C&O Canal/Washington DC Awesome Autumn Adventure 2003
by Lamar Martin
Click on the photos for larger views.
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 
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.

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.
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).
Since I have ridden the tunnel once, and hiked through twice before, I volunteered to drive this leg of the ride.
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 
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.
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!

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 
from DC to Cumberland or vice versa. Some visitors cross the river here along the towpath, others through what was the aqueduct.

Standing along the Potomac River at McMahon's Mill; left photo is 
looking toward Cumberland, right is looking toward DC
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 away.
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.
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 historical Harper's Ferry WV where we had lunch. The historical district is a National Park. Lunch was delicious as well.

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.

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 flood

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.
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 
close to the right so cars can pass when safe to do so. Again, its part of the adventure.

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.
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 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.
Left photo is front of the White House. We all agreed that the back (right photo) is the better facade.
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 yourself.

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!
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 
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 was delicious.
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 total. 
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!

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.