Biking on the C&O Canal Offers Gorgeous Scenery West of Williamsport

The 10 miles between Williamsport and mile marker 110 offers some of the prettiest scenery along the always very scenic C&O Canal. This ride offers just about everything. If you start just east of Williamsport at Lockhouse 44, there’s an historic cemetery, rail history, beautiful nature, Civil War history and ruins.

We joined the canal just below Williamsport. We parked in the C&O Canal headquarters parking lot and rode through River View Cemetery over to the canal, crossing over to the towpath at Lockhouse 44, near mile marker 99. There’s also an ample parking lot in front of the lock house, but we’d expected it to be full on such a lovely day (it wasn’t). Between the parking lot off of Canal Street, the parking lot at the Cushwa Basin and the parking at the park’s Williamsport headquarters, there’s ample parking.

Located on a hill above the canal, the cemetery includes the final resting place of Williamsport founder General Otho Holland Williams. Many canawlers — what those who lived and worked on the canal are called — are also buried there. In fact, the closest grave to Lock 44 is that of the last lockkeeper at Lock 44 Harvey Brant. The old Potomac Edison coal power plant looms prominently in the background. A quiet walk amongst the graves is a walk through American history from 1787 to now, and within the cemetery are the final resting places of soldiers from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War I and World War II.

As you head west from Williamsport, you’ll cross the Conococheague Aqueduct, a three-arch, 210-foot bridge across the Conococheague Creek below the canal. During the Civil War, the canal attracted almost as much attention as the B&O Railroad, only it wasn’t as easy to sabotage as a railroad. During the Confederate retreat after the devastating defeat in Gettysburg, Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell’s corps forded the Potomac just above the aqueduct. Before he crossed, though his troops tore down the four corners of the aqueduct and nearly destroying one of the arches supporting the aqueduct.

After you leave the watered section of the canal near Williamsport, you enter several miles of towpath without any significant landmarks. This stretch is heavily wooded, and it’s hard to imagine the trail when there were few trees along it. These five miles offer lovely scenery, with cliffs rising sharply either on the other side of the canal or river. We saw lots of wildflowers! Riding in late April, we caught the last of the Virginia bluebells and the first of the may apple blossoms, as well as red bud, viburnum and dogwood.

During this lovely stretch, I noticed an abandoned old house opposite the canal. It was lonely, but lovely, as an old house with good memories should be.

Soon, though, you reach Dam #5, where, on the other side of the river, the Potomac Edison hydroelectric power plant takes advantage of the 20-foot cascade. Here’s where the canal ends for a bit — made possible because the dam slows the river current, known as “Little Slackwater.” Here you’ll find an unnumbered guard lock doubling as a lift lock, as well as an adjacent lockhouse. A parking area makes this one of the easy access points to the towpath. As with the aqueducts, the canal dams were tempting targets for the Confederates during the Civil War. Despite several attempts, Stonewall Jackson never was able to destroy Dam 5. Canal boats continued their travels in both directions along the canal.

Just before milemarker 107 is my favorite part of the ride. The towpath is immediately adjacent the river, with towering cliffs as the river bends sharply. It’s incredibly beautiful. Go slowly as you round the bends, because you may encounter children drawing pretty chalk art on the concrete, as well as people fishing.

Just past the cliffs is the picturesque, white-washed brick Lockhouse 46. The intake locks are interesting, with the remains of a mule bridge that allowed mules to cross the canal — they would cross back over at the dam.

Just before reaching Four Locks, you pass by the ruins of Charles Mill. Three-quarters of a mile further up, you’ll encounter locks 47-50, which raised the level of the canal 30 feet. Four Locks, as the town was known when the canal was active, was a small but bustling community.

We rode past milemarker 110 to beyond McCoy’s Ferry, the site of two events during the Civil War. In May 1861, U.S. forces drove off Confederates attempting to capture the ferryboat. In 1862, a month after the Confederates lost at the Battle of Antietam, Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart crossed there in a raid that took him all the way up to Chambersburg PA, which he ransacked before escaping south through White’s Ford.

We were thinking of going all the way to Fort Frederick State Park, but didn’t — a tree lay across the towpath. Although passable, we still had half our ride in front of us. It was nearing evening, and I didn’t want to be caught pedaling back in the dark (I stop for lots of photos and to talk to people and to read all the signs and… 10 miles takes me longer than an hour to ride!).

Getting there: There is ample parking at Cushwa Basin, as well as just below the Riverview Cemetery at Canal Street.
Hours: daylight
Website: C&O Canal National Historic Park

For details about other segments of the canal, check out these C&O Canal articles.