Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Cumberland, Md. to Williamsport, Md. Visited: June 2, 2006 NPS Site Visited: 288 of 353 NPS Website
WHAT IS IT? The well-restored towpath and waterway of the 19th-century C&O Canal which parallels the Potomac River for 185 miles from Georgetown, D.C. to Cumberland, Md. Given the Park’s sprawling nature, this review covers the section of the Canal that stretches from its terminus in Cumberland, Md. to the Canal’s halfway point located near Hagerstown, Md. This includes three Visitor Centers: Cumberland, Hancock and Williamsport.
BEAUTY (5/10) Cumberland, once a thriving canal and railroad boomtown, retains both a bustling city feel and a small town artsy appeal. The Visitor Center is housed in the imposing red brick 1913 Western Railway Station. A short boardwalk leads from the VC, past a newly built Canal overlook commercial street and to the towpath’s terminus (Mile 185). The boardwalk and towpath views are forgettable. Instead walk to the charming shops and restaurants of the town’s red brick pedestrian-only Baltimore Street.
Or better yet, drive southward into the dense high country eastern woodland forest that borders the towpath until Hancock. At Mile Post 155 is the area’s top attraction, the Paw Paw Tunnel. The 3,118-foot long Paw Paw cuts through the hillside and plunges the visitor into supernatural eeriness. The increasingly narrow towpath skirts the canal’s side with uncertain footing. A foggy sheen hovers over the canal water. The lights at the end of the tunnel never appear to move.
The terrain from Hancock to Williamsport is much less dramatic. The towpath here bears resemblance to the canal section nearby Washington, D.C. The red brick Cushwa Warehouse that houses the Williamsport VC harkens back to a busier time.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) The Canal was nearly obsolete before it was even completed. In fact, the C&O Canal and the famed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (the Canal’s competition) broke initial ground on the same day in 1810. Railroads quickly developed and provided faster and easier transportation but boats still came and went on the Canal for almost 75 years.
In the 1950s, there was talk of turning the C&O Canal into a paved Parkway. A Supreme Court Justice and D.C. resident strongly disagreed. Justice William O. Douglas persuaded the editors of the Washington Post to hike the full length of the Canal with him to experience first hand the scenery they were advocating to alter. Dozens of conservationists and citizens joined Douglas for portions of the hike and the publicity it garnered generated sufficient support to save the Canal as a National Park Site, which is dedicated to the judge.
The C&O NHP is better appreciated if you think of it as a National Park or National Recreation Area. Seen in that light, its shaded towpaths and opportunities for hiking, biking and camping are more enjoyable. If you are looking for historical significance, you might want to venture further south to Antietam or down into the District of Columbia.
CROWDS (6/10) There were few visitors at any of the Visitor Centers. Several parking areas for the towpath were nearly full, but our visit was not affected in any way by others enjoying the Canal.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) These towns’ distances northwest of Washington, D.C. are indicated by their Canal milepost, 185 (Cumberland), 125 (Hancock) and 100 (Williamsport). Cumberland is the approximate halfway point between D.C. and Pittsburgh, Pa.
All three Visitor Centers in this section of the C&O Canal NHP are located short hops off Interstates. Three different Interstates, in fact – I-68 (Exit 43, Cumberland), I-70 (Exit 1, Hancock) and I-81 (Exit 2, Williamsport).
Once we got off the Interstates and into these quaint towns, we had problems. The signage is inadequate and confusing. One way streets and metered parking frustrated us in Cumberland, MD, we drove clear past the camouflaged VC in Hancock and, um, we actually found our way to Williamsport’s VC quite well.
We had our best experience at this Park once we got of the Interstates and traveled the narrow and winding Maryland Route 51 which parallels the Canal from Cumberland to Paw Paw. Every cross street to Route 51 seems to lead to a Canal NHP campsite or a secluded hiking trail; it felt like we were traveling in a National Park.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5) Choices at the C&O Canal bookstores are consistent with what one might find at any Mid Atlantic outfitter or outdoors store: lots of hiking guides, bird books, regional overviews. While practical, the selections seemed sub par for an NPS site.
COSTS (4/5) It’s all free, we think. The Cumberland VC even has parking tokens to allay the meters’ costs.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5) No less than four Rangers loitered around the front desk at the Cumberland VC looking for a visitor to assist. Every VC along this portion of the Canal was fully staffed, from the quiet shed-like structure in Hancock, MD to the converted Cushwa Warehouse in Williamsport. But most of the time, we were the only visitors.
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10) Pick up a copy of The Canaller to see what seasonal activities and special events are planned along the Canal. Most of the activities in June were geared towards folks under the age of 12. Fishing contests in stocked sections of the Canal, scavenger hunts and bug and bird walks all sounded cool until we realized we weren’t invited.
More locals than tourists take advantage of this section of the Canal, so educational opportunities are less abundant here than in the southern locks of the Canal. The Cumberland VC housed in the historic Western Maryland Railway Station provides the most in terms of exhibits and displays. Try your hand at “caulking” a canal boat or securing it with ropes or just admire the model lock or life-sized mule. When it comes down to it, there is not really much to say about the limited existence of the C&O Canal.
FUN (7/10) The two-mile Tunnel Overlook Trail at the Paw Paw Tunnel gives a good reason to stop and stretch at mile 155. While the trail is steep, almost every step is shaded. Butterflies and frogs share the path so be careful where you step. We ended our loop by walking straight through the nearly mile-long Paw Paw Tunnel. The Ranger is not joking when he tells you to take a flashlight. Soothing at first, the cool darkness of the tunnel is a little overwhelming once you realize it is much longer than initially thought.
We were surprised at the amount of campsites located all along the Canal. If you are looking for a nice long, relatively flat through hike, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding some place to pitch your tent. Try not to remember that the campgrounds in and around this part of the C&O Canal NHP provided the twitchy handy-cam setting for The Blair Witch Project.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (5/10) While we had a pleasant day driving along the Canal in West Virginia and Maryland, the visitor centers and Site stops in the quaint canal towns of Cumberland and Hancock were tricky to navigate and scenery grew repetitive by the end of the afternoon. The standardization and uniformity that makes for a good mode of transport doesn’t necessarily excite and amaze.
Choose the northern half of the Canal if you are looking for peaceful strolls or lunch in an old downtown; stick south of the Great Falls if you prefer a mule-pulled boat ride or stunning views to define your visit to the C&O Canal.
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