The Columbus & Ohio (C & O) Canal National Historic Park is a flat, shaded, and forested trail of 184.5 miles from Georgetown in Washington, D. C. to Cumberland, Maryland. The canal is the site of over 250 years of American history including the French and Indian War, Civil War, passage to the West, birth of the steamship and railroads, and providing a water passage to the West.
Nowadays, the towpath along the Potomac River is a popular long-distance hiking and cycling route. You can begin or end in either Georgetown or Cumberland and complete the trail in sections or go all in for the entire route. Wes and I have been section hiking the C & O Canal from Cumberland for 75 miles as we make our way towards to Georgetown.
We hope to tackle larger chunks of mileage as we finish the Maryland portion of the trail and head into Virginia. There is occasional access to towns large enough to have amenities such as restaurants and hotels. There also are camp sites along the trail. No matter where you are on the trail, there is always plenty to see and photograph. Here are my top 5 can’t miss spots so far on the C & O canal towpath trail.
1. Downtown Cumberland, Maryland – Start/End of the C & O Canal
Cumberland is the biggest town between miles 100 (Williamsport, MD) and the end/beginning of the C & O Canal at mile 184.5. In its heyday, Cumberland was the second largest city in Maryland behind Baltimore. During the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, it served as a major transportation and commercial hub for the canal and railroad. Construction of modern highways began the city’s industrial downslide.
Today, many of the colonial and Victorian buildings remain and some have been repurposed and re-opened for business in the 21st century. There are several bars and restaurants downtown along with a Ramada Inn. About 2 miles from downtown, there is a Hampton Inn. You can take a tourist train up the mountain to Frostburg, visit the Allegany County Museum, or take a tour of Fort Cumberland.
2. Walking Through the Paw Paw Train Tunnel , West Virginia
The most unique and picturesque section of the towpath and canal is the Paw Paw Tunnel. We walked this section almost 10 years ago, long before I created a travel blog and was conscientious of taking a million photos of everything. So, alas, I have no photos!
The tunnel was completed in 1850 and is considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the time. The tunnel is three-fifths of a mile long (with no lighting!). It shaves off 5 miles had the original canal planners not chosen to cut through the mountainside. You may want a headlamp to walk through the tunnel. It is very dark inside but the path is wide enough with a railing protecting people from accidentally falling into the canal.
3. Locks and Lockhouses on the C & O Canal
There are 74 locks along the C & O canal with a handful of surviving lock houses. The locks are pretty much still intact though not in use. The canal towpath is very much flat but it was built into the mountainside so there are areas where the water levels need to be managed in order to keep the water flowing. The locks helped move boats from a higher level in the canal to a lower and vice versa.
Lockhouses were built alongside the locks for easy management of water traffic. Typically, a large family were responsible for being the lock-keepers and lived in the lockhouse in exchange for working. Though abandoned, several lockhouses still exist along the canal.
4. Hancock, Maryland
Hancock is a small historical town at mile marker 124 with amenities such as restaurants, grocer, a bicycle shop, and a hotel. If you are coming from DC, it’s the last time you will have access to amenities before reaching the trail terminus in Cumberland.
There’s lots to look at in this section—several locks, lockhouses, an aqueduct, the railway, and remnants of buildings from the past. My mother-in-law grew up in Hancock and she used to play with a friend in this house that is now owned and being taken care of by the National Park Service (photo is from 2009 en route back to DC to catch our flight home).
5. Fort Frederick, Maryland
Fort Frederick was built in 1755-56 to help defend the western frontier during the French and Indian War. It served as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Revolutionary War, and became a Union garrison during the Civil War. Fort Frederick is now a very large state park with the fort, several other outbuildings, walking paths beyond the C & O Canal, and a seasonal gift shop with snacks and beverages.
Cheers to many happy miles on the canal!