The C&O Canal National Historical Park showcases a multitude of historical and natural treasures from Georgetown to Cumberland, but if you’re willing to go just five miles off the towpath, it opens another world of things to see and do. Along with the communities in the Canal Towns Partnership, here are some must-see attractions within five miles of the canal.
East: DC to Brunswick
The Wharf offers beautiful views of the Washington Channel, which parallels the Potomac River. It offers hot new restaurants, year-round entertainment, shops, residences, hotels, and more, all in one great waterfront location. There are countless things to do on and off the water. Take a stroll along the pier, rent a kayak and paddle past famous D.C. attractions, or enjoy a concert at The Anthem.
In the heart of Washington, D.C., the National Mall stretches more than two miles, anchored by the Lincoln Memorial on the west, the U.S. Capitol on the east, and the White House to the north. The center of most sightseeing visits, the mall is home to iconic monuments and memories and is flanked by Smithsonian museums, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the National Gallery of Art. This tree-lined open space between Constitution and Independence Avenues is a gathering place for picnics, concerts, outdoor festivals, sports, and recreation activities. There are 26 miles of pedestrian sidewalks and eight miles of bicycle trails. The National Mall can be accessed most easily by public transportation and is close to several Metro stations.
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery is a United States military cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The grounds honor those who have served our nation and provide a sense of beauty and peace for guests. The 639-acre cemetery includes President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, U.S. Army General John J. Pershing’s gravesite, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, and other notable memorials and gravesites.
Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park is located in Washington, D.C. and includes more than 99 sites such as Meridian Hill Park, Dumbarton Oaks Park, several Civil War forts, and a 19th century gristmill. The park has numerous recreational trails and closes parts of the park roads to automobiles on the weekends. People of all ages can enjoy the park’s Nature Center and Planetarium—the only one in the National Park Service. There are also opportunities for horseback riding, golf, and tennis.
Potomac Overlook Regional Park
Potomac Overlook Regional Park consists of 67 acres of wild and cultivated land in Arlington, Va. Visitors can explore miles of woodland trails and visit the nature center and educational gardens. The park hosts an outdoor summer concert series.
Glen Echo Park
Glen Echo Amusement Park was the area’s premier amusement park for many years, until 1968. The National Park Service then acquired the site, removed some of the amusement structures, and opened the park to the public in 1970. Glen Echo has come full circle, transformed into a kind of “arts park” with a children’s theater, crafts classes, and the grand Spanish Ballroom. The park offers cultural and educational programming, and visitors can ride the historic Denzel carousel.
Clara Barton House
Clara Barton lived the last 15 years of her life in Maryland, overlooking the Potomac River. Barton, known as the “angel of the battlefield,” was a volunteer nurse and relief worker during the Civil War. She later founded the American chapter of the Red Cross. Today the house is managed by the National Park Service and open to the public for tours.
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve
Scott’s Run Nature Preserve offers some of the best hiking in Fairfax County, Va. The park is home to rare plants, beautiful spring wildflowers and a mature, hardwood forest. The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail also runs through the park.
Seneca Creek State Park
Seneca Creek State Park spans from the C&O Canal and the Potomac River to Maryland Route 355. The park offers 50 miles of trails through a variety of habitats for hiking, horseback riding, and cycling.
McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area (WMA)
McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area is a 2,000-acre tract that shares a common boundary with the C&O Canal and offers many miles of trails through forests, fields, and wetlands. The WMA is home to diverse wildlife species including deer, wild turkey, waterfowl, over 200 species of songbirds, and numerous reptiles and amphibians.
Canal Town: Poolesville, MD
Find small town character and down home charm in Poolesville. The town has a rich Civil War history, has a historic district, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Dickerson Conservation Park
Dickerson Conservation Park provides opportunities for quiet enjoyment of the natural environment. The 304-acre park sits next to the Potomac River and the C&O Canal, just south of the boundary between Montgomery and Frederick Counties.
Geologically speaking, Sugarloaf is known as a monadnock—a mountain that remains after the erosion of the surrounding land. Here, that process took approximately 14 million years. Today visitors to Sugarloaf can enjoy many miles of hiking trails, striking views, and variety of trees, plants, and wildlife.
Monocacy Natural Resource Management Area
Monocacy Natural Resource Management Area offers 1,800 acres of natural areas and scenic farmlands along the Monocacy River. Visitors can enjoy quiet hiking and equestrian trails as well as hunting and fishing.
Canal Town: Point of Rocks, MD
A small unincorporated community, Point of Rocks is known for its historic, picturesque train station and the rock formations on Catoctin Mountain that give Point of Rocks its name.
Rocky Point Creamery
Take a drive down back roads along the Potomac River and experience beautiful farm country in Frederick County. This farm creamery has 80 flavors of homemade ice cream, along with milk, brown eggs, cheese, and beef for sale.
Canal Town: Brunswick, MD
Brunswick was shaped by the B&O Railroad as much as the C&O Canal, as depicted in the Brunswick Heritage Museum. It is now a Main Street community with shops, a brewery, and unique places to eat, as well as a mosaic mural depicting the Potomac River.
Central: Brunswick to Hancock
Appalachian Trail/Weverton Cliffs
The Appalachian Trail (AT) follows the C&O Canal for a little more than 2.5 miles from Weverton to Harpers Ferry. Just north on the AT at Weverton, a moderate but short 1.5-mile hike up to Weverton Cliffs affords a gorgeous Potomac River view spanning east towards Brunswick and west where you can see as far as Harpers Ferry on a clear day. The park has many hiking trails offering stunning views of the area from Jefferson Rock, Loudoun Heights, and Maryland Heights. Bolivar (rhymes with Oliver) is adjacent to the town of Harpers Ferry and is surrounded by Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The towns’ histories and present activities are interwoven.
Canal Towns: Harpers Ferry
The canal town of Harpers Ferry has a very rich history and is most notable for the significance this small West Virginia mountain town played in the Civil War. Today, Harpers Ferry is a great spot for hiking trails, window shopping, and learning about the town’s unique history from exhibits and museums.
Canal Town: Shepherdstown, WV
The oldest town in West Virginia, Shepherdstown offers a unique shopping and dining experience without a single chain store in town. It is also home to Shepherd University, which hosts the Contemporary American Theater Festival every summer. Buildings in the town were used after the battle of Antietam to care for the wounded. Shepherdstown is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Canal Town: Sharpsburg, MD
Sharpsburg is best known for the battle of Antietam, fought along the Antietam Creek. The bloodiest single-day battle in American history forever changed the local farm community more than 150 years ago. The town is a small, well-preserved residential community and has less residents today than it did during the Civil War.
Antietam National Battlefield
Antietam National Battlefield is considered one of the most pristine Civil War battlefields in the nation. With more than 10,000 acres preserved, the battlefield looks much like it did in September of 1862. Visitors can see key points of battle along the 8.5-mile driving tour route. Visitors can view the museum collection, an orientation film, and participate in ranger programs at the visitor center, which also has a museum store.
Canal Town: Williamsport, MD
Williamsport is the functional mid-way point of the towpath. Its proximity to the Potomac River made it an early Native American travel route, and it was later considered as a possible site for the nation’s capital. It was an important location throughout the Civil War, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it became a booming commercial town and port on the C&O Canal. Today Williamsport is a thriving small town with shops, restaurants, and a variety of other businesses.
Fort Frederick State Park borders the Potomac River and parts of the C&O Canal. The 585-acre Maryland state park is named for the stone fort that protected settlers during the French & Indian War and was used by Union troops during the Civil War. Today, visitors can enjoy the park’s history, nature, and recreational opportunities such as boating, camping, fishing, and hiking.
Western Maryland Rail Trail
The Western Maryland Rail Trail is a very little known trail located right next to Big Pool. The trail runs alongside the Western Maryland Railway, which was closed in 1975. Today, the trail is frequented by bikers, and in fact, there are many places along the trail where visitors can rent bikes just for this purpose.
Canal Town: Hancock, MD
Hancock is located in the narrowest part of Maryland, where less than two miles separate Pennsylvania from West Virginia. One of the oldest settlements in Maryland, it was a trading post in the early 1700s before growing as a transportation route and even playing a small role in the area’s Civil War history. Today the town offers history, nature, shopping, and entertainment to locals and those just passing through.
West: Hancock to Cumberland
Green Ridge State Forest
Green Ridge State Forest runs directly adjacent to the canal for nearly 18 miles and is the largest contiguous block of public land in Maryland. The park’s 47,560 acres offer 50 miles of hiking trails and 200 miles of both dirt and gravel roads through the forest. Hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, mountain biking, paddling, and enjoying the abundance of wildlife are popular activities.
Canal Town: Cumberland, MD
Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, Cumberland is home to the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, the terminus of the C&O Canal and the start of the Great Allegheny Passage, which continues to Pittsburgh. Today, visitors to the historic town can enjoy art exhibitions and shows, the Canal Place Shops, dining opportunities, and a winery, brewery and distillery.
Written by Charissa Hipp