Running from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown, DC; the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is a regional destination for gravel cyclists on the East Coast. The 185 miles of gravel winds its way down the Potomac River offering scenic views and an excellent surface for riders of all skill levels. On any given weekend you’ll see everyone from racing cyclists to families out for a great ride. Use our guide to help you get started bikepacking the C&O Canal.
Bikepacking the C&O Canal Towpath is one of the most accessible tours in the country. The surface is crushed stone or gravel and is in excellent condition in most places. Biking the C&O Canal should be done on bikes with 32mm or larger tires. Most gravel or mountain bikes would be appropriate. Some ride on road bikes, but for a longer tour this would probably not be very comfortable. Along the towpath are many small towns and places to eat. There are also plenty of campgrounds if you want to camp, or other accommodations a few miles off of the canal. A C&O Canal bicycle tour can be done any time of year, but most cyclists will find that the late spring and fall months are the most comfortable. If you do plan to ride in mid-summer, be prepared for temperatures well into the 90’s with high humidity. October is probably the ideal month to tour. Temperatures will be in the 50’s-70’s and the leaves will be changing color.
Camping on the C&O Canal is made easy by the various campsites that dot the route. These sites are very basic; no glamping here. Each site is outfitted with a well that is treated with iodine, a picnic table, and a porto-john. The good news is that they are not usually very crowded as most are only accessible from the towpath itself. The other good news is that most of them are free! Due to the nature of these sites, they are also good campsites if you want peace and quiet after a long days ride. Some of our favorites include Paw Paw campground, Huckleberry Hill campground, and Licking Creek campground.
Not all campsites are created equal however. We highly recommend avoiding campsites that are close to cities such as Harper’s Ferry. Those sites tend to attract locals who have more interest in partying than camping. If you want a good night’s sleep check the map for nearby road crossings and railroads as well. Those sites can also be loud at times.
The Canal passes through several towns along the way. Close to Cumberland is Paw Paw, WV. A quick side trip off of the trail will bring you into town. Another 30 miles or so is Hancock, MD. Hancock is a great point to replenish supplies as it is right on the towpath. Stop at Buddy Lou’s for a great bite to eat and a beer (or two). After Hancock the options get a bit slimmer. Harper’s Ferry seems like it is right on the towpath, but the Potomac River bars you from reaching the town. It can be accessed from the Pedestrian Bridge, but it may be quite difficult to bring your bike with you. There are a few other areas where there is road access to the canal; this typically occurs at boat ramps such as White’s Ferry or Dargan Bend boat ramp. You can find stores and restaurants off of the towpath, but it may require a significant detour.
A bike for the C&O Canal benefits from three things; tire selection, setup, and fenders. People can (and do) ride the canal on every type of bike under the sun. Most find that wider tires will make it a much more comfortable ride. By no means do you need a fat bike, but 35mm+ tires will allow you to traverse even a wet and muddy towpath with relative ease. Throw on some 50mm knobby tires and you might not even notice the bumpy bits. Gravel bikes, some touring bikes, and mountain bikes can all accommodate a wider diameter tire. Any of these will work fine, but most will be more comfortable on a gravel bike or touring bike. Drop handlebars, often found on gravel and touring bikes (as well as road bikes of course) offer multiple hand positions. Changing up your hand position throughout the day will help you stave off aches and pains. Once you’ve picked your bike do yourself a favor and throw on some fenders. At the very least a rear fender will keep your back (and behind) dry if it gets wet. The canal can be muddy, dusty, and everything in between. Fenders that keep you and your gear a little bit cleaner will make your ride even better.
Since the entire route will be downhill (you’re starting in Cumberland right!?) weight isn’t as much of an issue on this trip. Get any tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad and you are all set. The pumps are treated with iodine, but filtering your water is still a good idea. A filter such as the sawyer squeeze or Katadyn BeFree is compact, light, and will do the job. Rain is fairly common in this area, so bringing a rain jacket is a must. Last but not least, do not forget a good bike headlight for the Paw Paw Tunnel. It is surprisingly dark in the middle!
Now that you’ve learned about cycling the C&O Canal Towpath, its time to plan your own trip. For tips on planning your own trip, check out our trip planning article. Interested in bikepacking the C&O Canal, but aren’t sure you want to it alone? Check out our guided bike tour on the C&O Canal as well as other guided trips that we offer