The C&O runs 180 miles along the Potomac river from Cumberland, MD to Washington, DC. The surface is mostly packed dirt. You don’t want to ride this one with skinny road tires. I managed with 700×32 standard touring tires, but riding here is more fun with knobby tires.
I’ve been on the trail twice, once as part of a Pittsburgh to DC tour, the other on a shorter three-day ride. (We rode the W&OD west for a day out of DC, then turned towards the more-or-less parallel C&O and doubling back towards the district.)
If you’re starting in Cumberland, check out the Cumberland Trail Connection, a bike shop that has catered to trail users for years.
The C&O itself starts more or less in the middle of town as a brick-and-stone trail:
Once you exit town, it quickly turns into the dirt trail it will be for most of its way to the nation’s capitol.
You’ll ride through fields, past pastures and horse farms, and through woods. If it’s rained recently, you’ll also get pretty filthy. I highly recommend fenders on this trail.
When I went on the northern half of the C&O, portions of it were very overgrown. However, they’ve since tamed the path a bit, which I think is a shame.
Bring lights along; there are a few unlit tunnels where you’ll need them.
Most water available along the trail is from cisterns, and is treated with iodine. If you’ll be on the trail for more than a few hours, check the status of these with the park service. Getting stranded overnight without water is, as I can testify, no fun.
If you have time, stop and see the Great Falls. It’s right off the trail itself, and maybe an hour or two from the end of the trail in DC. I found it breathtaking, and well worth spending a couple of hours.
Lately, I’ve been commuting to rehearsals on the Delaware and Raritan Canal trail. It’s a great way to get away from traffic and potholes for a good chunk of the eight-mile ride. It’s also cooler, as much of the path is covered by trees. The only problem is that it adds ten minutes to the ride, if not more.
The other only problem is that Hildy, my touring bike, has standard touring tires. She’s reliable and fits me like an old, shirt, the kind that’s getting a little ratty, but is too comfortable to get rid of despite the worn hems on the sleeves. She can handle a little gravel, but she’s fickle. Loose gravel or uneven stone will make her say: “Neil, you might consider getting off and walking—or I’ll toss you on your ass.” Yeah, that wouldn’t be pretty. I walk over those nasty bits of path.
Last week, after riding this bit of towpath every Monday for several weeks, I decided that it was time to put my knobby “winter” tires back on Hildy. While the recent resurfacing of the path made it possible for us to ride it on those 700×32 tires, there are still small sections of gravel where I’ll walk the bike, not to mention spillways. My first ride on the towpath with the knobbies I got for last winter was—there’s no other word for it—fun! And Hildy said barely a word until I got to that thousand-foot overgrown rock spillway. I didn’t even wait for her to tell me, I walked that one. (Along with the last spillway where one has to balance on rocks in the Raritan River to get to the other side.)
A patch of coarse gravel or sand became damn awesome, and these are no longer barely-balancing jaw-clenching moments. There’s something exhilarating about riding over an uneven, ephemeral surface.
Of course, there’s a price for all this. The ride takes about five to ten minutes longer now. (Fifteen, with today’s headwinds.) And there are still stone spillways I can’t ride over, although that’s down to two (from five previously unrideable rock-and-concrete stretches.) Also, the bike doesn’t corner as well on concrete. But that’s okay. I’ve gotten much faster at swapping out tires.
I’ve just ordered parts for my mountain bike build again, and may soon finish my offroad project of the last three years. Imagine the fun I could have with proper two-inch knobby tires on that 1994 Stumpjumper frame! No dirt or rock would be unclimbable. Those helmet-cam mountain-maniacs I see on Youtube may be insane, but I can’t argue that they’re not having a good time.
Whoops! Sorry, Hildy. You’re still my favorite, I promise. Maybe it’s time we did an offroad tour.