Maybe we all aren’t ready to conquer the Appalachian Trail, but the C amp; O Canal can offer us a great adventure with low risk and easy traveling. Located between Washington D.C. and Cumberland, Maryland, this trail is just a touch over 180 miles of slow, gentle ascent alongside a historic canal.
Built out of the towpath alongside the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the trail is an easy introduction to hike/bike trips. The trail is generally well maintained gravel and is about 8 feet wide through most of it. Keeping within a stone’s throw of the Potomac River the entire way, you can’t help but be caught up in the scenery for most of the trip.
I recommend this trip to beginners for a few reasons. First, there are ample resources along the route. Water is provided at every camp site, which is a huge bonus. Plus, campsites are only about 8-10 miles apart through most of the trail. It isn’t hilly, so covering ground is very easy for most hikers using backpack from The PNW, and the lack of hills lets bikers settle into a good cruising pace.
While you could run the whole trail on a cyclocross bike, a hard tail mountain bike is probably the ideal ride for the route. The trail is never difficult to ride on, but there are rocks and roots from time to time that will make you regret those tiny tires and stiff frames after 60 miles of riding. I rode the entire length and a return trip on my recumbent touring bicycle in 5 days, so it must not be too hard.
The density of camping sites is also great for casual walkers. There are places to enter and leave fairly commonly along the route, so it is easy to drop someone off and pick them up later in a different spot. It also means that in an emergency, you are likely to be close to a bail out spot where your emergency contact can pick you up. Remember, always have an emergency contact who knows where you are.
There are 5 or 6 distinct towns that are along the trail still. They were originally ports for the canal workers before the railroads came through and made them rail towns. Today, they still exist in smaller patches, diminished since the rail left, but you can still find food and shelter in most of them. If you are through-hiking, it may be worth taking a break and relaxing for an evening at one of those towns as well.
Abundance of towns, people, supplies, and campsites turns the C amp; O Canal into a great trip. Georgetown and Cumberland are both great places, so you have lots to look forward to on either end, and I hope you have as much fun on your trip as I did on mine!