C&O Canal Tour, Westbound, 3 days, Washington, DC - Cumberland, MD, $625



WHEN: Inquire for your group of 8 or more.

Begin 8:00 a.m. near Georgetown.  Return about 8:30 p.m. final evening. 

60-65 miles per day, with shuttle options to shorten daily distances.


TERRAIN:  Level (see profile elevation map).  Packed dirt and crushed stone surface.  6-8 feet wide.  Mountain, hybrid or cyclo-cross bicycles required.

RATING:  Easy-Moderate.  The terrain is easy, but the distance on rough surface requires moderate fitness. You will be traveling on a nearly flat trail, rising just 8' at each lock, for about 600' elevation gain over 184 miles. You end at the base of the rise over the continental divide, shown in the profile map mentioned above.

LIMIT: Minimum 8. Limit of 26 cyclists.


Construction began on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal in 1828, the same year as the B&O Railroad was begun.  The railroad won the race to the west, beating the canal to the Ohio Valley by 8 years.  The 184-mile canal cost $22 million, and includes 74 lift locks, and 11 stone aqueducts over Potomac tributaries.  The first canal boat to travel end-to-end along the canal did so in 1850, more than 150 years before us.  The canal was used commercially until 1924 when floods destroyed it for the second time.  The towpath, although no longer used to transport tobacco, furs, iron ore, and other goods, is currently maintained as a National Park with trip highlights including historic Harpers Ferry, Kilian’s Cave (and others), and the Paw Paw tunnel.  The ride into Cumberland is spectacular, as the mountains open to a wide valley.

Spring rides offer nice views through budding hardwood forests to the Potomac River.  Summer offers a shade canopy from typically hot temperatures, and fall trips offer cooler temperatures with stunning views of hardwood forests normally reaching peak color in the second week of October.  All year long, there are breathtaking vistas of the raging Great Falls of the Potomac River, as well as serene, peaceful moments along quiet stretches of the river. 

DAY 1:  Georgetown, DC to Harpers Ferry, WV, 62 miles

The first day of the tour takes you from historic and luxurious Georgetown along the water filled canal—past many locks—into Great Falls National Park.  On the way, you will see Thompson’s Boat House at the tidal (first) lock, and Fletcher’s Boat House along the early part of the canal.  You might even get to see a canal tour boat going through a lock at Great Falls for a nostalgic look at history.  Enjoy the reflections at Widewater, explore the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center and C&O Canal Museum, and enjoy views of the Falls from the National Park, Washington’s most impressive natural area.  After a scenery filled morning, the crowds and the water in the canal will disappear, and you will settle into a quiet woodland ride to Lunch at White’s Ferry (mile 35).  If you like, you can ride across the Potomac River and back on the ferry during the lunch break.

The afternoon ride continues along the dry canal, overgrown in many places with trees.  More than 185 years after construction began, and almost 100 years after use ended, the thought of towing a canal boat up-canal with mules will still enter your mind as you pedal along in place of (and faster than) the mules.  On weekend tours, we plan to tour the Lander Lockhouse, which is maintained as a restored cultural period house by volunteers. At mid-afternoon, you will pass through Brunswick, MD, where a large trainyard still exists.  A short distance later, you pass Whitehorse rapid, a whitewater section of the Potomac River, and approach Harpers Ferry, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.  Here, you cross the walk bridge along the railroad tracks into historic Harpers Ferry, where you should have some time to explore and relax for the evening.  The day ends with a nice dinner and spectacular views of sunset from the top of the bluff.

DAY 2:  Harpers Ferry, WV to Hancock, MD, 65 miles

Day two, you will continue along the canal, passing Antietam, MD, an historically significant Civil War site (with an option to ride to and see the battlefield), and into a more remote section of the towpath.  Here, you will begin to see more color in the leaves, as we get into a cooler mountain region.  Several more historic locks, buildings, aqueducts, and culverts are seen. Other attractions include a series of caves in the bluffs along the canal.  The most interesting cave is Killian’s Cave, reached early the second day, which was used as shelter during the Civil War.  It and another small cave just after it can be explored.  If planning to explore the smaller cave, bring clothes you don’t mind getting mud stained, a good, bright working flashlight with new batteries, and be prepared to slither on your stomach for sections.  This small cave has some narrow crawlways that open into rooms large enough for a couple people to stand together.  The longest cave appears just before lunch, at mile 83.5.  You can walk/crawl into this cave for a few hundred feet, if it isn’t too wet.  About lunchtime, the towpath will detour four miles around an impassible section, and lunch on the other side is a good bet.  As you leave lunch, you ride along a wide part of the river called Slackwater, with scenic views of the mountains.  As you approach Williamsport, you will want to make note of the metal train trestle over the canal, raised and lowered as canal boats came down the canal, or trains along the tracks.  The canal has been extensively restored in this area to allow rewatering, as in the Georgetown area.  From here to Hancock is a quiet, scenic ride, which includes Charles Mill and Four Locks as highlights, plus a section several miles long where the canal was routed along a straight level section of land away from the curving river.  A Fort Frederick visit may be of interest, and the final 10 miles can optionally be ridden on a paved trail that parallels the Canal towpath.  Once in Hancock, you don’t have far to ride to reach the hotel, where you can again relax for the evening and enjoy a pizza fest.

DAY 3:  Hancock, MD to Cumberland, MD, 60.5 miles

On the third morning, the fall mountain air is likely to be crisp, as you begin the day’s ride along the towpath (or 12 miles on the new Western Maryland Rail-Trail) toward the major highlight of the trip, the Paw-Paw tunnel.  But other highlights come first, including another cave, the remains of a concrete plant, more aqueducts, and some scenic river views.  The mountains loom tight against the canal as you finally approach the northern entrance to the Paw-Paw tunnel and go through the long dark abyss inside.  Again, you will want a flashlight (otherwise, you cannot see, and people coming at you cannot see you).  Lunch will be waiting ¼ mile past the tunnel, in the Paw-Paw park picnic area.  After the tunnel, the towpath opens into more farmland and makes its way into Cumberland.  The trees in this section are magnificent, as they gain their varied fall color.  At Old Town, mature trees reflect off the watered canal, while lily pads, algae and aquatic life enhance the restored lock house. Soon after, you'll see beaver trails and dams, and if timing is right, beavers swimming in the canal and great blue herons.  Approaching Cumberland, the view opens into a wide, industrial valley with a backdrop of colorful autumn leaves, and in the late watered section of the trail, you might see an otter.  Knowing that you completed the same route that canal boat operators did more than 150 years ago is a satisfying way to conclude the ride.  Here, we will regroup and prepare for shuttle back to the Washington area.  We will be picked up at 5:30 p.m. and arrive back in Washington about 8:30 in the evening.

COST: $625 per person includes:  Map; extensive cue and Canal historical fact booklet; custom luggage tags; tour guide; 2 breakfasts, 3 large picnic style lunches, 2 full (or buffet) dinners; snacks; various drinks; two nights lodging (double occupancy) in hotels in historic Harpers Ferry, WV and Hancock, MD; baggage shuttle between hotels; periodic vehicular support along trail; and return transportation from Cumberland, MD to starting location.

NOT INCLUDED:  Bike rental - $75 extra, if needed. Single supplement (on an as-available basis) $175.

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See Frequently Asked Questions at the "FAQs" link, for answers to common questions.