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Travel the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal on this virtual tour

10Best logo 10Best 4/1/2021 Lydia Schrandt, Special to USA TODAY 10Best
a bench in a park: Lockhouse 28 © Frederick Magazine Lockhouse 28

Welcome to the C & O Canal

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal extends for 184.5 miles from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland. For nearly a century, the canal served as a lifeline for settlements along the Potomac River, and today, it’s a place of immense beauty, rich history and abundant recreational opportunities. Come explore the canal through these photos.

a train is parked on the side of a road: Launch at Six Locks © National Park Service Launch at Six Locks

Canal history

Construction started on the C&O Canal in July of 1828 and was completed in 1850. For nearly 100 years – 1831 to 1924 – the canal served as a critical transportation corridor used to ship goods from the Allegheny Mountains (like coal). In 1971, the canal became a designated National Historical Park.

a body of water: Potomac River at Bonds Landing in Oldtown © Allegany County Potomac River at Bonds Landing in Oldtown

Potomac River

The C&O Canal, nicknamed the Grand Old Ditch, follows the north bank of the Potomac River (pictured) and connects the river’s tidewater in DC with the headwaters of the Ohio River in Western Pennsylvania.

a tree in a forest: Towpath in Brunswick © Jerry Knight / Maryland Office of Tourism Towpath in Brunswick

Exploring the towpath

One of the most popular parts of the national park for recreation is the canal towpath. This dirt and stone path runs the entire length of the canal, offering visitors a place to walk, bike, run or horseback ride through the park.

a person riding a horse in front of a tree: Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center © Montgomery County Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center

Mules on the canal

The towpath gets its name from its original purpose, a path where canal mules could walk along the water and tow canal boats through the waterway. Mules were often cheaper, more surefooted and less prone to illness and injury than horses, which made them the preferred work animals throughout the canal’s history.

Historically, canal boats had a mule stable in the front cabin, where the animals would live.

a small boat in a river: Charles F. Mercer at Great Falls © Paul Graunke / Maryland Office of Tourism Charles F. Mercer at Great Falls

Ride a traditional canal boat

During the warmer months, visitors to the canal can ride on a replica canal boat, the Charles F. Mercer, that’s still pulled by mules. For a more modern ride, opt for a 1920s electric launch boat cruise from Williamsport.

a group of people in a forest: Biking along the C & O Canal © Allegany County Biking along the C & O Canal

Biking on the canal

The C&O Canal National Historical Park ranks among the most popular places in the region for outdoor recreation. And the towpath is just one of several trails where cyclists can enjoy the natural scenery of the park. Other options include the Western Maryland Rail Trail, Capital Crescent Trail and Berma Road.

The Paw Paw Tunnel interior © Allegany County The Paw Paw Tunnel interior

Paw Paw Tunnel

The Paw Paw Tunnel, considered a masterpiece of engineering, is one of the most notable features of the canal. Extending for six-tenths of a mile and made from nearly six million bricks, the tunnel was constructed to shorten the canal by cutting across the Paw Paw bends of the Potomac River.

It took 12 years to complete and nearly bankrupted the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company.

a bridge over a river: Upstream view of Sideling Hill Creek Aqueduct © Paul Graunke / Maryland Office of Tourism Upstream view of Sideling Hill Creek Aqueduct

Sideling Hill Creek Aqueduct

The Sideling Hill Creek Aqueduct, built between 1837 and 1840, was made from limestone quarried nearby. Since concrete was only introduced to canal construction in 1906, stonemasons played a key role in developing the canal’s integral structures.

a house with a fence in front of a body of water: Lock 70 at Sunrise © Steve Dean / Maryland Office of Tourism Lock 70 at Sunrise

Canal lockhouses

Boats traveling along the canal had to pass through 77 locks. Many of these locks had a lockhouse where the lock keeper and his or her family would live. With as many as 530 boats navigating the canal at any given time, lock keepers had to be available anytime – day or night – to lift and lower the boats.

For this service, they were compensated with free rent, an acre of land and $150 a year.

a group of people sitting in front of a building: Lockhouse 49 © Frederick Magazine / Maryland Office of Tourism Lockhouse 49

Stay the night in a historic lockhouse

Today, visitors to the park can stay the night in one of seven of these historic lockhouses. These structures have been preserved to look much like they did when they were in use, each furnished with pieces from a different time period.

a small house surrounded by water: The Cushwa Basin © Mark Crilley / Maryland Office of Tourism The Cushwa Basin

Cushwa Basin

The canal town of Williamsport is home to Cushwa Basin, a popular entry point to the towpath. This area was once a brick manufacturing hub and a place where boats would stop to load up on coal and bricks. Visitors can step inside the original Cushwa Brick warehouse, connected to the national park visitors center.

a small boat in a body of water surrounded by trees: Kayaks on Conococheague Creek © Heidi Schlag / Maryland Office of Tourism Kayaks on Conococheague Creek

Kayaking Conococheague Creek

Another popular way to explore the canal and its nearby waterways is by kayak or canoe. Six stretches of the canal have been rewatered to accommodate kayakers and other boaters. Paddlers of all ability levels will find both whitewater rapids and flat-water paddling on the Potomac River.

a path with trees on the side of a lush green forest: Virginia bluebells near Mile Marker 90-91 © M.J. Clingan / Visit Hagerstown Virginia bluebells near Mile Marker 90-91

Virginia bluebells

If you visit the C&O Canal during the springtime, you might get lucky and experience the towpath when it’s in bloom with Virginia bluebells. March and April tend to be the best months to enjoy this show of color.

a large waterfall over a body of water with Great Falls Park in the background: View of Great Falls © Jon Bilous / Montgomery County View of Great Falls

Great Falls

No trip to the canal would be complete without a stop in the Great Falls area, where the Potomac River drops 76 feet in less than a mile. It’s one of the steepest rapids of any river in the east and an impressive sight. While you’re in the area, stop at the Great Falls Tavern, a former lock keepers house that now serves as a visitors center.

a woman sitting on a table: Pop Shop © Frederick County Pop Shop

Refreshments at the Pop Shop

As you follow the C&O Canal, there’s plenty of side excursions worth making. When you’re in Frederick, Maryland, be sure to stop by the North Market Pop Shop for the largest selection of glass bottle craft sodas on the east coast.

Choose from more than 400 options, from classic ginger ale and cream soda to more creative concoctions, like Gooey Butter Cake or Chocolate Covered Maple Smoked Bacon soda.

a statue on a cloudy day: Jeff Koons' Split-Rocker at Glenstone © Iwan Baan / Montgomery County Jeff Koons' Split-Rocker at Glenstone

Glenstone

Another worthy side excursion takes you to Glenstone, a contemporary art museum known for its post-WWII collection and striking marriage of art, architecture and natural landscape.

a stone building with grass and trees: Aerial photo of Washington Monument © Mid Atlantic Aerial Photography / Visit Hagerstown Aerial photo of Washington Monument

Washington Monument

Not far from the C&O Canal, you’ll also find Washington Monument State Park. This park in Washington County protects the first completed monument dedicated to President George Washington. The stone tower monument was built in 1827.

a palm tree in front of a sunset: Sunrise at Antietam © National Park Service Sunrise at Antietam

Antietam

Just up the road from the canal in Sharpsburg, Maryland is the Antietam Battlefield, site of the single bloodiest day in any American war. Visitors to the Antietam National Battlefield can explore more than 10,000 acres of one of the best preserved Civil War sites in the country.

10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network, providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world, in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.

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