Canal/Washington DC Awesome Autumn Adventure 2003
by Lamar Martin
Click on the photos for larger views.
foolishness, afterall we have perfectly good cars, right? Anyway,
Ed and I are lucky to have met Margo and Patty and to have continued a
long distance cycling commaraderie with them for 3 years now.
||Our adventure began with Ed Jewell and I driving to Dulles International
Airport to meet Patty and Margo, whom we first met on the Katy Trail ride
in 2001. Patty is from Missouri and Margo hails from Nebraska. As is often
the case, our new friends were dedicated cyclists who truly enjoyed bicycling,
but their spouses do not. For those of us who have discovered the thrill
of bicycling, and the (sadistic) pleasure we get from overcoming the flat
tires, broken spokes, saddle sores, aching muscles, rain, mud, etc., to
reach our destination under our own power, it is hard to understand why
our loved ones don't get it. To them, we must seem the epitome of
As fate would have it, we did suffer a broken spoke even before the
ride began. It happened on the trailer somewhere between GA and MD, due
to the way I had the bikes secured. Margo took the bike to the bike shop
near the trail head. It was Monday morning and the sign said, Closed on
Monday. Fortunately there was another bike shop in town so we rode to it
and got the wheel fixed.
I divided up each day's journey so that the car would meet the riders
every 10-15 miles and switch the driver. We drew numbers to see who would
drive each leg of the ride. This worked out very well, eliminating the
need to arrange for transporation from DC to Cumberland, which a lot of
visitors do. Did I mention that Ed, Patty, Margo and I met on the Katy
Trail Ride because we were among the small group of hotel wimps. That same
wimp spirit led to our decision to use a vehicle and take turns driving
it. Unfortunately, this meant that no one got to ride the whole trail,
and by luck of the draw, someone would miss some of the more spectacular
sights if it fell upon them to drive.
|Our first sightseeing stop on
day 1 was at this beautiful lock, the first of 75 we would see along the
trail. The canal, lock house and lock here are in such great condition
that it is easy to imagine the mules towing the boats into the lock, closing
the gates to fill it with water and then continuing toward Cumberland,
or vice versa. The locks all drop in elevation, a total of 600 feet
from Cumberland to DC. The terrain between locks is very flat; quite
remarkable considering the beautiful mountain views that surround you much
of the time.
||The towpath had quite a few mud puddles, which kept us alert. The
canal on the right in this picture is filled with stagnant water. The leaves
which we were hoping to be at their peak in fall colors were nice, but
not the brilliant hues we had hoped for. All of this was due to much more
rain than usual. On previous visits I remarked that most of the canal
was dry and had all but disappeared into the forest, which was not the
case this time.
Since I have ridden the tunnel once, and hiked through twice before,
I volunteered to drive this leg of the ride.
|At 0.6 miles in length, it is unusual to be able to see the light
on the other side of the tunnel this well. One can easily imagine the time
when the canal was full of water and mules pulled boats through the tunnel.
No, it's not ancient Greece, but pretty neat history just the same. Even
on a clear day like this, it is so dark in the tunnel, you will need a
flashlight if you walk through or bicycle headlight if you dare to ride
through. The towpath is only about 3' wide with a rail between you and
the canal on the left and the tunnel wall on the right (going this direction).
running into the abyss. It could have disappeared into any number of
hiding places, but came to rest in plain sight. We got such a late start
that by the time Ed, Margo and Patty got to Little Orleans, we decided
to load up the bikes and drive on over to Berkeley Springs WV for the evening.
Our hotel was the Best Western and was very nice, including the restaurant
where we enjoyed our dinner very much.
||My drive from Paw Paw to Little Orleans was heaven and hell. This
scene was so spectacular that I just had to stop the car and photograph
it, even if the picture doesn't do it justice. The road itself was a twisting,
undualating dirt road from hell. The bike trailer shook so hard, I happened
to look in my rearview mirror and see the front wheel of my bicycle (which
had been secured in a wheel carrier on the trailer) rolling down a steep
hill toward a ravine on one side of the road. I stopped the car immediately
and ran down the hill in search of the wheel. My guardian angels were certainly
on duty, the wheel rolled a long way but stayed on the road instead of
|On day two, we drove from Berkeley Springs, WV, back over the Potomac
into Marlyand in search of the western most end of the Western Maryland
Rail Trail. Unfortunately, there is no public access at that end of the
trail. We found a dirt road that took us to within a quarter-mile beyond
the west most end, to what looked to be an abandoned railroad bed, but
we were not sure. There were "No Trespassing" signs, but they were on the
dirt road adjacent to what appeared to be the railroad bed, not on the
bed itself. It was Patty's turn to drive, so we asked her to wait there
at the car long enough for us to ride down the unpaved rail bed to the
cross bars we could see in the distance. When we got almost to the cross
bar, we had to cross a
The WMRT parallels the C&O most of the way.
Here the rail trail is on the side of a mountain,
looking down on the C&O. Great views!
|wooden railroad bridge, but just beyond that, our theory was confirmed:
the paved trail started there. So, we rode the 10 miles of the WMRT to
Hancock, and Patty drove there to meet us. Then Margo drove the car and
Patty, Ed and I rode the next 10 miles of the WMRT to the end at Fort Frederick.
This is a beautiful, smooth, shady rail trail with great views, and is
a nice reprieve from the C&O's rustic nature. Don't get me wrong, if
I wanted smooth pavement, I could have stayed home. The C&O Canal towpath
is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place you can ride a bicycle or hike.
Being able to see the Canal and towpath for much of the lenght of the WMRT,
you get the best of both worlds, you see the historic path beaten into
the forest floor by mules towing boats, and you ride on smooth, fast black
top with no one around. Whew! It really doesn't get much better than that!
from DC to Cumberland or vice versa. Some visitors cross the river here
along the towpath, others through what was the aqueduct.
|This photo is one of my favorites. Forgive me for insinuating you
cannot see this for yourself, and allow me explain it the way I see it.
See the higher block wall? Now imagine the section this side of there,
above the arches, being the same height as the higher wall. Then you have
a duct. You cannot see it in this picture, but the canal connects to each
end of this duct. Fill it with water and you have a waterway across the
River without going into the river. You've seen bridges for cars and bridges
for trains; now you have seen a bridge for boats. The mules walked on the
towpath (on the other side of the taller blocks you see here) and pulled
the boats on their way
Standing along the Potomac River at McMahon's Mill;
left photo is
looking toward Cumberland, right is looking toward
|That's Ed followed by Patty and Margo. For a few miles, the Potomac
River has completely devoured the canal, as shown in the left photo, leaving
only the towpath. If you don't exit here, at McMahon's Mill, and take the
4 mile detour, the towpath itself disappears into the mighty Potomac as
shown in the picture on the right. Actually the distance between the two
points in these photos is only 50 yards, or so. The towpath ends so abuptly,
you needn't worry about missing the turnoff for the detour. There is also
a nice sign there, with a map of the detour. It has been this way for as
long as I have been visting the C&O and it will probably never be repaired,
at least not on the original towpath which the river has long since carried
|Detours and rail trail excusrions aside, a C&O Canal bicycle
vacation is all about pedaling through the forest, and through history.You
see the big trees on the left in this photo? They were not there when mules
towed the boats along the canal from 1828 until 1924.
Ed rode his bike with Patty, Margo and I across the railroad bridge
over the Potomac River back into Maryland, but then it was his turn to
drive. The girls and I carried our bikes down the spiral staircase on to
the C&O Canal towpath. We headed east on the towpath and Ed went back
to the car and drove to Point of Rocks MD to meet us.
||Day 3 was our first oppurtunity for all 4 of us to bicycle together.
We left the car at the hotel and rode the W&OD to the end of the trail,
in the historical section of Purcellville VA. A few blocks away there are
pizza places and fast food, but we were happy to have a quick peak, a snack
and hit the trail back to Leesburg. The return ride was much faster than
the going out; it seemed to be more down hill than up, and had a nice tail
wind. Ed, who had patiently ridden slow with us on the way to Purcellville,
was back at the Best Western half an hour before us slow pokes.
After showers, and loading up the bikes and gear, we drove over to
Harper's Ferry WV
where we had lunch. The historical district is a National Park. Lunch was
delicious as well.
The first couple of miles we rode was a section where the C&O
and Appalachian Trail are combined. When we reached the point (near mile
marker 58) where the AT split off, we stopped the bikes and hiked a few
yards on the
|AT. Within 50 yards we were lost; we honestly did not know which
way the trail went. Anyway, if anyone asks, we can say we hiked the AT.
Yeah, we know the AT is over 2000 miles long, and we were lost within a
few feet, but if no one asks, it sure sounds impressive! The sky had been
threatening all morning but held off until we were in the middle of nowhere,
on the C&O canal towpath, to start raining. We were cold and wet by
the time we met up with Ed at Point of Rocks MD. Wouldn't you know it,
by the time we got there the sun was back out and after a little snack,
we were warmed up and decided to ride on to the next public access point
for Ed to meet us (Noland's Ferry). We had only rode a mile when the rain
returned, and we again found ourselves wishing for Ed and the warm, dry
car. We didn't talk much, but the forest sure did. The air was full of
rain and sounds we could only guess at...a bob cat, an owl, a ghost? We
made it to Noland's Ferry and got this great picture. This building sits
well above normal river level. That's Margo on the ground, and Patty
on the porch, which gives you some perspective of how high the water was
during the 1936
It was a chilly 30-something degrees Thursday and Friday morning,
but we noticed a lot of people commuting to work by bicycle. Later we learned
that many of them bicycle to a Metro Station, then lock their bikes up
in the racks provided, and take the trains to work. The Econo Lodge Metro
is rather small and doesn't look like much from the outside, but it is
a Gold Star hotel and is located all of 100 feet from the W&OD (near
mile marker 5.5). It is also within a few blocks of the East Falls Church
Metro station. This makes it a bicyclist's dream location. When we first
started visiting the DC area, and rode by this hotel, I would stop to inquire
about their rates. I was dismayed that the rooms were over $100/per night.
The price per night this year was under $70, which made it irresistable.
close to the right so cars can pass when safe to do so. Again, its part
of the adventure.
||On Thursday, day 4 of our vacation, we rode out the W&OD/Martha
Custis Trail, staying on the Custis when the W&OD ended and followed
the Custis Trail to the Mt Vernon Trail at the Potomac River. We missed
our turn for the Key Bridge (I think that is it in the background of the
picture above), which would have taken us straight into Georgetown, to
the trail head of the C&O Canal and Capitol Crescent Trails. Instead,
we crossed the Potoamac via the Roosevelt Bridge. I always get lost riding
around DC, but with beautiful scenery like the pic above, who cares? And,
it is actually kind of fun riding in the city traffic, taking the lane
when called for or riding
We found our way to the trail head of the C&O Canal and headed
out the Capitol Crescent Trail until it veered away from our destination,
which was up the C&O to Great Falls. I should remember to get off the
CCT onto the C&O a little sooner next time, because if you wait until
the last minute, where an overpass takes the CCT across the C&O, the
only way from one to the other is a goat trail, which you have to carry
your bike down. Back on the dirt/crushed stone, we were amazed, AMAZED,
at how quickly the C&O towpath puts you into the wilderness; a wilderness
only in appearance, because you are actually in the nation's capitol city.
We rode back to DC, this time staying on the C&O all the way instead
of using the paved Capitol Crescent Trail. We made a very full day of it,
sightseeing in DC.
The Potomac River at Great Falls
||We rode out as far as the Great Falls Vistitor Center at mile marker
14.3. For some reason I was famished, and was very relieved to find the
snack bar was open. I had a hot dog, chips and M&M Peanuts (maybe a
bit of overreaction to inexplicable hunger pangs and lack of energy that
hit me). We all enjoyed walking out the overlook to view the falls. Ed
and I had been there but the water level had been much lower. This time
the river was up and all that water was still squeezing through the same
rocky passages below. Much more impressive. Still, with temperatures in
the upper 40's, we saw the kayakers in the park. We didn't see any go over
the falls, which we thought would be insane.Click this picture to compare
it to one taken at the same vantage point on our 1999 trip, when a kayaker
was going over a big drop. You can see the river was much fuller this year.
We rode our bikes to all the famous spots around the Mall in DC. This
time, for the first, we took time to get tickets and wait in line to go
to the top of the Washington Monument. Wow! What great views. Sorry I didn't
take my camera. Guess you will have to join us the next time and see for
||Left photo is front of the White House. We all agreed that the back
(right photo) is the better facade.
For lunch we stopped at the Reagen Center. We chained our bikes to
two of the light posts out in front and went into the food court. Before
our food was ready, an armed security guard had tracked us down. He was
notably upset. Apparently some big wheels had been chewing on his back
side for letting us lock our bikes up out front. He tried to explain that
he turned his back for a second and didn't see us doing it (he was out
front the whole time because I remember seeing him talking to someone,
not paying attention to us). He seemed to understood we had already ordered
our food, and conceded we could get it and eat, as long as we made it as
quick as possible. Apparently, who ever was getting on to him was not so
understanding and he came back in a few minutes and said we had to leave
immediately. We gobbled up our food and he escorted us to our bikes and
saw to it that we didn't waste anytime getting on our way. Fine, we had
places to go and things to see anyway!
I could still see each other, since I was in the very next car behind
theirs. You don't put you bike in a rack, you hold onto it. The train wasn't
crowded and I was able to sit and hold my bike close. I think we rode about
50 miles total for our first of two days in the Washington area and made
it back to our hotel by 7:30. After showers, I drove us to Georgetown and
the girls treated me to dinner at one of the fine restaurants. The food
|As I said, we really made a long day of it, and still had sights
to see by 4:30 p.m., so Ed left us. He rode back to the Econo Lodge alone.
The girls and I went to the Vietnam Memorial, FDR Memorial, the Korean
Memorial and finally the Jefferson Memorial. The sun was just beginning
to set as we looked
||back toward the Mall from the Jefferson Memorial. We had read that
the Metro accepts bicycles on the trains after 7:00 p.m., limit two bicycles
per train car. We had some time to kill, but got on a Metro train with
our bikes, as soon as the clock struck 7. The Metro seems pretty strict
about the rules; nevertheless, the girls and
After showers, we checked out of the hotel and drove the car to the
Metro station parking lot and took a train to the Capitol area. We did
quite a bit of walking in the Mall, to find a place for lunch, and then
back to the Nebraska Senator's office for the tour. In my previous visits
to DC we never took the time to tour the Capitol. Margo did us a big favor
by making the arrangements. It was really very interesting, to see in person
the things movies seldom do justice to. Very impressive!
||Our fifth and final day of cycling would also include a guided tour
of the US Capitol that Margo had arranged.We would only have about 3 hours
to ride, so we began by riding down the W&OD to the Four Mile Run to
the Mt Vernon Trail. Then we headed north on the MVT to Arlington National
Cemetary. We were not allowed to ride our bikes in the cemetary except
to reach a bike rack in the parking area. This really limited how much
we could see in the short amount of time we had, but Patty and Margo, who
are no strangers to jogging and running, made the 2-mile jog to see the
Changing of the Guard ceremony. Then we continued our bicycle ride on up
to the Custis Trail and back to the Econo Lodge for a little over 20-miles
After our tour of the Capitol, we returned via the Metro to our car,
picked up the bike trailer, which we had left in the Econo Lodge parking
lot, and drove over to the Holiday Inn near Dulles. We had dinner together
and said goodbye to Margo, who's flight was would require to leave the
hotel long before we woke up Saturday morning. Patty's flight was around
noon time so the 3 of us had breakfast and said our goodbyes. Ed and I
made good time driving home. In fact I made it to the Bike Shop in Statesboro
GA by 5:30 p.m. to return the bikes I had rented for Margo and Patty to
use. I was home by 7 p.m., tired but exteremely pleased with the awesome
autumn adventure we had shared on the C&O Canal and Washington DC trails.