If you’re out for a bike ride in downtown D.C. and you find yourself wanting to get away from the frenetic activity of the city, one of the quickest ways to escape is to head over to the Georgetown neighborhood where the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O ) Canal and Towpath begins (MAP). Then, use the towpath to ride west.
A towpath is a road or trail on the bank of a canal, river, or other inland waterway that allows a land vehicle, mules or horses, or a team of human pullers to tow a boat, often a barge. This mode of transport was once commonplace in areas where sailing was impossible or impractical due to rapid currents, obstructions like tunnels and bridges, or unfavorable winds. After the Industrial Revolution, towing became obsolete when engines were fitted on boats and when railway transportation superseded the slow towing method. Since then, many towpaths, like the one along the C&O Canal, have been converted to multi-use recreatonal trails.
The C&O Canal and towpath is located along the northern bank of the Potomac River, and runs 184.5 miles starting in D.C. and ending in Cumberland, Maryland. The canal was built between beginning in 1828, and was a lifeline for communities along the Potomac River. It operated sporadically between floods, until it became obsolete in 1924, after which it was abandoned. Today, much of the canal has been drained of water and reclaimed by the forest. However, the entire towpath remains.
Three decades after closing down, in 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas organized an eight day hike up the canal’s towpath in an attempt to draw attention to its potential as a recreational area, and to save it from being converted to a parkway, as was being planned by Congress at that time. His efforts succeeded and the canal and towpath were saved from development, eventually to become the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. The park was established as a National Monument in 1961 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in order to preserve the neglected remains of the canal along with many of the original canal structures. Further ensuring preservation efforts, portions of the towpath are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The C&O Canal National Historical Park now receives more than three million recreation visits annually, and is a favorite of bicyclists like me, as well as hikers, joggers, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts, and others.
Most recently, in November of 2013, the C&O Canal Towpath was designated as the first section of U.S. Bicycle Route 50, which is part of the U.S. Bicycle Route System. The system is a developing network of interstate long-distance cycling routes in the U.S. And with the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage Trail from western Pennsylvania to Cumberland, it is now possible to ride a continuous 339 non-motorized vehicle-free miles from D.C. all the way to Point State Park in Pittsburgh.
So I caution you to be careful when you’re in D.C. and decide to go for a ride on the C&O Canal Towpath. It is such an enjoyable and peaceful environment for riding that, if you’re not careful and paying attention, you may end up finding yourself in Pittsburgh.