C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage Tour (Westbound), 5 days, Washington - Pittsburgh, $1,000

(Switch to see the 6 day eastbound GAP+C&O tour, or the 8 day eastbound GAP+C&O tour description)


WHERE: Georgetown (Washington, DC) to Pittsburgh, PA

WHEN: Unscheduled. Inquire for your group of 8 or more.

Begin at 8:00 a.m. the first day near Georgetown. Return about 10:30 p.m. on the last day. 60-75 miles per day, with shuttle options to shorten daily distances.

WHO: OPEN TRIP. Six participants minimum required for this tour.

TERRAIN: Level to 2% grade (see profile elevation map).  Packed dirt and crushed stone surface.  6-8 feet wide.  Mountain, hybrid or cyclo-cross bicycles required.

RATING: Moderate.  The terrain is easy, but the distance on the canal surface requires a moderately high fitness level.

LIMIT: 25 cyclists.

DISTANCES are as follows:




Day 1

Georgetown, DC to Harpers Ferry, WV

61 miles

Day 2

Harpers Ferry, WV to Hancock, MD

64 miles

Day 3

Hancock, MD to Cumberland, MD

60 miles

Day 4

Cumberland, MD to Confluence, PA

61 miles

Day 5

Confluence, PA to Boston, PA

70 miles


(if ending in Pittsburgh, the last day is 85 miles)



Total: 316 mi.

Trip Overview

This tour combines the C&O Canal with the Great Allegheny Passage rail-trail, so you experience the way of life along a water-powered route, then feel the contrast between the canal and the railroad, as you go bike over the top of Big Savage Mt. and pass thorugh a number of old railroad towns, where you can rest, talk to locals, and experience breathtaking scenery between each town. On your final day, you'll be in whitewater rafting territory, where you might see rafts plying the Youghiogheny River.

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 variation between the canal and the rail-trail are felt in the surroundings, architectures, and the water routes that accompany each trail.

The Great Allegheny Passage combines several Pennsylvania and Maryland rail trails into a spectacularly scenic route free of traffic through the Western Maryland and Pennsylvania mountains between Pittsburgh and Cumberland. With trail connections between Frostburg and Cumberland, MD completed in 2006, and the final eight miles into Pittsburgh slated for completion by fall, 2008, the GAP extends from the C&O Canal to create a 334 mile trail between Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, PA, and offers access to some of the most beautiful scenery of the Atlantic states. The trail features three tunnels, including the 3,294' Big Savage (the second longest in western Maryland), a crossing of the Mason-Dixon Line (MD-PA border), the Eastern Continental Divide, stunning vistas of the Cumberland Valley from the trail, two long viaducts, and mature state forests offering colorful canopy along the cascading rivers.

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 – Leaving Georgetown

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 175 years after construction began, and over 75 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.  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 buffet dinner and spectacular views of sunset from the top of the bluff.

Day 2 – Cruising the Canal to Antietam and Fort Frederick

Day two, you will continue along the canal, passing Antietam, MD, an historically significant Civil War site, and into a more remote section of the towpath.  Here, you will begin to see more fall color in the leaves, as we get into a cooler mountain region.  On summer tours, 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 before 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 about 150 yards, 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.  Fort Frederick State Park can be visited near mile 112, for a look at a 17th century U.S. Fort. 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 group buffet-style dinner.

Day 3 – Approaching the Paw-Paw Tunnel

On the third morning, the fall mountain air is likely to be crisp or the summer air cool, as you begin the day’s ride along the towpath (or 12 miles on the Western Maryland Rail-Trail) toward the major highlight of the C&O Canal, 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).  Make special note of the rope wear to the original handrails as you progress through the tunnel, to get a feel for the extent of travel through it.  Lunch will be waiting 1⁄4 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.  Approaching Cumberland, the view opens into a wide, industrial valley with a backdrop of colorful autumn leaves.  Knowing you completed the same route that canal boat operators did more than 150 years ago is a satisfying way to conclude the Canal.  Relax with dinner in downtown Cumberland, re-water at one of the area pubs, or take a swim in the hotel pool during summer tours.

Day 4 – Cresting the Eastern Continental Divide

The fourth day begins along a consortium of rail trails linked together to form the Great Allegheny Passage.  It starts with a 26 mile long, gradual 1.75% grade railroad bed climb of 1,765’ from Cumberland to Deal, traversing through Brush Tunnel, Borden Tunnel, and after moving into PA, the trail highlight Big Savage Tunnel, to reach lunch at Sand Patch, PA just past the Eastern Continental Divide near Deal, PA.  About mid-way through that climb, you’ll pass through Frostburg, MD, the turn-around point for the Western Maryland Scenic Railway, which shares the right-of-way with the trail between Cumberland and Frostburg.  Frostburg offers historic homes, a beautiful brick railroad depot, a small-town way of life for area residents, and the morning snack stop for the tour.  After lunch, the trip continues downhill at a grade of up to .8%, across the Keystone Viaduct, through Meyersdale, across the Salisbury Viaduct, and through wooded forests and along the Casselman and Youghiogheny rivers, which offer class I-III rapids.  The tour day finishes in Confluence or Ohiopyle, PA, better known as the year-round whitewater assembly points for rafters and kayakers.  Cool off in a side stream natural waterslide that feeds the Yough River, check out Ohiopyle Falls, or watch kayakers cross under the high bridge, before settling in at the town lodging, before enjoying another sumptuous buffet dinner.

Day 5 – Confluence on to Boston (PA)

The fifth and final day continues the downhill momentum from day four, to wisk participants through Ohiopyle State Park's mature poplar forest, and into Connellsville, home of revolutionary war soldier, Colonel William Crawford.  The trail continues along the now meandering Youghiogheny River, and through more scenic forests.  Along this route, signs of the coal mining operations of the past are evident.  After passing through small towns like Adelaide, a picnic style lunch is waiting at Whitsett Pavilion.  After lunch, the ride passes quickly through Smithton, Cedar Creek Park, and West Newton, where the restored depot serves as a trail headquarters and a rail car sits alongside.  Dravo Cemetery is an interesting resting spot, before riding into Boston, PA. Somewhere between here and Point State Park, true mile zero of the GAP in downtown Pittsburgh, we will end the tour (based on time available). Under this option, we will snack at Boston, where you start to see evidence of a more productive era involving heavy industry and steel production.  On the trail extension between McKeesport and Pittsburgh, you'll traverse active rail lines, and pedal alongside the Monongahela River to the confluence of the three rivers in downtown Pittsburgh, PA.  Here, we will regroup and prepare for shuttle back to the Washington area via chartered transportation.  We will depart at 5:30 p.m. and arrive back in Washington about 10:30 in the evening.  Drinks and snacks will be offered on the return.

COST: $1,000 westbound per person includes:  Trail maps; extensive cue and Canal/Rail Trail historical fact booklet; custom luggage tags; tour guides; 4 breakfasts, 5 large picnic style lunches, 3 dinners (Cumberland allows for much variety and is on your own); tour snacks and drinks; four nights lodging (double occupancy) in hotels in Harpers Ferry, WV, Hancock, MD, Cumberland, MD, and Confluence or Ohiopyle,, PA, baggage shuttle between hotels; periodic support and lunch along the trail; and chartered return transportation from Pittsburgh, PA to starting location, including bike return. (8 participants are required to run the full tour to Pittsburgh)

NOT INCLUDED: Mt. Bike rental $100 extra, if needed. To allow you to choose from the large variety of dining experiences available in Cumberland, dinner that night is "on your own."

Register for Tour

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