This was an eight-day extravaganza!! We have now done seven bike/camp trips with the Wonderful family in the past eight years and I think this one is the best yet. It was a fitting send-off in a way, since we are planning to be RTW tripping this time next year and don’t know when our next joint adventure will be. So this trip was special in more ways than one. First a major shout-out to R. Wonderful for extensive planning during the winter and spring. He researched everything and even made spreadsheets! Not my skill set! I am humbled and grateful. It takes a lot of planning to handle 12 people (including 8 kids!), meals, accomodations, vehicles, and all those miles. Thank you!!
We started by biking some of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath starting in Cumberland, MD. This trail skirts the borders of MD, VA, WV, and PA. It connects with the Great Allegheny Passage to form a 335 mile bike path between Pittsburgh, PA and Washington, DC. We biked about 70 miles of the GAP three years ago with the Wonderfuls through the beautiful Ohiopyle State Park. Now we were tackling part of the C&O.
Western end of the towpath, around mile 184 (L), our first campsite (R)
This amazing piece of history was a jewel to discover, both as a bicycler who appreciates the scenery and campsites, and also for the canal structures and culture which has disappeared as a way of life. The C&O canal was built in the 1820s as an efficient way to move goods across difficult terrain and parallel to the Potomac River, which was considered unnavigable. Canal freight boats were about 90 feet in length, were towed by mules on the towpath, and were homes for some canal families. Children lived on the boats, sometimes tethered to them for safety! The boats were wooden and not only included kitchen, food storage and bedrooms, but also had stables for the mules, who worked and rested in six-hour shifts, and space for about 15 tons of coal. They carried other cargo such as milled grains, sometimes loaded directly from canalside mills. This transport system involved mule drivers (often kids) who walked with the mules, boatmen using poles to steer the boats away from the stone walls of the canals, and lock keepers who maintained the canals and operated locks to raise and lower the boats to the changing water levels. The canal itself is just under 185 miles in length. It is now a national park and includes structures such as lock houses where the lock workers lived, aqueducts that carried the canal over rivers that would otherwise obstruct its flow, and elaborate locks with gates to control water levels.
towpath with lockhouse to the right and remains of lock to left
As you may guess, I became obsessed with the canal history and the ruins around us as I biked along. Some of the biking was tough since there were muddy patches, bad gravel, and I was towing our heavy gear in a bike trailer. I could identify with the mules at times!
a muddy patch – it was to get much worse! Me towing the “Joyrider” trailer
We found some books about the canal life with actual interviews done in the late 1970s with people who had grown up in that life. Home on the Canal by Elizabeth Kytle was my favorite. We went to a museum that had a silent film done in 1917 by Thomas Edison’s film crew which they filmed while boating down the canal and through locks. About eight years after that, the canals had a terrible flood and by then were also becoming obsolete due to the railroads and they never recovered. By then, though, the canals had a ninety year history and structures that would remain today and hopefully for a long time to come.
As a bike path, the C&O is wonderful in many respects. It is quite level, it has stunning scenery including massive rock faces and views of the Potomac River, it provides port-a-johns and drinking water every five miles or so, it is dotted with historical sites and lovely towns, and there are free camp sites all along the path. Two things to note are that the path is not paved, so wider tires are helpful as it can be bumpy and muddy, and drinking water from the pumps (not available in winter, BTW) is treated with iodine, which didn’t bother us too much but it is noticeable. The canal structures such as lock houses, aqueducts, and the locks themselves are fascinating.
remains of lock (L), aqueduct (R)
We arrived in Cumberland, MD, the Western end of the towpath and biked 4 miles to a campsite. Two adults drove cars to Williamsport, MD, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and then took the train back to Cumberland and biked to camp with us. This took about five hours. Our campsite was called Evitt’s Creek (mile 180.1) and was between the towpath and the Potomac. Just past the towpath was the canal which at this stretch had water and many turtles and algae, unfortunately many bugs as well.
Parallel to the canal, towpath and river were several active train tracks with trains passing by at least once an hour. I was delighted to be camping and starting the journey, I also love the sound of nearby trains, but other campsites proved to be further from the tracks so others may choose to go a few more miles to avoid them. It is interesting to note that at times we on the towpath were moving parallel to trains that replaced the canal system, which were running parallel to highways with semi trucks that have largely replaced the trains! Three transport systems side by side, one gone, one partly used, and one going strong.
We awoke, packed our gear, and headed out on our first long day. The trail was bumpy on my narrow tires, but the twins’ little bikes had fatter tires and they did well. The teens carried little gear and got ahead, so we had a policy of stopping every three miles to meet up before heading out again. There are mile markers every mile, which made it easy to know where to meet. There are also maps and guidebooks to show campsites, towns, structures, and other points of interest, all using mile numbers to identify location. The canal was to our left and continued to be full of croaking frogs, turtles lounging on logs, and seaweed. The kids saw a large black snake. There were groundhogs and deer. We mostly biked under a green canopy of trees on a double trail with grass in the center. I often heard “on you left” as bikers from our group and others passed me as I trundled along. We saw our first lockhouse and we also filled our water bottles at trailside water pumps.
We went through Paw Paw Tunnel, hand carved, lined with six million bricks, and over 3,000 feet long. There is dripping water, uneven footing, and almost complete darkness at times, so we were glad to obey the signs by walking our bikes and using headlights.
The other side of the tunnel was one of my favorite parts of the trip. There was a wooden walkway next to a steep rock face with the canal and another sloping rock wall on the other side. When the wooden path ended, there was a single earth trail still with the canal to the left and tilted rock walls on either side. Gorgeous!
We stopped and made lunch at a lovely campsite, which I’m pretty sure was Purselane Run at mile 157.4. We biked to Devil’s Alley at mile 144.5 and set up our camp. As soon as our tents were up there was a thunderstorm so we hid out in our tents until it was over. Luckily, it lasted under an hour and we were able to enjoy the evening at the campsite. We cooked dinner, played cards, and the kids swam in the river. There was a beautiful sunset.
selfie in tent during storm
Oh the misery of a sore butt! Thirty-six miles in a day are not much in comparison to other bikers on this trail, but most of them are not carrying all their camping/cooking gear and stopping every three miles to gather the kids. I was sore in numerous places but there was nothing to do but get back on the trail. I got onto a groove and kept going. At one point, I was lagging behind as usual when a bunch of our group started coming towards me. Why were they going the wrong way? It turned out there was a paved path we could use for about twenty miles. And so we turned around and headed uphill to the Western Maryland Rail Trail. And we were in awe of the wonder of asphalt! The ride became smooth like buttah! I didn’t realize how difficult the bumpy, muddy path was until I sailed on the silky black WMRT. We all enjoyed it immensely. We stopped in the tiny town of Hancock for lunch.
the smoooooth WMRT (top L), coming into Hancock, relaxing and having lunch in Hancock’s town park
After Hancock, we were back on the asphalt, but only for a few miles. We returned to the C&O towpath and got excited about stopping for the night, as well as where we would be stopping. You see, R. Wonderful had found unusual accomodations for the next 2 nights – an historic lockhouse! Check out part 2…