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C&O Canal: Western Region Highlights

Paw Paw Tunnel
Paw Paw Tunnel by Garner Woodall

Paw Paw Tunnel by Garner Woodall

The western section of the C&O Canal National Historical Park begins in Hancock (mile marker 124.0) and travels through the mountains of Maryland in Washington and Allegany Counties to Cumberland (mile marker 184.5). This section of the park is very rural, with beautiful vistas and woody retreats. In Cumberland, the C&O Canal ends, but joins the Great Allegheny Passage, which travels to Pittsburgh, PA. View a video about the western end of the C&O Canal, part of the C&O Canal Scenic Byway, here.

You can also copy this itinerary into our C&O Canal Itinerary Builder here.

Walk or Ride the Towpath

The towpath is the spine of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. The C&O Canal was built in the mid-nineteenth century as a transportation route to bring goods from the Ohio river valley to eastern markets. (Learn more about the canal’s history here.) The canal boats were towed up and down the canal by mules on a path that ran beside the canal basin — hence the term “towpath.” Today, the towpath is a 184.5 mile long recreational path ideal for bikers and hikers due to its flat nature with very little incline. It is the main path to take while you explore the Park.

Visit the Paw Paw Tunnel

One of the engineering marvels of the C&O Canal, the Paw Paw Tunnel is almost exactly 6/10ths of a mile long and is constructed of almost 6 million bricks. It cut 6 miles off the length of the Canal, by tunneling through a mountain. The alternative to building the Tunnel was to make the Canal follow two of the Paw Paw Bends, a twisting 6-mile long section of the Potomac River. Be sure to take a flashlight if you journey through the tunnel — it’s dark in there!

Marvel at Historic Aqueducts

Four of the Park’s eleven aqueducts stand along the C&O Canal in the western region – some of the most impressive of the canal structures that stand today. Aqueducts transported the canal over streams and tributaries. The aqueducts are all different – the stone they were constructed with varies, including red sandstone, grey limestone, white granite, white and pink quartzite. They stand testament to the engineering ingenuity and devoted labor that went into the canal’s construction and the important role it played in the growth of our country. The Sideling Hill, Fifteenmile Creek, Town Creek, and Evitts Creek Aqueducts stand in the western region of the Park.

Visit the C&O Canal Museum at Cumberland

Housed in the historic 1913 Western Maryland Railway Station, the C&O Canal Visitors Museum provides a hands-on way to experience the history of the C&O Canal. Featuring an exhibit area with interactive and educational displays about the history of the C&O Canal and Cumberland, visitors can explore a model of the Paw Paw Tunnel to learn about the day-to-day life of the canal families and glimpse the entrance of a coal mine to learn about the main product shipped along the canal. Exhibits are on view of a model lock, boatbuilding, and Cumberland as a transportation crossroads. Children will enjoy several interactive exhibits – most notably Mutt the mule.

Explore Canal Towns

The western section features two Canal Towns, each a unique stop full of quaint shops and eateries, and a storied past with a direct link to the C&O Canal. Don’t miss Hancock (mile marker 124.0) and Cumberland (mile marker 184.5).

Visit the Green Ridge State Forest

Directly adjacent to the canal for nearly 18 miles is Green Ridge State Forest. At 47,560 acres, Green Ridge is the largest contiguous block of public land in Maryland – offering 50 miles of hiking trails and 200 miles of both dirt and gravel roads through the forest. Today, visitors have an array of entertainment options: hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, mountain biking, paddling, etc. Abundant wildlife in the state forest include deer, turkey, black bear, and unusual plants.

Get Active

The C&O Canal National Historical Park offers four seasons of outdoor recreation opportunities! Nestled along the Potomac River, you can hike, bike, fish, climb, camp, paddle, boat, ride horses, and more. Ride bikes on the smooth surface of the Western Maryland Rail Trail or ride all the way to Pittsburgh on the Great Allegheny Passage.

Have the Full C&O Canal Experience

The C&O Canal is surrounded by dozens of unique heritage, cultural, and recreational opportunities! You can visit one of our ten Canal Towns, drive the C&O Canal Byway, or explore the history that is part of the Passages of the Western Potomac Heritage Area. The western region of the C&O Canal runs through Washington and Allegany Counties, so be sure to check out these tourism websites for more to do in the area.

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