I am fortunate to live near the C&O Canal National Park and l sometimes like to get out and ride the towpath without the hassle of racks, panniers and camping gear. Basically, carrying nothing more than my credit card while eating out and sleeping in motels (aka Credit Card Touring). However, it is never that easy. I always have to carry something. Whether it’s a change of clothes, rain gear, tools or a spare tube and tire, there is always something I feel I need to take with me.
In the past I’d always used a rear rack with a trunk bag. However, recently I’ve switched to using a Revelate Designs Viscacha Seat Bag. While it seemed a bit pricey for a seat bag, it’s eliminated the need for a rack, trunk bag and even a rear fender. This large saddle bag has a 6-14 L capacity, only weights 13.8 oz and can carry everything I need while credit card touring.
Like Dorothy traveling down the yellow brick road, you don’t have to worry about being eating by lions, tigers or bears on the C&O towpath. However, there is a very real danger of insects feasting on you if you don’t take proper precautions. In addition, the West Nile Virus has been found along the C&O Canal.
To protect yourself make applying insect repellent part of your daily routine. When touring in areas where insect repellent is necessary, I like to use a combined insect repellant and sunscreen and make applying it my very first activity of the day.
Unfortunately, on my last trip along the towpath it was raining in the morning and I forgot to apply my combined sunscreen and insect repellent. As a result, I ended up with over 100 chigger bites. Riding the towpath or trails is not the only time to take precautions against hungry insects. While bicycling the Adventure Cycling Adirondack Loop road route in early June without an insect bite for days, I got over 60 black fly bites when I had to stop to fix a flat tire. It pays to know about the insects in the area and how to protect yourself against them beforehand.
The C&O and GAP ride didn’t go as planned. I knew that things were starting to get bad when my bike computer, a Garmin 810, kept displaying warnings about areal flooding. Our fears were confirmed when we arrived at White’s Ferry and found that the ferry boat had been taken out of the water and the luncheonette had been completely emptied in anticipation of flooding.
When we checked the C&O website, we learned that many sections of the towpath had already been closed and that a bridge had been washed out, and there was a detour at mile marker 51 through 54. In addition, the National Parks department was asking everyone to avoid mile marker 42 through 70.
The section at Harpers Ferry was forecast to be underwater today and there was already heavy damage at mile marker 58 through 63. And there were warnings that trees were starting to fall. The muddy conditions made it hard to control our loaded bikes and the trail just became too dangerous, so we had to abandoned the ride.
Remember, you are responsible for your own safety.
While the previously posted C&O and GAP itinerary didn’t go as planned, I did learn a few valuable lessons. In our case, it was raining the day we started our trip and there had been severe thunderstorms from Ohio to the Virginia Tidewater prior to our start. All the rain had increased the amount of water in area rivers, including the Potomac River. As a result, the storm water was damaging roads and bridges in the park. While the park remained open, we learned of closures and detours from park employees and riders traveling in the opposite direction.
In selecting our campsites, it became important to evaluate the safety of the campsite ourselves. While camping along the C&O is only permitted in designated sites, that does not automatically mean the campsite is safe. Many of the designated campsites are in low lying areas and prone to flooding. In fact, several of the sites were already flooded when we arrived and others had a high risk of flooding.
In addition to the potential flooding danger, there was another danger looming above us. While perhaps not as obvious as flooding, there was a very real danger of falling limbs and trees, so tent placement became critical under these conditions. In the middle of the night I was awakened by a tree falling near my tent. In the morning I also observed another tree falling near our campsite. This is a very real danger and it pays to be aware of dead trees and branches when making camp.
We will start at mile marker 0 of the Great Allegany Passage and our climb up into the mountain. Do not be intimidated by the climb. Trains don’t do well on steep inclines so the elevation never exceeds 2%. If the steam engine is running we can pay to have us and our bikes ferried up the mountain. However, you will lose the bragging rights for conquering the mountain. The trail surface is excellent, and a noticeable improvement over the C&O. We will start passing through several rail tunnels along the way. Almost at the top of the mountain we will stop to take a break in Frostburg, MD. If you need to refuel, food is available here.
By mid-day we should reach Meyerdale, PA for lunch. We will have already cycled through several tunnels including the Big Savage Tunnel. Lights are required in the Big Savage Tunnel, although the tunnel is lit. If it is a hot day it will feel like riding into air conditioning. We will have also cycled across several old rail trestles and crossed the Continental Divide. Luckily it’s all downhill from the Continental Divide.
Towards the end of the day we will reach Ohiopyle, PA completing about 71 miles, our longest day of the adventure. Be sure to see the waterfall in town.
In the morning we return to the Western Maryland Rail Trail with almost another 10 miles of paved trail with a gradual increase in elevation. Once we leave the Rail Trail the towpath gets a little bumpy again.
By mid-day we should reach one of the biggest highlights of the C&O for me, the 3,118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel. We must walk through the tunnel and a flashlight is required. However, I would highly recommend doing a portion of the tunnel with the light turned off (officially not allowed). We will ride into the Town of Paw Paw, WV to eat for lunch.
By the end of the day we will reach Cumberland, MD and have complete the 184.5 mile C&O canal towpath. There will be a photo opportunity to take pictures with the towpath statue and enjoy the canal museum. There is a bike shop here, if repairs are needed. The bike shop will also provide a complementary hosing down of your bike and you (if needed). Cumberland offers several good restaurants and I generally treat myself to a rib dinner getting ready for the twenty mile climb the next day. If you like trains, I would recommend staying at the Holiday Inn. However, bring your ear plugs if you are a light sleeper. The motel is located next to the railroad and trains pass by all night.
Around Harpers Ferry there will be some pedestrian traffic along the towpath here. A few miles down the towpath we will pass by the Antietam Battle Ground. This is a bumpy section of the towpath. Luckily, a few miles more and we will enjoy a very pleasant, newly repaired, and paved section of the path that runs along the river.
By mid-day we should reach Shepherdstown WV. We will have to ride/walk up a steep hill to cross the Potomac. Here I like to stop for lunch at the Blue Moon Café. The outdoor setting is wonderful and the food is good. I am sure you will enjoy it (weather permitting). Bring a light cable lock for your bike because the bikes will be out of our sight while we eat.
Towards the end of the day we will reach the Western Maryland Rail Trail with almost 10 miles of paved trail before reaching our final destination for the day, Hancock, MD. There is a bike shop here if needed and good restaurants to eat at, but they all close early so don’t be late!
We begin the ride in Georgetown, DC with a photo opportunity to take pictures at mile marker 0. As we ride along the Potomac River we will see rowing shells and other boaters. On the canal side we will pass a number of locks and should see a working replica of a canal boat. This will be the busiest section of the towpath with pedestrian traffic. A bell on your bike is highly recommended.
By mid-day we should reach White’s Ferry. If time permits and you are interested, you can take the short ferry ride across the Potomac River and back for a small fee. There is also a small country store with inside and outside seating that sells snacks and burgers.
Toward the end of the day we will be passing the Bruswick Rail Station in Maryland. If time permits, there is an old church in town that has been converted into a coffee shop called Beans in the Belfry. It is a unique experience. At this point we will start passing campsite along the towpath about 5 miles apart. At the end of the day at about the 61 mile marker with Harpers Ferry, West Virginia on the other side of the Potomac River.
Alert Others – Give a friendly heads up when overtaking walkers and slow riders. In most cases, I find a bicycle bell works very well without startling people. However, there will be a few people who will not recognize the bell as an alert and a simple verbal passing on your left should do. Also, a bell is not recommended when passing horses. In those cases, I give a verbal alert.
Stop off the Path – If you need to stop for some reason, move off the path and out of the way of others traveling on the path.
Leave no trace – While most trails have a Trash-Free rule, this is just good etiquette anyplace you go. Trash-Free means what you carry in, you must carry out. I often wonder what type of person rides a trail to enjoy the natural beauty then leaves their trash behind.