The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal is a 185-mile long bicycle path that traces the Potomac River, between Washington, DC and Cumberland, Maryland.
It’s one of America’s most famous, best-established bicycle paths and in this edition of 10 Questions Eric & Elaine Henderson tell us about their experience riding the C&O Trail.
Eric & Elaine live in a rural area of northern Maine and aren’t city people, so their bike tour along the C&O Trail was their first bicycle adventure in a heavily populated section of the United States.
2. What kind of surface is the trail; paved? dirt? Is it in good condition? Most of the trails were in excellent condition for larger tires, we use 26″ x 2.35 tires and had no trouble on most of the trail. The conditions for the C&O & GAP trails were all dirt or crushed rock while the others were paved. We did meet other people with small tires but most were experiencing difficulties. The recommendation that outfitters had given us was tires should be 1.75 or larger.
3. What is the scenery like along the way? We did the C&O trail in reverse of most recommendations because we wanted to start very rural and slowly move into the urban environment. It was not at all what we had expected. The trail has a very wilderness character that follows a river much of the way. Within 5 km of Washington DC you still have the feeling of being deep in the forest. Even the trail within city limits had a unique and under used feeling.
4. Did you use a map? Can you ride the trail without one? My daughter had given me a copy of a trail guide called the TrailBook for Christmas. We used the guide and a track we made using Map-My-Run for the GPS. The guidebook detailed everything we needed including history, places to stay, what to see, and it even included a map. We did get maps for the Washington DC area from the DC department of transportation and used the Bike Washington DC website showing all city trails that was very useful.
5. Is it a busy trail, or can you find your own space? We travelled around the 4th of July, so we had expected to run into many more people on the trail then we did during the trip. The only indication of populated city was the increase in numbers of day bikers. There were a number of campsites along the trail that all had tables and pumps for water.
While we had almost all of our food from the beginning there were stores and places to eat but not on the trail. We travel between 50 and 65 km per day. Many people were doing much more but not stopping to check out the history. Accommodations were another story while we did not use any along the trail, most appeared to be a bit away from the trail and were much less frequent.
6. What were some of your more interesting experiences? Elaine really found our morning riding around Antietam Battle Ground special. We arrived at 8:30 and it was hot; 92F at the headquarters. It was almost as if we had the park all to ourselves as we explored.
For me, the many tunnels along the trip were very unique, as most were not lit. These tunnels include Sideling Tunnel at just over 2 km long and unlit. Halfway through the tunnel we had a flat tire and had to change it underground in the dark. The best part of the experience was that it was very cool for a change. While we were changing the tire we met another party of bikers traveling in from the other direction.
7. When you get to the other end, are there shuttle services to take you back to the beginning? We did the trip in reverse of what most biker do when they travel because we wanted rural first and city last. There were lots of shuttle services including trains, bus and outfitters. We used an outfitter, which was the best money I have ever spent on a trip. He transported us to our start and checked in with us a couple of times to see how we were doing.
He was the only outfitter that did not tell us we were doing the trip wrong. He just explained that our trip was not the typical trip and was much more involved then a typical C&O trip, he gave us a number of suggestions all of which we added to our trip. The name of the outfitter we used was Freedom Trail Riders.
8. When is the best season to ride the trail? While we did it in the summer, when we go back we will go in October as the leaves are changing. We biked during the record-breaking hot spell of the summer. This included 7 days with the temperature over 100F and records being broken on all but one of the days. The upside to the heat wave was there were warnings for people to stay inside so the city was easily travelled.
9. What was your favourite part or moment of the trail ride? The first turtle we saw. I had to stop to take a photo, as we see very few where we live. We kept seeing more and more turtles until it appeared they were everywhere in the water along side of the trail. It took a number of tries before I could stop and get a photo of a group of them.
10. And one challenging moment? For Elaine it would have to be snakes. We don’t have them where live and have no experience with them in our travels. It doesn’t matter if they are good or bad we just don’t like them. For me the most stressful event was being lost in Arlington, VA at 3pm on a Friday afternoon. While drivers were very respectful, there was more traffic then I had ever expected. As we look back now these are minor challenges and give us something to laugh about.
Thanks to Eric & Elaine for answering 10 questions and providing the photos.
Now, we’ve come up with 10 more dream bike tours – our own personal list of the top places we’d like to go next. Some we’ve been to in part, but we’d like to explore more. Others we’ve never seen but we’ve heard so many great reports that they’re on our short list.
Of course, reducing the world to just 10 bike tours could rightly be described as a great injustice to all the potential routes out there. Think of this as a little inspiration to get you dreaming, and share your ideas of the best places to cycle by leaving a comment.
1. North Sea Cycle Route
This 6,000km marked route traces the coastline of the North Sea. It goes through the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway and it’s easy to do just a section if you don’t have time for the whole thing. Much of the route is on dedicated bike paths or small roads, making this a very tranquil bike tour. More info:North Sea Cycle
2. Pacific Coast, United States
The Pacific Coast Highway has always intrigued us. We’re talking spectacular ocean views, massive redwood trees, classic cities like San Francisco and plenty of facilities for cyclists as you cycle through the states of Washington, Oregon and California. Maps are available from the Adventure Cycling Association. More Info: ACA Pacific Coast route
3. Danube Cycle Path
We’ve already cycled the start of the Danube Bike Path; a perfectly paved trail running through Germany and Austria to the Hungarian capital of Budapest. This stretch is great for families, beginners or anyone who doesn’t want to spend much time figuring out logistics.
Now we want to finish the job. Apparently the path gets less refined as it goes along. We like the idea of that slow progression.
There are tons of guidebooks describing the route from the river’s source to where it empties into the Black Sea. Ride it on your own or pick from the many package tours. More Info: The Danube Bike path is part of EuroVelo6.
We were in Japan many years ago, and we’ve been dying to go back on our bicycles. We want to check out more temples, soak in the hot springs and gorge on sushi. Many people think Japan is expensive but to keep costs low, you can cook your own food and take advantage of the free campsites and local hospitality clubs. More Info:Japan Cycling and Journey of 1000 Li (We wrote this before the terrible 2011 earthquake in Japan. Hopefully the country will recover quickly and be ready to receive tourists again soon.)
5. The Silk Road & The Pamir Highway
A trip along the ancient Silk Road trade route and the Pamir Highway is a real adventure. First you’ll cross Turkey and Iran, heading for the Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. Then you’ll head for the mountains, where you can still get a wonderful glimpse of nomadic life. Continue on down Tajikistan’s Pamir Highway and you have enough cycling to keep you busy for a good 4-6 months.
We’ve done the first part of this trip, but we missed out on southern Kyrgyzstan and the Pamir Highway. Now that would make a great summer tour one of these days! It’s a pain to get visas (and they’re not cheap) but the rewards are spectacular scenery and a real sense of exploration in this little-touristed region of the world. More Info: Our own pages on bike touring in Central Asia and Tim Barnes’ Totally Knackered tour
6. Carretera Austral, Chile
Pack a sturdy bike and your tent for this 1,000km mostly unpaved road. It passes through the region of Patagonia and encompasses some of Chile’s most stunning terrain, including mountains, lakes and glaciers. This is definitely a summer route. In the off-season it can be closed by snow and heavy rain. More Info: A journal of a bike tourist in the Carretera Austral and Patagonia.
7. Southeast Asia
International bike touring doesn’t get much easier than in Southeast Asia, and there’s a lot to explore. We’ve spent 6 months here, and still not seen it all. Next on our list? The east coast of Malaysia and a jaunt into Myanmar / Burma. We also want to return to the Cameron Highlands tea growing area in Malaysia (pictured), where the air is refreshingly cool, for some day rides and hikes, which we didn’t have time for on the last trip.
Throughout the region, costs are affordable (even for the most budget-minded bike tourists), traffic is generally relaxed, hotels are easy to find and the food is great. More Info: Our own pages on bike touring in Southeast Asia and the slightly old but still helpful Mr. Pumpy
Cheap flights and ferries from Europe make Morocco very accessible and it’s a great first taste of bike touring outside of the developed world. We’ve been to Morocco several times, and while the country is becoming increasingly touristy, it still offers plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track.
Classic rides include the coastal route between Agadir and Essaouira and the trip from Marrakech, over the mountains and through the Draa Valley to the Sahara desert near Zagora. We’ve done all of these. Now we want to do a backroads tour of Morocco: no asphalt and lots of camping. More Info: Our own pages on bike touring in Morocco and the video (above) from our friends Blanche & Douwe. They’ve biked Morocco’s paths and tracks several times, so we’ll be picking their brains if we do this trip!
9. Great Divide Route
Few places do “pure nature” as well as North America and the Great Divide is at the top of our list of routes to cycle on the continent. This off-pavement mountain bike route traces the Continental Divide from Banff in Canada all the way south to the Mexican border. It takes about 3 months to complete. A mountain bike with front suspension forks is often recommended to help cope with the tough terrain. More Info: ACA’s page on the Great Divide cycling route
10. Karakoram Highway
A classic route between China and Pakistan, and one that may change significantly in the coming years (for the worse) as the road improves and becomes more accessible to heavy traffic. Go now, before it’s too late! More Info: Cycling The Karakoram Highway
The American Southwest might not have great food, but it does have some of the most spectacular nature in the world to cycle through.
Photographer Paul Jeurissen and his wife Grace first cycled there in 1991. Since then they keep returning to experience the vast desert landscapes to be found in places like Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and western Colorado.
Grace tells about their American Southwest cycling experiences – especially in the state of Utah – in this week’s 10 Questions.
1. What are the highlights of cycling through the American Southwest?
Of course the National Parks such as Bryce, Zion and Canyonlands are beautiful but for us the highlights were cycling Utah’s numerous back roads. On these dirt roads, the scenery is just as spectacular and it feels as if you have the whole road just for yourself.
A trip around America on two bicycles: that’s the journey that Alan & Morrigan started in 2008.
Their trip took 10-1/2 months, and they travelled 11,000 miles around the United States in that time, from Maine to Florida, California, Washington and back to New York.
Along the way, they documented their surroundings, and blogged about the trip. The portraits of Americans and audio recordings that they collected are now touring around the country as an exhibit called Project Tandem