryland.
After you leave Paw Paw, it is only 26 miles to the end of the trail at Cumberland. After Paw Paw, the trail becomes smoother, the course has more traffic, and the road is better maintained. In addition, there are hostels, hotels, and bike shops in the city.
Cumberland has a lovely historic downtown called Washington Street District. The gothic-designed Emmanuel Episcopal Church was built on the foundations of Fort Cumberland, where George Washington began his military career. Cumberland is also the beginning of the Western Maryland Rail Trail and the Great Allegheny Passage, which bikers can ride all the way to Pittsburgh.
If you are riding from DC, the route will be nearly mountain bike single track. There are tons of roots and lots of overgrowth on the trail. Therefore, I suggest a gravel bike or hybrid with at least 40mm tires.
For beginners looking for a flat-bar bike to ride, I recommend a Cannondale Quick CX 3 Bike. The bike comes equipped with a suspension fork to absorb the tree roots on the trail, hydraulic brakes for superior braking in the mud, and 40mm semi-knobby tires for speed on pavement and grip on gravel. Moreover, the bike has eyelets for racks to carry your gear.
For bikepackers looking for a faster drop-bar bike with tons of eyelets to hold camping gear, then the Cannondale Topstone 1 is their best bet. This bike has eyelets for a top tube bag (for easy access to snacks and other accessories) and multiple water bottles, fenders, and racks.
If you want a flat-bar bike, then a trekking bike like the Cannondale Tesoro Neo X 3 is ideal. Trekking bikes are designed for pavement and gravel offroading. The Tesoro comes with a 100mm suspension fork to absorb bumps on the canal towpath and large semi-knobby tires for grip on loose gravel and mud holes on the route; however, the tread will not hold you back on the pavement.
As it comes with a Bosch Performance CX motor with a 500-plus watt battery for around 80 miles a charge, this is perfect for the 184-mile route. The bike is a class three bike, and it comes with a throttle and a 28mph max speed. For safety, I would keep your max speed to 15mph on the trail. Unlike most mountain bikes, it has a rear rack to take your camping gear as well.
If you don't want to complete the entire route, Amtrak runs a trail service three times a week. The Capitol Limited runs between Washington, D.C., and Chicago with stops along the way. You can also put your bike on the train for an extra fee. The route starts at Union Station in Washington, D.C. then stops in Rockville, Harpers Ferry, Martinsburg, and Cumberland. This allows you to ride parts of the trail and take the train back to your origin. The train also has a sleeper car if you want to continue to Chicago.
The C&O Canal Towpath is a great way to ride your bike through history. Since I grew up next to the trail, I have always wanted to cycle 300 miles from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the time, I bought a gravel bike but moved to Hawaii instead of riding the route. But I did ride from Paw Paw to Cumberland, and back. I plan to ride the entire trail on a Cervelo Aspero because I want speed. I hope you will complete the whole route one day. If you have more questions about the course or necessary equipment, reach out to me here!