C&O Canal at Great Falls

Certainly when the canal was first envisioned, the planners, engineers and builders never imagined that 180 years after its creation, it would serve as a popular recreational attraction. In the 19th and early 20th century the C&O Canal provided jobs and opportunities for people throughout the Potomac River Valley, from the tidal basin in Washington D.C. to the mountains of Western Maryland.

The canal operated from 1831 until 1924 parallel to the Potomac River in Maryland from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, D.C. The total length of the canal is about 184.5 miles and has 74 locks.

One of the most popular sections is at Great Falls Park, accessed on the Maryland side at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. The Billy Goat Trail on Bear Island, accessible from the Maryland side, offers scenic views of the Great Falls, as do vantage points on Olmsted Island. It’s worth noting that dogs are prohibited from Olmsted Island, so plan on foregoing the views if you’ve go the pooch along, or get someone in your group to hold the leashes while you see the views. It’s quite spectacular when the river is running high, as it was during our visit.

Tourists have, of course, been coming to see the Great Falls of the Potomac long before there was a canal. The Great Falls Tavern carries on a long tradition of hospitality for visitors to the C&O Canal. Soon after the canal’s ground breaking in 1828 construction began on the original lockhouse. In response to travelers’ requests for shelter and a meal, the locktender at Great Falls, W.W. Fenlon, asked the Canal Company to build the three-story north wing for a hotel.

Along our stroll down the tow path, we noticed a great blue heron fishing in a shallow part of the canal. He posed for photographs for several avid photographers, and steadfastly continued fishing as we strolled on.

You don’t come to this stretch of the towpath for a quiet walk in the woods. It is crowded. There are cyclists (generally considerate); serious hikers; joggers; families strolling, three abreast; little children running helter skelter and hugging your dogs (beagles!) without warning; and dog walkers. You approach this section girding your loins to call upon deep wells of patience and a sense of humor as you rub shoulders with humanity, many of whom seem completely oblivious of anyone else. The views of the river, and even the canal itself, is worth it. If you want solitude, seek out another stretch of the tow path, or go as the sun rises, when there are only a few hardy souls out along the path.

Tip: Get there early. On a lovely winter day, the parking lot at Great Falls Visitor Center was full by 2 pm, and a waiting line of cars looking for the next spot to open up. Smaller parking lots along other access points were also full up.

Getting there: The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is at 11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac, MD 20854. But check out the maps at the websites below for access points to other sections of the C&O Canal.

Hours: The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is open year round, Wednesday through Sunday from 9 am to 4:30 pm. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Dogs: Welcomed in the park and along the tow path, but not welcome along the Billy Goat Trail (it’s a rock scramble in places) and on the boardwalk over to Olmsted Island.

Web sites: For trail maps and lock numbers and distances, check out http://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/parkmaps.htm. For a map of the C&O Canal, http://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/upload/parkmap.pdf. The C&O Canal National Park’s website is http://www.nps.gov/choh/index.htm.

For other parts of the C&O Canal, check out the below articles:
Brunswick to Dargan Bend
Canal Pride Days 
Edwards Ferry
Fort Frederick to Hancock
Locks 33 and 34
Lander Lockhouse
Maryland Heights (Harpers Ferry),Monocacy & Catoctin Aqueducts
Paw Paw Tunnel to Lock 56
Swain’s Lock to Seneca Aqueduct
Kayaking at Swain’s Lock

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Updated June 2020