Tips for Visiting the C&O Canal Towpath. Be prepared to visit the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail with these great tips and suggestions.

5 Tips for a Road Trip to the C&O Canal Towpath

Look no further, here is everything you'll need to know when road tripping to the C&O Canal for outdoor adventure. Celebrating 50 years as a National Park, the C&O Canal provides visitors with a wealth of opportunities for education and outdoor recreation along its 184.5 miles. This popular destination ranked eighth amongst most visited National Parks in 2020. The park boasts of historical, natural, and recreational treasures that will have you road tripping there in no time.

Below are a few tips to help you plan for your next adventure.


bike C&O Canal Photo credit: Sam Judge                                                                                                  
The park is free to enter and has multiple access points along its 184.5 mile stretch. The trail follows the old towpath, and runs adjacent to the mighty Potomac River. There's a wide range of outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, boating, birding, horseback riding, and fishing. This park planner will assist with planning as it has a recreational guide by mile post. History enthusiasts will find these three "Trail to History” brochures helpful. A large part of planning for fun is to be prepared for any occasion.  Remember to bring water and food, wear a hat and sturdy footwear, apply sunscreen, and know your location at all times. Of course, for an occasion such as this you may want to consider buying C&O Canal themed merchandise at the The Road Trip Mercantile. A portion of all sales will be donated to the Canal Towns Partnership.


KNOW THE HISTORY (maybe some of it).

It’s helpful to have a little background knowledge about the park, but for those who would like to dig a little deeper there are plenty of sources on the web. One of the most comprehensive sites can be found here

The canal was once a transportation route that moved coal, lumber, and agricultural products between Cumberland, MD and Washington, DC.  Construction began in 1828 and took many years to complete.  Sometimes referred to as the “Grand Old Ditch,'' the canal has an elevation change of 605 feet, which required the construction of 74 canal locks, 11 aqueducts to cross major streams, and a major tunnel (Paw Paw Tunnel) to be built. These architectural and engineering marvels are enjoyed by millions of visitors to the park each year. Much of the C&O Canal lies within The Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area and was important to both sides of the Civil War. The Union army used it for transporting troops and war supplies while Confederates tried to damage canal aqueducts and impair barge traffic.

One person can make a difference! Justice William O. Douglas took action to save this beautiful refuge from being turned into a paved road. Read here about why the park was officially dedicated to the man who saved the canal.



paw paw blossom c&O canal  Photo credit: Jon Wolz

The C&O Canal is one of the most biologically diverse parks in the National Park system, especially in regard to plant species. As a result, rare species occur in the park and are known to exist only in a few other places in the Mid-Atlantic region. Notably, a member of the tropical plant family, the pawpaw tree is a small understory tree with large deep green leaves, and it produces green fruit in the Fall. The fruit is considered delicious by many and is compared to a banana mixed with mango, vanilla, pineapple, and citrus flavors. The Park allows visitors to pick and take home ½ gallon of pawpaws per person per day. To protect the natural resources, such as plant and animal communities, the park is closed to unauthorized motorized vehicles.


Since the C&O Canal NHP is a popular destination, it’s more important than ever to be a polite, respectful, and considerate visitor to the park. Hikers and bikers are asked to share the towpath with other users.  Bikers are asked to stay under the speed limit of 15 MPH and use a bike bell within 100 feet of approaching others. Pets are welcome, however, they must be restrained on a leash no longer than 6 feet. Also, remember to dispose of all bagged pet waste. In the effort to reduce the park system’s national footprint, the C&O Canal is a trash free park, which means you must take all trash with you when you leave.

TRAVEL TOWPATH TO TOWN (or town to towpath). 

Small town charm awaits! Fourteen historic communities invite you to explore history, heritage, culture and architecture while enjoying charming shops and boutiques, restaurants, wineries, breweries, and lodging. A canal town can be a starting point for a day ride, hike, or paddle. Finish your day by visiting a local attraction and getting lunch or dinner at a local restaurant, like Beans in the Belfry located in Brunswick, MD. Enjoy each town’s unique historic architecture, museums, and culture. Utilize the Towpath to Town brochure to find local Canal Town businesses. 

Thank you to George Rives, Georgetown BID, for providing the header image.

Maria Lane, Co-owner of The Road Trip Mercantile Author: Maria Lane

Maria Lane is Co-owner of The Road Trip Mercantile. She enjoys the creative process of designing merchandise to promote the C&O CANAL and the GREAT ALLEGHENY PASSAGE. View and shop her latest creations HERE.

Back to blog