Spend the night in Lockhouse No. 22 on the C&O Canal towpath. Credit: C&O Canal Trust

Spring is in full swing, and the C&O is beckoning. Here’s what you need to know about MoCo’s favorite pathway.

Made for mules, enjoyed by people. 

The C&O Canal towpath is 184.5 miles of hikeable and bikeable trail along the Potomac River, stretching from Georgetown through Montgomery County and up to Cumberland. Construction began in 1828, and in its prime, mules and horses pulled goods in boats up and down the canal. In its more recent history, the area has been a National Historical Park for more than 50 years.

Credit: The National Park Service

Take a free ride on a canal boat.

Dolly, Eva, Jen and Julie have one of the most important jobs at the park—but they aren’t rangers. The four mules work in teams to demonstrate how their predecessors would have pulled boats along the canal. You can take a mule-powered ride in a canal boat on weekends from late spring to early fall from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Potomac.

Sip your way along the C&O Canal Libations Trail.

MoCo is home to four of the 14 stops on the Libations Trail, which toasts breweries, distilleries and wineries near the canal. At 7 Locks Brewing (about 11 miles from the C&O), you can enjoy a Billy Goat TrAle, a session IPA that celebrates the rocky hike that runs between the towpath and the Potomac River just southeast of Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. The beer promises to be “full-flavor, smooth, refreshing, and effortless.” We’ll drink to that.

White’s Ferry isn’t shuttling cars across the Potomac, but the crossing is still worth a visit.

At milepost 35.5 on the towpath, pop into White’s Ferry Grill in Dickerson, where you can enjoy a pickle sub (just what it sounds like—a sammie with pickle instead of bread) and watch the river flow by. Note the flood markers on the building and try to imagine water above the second-story windows.

Spend a night in another era. 

Lockhouses were homes for the families of keepers who operated the locks along the canal. The houses are maintained by the C&O Canal Trust, and five in Montgomery County are available for overnight guests starting at $110 per night. Pick where you want to bunk down based on the era depicted inside—No. 6 (1950s), No. 10 (1930s), No. 21 (1916), No. 22 (1830s) or No. 25 (1860s)—or based on which houses have air conditioning (hint: Nos. 6, 10 and 21).


Bring binoculars for bird-watching.

More than 120 avian species call the park home, including the majestic bald eagle. Your best chance to see one is to look around their nest on Conn Island, visible from the Washington Aqueduct observation deck near the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center.

Prefer taking a train to hiking or biking?

Amtrak and the National Park Service have teamed up to present a C&O Canal-themed Trails & Rails program on the Capitol Limited train line on Saturdays from May through August. Volunteers in the lounge car share details about the canal and the areas around the river during the rides between D.C. and Cumberland.

This story appears in the May/June issue of Bethesda Magazine.