The Lazy Man’s C&O Canal Towpath Trip Report

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This is The Lazy Man’s C&O Canal Towpath Trip Report. If you’re not @Jim Kenney and able to do the 184.5 mile trip solo carrying all of your stuff on your back in 3 days or @Rudi Riet and able to do it in less than 24 hours, maybe this is the trip for you. My almost 15 y/o son did the trip - well, most of it - in 6ish days 2 years ago with his Boy Scout troop. They camped, but had a vehicle towing their supplies. They also experienced heavy rain several days of the trip. This experience heavily influenced my plans. He wanted to do it again to hit the small parts he missed last time, but also I believe partially to see me fail at it. Anyways, I told him I wasn’t going to bike and camp in the rain so the only way I was going to do it was if he convinced his mother to be our sherpa. She’s a softie, so she agreed. We made plans for Labor Day weekend+. I figured I could make it in 5 days. We’d leave Thursday afternoon - hopefully taking advantage of some Covid remote schooling and come home on Monday. I found some places that my wife would be willing to stay, some things she could do during the day while we were biking and some places we could meet for lunch and we had a plan. Oh, and distances I thought I might be able to make. Most importantly, I reserved the right to bail on a bad weather day with the sherpa.
 
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Day 1 - 9/3 C&O Visitors Center - Cumberland, MD -> Canal Cabins - Paw Paw, WV - 29.5 miles - The weather forecast looked great for our trip, maybe the best weather of the summer. Low 80s for highs and low humidity...EXCEPT for Day 1...That nice weather was brought in by a front accompanied by fairly strong thunderstorms. I decided we would drive to Cumberland, MD to the starting point and evaluate the situation from there. Worst case, we would skip the first leg and just drive to our first night’s lodging. I took a half day off work hoping to leave our house by lunchtime for the 3+ hour drive to Cumberland or 2:00 at the latest. We planned 30 miles for the first day and with sunset coming earlier this time of year, I really didn’t want to be biking in the dark. Well, my son decided that he didn’t want to skip his Spanish class or participate via Zoom in the car - something about actually having to participate on video. So despite my protests, we didn’t end up leaving home until about 2:45. We drove through fairly heavy rain most of the way. I really didn’t want to bail on day 1. By the time we got to Cumberland it had cleared, so I did a quick radar check and it didn’t seem too bad so we decided to go for it. We probably left the C&O Visitors Center in Cumberland at 5:45. We carefully avoided mud puddles for the first few miles. However, only a few miles in it started to sprinkle and then rain fairly steady for awhile. Eventually, it stopped again, but it was getting darker. Trying to save as much light as possible, we barely stopped for rest (and took no pictures). We encountered many deer - it was somewhat surprising that we didn’t hit any. As we headed into a section of dark woods, I realized it was time to put our headlamps on. Right around this time it started to sprinkle which quickly escalated to a heavy rain. I thought this was exactly what I was trying to avoid this trip?!? With fogged up, rain covered glasses, I could only see a few feet ahead of me. And taking only 1 <5 minute rest stop, I was already quite sore. We were headed to Paw Paw, WV and I knew that if I got to the tunnel I had gone too far. As we continued on for about an hour longer, pondering the stupid things I’ve done in my life trying to rank this event, eventually we came to a road bridge that I assumed/hoped led to Paw Paw. Luckily, I was correct and we encountered my wife leaving a gas station in town and followed her to our lodging for the night - the Canal Cabins. This place is perfect for the trip we were on and our current conditions. They have 2 cabins and a converted bus which serves as another lodging choice. My wife and son were interested in the novelty of the bus, so that’s what we had reserved. All 3 share clean bathrooms with showers and a very necessary bike cleaning station, plus FREE laundry facilities. Maybe I was desperate for any dry location, but I’d highly recommend this place. We cleaned the bikes, took showers, ate some dinner that my wife had picked up and quickly fell asleep.

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Day 2 - 9/4 Canal Cabins -> Lockhouse 49 - 48.6 miles - We waited to leave Paw Paw until our checkout time at 10:00 - doing a quick load of laundry with our mess from the previous night and hoping for the trail to dry out some. The trail had some muddy spots, but was not as bad as I had expected. We had a much more leisurely ride this morning - taking more pictures, to my son’s chagrin. Until I realized that my estimate of our meeting with my wife for lunch was going to be way off. So we started to push a little harder, but we still ended up an hour late. We had biked about 30 miles where she was waiting for us at BuddyLou’s in Hancock, MD. After a nice long lunch, we continued on another almost 20 miles to our destination for the night which was Lockhouse 49 right along the towpath. The C&O Canal Trust rents out several of these restored lockhouses for the night - with various amenities. This particular one had electricity (with fans), but no running water and a porta potty outside. My wife picked up some dinner and we ate outside around a campfire before quickly falling asleep.

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Day 3 - 9/5 Lockhouse 49 -> Quality Inn - Harpers Ferry, WV - 51.5 miles - After packing up and cleaning the lockhouse, we were able to get our earliest start yet - before 9:00. Today’s distance would be very similar to the previous day with our destination being Harper’s Ferry, WV. But first we would meet for lunch. With no convenient stops without extending our biking, our plan was for my wife to get some lunch and meet us near Lock 38 across the Potomac from Sheperdstown, WV. She decided to go to the Blue Moon Cafe in Shperdstown, which was apparently quite popular. After a quick parking lot lunch, we continued on towards Harpers Ferry. Getting to Harpers Ferry with a bike from the towpath (at least the most direct route), requires you to carry the bike up a set of stairs onto a pedestrian path shared with a railroad bridge. So that’s what we did. We were headed to the Quality Inn, just outside of town. Here is where I made my worst navigational error of the trip taking a longer, hillier route than the more direct route I should have. Either way, eventually we made it and met my wife at the hotel. After a quick change of clothes, we walked with her into town to check out the sites for a bit and to get some dinner. After returning to the hotel, we showered and quickly fell asleep.

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Day 4 - 9/6 Quality Inn -> Lockhouse 25 - 31 miles - We headed out from the hotel, back to Harpers Ferry, over the bridge and down the stairs back to the towpath. Today’s trip would be shorter than the previous 2 so would be much more relaxing. We made plans to meet at White’s Ferry Store & Grill. There is an interesting cable ferry that takes vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians between MD and VA here and a picnic area. We secured a picnic table - they charge $10 to use the tables which I had no problem paying to relax in the shade while we waited for my wife to arrive before buying lunch.. For lunch, I ordered their “famous” Pickle sandwich - basically you choose whatever meat, cheese, etc. you want surrounded by two halves of a pickle. Mine had pastrami, salami and pepperoni with provolone cheese and cherry pepper relish. It was culinary genius. Maybe I was delirious from 3.5 days of biking? I don’t know - but it was amazing. I need to get another one of those at some point. After lunch, we decided to take a round trip on the ferry as pedestrians. The cable tow is an interesting system. I’m not sure how it hasn’t wrecked some boats or decapitated boaters - maybe it has? After lunch we only had a few miles to get to our destination for the night - Lockhouse 25 - another C&O Canal Trust restored lockhouse. This one was smaller than the one we had stayed in 2 nights earlier but lacked electricity (no fans!). We weren’t all that far from Dulles airport at this point, and there were another of jets overhead. I’d imagine in no-Covid times with more flights it could even be louder. But it worked well for us - we made a campfire, had dinner outside and had no trouble sleeping on a nice cool night.

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Day 5 - 9/7 Lockhouse 25 -> Rock Creek Park, Thompson Boat Center Parking - 30.7 miles - One more day. And pretty sore at this point. Our plan was to meet my wife at Great Falls Park, walk around for a bit and then finish the trip to Georgetown with a planned final meeting point at a parking lot near Thompson’s Boat Center in Rock Creek Park. Given the holiday Monday, I was worried about parking for her at both destinations. But she was able to get parking at both places and both meet ups were successful. We walked together out to the Great Falls Overlook and then met in Georgetown after finishing the towpath. We had lunch along the Potomac River at The Washington Harbour complex and then made the drive home to PA, avoiding pretty much any holiday traffic. It was a good trip and I’m glad I did it - total biking including side trips to lodging was 191.3 miles. The perfect weather the last 4 days somewhat erased the memory of that first night. I don’t think I could have handled another period of heavy rain - or the hot/humid summer weather that area is famous for. I’m definitely sore, hopefully I will walk normally again soon.

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Jim Kenney

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Awesome! Very cool to see your son grown to a young man. Last time I saw him skiing at Blue Knob he was about 5 or 6.

I think these photos of yours are from the Big Slackwater area around mile 85. I did not get any photos of this area during my trip because I was too busy concentrating on staying on the trail. Lose control of your bike here on all the ruts and bumps and you take a six foot dive into the water.:bikewheelie:
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I think you’re right on the second one. The first one was a bit further west, I believe - maybe mile 105ish? This was a shorter exposed section along the river above what I see called the Honeywood Dam on Google Maps.
 

Jwrags

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Thanks for the trip report. I would love to ride the full GAP/C&O but I would be hauling minimal gear and staying in hotels.
 

Jim Kenney

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That bus motel looks cool. Do you have any interior photos of the lock cabins? Have passed those many times, but never seen interior of one set up for guests. Is it real spartan inside or outfitted like a motel room?
PS: if you didn't get indigestion from that pickle sandwich you passed some kind of serious stress test for your stomach :roflmao:
 
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That bus motel looks cool. Do you have any interior photos of the lock cabins? Have passed those many times, but never seen interior of one set up for guests. Is it real spartan inside or outfitted like a motel room?
PS: if you didn't get indigestion from that pickle sandwich you passed some kind of serious stress test for your stomach :roflmao:
The website to book the lockhouses is https://www.canaltrust.org/programs/canal-quarters/ which has more pictures of the interiors in some cases. Ours were somewhat spartan. There were pictures and write ups on the walls to learn more about the area.

Here are some of our pics.

Lockhouse 49.

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Lockhouse 25

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cantunamunch

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This is a gem of a trail.
At this point, I think of the C&O as more of a necklace with gobs of gems hanging off it. Like the MTB terrain in Brunswick. Or the CSX trail loop - on the WVa side - crossing back to the C&O at PawPaw and Hagerstown. If one has a car sherpa and two bikes, one can spend weeks exploring up and down either side.
 

KevinF

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Great pictures and trip report! Nice going; 180+ miles in a week is a substantial amount.

One of my regrets from my time living in the Washington DC area is never riding the towpath end-to-end. Thanks for the great pictures.
 

Pequenita

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Nice! It looks like a great trip! I ran the first DC area Ragnar relay, which was on significant portions of the C&O canal towpath, 12 years ago. I was delirious and much of my running was in the dark, so I had no idea that lock houses existed for anything other than historic purposes.
 

Tricia

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Not sure how I missed this, but this looks pretty cool and very ambitious.

I really enjoyed this TR.
 
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