C&O Canal National Historic Park, Great Falls to Swains Lock


Unambitious was the prevailing mood in our household this past Sunday morning.  Despite the fact that it was a gorgeous day – the first weekend in fall – the Engineer and I both felt pretty lazy and uninspired.  Perhaps it’s just the time of year; we’re beyond the organic extravagance of mid-summer, where every life form that exists in the mid-atlantic, exists simultaneously and noisily; but we’re not yet enjoying the bittersweet visual spectacle of the fall foliage.  Everything just seems bored.

Determined to overcome our own sense of bored malaise, we decided to take a quick trip up the George Washington Parkway to Potomac, Maryland for a stroll along the C&O Canal towpath.

IMG_6303The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, or what remains of it, parallels the Potomac River beginning in the Georgetown neighborhood of D.C. and continuing northwest for 185 miles to Cumberland, MD.  Along the way it passes through areas rich with scenic beauty and historic interest.

The canal was constructed over a 22 year period from 1828 to 1850, and began operations on the completed portions in 1831.  Originally conceived to compete with the Erie Canal to the north, by the time the C&O Canal was fully operational, the rise of the railroads had already rendered it almost obsolete.  Nevertheless, it continued to operate in some capacity – primarily to transport coal from the Allegheny mountains – until 1924 when a devastating flood caused extensive damage.

In 1938 the Federal Government purchased the canal land from the B&O Railroad with the intention of creating a recreation area along its length.  The CCC began work on restoring the first 22 miles of the canal and the towpath, but work was stopped when the U.S. entered WWII.  After the War, Congress  considered building a scenic highway along the land occupied by the canal.

Fortunately for us, fellow hiker and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who enjoyed weekly walks along the towpath, was horrified at the thought of his beloved towpath being turned over to automobiles.  In 1954 he challenged the editorial staff at the Washington Post, which supported the building of the highway, to walk the entire 185 miles of the towpath with him.  Nine people met the challenge, and most importantly, enough publicity was generated to save the canal from being paved over.

Today, the entire length of the canal and the land surrounding it is protected as the Chesapeake and Ohio National Historic Park.  Hikers, bikers, kayakers, runners, skiers, ice-skaters, equestrians, and even rock-climbers all enjoy the legacy that has descended from a marginally successful 19th century transportation venture.

C&O Canal National Historic Park  Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center

The Hike

We started our hike at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Potomac, Maryland.  The vast parking lot, which stretches for about 1/4 of a mile north along the canal, was as full as we’d ever seen it.  We pulled into one of the vacant spots in the distant northern hinterlands of the parking lot and started our hike by walking the length of the parking lot back to the visitor center and the bridge that would lead us over the canal to the towpath.

Once on the towpath, we decided to take a short walk south to the Great Falls Overlook.  “Falls” is a name that seems to be used rather casually around here to describe any naturally flowing trickle of water  which encounters a substantial rock in its path. Not so with the Great Falls of the Potomac.  What these falls lack in height, they make up in volume and drama as the Potomac river squeezes through the narrow and craggy Mather Gorge, shooting over precipitous drops and erupting through narrow crannies in the imposing rocks.  The sight and sound is breathtaking, even when the river is low, as it was on Sunday.


After our short detour to see the Falls, we returned to the towpath and headed north.  Shortly after passing the visitor center bridge, we turned off the towpath to explore the River Trail which skirts the bank of the Potomac parallel to the towpath.

The River trail led us into a dark forest of pawpaws and massive sycamores.  Occasional breaks in the vegetation allowed us to view the Potomac, wide and placid before its descent through Mather Gorge.  We had the rare treat of finding some ripe pawpaw fruits that had not been eaten by the local wildlife.  Cutting one open, we helped ourselves to the sweet, succulent mango-like fruit.

Ripe pawpaw
Sycamore tree

After one mile on the River trail we rejoined the towpath and continued our  northward ramble.  By this time in the early afternoon, the warm autumn sun was high in the nearly cloudless sky, and the doldrums that had possessed us earlier in the day had pretty much disappeared.  It was clear that other creatures shared our growing enthusiasm for the day. IMG_2221 Squirrels rustled through the undergrowth, collecting the acorns and other nuts that pelted the ground; garter snakes and turtles basked in the sun; crows and blue jays squawked at each other as they picked at the overripe fruit from wild persimmon trees; and fish, mostly small, but one over 2 feet long, meandered in and out of view in the unusually clear water of the canal.

With no particular destination in mind, we walked to Swains Lock and the first of the canal path’s IMG_6273overnight camping spots for hikers & bikers.  At only 16.5 miles from downtown DC, and easily accessible by car, the Swains Lock camping area gets far more day use by picnickers and fishermen than overnight campers.

Not yet ready to turn around, we continued on, quickly leaving behind the slight crowds that congregated around the small parking area at Swains Lock. Shortly after passing milepost 18 we stopped to observe a great blue heron that was fishing at the far edge of the canal.  After a few minutes he gave up and flew off to try his luck farther up the canal.  We didn’t follow him, but instead decided that this was as good a spot as any to turn back.

Our return trip south along the towpath was the type of pleasant and relaxed IMG_2205autumn stroll that doesn’t stand out in any way, but that combines with other such moments in your memory to form the definition of  “nice day.” The air was comfortably warm even as the sun began to disappear behind the tall trees lining the western edge of the towpath. After 4 miles we arrived at the bridge that took us across the canal to the visitor center.

Although the visitor center was now closed for the day, the parking lot was still quite full, and the area teemed with mostly happy people returning from their own adventures – carrying backpacks and kayaks and pushing bikes along the path towards the waiting cars.  Walking the final 1/4 mile through the parking lot back to our car, I had a vision of what the entire 185 mile corridor of the canal might have looked like had Justice Douglas not stepped in to save the day.  It would have looked like so many of the roadways in the DC region – a mess of cars parked on a sea of asphalt.



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