Historic canal is a natural playground
Sunday, July 3, 2011
by Karen Gardner, Frederick News-Post
Frederick, Md. — The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is a 15- to 20-minute drive from Frederick, and offers some of the best biking and hiking opportunities in the county.
The flat, packed-earth towpath makes it easy for just about anyone to navigate, from toddlers to the elderly. The lack of traffic makes it ideal for parents pulling little ones in a bike trailer, for dog walkers and for anyone looking for a scenic yet easy hike.
"My personal favorite is the Harpers Ferry area, because there's such a variety," said Jenna Warrenfeltz, communications director for the C&O Canal Trust, a nonprofit organization that supports the canal. That area offers flat hiking along the canal, along with the option of a climb up Maryland Heights.
At the top of this strenuous hike are magnificent views of the Potomac River, Harpers Ferry and the mountains of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
From the towpath, hikers can cross a footbridge into Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and explore the historical town, also a national park. The other option is to traverse the C&O Canal on foot or by bike, with views of the Potomac River along the tree-shaded canal.
The canal dates from 1828. Originally planned to extend to the Ohio River, it was completed in Cumberland in 1850. The canal was used to move goods up and down the Potomac throughout the 19th century. Mules walked along the canal, pulling the canal boats up the river. The canal allowed the boats to bypass the ebb and flow of the river.
Train transportation became more popular by the middle of the 19th century, however. Plans to extend the canal to the Ohio River were abandoned, but the canal continued to deliver coal and other goods from Western Maryland to Washington.
Repeated flooding undermined the canal's dependability, and in 1924 it ceased commercial operations.
Lock tenders made sure the boats got through the locks. They lived in houses along the canal, and some of these houses still stand. The lockhouse at Lander is open for tours every Saturday afternoon during the summer.
The C&O Canal Trust's new Canal Quarters program allows people to stay in lockhouses in four locations.
The canal also offers a fishing ramp at the Brunswick entrance. Another fishing ramp at Point of Rocks is under construction.
The Monocacy Aqueduct is the largest of the canal's 11 aqueducts. It took four years to build, and was completed in 1833. The seven-arch stone aqueduct was restored in 2005. The Catoctin Aqueduct is in the process of being rebuilt.
Many people bike or hike the entire C&O Canal, either in sections or in one trip.
Walt Stull and his wife, Diane Ellis, of Brunswick, like to walk and bike on the canal. "We've stayed in canal quarters," Stull said. The couple stayed in Lockhouse 49, near Clear Spring. "We had a lovely time. It was so quiet and peaceful."
Stull, a Brunswick councilman, doesn't walk on the canal as much as he did before he hurt his knee. But he is there often for leisurely strolls. He is also the Brunswick liaison, along with Councilwoman Karin Tome, for the Canal Towns program, which encourages communities along the canal to develop services for tourists who use the canal.
The C&O Canal connects with the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage in Cumberland, which provides for a continuous footpath from Washington to Pittsburgh. For information about the Great Allegheny Passage, visit www.gaptrail.org.
The C&O Canal is accessible at several points in Frederick County. The Brunswick entrance features a large parking lot and public restrooms. Harpers Ferry is about five miles upriver, and makes for a nice bike trip. A bike rack is provided next to the footbridge into Harpers Ferry. A large boat ramp provides canoe and fishing boat access.
The Brunswick Railroad Museum maintains a C&O Canal Visitor Center that is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 4 p.m Sundays.
Other access points are at Lander, Point of Rocks, Noland's Ferry and the Monocacy Aqueduct.
Each year, 3 million people visit the canal to hike, bike, cross-country ski, horseback ride, bird-watch, rock climb or visit historical attractions.
The 184.5-mile canal connects not only to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Great Allegheny Passage, but also to the Appalachian Trail, the Western Maryland Rail Trail, the trail system in Green Ridge State Forest, and, near Washington, the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and the Capital Crescent Trail.
The National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy have designated the canal as an Important Bird Area, a small site that is critical to rare species or supports large concentrations of a species. It's also home to more than 100 state-listed rare, threatened or endangered plants.