Seasons of Spring Gap
By Ranger Rita
I love watching the seasons go by in Spring Gap - spectacular in spring! Splendid in summer! Fabulous foliage in fall! White in winter! Year round, Spring Gap has much to offer to the many birders, wildflower watchers, hikers, bikers, campers, cross country skiers, and boaters who visit the site. Built on the stretch of the C&O Canal known as the Narrows, it is also rich with history, providing glimpses into the seasons of the canal's life.
Spring abounds with new life in Spring Gap. Wildflowers are plentiful and spectacular. The great old trees lining the towpath and standing guard by the campground and boat launch provide shelter for a wonderful community of birds and other wildlife. Spring Gap itself is a small community. During its spring, in the mid-1700s, it served as a shallow river crossing or ford connecting to the Patterson Creek area in what is now West Virginia. The C&O Canal came through in the mid-1840s to 1850. In 1850, a new bridge - the Patterson Creek Bridge - was built over the canal and towpath, further expanding travel in the Spring Gap area.
Summer days are perfect for canoeing the Potomac River from the Spring Gap canoe launch. This is the park's westernmost boat launch and is a good starting point for a float to Oldtown. The large drive-in campground is also a comfy spot to spend the night before or after a river trip or bike ride. In 1872, during the summer of Spring Gap's canal days, a steam powered pumping station was built to supplement the flow of water from Dam 8 at Cumberland. As many as 550 boats traveled the canal during this time period.
The fall foliage at Spring Gap beckons hikers to explore the towpath and take in the great colors along the trail. Oaks and sycamores are stunning in this area. Fall in the life of the canal came in the form of greater competition from the railroad and the devastation from recurring floods. A major challenge for the Spring Gap area is still Potomac River flooding. Water rises quickly at this spot. The 1889 flood closed the canal for many months and was the harbinger of a major change of season for the canal.
When winter snow falls, Spring Gap becomes a special spot to strap on your cross country skis and head off into the tranquility of the park. On new powder, before hikers have visited the trail, conditions couldn't be better. In canal shipping days, the canal closed during the winter months as parts of the canal and Potomac River froze over. The final blow to the canal - the winter of its life - came with the floods of 1924. The year 1924 marked the end of commercial shipping on the canal between Cumberland and Georgetown.
A second spring for Spring Gap and the C&O Canal may have started when Justice William O. Douglas led his famous 1954 hike along the towpath. This hike, which raised awareness of the movement to turn the canal into a park, started at Spring Gap and continued to Washington, DC. Today, mules and boats don't pass along the canal, but park visitors can still take advantage of the seasons of Spring Gap - Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. The good feeling I get from the four seasons at Spring Gap is not unlike the wonderful lift I get from listening to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." Enjoy.