I bought my bike in February expressly so I could bike the C&O tow path. Getting back into shape after so many years not riding a bike took me to other paths first, as I became acclimated to biking.
But it was time to ride the tow path!
I’ve been walking the C&O Canal for years, decades even. The scenery and the history of the canal and the Potomac River have always interested me.
I’ve always imagined that the way to really enjoy the tow path would be by bike. You can travel up to 40, 50 miles a day (I can’t yet, but theoretically…). For now, I plan to enjoy the canal by taking shorter rides — 20 to 30 miles long. But maybe next year, I’d like to bike the whole 184 miles over several days.
For this first biking trip on the tow path, we — my friend Barb, my husband, and I — headed up to Brunswick; I knew there’d be lots of parking there. The original town was located between the tracks of the B&O Railroad and the C&O Canal, both of which came to the town the same year, 1834.
Brunswick, or “Merry Peep O Day,” as the area was supposedly known back then (according to the Brunswick City website), was part of an original 3,100 acre land grant from George II King of England to John Hawkins on August 10, 1753. How’d it get that catchy name? Because the sun could be seen in the early morning directly over beautiful Catoctin Mountain.
In fact, the town had many names over the years. Brunswick received its present name from the B&O Railroad, in 1890, when the railroad named it for the original town its workers came from — Brunswick, Germany. Supposedly, it’s been known variously as Buffalo Wallow, Coxson Rest, Eels Pot or Eel Town, Potomac Crossing, Tankersville, Berlin, and Barry. So if the town couldn’t keep Merry Peep O-Day as its name, then frankly, it lucked out by sticking with “Brunswick.”
Our plan was to ride 10 miles up river, past Harpers Ferry, to Dargan Bend, where there’s a parking lot and, conveniently, restrooms. 🙂
The tow path is pretty along this section, although for most of it, the canal itself is in terrible disrepair. Even in the locks, trees and shrubs and weeds grow with gay abandon. Due to hard rains the previous three days, the river was flooding and way over its banks, which made it dramatic and thrilling to see. As you’re riding, you’re also likely to hear trains rumbling past you, just on the other side of the canal. Really, this section is all about the trains and the scenic views of the river.
The remains of Lock 30 lie next to downtown Brunswick, although the lock house is long since gone. The river and the canal then pass through a notch in a ridge known as South Mountain — significant for the battles fought there during the Civil War, just prior to the Battle of Antietam. On the river side of the trail, keep an eye out for the millrace that runs beside the canal near lock 31, a last trace of the industrial but now ghost village of Weverton. You’ll soon pass below the Route 340 bridge.
The path itself is pretty rough, sometimes deteriorating down to two wheel tracks. On the day we rode it, there were lots of mud puddles and mud pits, where even mountain bikes slip and slide.
Keep an eye out, whether you’re walking or riding, for the unexpected, such as the huge, and angry, snapping turtle sunning itself in the middle of the path. Or the lacy water fall hiding on the opposite side of the canal. During the ride we saw a bald eagle soaring high above, and surprised a great blue heron fishing along the shore. Disturbed, it squawked and flew off.
The path improves dramatically under Maryland Heights, opposite of Harpers Ferry. That section gets a little crowded, with a lot of folks strolling over the pedestrian bridge from Harpers Ferry to the canal tow path. But it roughens up again shortly afterward and becomes much less crowded. It’s worth it to continue — the river widens and becomes more peaceful — no rapids in this segment. The canal becomes more like a brook, with little pools that reflect the rocks and greenery.
Yes, biking is a great way to see the tow path and enjoy the canal and the river. And I’ll be back. I’ve only got another 174 miles to bike!
Tip#1: In addition to sunblock, spray yourself with bug spray. Stagnant water in the canal breeds mosquitos, very hungry mosquitos!
Tip#2: Even if you don’t have your own bike, borrow one! The C&O Bike Loaner Program is a Volunteers-in-Parks group that provides a bicycle loaning service to park visitors and advocates safe riding on the towpath. The loaner bikes are available at Great Falls. The program is located in the old CCC facility across from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center and offers free loaner bikes to park visitors from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, and on holidays. Ride limit is 2 hours.
Getting there: From Frederick, follow Route 340 South toward Harpers Ferry. After about 10 miles on Route 340, take the Route 17 Exit for Brunswick. Route 17 will bear right at a traffic light. Upon entering the town, follow the traffic circle almost all the way around. Exit at Maple Street Once on Maple Street, bear to the right and cross over both sets of railroad tracks. The towpath access point is directly under the Route 17/287 bridge (you can’t miss it!) Parking is available under the bridge, or back in the large commuter lot located between the railroad tracks; to get to the Dargan Bend Recreation Area, continue to the end of Sandy Hook Road. Becomes Harpers Ferry Road at sharp up-hill turn. After about 1.5 miles, make a left onto Shinham/Back Road.
Hours: Dawn to dusk.
Dogs: If you’re walking, absolutely!
For other parts of the C&O Canal, check out the below articles:
Canal Pride Days
Fort Frederick to Hancock
Locks 33 and 34
Maryland Heights (Harpers Ferry)
Monocacy & Catoctin Aqueducts
Paw Paw Tunnel to Lock 56
Swain’s Lock to Seneca Aqueduct
Kayaking at Swain’s Lock
Updated June 2020