The C&O Canal Towpath – Why the 30 Mile Days?

Wheel full 70pxI will spend the first seven days of my 53 day long ride on the C&O Canal Towpath, plus a tiny fraction of day 8 as I ride from the last Hiker/Biker campground into Cumberland, Maryland to start onto the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) rail-trail to Pittburgh, Pennsylvania.  Here’s what that looks like on a map.

MapOut C&O Segment with Overnights 180714-01

Wheel full 70pxAs I have noted previously, the Towpath is 184.5 miles/296.9 miles long.  That breaks down nicely into six just about 30 mile/50 kilometer riding days.  Once again as noted there are nicely spaced camping and other lodging opportunities along the entire towpath, so it is easy to stay within a few miles/kilometers of that figure every day.
Wheel full 70pxI’ve been asked by several folks, “Why 30 miles/50 km?”  I have an easy answer for that.


And what does that mean?  Well, that’s how old I’ll turn about two-thirds of the way into the ride.  If you live in southern Illinois and want to come celebrate my 66th birthday with me, feel free, but bring your own cake.  Back to the point- my last experience cycling any appreciable mileage with a loaded bike on any sort of unpaved surface was… hmmm… well, never, actually.  I had a few stretches on my Atlantic Coast ride two years ago and one hellish “road closed” ride on a levee in bright sun and 90 degree (F)/33 degree (C) heat for about 25 miles/40 kilometers last fall in the state of Mississippi riding down the river of the same name, but for 300 miles/500 kilometers at a stretch?


“We don’ need no stinkin’ “road closed” signs”

Wheel full 70pxI hate washboarded gravel that makes your panniers feel like they are about ready to tear loose.  I detest those big occasional rocks that sneak under the tires every so often regardless of how hard you watch for them and leave you feeling like your front rim is about to taco.  I despise those little rocks that get shot out from under the side of the tires with a “Pu-twang!!” noise that has you knowing you are just about to have a catastrophic flat.  But most of all I just hate being too old to enjoy the little frisson from engaging in risky behavior that goes with these things.  In short, pavement has always been my friend.

Wheel full 70pxSo, after a huge leap of faith based on reports from friends that neither the Towpath nor the GAP was that bad, I decided to give the two of them, and the KATY and Rock Island rail-trails later on in the trip, a shot.  Out of an abundance of caution, though, I used 30 miles/50 kilometers a day as my planning factor as opposed to the usual 50 miles/80 kilometers for any day I was riding off pavement just in case.  This added about seven days to the length of my ride.  Will that have been necessary?  I guess we’re about to find out.



The C&O Canal Towpath – a Brief Overview

Wheel full 70pxMy trip from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City will start on the 184.5 mile/296.9 kilometer long C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio) Canal Towpath which runs along the abandoned C&O Canal on the north side of the Potomac River between the Georgetown District of D.C. and Cumberland. Maryland.  The Towpath’s purpose when built is evident in its name- a path to allow the people and animals to pull with ropes the laden canal boats upstream against the modest current.  It was probably pretty slow going.

Wheel full 70pxBriefly, as there are comprehensive sources about the C&O Canal and its towpath readily available on the web- a good place to start is the National Park Service site [link]– the canal was envisioned by, among others, George Washington in the late 1700s, as a way to commercially link the Middle Atlantic states and the Ohio Valley.  Construction started on July 4, 1828 and the Canal was completed to the city of Cumberland 22 years later, never reaching the Ohio Valley.  The reason for this is found in another ambitious transportation start-up that, in a twist stranger than fiction, broke ground the same day in 1828, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.  By the time the Canal reached Cumberland the railroad was already there and in fact would reach the Ohio River at Wheeling, West Virginia two years later in 1852.  The Canal was, essentially obsolete from that point on and plans to extend it further westward were abandoned.  Amazingly it continued to operate until 1924, when it ceased operations altogether and maintenance was discontinued.

Wheel full 70pxOwnership passed to the federal government in the Great Depression.  For a long time nobody seemed to know what to do with the Towpath.  There was a proposal to build a scenic parkway along its course, which would have been lovely but thank heavens nothing ever came of it.  In the mid 1950s Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas made a eight day hike on the Towpath in support of his argument that the Canal should be restored and preserved as a historical monument.  In 1971 President Richard Nixon signed an act doing just that, entrusting the work and management to the National Park Service.  Coming up on 50 years later and just a decade short of its 200th anniversary, the C&O Canal Towpath has been largely restored to the condition it was in during its prime.

C&O Canal NPS with border

Wheel full 70pxOver the past 25 years the C&O Canal Towpath has become one of bicycle touring’s Holy Grails.  While I could not immediately find statistics for through rides, anecdotally it would appear that several thousand riders do this one way or the other every year.  Some even make it a round-trip!

Wheel full 70pxThe surface of the Towpath is mostly dirt and small gravel.  Sometimes it looks like a one lane road with grass growing down the middle.  Sometimes there are roots and larger stones to watch out for.  In rainy periods it can become very muddy.  It is my understanding that, while the Towpath surface is more challenging than riding on a conventional unpaved bike trail, it is reasonably rideable on a loaded touring bike so long as wider tires, such as my 700x38s, are used.  We’ll see.

Wheel full 70pxAs noted, the official length of the Towpath is 184.5 miles/296.9 kilometers from end to end.  In Cumberland it directly transitions into the Great Allegheny Passgae (GAP) Trail, which allows for a continuous off-road cycling route from D.C. to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  This is the route I will be following on this stretch of my ride.  The Towpath climbs, depending on whose figure you go by, somewhere between 605 feet/184.4 meters and 625 feet/190.5 meters between D.C. and Cumberland, and there is no appreciable elevation loss along its length.  For east to west cyclists the climbing is done every time a lock and dam on the canal is passed, which results in more than 70 short 8-10 foot/around three meter rises by the time the ride is complete.  Between these short climbs the towpath is more or less, as one would expect, flat.

Wheel full 70pxThere are numerous opportunities for the bikepacking cyclist to camp along the Towpath.  Along with several commercial or non-NPS public campgrounds there are frequent “Hiker/Biker” primitive campsites, which are free of charge- an amazing throwback to better times.  These sites are first come-first served but my understanding is that no cyclist ever gets turned away from a Hiker/Biker location, as the people already there observe the etiquette of making room for a later arrival.  I plan to stay at four Hiker/Biker sites, one other campground and a hostel- The Teahorse- in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia on my ride.

RwGPS C&O Segment with Overnights 180714-01

Wheel full 70pxThe area traversed by the C&O Canal Towpath on an east to west ride is first the foothills and then through the Appalachian Mountains proper.  The Eastern Continental Divide is reached on the GAP 23.5 miles/37.8 kilometers past Cumberland.  The Potomac River flows through this area in a steep-sided valley that often has just enough room on its floor for the river, the Canal and Towpath, and one or more ever-present still in use rail lines.  The mountain ridges generally cross at a more or less perpendicular angle to the valley.

MapOut C&O Segment with Overnights 180714-01

Wheel full 70pxA couple of other great resources are the BikeWashington C&O Canal Towpath website [link] and the Great Allegheny Press’s “Trailguide” [link], which is now in its 14th edition and covers both the Towpath and the GAP Trail.  Finally, for those of you who like to visualize using road maps, here’s an area map of Maryland and surrounding states with the route of the C&O Canal Towpath highlighted in blue.

Rand McNally C&O Segment 180717-01

© 2018 RandMcNally, fair use asserted

Wheel full 70pxNext up:  My C&O Canal Towpath itinerary and some pre-ride observations.

My Card…

Wheel full 70pxFor the last couple of long rides I’ve done I have had cards made up so that I don’t need to write things down over and over for people I run into along the way. I have made several friends from the 100 cards or so I passed out along the Natchez Trace this spring and another 100 I gave to folks along the route of my Mississippi River ride last fall. Cheap to do- I designed my own artwork and have the cards made by Vistaprint, which always seems to be running a sale that brings the cost down to less than ten bucks plus shipping.


DC2KC – My Fall 2018 Ride

Wheel full 70pxOK, so with the Alaska Big Road Loop Ride pretty much wrapped up I have just under four weeks to get ready for my fall ride: Washington, DC to Kansas City, MO via the C&O Canal Towpath, Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail, Pittsburgh, PA, the length of the Ohio River to Cairo, IL, then up to St. Louis, MO and across that state on the KATY and Rock Island rail trails to KC.

Route Map All Segments Annotated
Washington DC to Kansas City MO
Distance: 1,932.4 miles/3,110.0 km
Total elevation gain: 43,345 feet/13,211.6 meters
Ride with GPS link

Wheel full 70pxI’ll leave Alaska on August 5th and finish up in Kansas City on September 30th. Eighty percent of the overnights will be camping with the rest made up of Warmshowers, family and friends and a couple of motel nights. The trip will be unsupported. I will not be bringing anything to cook or dine with (other than a Swiss Army knife and a spoon- ice cream!) so will eat at restaurants/cafes or from grocery stores along the way. I will be riding on average 30 miles/50 kilometers a day on the C&O Towpath, GAP, KATY and Rock Island RR trails and 50 miles/80 km per day on the rest. I’ll take one day a week as a rest/slack day.

Here are the segments.

C&O Segment
C&O Canal Towpath Segment
Distance: 184.6 miles/297.1 km
Total elevation gain: 1,611 feet/491 meters
Ride with GPS link

GAP SegmentGreat Allegheny Passage (GAP) Segment
Distance: 150.2 miles/241.7 km
Total elevation gain: 2,675 feet/815 meters
Ride with GPS link

Ohio River East SegmentOhio River Segment East (Pittsburgh, PA to Cincinnati, OH)
Distance: 483.1 miles/777.5 km
Total elevation gain: 9,659 feet/2,944 meters
Ride with GPS link

Ohio River West SegmentOhio River Segment West (Cincinnati, OH to Cairo, IL)
Distance: 558.0 miles/898.0 km
Total elevation gain: 16,664 feet/5,079 meters
Ride with GPS link

Ohio River to KATY SegmentOhio River to KATY Segment
Distance: 215.0 miles/346.0 km
Total elevation gain: 3,678 feet/1,121 meters
Ride with GPS link

KATY SegmentKATY Segment
Distance: 240.1 miles/386.4 km
Total elevation gain: 7,863 feet/2,397 meters
Ride with GPS link

KATY to KC SegmentKATY to Kansas City Segment
Distance: 101.4 miles/163.2 km
Total elevation gain: 3,656 feet/1,114 meters
Ride with GPS link

Wheel full 70pxI’ll be posting more detailed information about each one over the coming weeks. If you’d like to ride along on any or all of the days, please let me know. As long as you’re independent and can put up with a guy who stops to take a lot of photos you’ll be fine. While the route is pretty much locked in at this point any suggestion as to points of particular interest or issues in a particular area are appreciated. If you live along the route let me know- I’ll wave as I ride by.


If I Ran Things at the National Park Service (Natchez Trace Parkway Edition)…

I’ll post these without editorial comment for now, and revisit them in the future. What do you think?

I would immediately:

1. Reduce the speed limit on the Trace to 35 miles/55 km per hour in the Nashville, Tupelo, Jackson, and Natchez areas, and to 40 miles/65 km per hour everywhere else.

2. Aggressively enforce lowered speed limits through use of technologies such as photo radar and through high ($300 and up) fines imposed on violators.

3. Establish a $50 permit good for 30 days of travel on the Trace from the date activated for all vehicular and bicycle users.

4. Dedicate all user fees produced by the sale of permits to maintenance of and upgrades to the Trace and do not reduce regular budget allocation based on their receipt.

5. Implement all other reasonable strategies intended to remove locally generated motor vehicle traffic from the Trace, to include high fines ($1,000 and up) for persons operating vehicles without a valid permit.

6. Regrade and repave the entire NTP to add 12 inch/30 cm paved shoulder outside the roadway edge white lines or, alternatively, reduce current 12 foot/3.6 meter lane width to 11 feet/3.3 meters by restriping to create said shoulder.

7. Begin immediate purchase of viewshed easements along the Trace with early priority given to “path of growth” and high visual quality areas.

8. Establish designated bicycle camping areas at existing waysides with restrooms no further than 30 miles/50 kilometers apart.

9. Remove all “modern” wayside and point of interest place name and informational signage and replace with “traditional” NTP signage wherever possible.

10. Rebuild, refurbish or restore as appropriate deteriorated Trace amenities such as nature trails, split rail fencing, interpretive signboards, picnic tables and the like.

David Edgren
April, 2018
Natchez, Mississippi

Due to Technical Difficulties…

It has just been impossible between bad and no wi-fi to post to my blog regularly during my Natchez Trace ride. The pics are the big problem. So, in the interim- I’m hoping to have access to a computer in Natchez- here’s my Facebook page.

David Edgren

I generally have a post or two a day there letting you know where I am. Thanks for following along.