C&O Canal Bike Tour

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My wife has been bicycling seriously for over a year now, and felt ready for our first ever bicycle tour vacation. She looked around online and found one she felt would be good to start with - a five day, four night ride down the C&O Canal Towpath that began on June 30th. It's the first such trip I've taken as well.

The bike tour was better than we'd imagined. There was so much history, scenery, and interesting stuff to see and do that it's daunting to try to capture it here.

To keep things reasonable, I'll throw down a handful of the pictures, and add a bit of description.

The first day the 38 of us met at Great Falls (near Washington) and left our cars in the long term parking. We had a quick breakfast and then got on an air conditioned bus that took us to Oldtown in Western Maryland, where the tour started. Here we are getting our bikes out of the van and preparing to start the ride.

The first day's ride began after lunch and was only 25 miles on the towpath, with an option to ride up eight miles of tall hills to the first hotel in Little Orleans. Here's a rare scene of several riders pausing together; usually we rode in separate, small groups. At the western end there's almost no people along the towpath. This was during the week, so weekends might be busier.

We went through the mile-long Paw Paw tunnel on our first ride. It took 3000 workers nearly fourteen years to build, starting in 1836. They blasted it through solid rock using nothing but black powder.

It's nearly pitch black inside. We had flashlights and started out riding, but soon switched to walking because the floor surface changes angles every foot or two. There's a short railing between the narrow walkway and the canal inside. Drops of cool water fall from overhead. The bugs didn't follow us in, making the walk enjoyable.

We stayed in a couple of nice bed & breakfast places, a Red Roof Inn, and a Super 8 Motel. A night's sleep is a real treat on a trip like this. Each morning we mustered for breakfast and then got ready to ride. One strange thing about bicycle trip people - they like to be ready early!

There were several historic events and sights on the ride: Harpers Ferry, Charles Town, the Antietam Battlefield, and historians who met us to give talks. Here we are at Fort Frederick Park, being given a talk by re-enactors in period costume. We got to see a demonstration of loading and firing a musket, and then toured this impressively restored colonial outpost.

At Hancock Maryland we had the option of riding on the smooth, fast Western Maryland Rail-Trail. Not everyone took it, but we found it to be a nice change of pace. Twenty miles of fast riding, and hardly anyone around!

Another bit of canal history, a factory where steel for railroad fixtures was smelted. There were several sights like this every day, from the locks and lock houses that allowed the canal to function to Civil War battlefields to colonial towns, and much else.

What I've shown so far is only the first forty percent of the experience. Our digital camera filled up on the third day; the rest of the pictures had to go on film.

The Towpath

The C&O Canal Towpath is mostly gravel and dirt, and is wide enough for at least two bikes to pass. After a heavy rain like last week's Tropical Storm Bill, portions of the trail will get very muddy. This was especially true around Harpers Ferry where there's less gravel and more dirt. The towpath slopes steeply to either side in many places, with the canal on one side and the Potomac River on the other.

I rode my full-sus Giant XTC NRS2 on the trip, although the tour organizers recommend a road bike with wider tires (1-1/4"). I used knobby tires with a raised center ridge, so the road riding went pretty well. Riders can go their own pace on the tour, they only have to get together at the start of each ride and for each event and meal.

Tour Info

The tour we went on is provided by www.bikeandthelike.com. The proprietors, Suzie and Roger keep costs low by making little or no profit and using volunteers to help when possible. We had a great time and highly recommend their C&O Canal tour.

Scott Chilcote 7/8/03

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