Autumn standing at a picnic table with the two bikes leaned against it; a river is in the background, and the rest of the scene is lush with greenery

Cycling the C&O canal path

We are back! The trip was amazing, and I took notes each afternoon/night so I could do a big recap here. I don’t feel particularly exhausted, and I had a blast the entire time. We met a lot of great people, rode a lot of miles, and cruised our way through 200 miles throughout the entire trip.

Day 0: Departure

I woke up (mostly) on time Sunday morning and got to the train station (mostly) on time! The bike was 100% fully-loaded with everything mentioned in the previous post, plus a few things I remembered last minute. Bug spray is something I’m very glad I remembered to bring.

Autumn standing in front of two loaded bikes
Hanging out at the train station early Sunday morning.

The train ride was mostly uneventful. I spent a lot of time reading (actually started and finished an entire book on the trip: Vigilant by James Alan Gardner) and eating food from the cafe car. We switched trains in DC, and there were a few other bike touring folks on the same train, so we got some details on what the trail was like over the past few days.

Fully loaded bikes

Once we rolled into Cumberland, we were able to get situated enough to find some food at Uncle Jack’s Pizzeria & Pub and I threw back a couple of beers. I took half the pizza home, and the waitress was oh-so-kind as to wrap it up in foil for me so I could stash it in my front basket.

Half-eaten pizza, can of beer, and french fries on an outdoor table
First stop: pizza town!

After some navigation issues (protip: practice using your bike computer navigational system before taking it to an unfamiliar place), we made it to our Cumberland Riverside YMCA campsite, which was occupied by another couple of campers already nestled in their tents. Kathryn and I had a hard time setting up in the dark, but we managed to get it together well enough for the night, and then we nestled in as well. As most people know, a two-person tent is very snug for two people. The good news was that we both slept fairly well, even though we could hear traffic.

Day 1: A wild puddle appeared!

Kathryn woke up before me on Monday morning, and she was already showered and talking to our camp-mates before I finally rolled out of the tent. Once I was on my feet, I gathered my morning things, only then realizing that a towel would have been a really handy thing to pack. I brushed my hair and added dry shampoo, changed into my bibs, and started breaking down camp. The inside of the tent had gotten rather damp with two people on a hot night, but we were able to get things mostly dry before we packed up completely.

While things were drying, I ate the second half of my pizza from the night before and chatted with our camp-mates. It was a dad and his 12-year-old daughter. I can’t remember how much of the trail they were doing (or where they started), but it was her first big trip. We chatted about trail conditions, and they eventually helped guide us into town and onto the trail once we were all ready to go. With our sights set on Little Orleans (a good 45-50 miles away), we started pedaling.

Autumn standing on front of two loaded bikes with Cumberland skyline in the background
Our starting point, Cumberland, was a cute little town.

The nicest thing was being out of the hustle and bustle of the city. Having grown up in one of the more rural parts of the country, it felt like my childhood all over again. The scenery was lush and green, and we saw plenty of wildlife the entire trip. Once we were out there, it was plenty muddy. Puddles everywhere! I had to walk around a few, but Kathryn’s fat bike handled them like a champ.

Water bottle covered in mud
Kathryn’s lack of fenders meant her water bottle got pretty dang muddy.

We stopped at several of the locks and lock houses along the way for pictures and general historical context. At one of the lock houses, a lady was walking along the path and stopped to talk to me. Her grandmother used to live right nearby, and she (the grandmother) had been alive when folks still lived in the lock houses. Presently, none of them are operational, so that was neat! Her grandmother also told her the story of a little girl who had dropped money in the canal on her way to the general store and (sadly) drowned.

Lock house from afar with Autumn talking to a lady
Autumn doing a history learn.

At another lock house, Kathryn and I heard two animals playing in a tiny cave of sorts. They were definitely bigger than squirrels, so our best guess was either raccoons, possums, or maybe even foxes.

Kathyrn riding her bike on a paved path
On our way to Paw Paw riding that sweet, sweet pavement after all those gravel miles.

We stopped for lunch in Paw Paw. Or rather, I really wanted there to be a tavern, but there was no tavern, even though the sign said it was just up ahead. Once we were off the trail, it got really hot. It’s amazing what a difference lack of trees and the addition of concrete and asphalt make. I was really craving a Coca-Cola, but I had to settle for Dr. Pepper this time around… and it wouldn’t be the last time on the trip.

Autumn standing in front of the Paw Paw Tunnel taking a photo
Gotta get that photo!

Once we refueled ourselves, we got back to the trail and stopped outside the Paw Paw Tunnel for a quick photo op and I climbed some slippery steps. Then we got into the tunnel, which is a lot longer than it looks and very, very bumpy. We both ended up walking the last bit, figuring we didn’t want to wreck either into the canal water or the stone walls.

Autumn standing over her bike in front of a mud puddle
Wild puddles everywhere!

We pushed on, and the last five miles to our dinner spot were the hardest. Both of us were pretty sapped at that point, so all we could think about was food and sleep. Rolling up to Bill’s Place was great, and the grilled cheese, fries, and beer I had there was totally worth it. Unfortunately, we got some bad news. Our campground was straight up a hill. We waffled on what we wanted to do, especially since we didn’t foresee any real food at the camp store. For reference, there is another campground right on the trail (15 Mile Campground), but it’s by reservation only.

Bill's Place bike parking
Bill’s Place had ample bike parking across the street.

Eventually, we agreed to go through with our original plan, possibly coming back down the hill once we’d checked in and unloaded the bikes. The hill was awful. It was melting chip and tar, making it impossible to pedal up the steep grade. Groaning, sweating, and tired out of our gourds, we managed to push our bikes up and up until we made it to the campsite.

Overhead view of Autumn in the pool smiling
Goofing around at the pool felt great after nearly 50 miles of biking.

The campsite itself was very pleasant! Not only that, but the camp store had snacks, the pool was open, and we were able to recharge our electronic bits and bobs inside while we swam and lounged at the pool. Once we were back at camp, we watched bunnies doing what bunnies do best. (There’s a common phrase I’ll refrain from using here, but it was very accurate.) I splurged on a 6-pack of Miller Lite and ended up reading until dark when all the fireflies came out twinkling in full force.

Unfortunately, the trees were just a little too far apart, so Kathryn had to sleep in the tent again. It smelled like farts when I finally flopped in, hah!

Day 2: Who sh*ts in a urinal?!

Autumn standing at a picnic table with the two bikes leaned against it; a river is in the background, and the rest of the scene is lush with greenery
Pitstop for snacks.

We woke up Tuesday, and I had Pringles for breakfast like a reasonable adult. There were fewer puddles, but so many spiderwebs. They were clinging to both of us all morning like delicate streamers.

Buddy Lou’s was our first destination for an early lunch. Google, trying to be oh-so-smart, gave us the wrong opening time, so we had to wait a little while before the kitchen was up and running. I ate some honest-to-gods vegetables and cheese, drank a lot of water, and then we went back to our bikes. We met four or five guys who were going the same way as us, and it sounded like they’d be stopping in the same towns as us along the way.

Left: Autumn frowning with a downed tree in the way; Right: Autumn smiling giving two thumbs up with the tree out of the way
There’s nothing a couple of strong, independent woman can’t do!

We found a downed tree which we had to clear, then it was up-up-up-uphill! The grade wasn’t bad, but the gentle uphill is pretty rough when you’ve been biking for a day and a half. We stopped at a beautiful big dam for some pictures and general sightseeing, then we were off again.

Once, when we stopped at a porta-john, somebody had taken a nasty not-so-solid dump in the urinal. Note to all you fellow trail-goers: DO NOT DO THIS. IT’S DISGUSTING. YOU ARE A DISGRACE TO ALL HUMAN KIND.

The last five miles were the worst, and it felt like we were going to slog on forever and ever. We had to make our way through town, which took us uphill on asphalt, and boy howdy, was that rough. It’s so much hotter once we got off the trail, and the steep grades were not treating me very well.

Garlic bread and marinara sauce
Just a snack… right?

We found a pizza place and ordered some garlic bread and pizza for the night and the next morning. What we didn’t realize was that the garlic bread was more like a garlic boat. I managed to bite mine into a pig-shaped sculpture, which felt much like a sign from the heavens. What the sign was saying, I’m still not sure.

Autumn strapping two pizza boxes to the rear rack of her bike
Pizza: the ultimate power food.

Strapping the pizza to the back of the bike was easy. (Why hadn’t we thought of that earlier?) The route from the pizza shop to the Jellystone campground was an easy one, and thank goodness for wide shoulders on busy roads. We rode our bikes around the campground, hung out by the pool, bought some sweet iron-on patches. The best part was all the other campers (adults and kids alike) riding their bikes around. I felt right at home.

Two bicycles and Autumn in front of the Yogi Bear "Registration Station" sign
Who doesn’t love a good rhyme?

Day 3: Baby’s first flat

It was really, really hard to wake up on Wednesday. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it had something to do with biking 100 miles over the previous two days and knowing I had to do it another two days. We packed up camp (for the final time this trip), had some pizza for breakfast, and headed out for the day.

Panorama view of the river with a man-made dam in the middle
By far some of the most pleasant and enjoyable scenery!

This day had some of the best scenery, with the path going right alongside the river for a long time (concrete, finally) with a beautiful view. It was awesome seeing people out on boats. Our friends from Buddy Lou’s the day before caught up to us, and we chatted with them a bit more about the night’s destination: Harpers Ferry.

Worn down bicycle tire with a very obvious puncture
Yeah, I probably should have been checking my tires more regularly.

About five miles away from Shepherdstown, I got a flat after being dumb and going a little too fast over some bigger rocks. I had never gotten a flat on the road before, but I had the equipment to fix it! Kathryn and I struggled trying to take the tire off, but neither of us could unseat the bead. This is where I put in a good word for the P.E. teacher who stopped to help us and insisted we don’t call him “sir.” It made him feel old. Tip: move the bead to the center before using the tire levers.

Even though we switched out the tube, it was pretty clear that the distance and weight had taken a massive toll on my tires. Good thing for us there was a bike shop in Shepherdstown! We stopped there, and the really awesome people at Pedal & Paddle were able to get me set up with some new tires and switch me to tubeless. They did all this so speedily, and the price was less than I expected. Not only that, but the mechanic told us the best spot in town to eat (Blue Moon Café) and pointed us to swimming holes we wouldn’t be able to utilize that night (only because we were too tired). The café had a stream running right through the middle of the outdoor seating area, and the southwest wrap I ordered was fantastic.

Once we were done with lunch, I settled up with the bike shop and we were on our way to the hostel in Harpers Ferry (or rather, just outside of it). The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful… until we started climbing the hill to the hostel. I had to get off the bike and walk it was so steep and I was so tired, and the drivers were anything but friendly. With barely any shoulder to keep us away from the cars, it was rough going.

Three different types of meat, two dipping sauces, cornbread, pickles, greens, can of beer, and a bloody mary
The massive meat platter Kathryn ordered at Guide House Grill.

We checked in, showered, and got ready to find the closest place to eat. Guide House Grill was delicious and friendly. We met another cyclist there and a couple who gave us their number in case anything went horribly wrong and we needed some help. Back at the hostel, we started laundry, and I fell right to sleep when I sat down just to rest my eyes. I woke up briefly to hang my laundry up to dry, then it was right back to sleep.

Day 4: Final day

Two bicycles in the cargo area of the van with Kathryn giving two thumbs up from the back seat
All loaded up!

Not having to pack up camp on Thursday was the highlight of my morning. There was some hostel-provided breakfast and coffee, which I chowed down on rather quickly. The shuttle arrived shortly after to help us bypass a washout that we didn’t want to deal with, so we loaded our bikes and bags into the big van and set off. We picked up a father and son and one other guy along the way.

The other guy took off as soon as the van unloaded, but the other four of us were looking for food before we started biking for the day. Unfortunately, the deli never opened. We did some google-fu and managed to find another deli close by, so we all loaded up and made our way there. We got some pizza (yes, again) and some simple subs to eat throughout the day, made our way back to the trail, and started rolling.

Kathryn/I and the father/son took turns passing each other as we stopped for breaks for much of the morning. After chatting with them a bit more, Hart (the father) mentioned he was renting one of the lock houses and we were welcome to come check it out once we got there. Elated by the chance to see some real-live history, we agreed to catch up to them later in the day.

Autumn outside the lock house while our friends Hart and Trey unlock it

Interior of the second floor lock house bedroom with period furniture; Autumn is standing in the middle of the room

Inside the lock house was awesome! We explored that for a bit, and Kathryn and I agreed we would have to come back to #25 someday and rent it for ourselves. Apparently it’s only $100/night, and you could comfortably have up to six people in there (maximum of eight). We ate more pizza, then we got back on the trail.

Overlook from the bridge above Great Falls

We stopped at Great Falls, ate some more garbage food (a pretzel with cheese for me), did some picture-taking and walking around, then met a couple of guys who were doing both the GAP and the C&O in just two days. I can’t imagine that would be any fun, but kudos to them!

Kathryn pretending to be scared of a large sign reading "Stop. Dam ahead. Deadly undertow. Get to shore."

The final fifteen miles were definitely the easiest. Half because it was downhill, half because the thought of being done was very, very motivating. We rode all the way to the very end of the trail (which isn’t marked very well), then to the National Mall, then finally to our hotel. I had to walk up some of those last hills, but it was worth it! We got some Chipotle, bought some room beers and wine, and slept very, very well that night.

Autumn standing in front of the C&O National Historic Park sign
The very end of the trail. Well, technically the beginning, since we started at the end.
Kathryn standing in front of the Reflecting Pool with the Washington Monument in the background
Tourists are awful at taking photos, so we didn’t get a good one of us together.

Yes, I’ll do it again

There’s no doubt in my mind! I’m not sure I’ll ever do the entire route again, but I’d love to go back. In particular, I’d like to visit Shepherdstown again, which seemed like such an adorable, great little town. Kathryn already has plans to rent that lovely little lock house, and since I have friends in D.C., it makes sense that I’ll be up there again someday.

One thought on “Cycling the C&O canal path”

Comments are closed.