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10 Questions: Cycling Along America’s C&O Canal Trail


Eric & Elaine on the C&O TrailThe 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.

1. What attracted you to the C&O Trail?
We first came across the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) canal trail in 1973, while traveling across the country after college. We read about the tunnels and bridges and decided that a ride through history would make for an exciting adventure but we wanted to have a trip over 1,000km and the C&O was only 300km. With a little research, we finally put the trip together to include several trails: the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail, C&O trail, Washington & Old Dominion trail, Pen Pike to Bike trail, and the Mount Vernon Trail for the summer of 2010.

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.

C&O#1b.jpg

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.

C&O#5b.jpg

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.

Antietam Battle Ground

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.

Changing A Tire In A Tunnel

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.

Turtles On A Log

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.

If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.

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3 Responses to “10 Questions: Cycling Along America’s C&O Canal Trail”

  1. Brilliant, Ive been planning another USA tour to take in as many of these Rail – Trails as possible so this article was priceless. Thanks

    Another good link is:
    http://www.traillink.com/activity/bike-trails.aspx

  2. Matt Logan says:

    Sounds like a wonderful trip! The next time you visit the C&O, given your interest in history, I recommend staying in one of the Canal Quarters lockhouses. The Park Service has rehabilitated 4 of them so far, and the park’s nonprofit partner, the C&O Canal Trust, has furnished them to represent different eras in the canal’s history. Two more are going to open this fall. Check it out here: CanalQuarters.org.

  3. Jack says:

    I rode the same direction just after this in 2010 with a small group of older Boy Scouts. We really enjoyed it. To minimize their expense outfitting their bikes, we had a support vehicle that carried the camping supplies. The summer is hot but with less mud than others have reported.

    I was thinking this would make a good trip for my wife and I. I was thinking of parking in DC and riding both directions. There are so many places to stop to camp, stay and eat you could pick different places in each directions.

    Each way is about 300k.

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