Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Georgetown, D.C. and Potomac, Md. Visited: May 5, 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 beginning in Georgetown to Mile Post 15 near the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center.
Also included in our review is perhaps the oldest building in Washington D.C., the Old Stone House. The House is administratively part of Rock Creek Park, but geographically only one short block from Georgetown’s C&O Canal NHP Visitor Center.
BEAUTY (8/10) Veer off the towpath at Great Falls, Maryland, follow the wooden boardwalk a short distance and you are now amid bedrock terrace forest. An abundance of green and a constant rush of cascading water softens the harshness of the imposing gray stones beneath.
Continue on the boardwalk to the Falls Overlook to what might be one of the most stunning views in the D.C. area. Daunting to canal surveyors we are sure, but beautiful to behold, the Great Falls earn their name. Experienced kayakers and great blue herons braved the surf – one for sport, the other for sustenance – as we looked on.
Georgetown offers a more urban, but no less charming setting for the Canal. Here one can take a ride on a mule-pulled canal boat to see the District’s former thoroughfares. The Canal runs between red brick buildings and warehouses, under bridges and parallel M Street, Georgetown’s current thoroughfare and location of the Old Stone House.
Perhaps one of Georgetown’s most recognizable landmarks, the Old Stone House is not an imposing structure; its stature is quite demure. This humble dwelling made of blue fieldstone stands out among its modern neighbors and hosts an English style garden. The garden, abloom with spring blossoms during our visit, is so comfortable that it is hard to believe it was once a used car lot.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10) The Old Stone House is the only pre-Revolutionary building in Washington D.C. Rumors of it serving as George Washington’s Headquarters, true or not, helped preserve the building as commercial development exploded around it.
George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant did stay at a Tavern owned by the father of a clockmaker who operated a shop in the Old Stone House in the 1800s. That connection was close enough to keep the structure intact.
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 intital 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.
CROWDS (9/10) Every Site included in this review was abuzz with visitors, both out-of-town (and country) and local. Bicyclists, walkers, joggers, commuters, sightseers and strollers take full advantage of the Canal’s flat path as an alternative route through Georgetown and out into the Maryland suburbs.
Does anyone take a visit to D.C. and not go to Georgetown? This section of the route was understandable much more crowded than the rest. Although the towpath is a high traffic area here, we never felt cramped. In fact, walking along the Canal provides shaded and relaxing respite from Georgetown’s constant commerce, as does the garden of the Old Stone House.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The Georgetown C&O Canal NHP Visitor Center is located just a block south of the bustling commercial Washington D.C. area of M Street between 30th and 31st Street. The Old Stone House is located on the northern side of M Street. The House is easy to spot; it’s the building that’s neither a restaurant nor a clothing store.
Georgetown’s parking dearth sparks many angry tales, but Michael has never had difficulty finding metered street parking east of Wisconsin Avenue and north of M. If two hours just are not enough, there are plenty of pay parking lots on K Street under the Whitehurst Freeway.
Famously, the D.C. Metro does not serve Georgetown. The official word is that earth is too unstable to support a tunnel; urban legend says the hoity-toity Georgetown residents want their part of town to maintain a modicum of exclusivity. The nearest Metro stops are Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom.
The Georgetown VC and ticket office for Canal boat rides is temporarily placed in a small trailer while its former address receives restorative TLC. Just follow the multitude of brown signs strategically placed throughout Georgetown to find it.
The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is located just off MacArthur Boulevard, a few miles west of the D.C. Beltway (I-495). Take Beltway Exit 41 (Clara Barton Parkway) away from Washington D.C. There are signs. Exits 40 (Cabin John Parkway) and 39 (River Road) could also work. Use a map, however, because further written directions would only confuse.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) Stop at the Old Stone House to find unique titles on historic preservation, coffee table books on D.C. and most temptingly, a wide array of glassware from the Jamestown glassworks, pewter cups and bowls, redware pottery and all kinds of handmade Colonial items: soaps, candles, wooden toys. If you have any upcoming birthdays or anniversaries in your family, this is a great place to begin your shopping.
Great Falls Tavern contains a bookstore with a few titles about the history of the Canal and a few camping and hiking guides but no pewter or Jamestown glass delights. Save your pennies for the Georgetown shop.
COSTS (1/5) Entrance to Great Falls Park is $5 a car, good for 3 days and both the Maryland and Virginia sides of the Falls. There is no charge to visit the Old Stone House or to use any portion of the Canal’s towpath. If f you want to take a boat ride, however, it will set you back $8 a person ($6 for seniors, $5 for kids).
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5) Rangers invited us into Great Falls Tavern in Maryland and tried to persuade us to jump on the last canal boat tour of the day in Georgetown. No less than 4 costumed interpreters managed the canal locks and mules necessary to move the boat. We didn’t encounter any Rangers at the Old Stone House.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) Who better to introduce a charming American destination than Charles Kuralt? An 8-minute On the Road segment plays by request at all of the C&O Canal VCs, including the Great Falls Tavern. Somehow, he can make George Washington’s disappointment and the demise of the Canal’s commercial ventures sound not so bad. With Mr. Kuralt’s soothing voice still in our heads, we headed out into the sunshine and the Great Falls. There are some exhibits and a historically furnished room in the Great Falls Tavern, but not enough to keep you indoors.
The Georgetown VC is temporarily displaced, but visitors still flock to the Canal. We lingered as interpreters filled the canal lock and readied the boat to move slowly down the canal. Rangers discussed the history of the Canal while the workers showed us firsthand the manpower (and mule power) needed to use the Canal.
Boat tours last one hour and run Wednesday through Sunday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Special tours can be arranged for groups and if there are any extra spaces on those boats, Rangers will open ticket sales to the public.
FUN (9/10) We had a glorious day at the C&O Canal Sites and the Old Stone House.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10) Washington D.C. in late Spring becomes a joyous place. The days are warm, the sun is bright, the flowers are blooming and the humidity has yet to descend. From Georgetown to the Great Falls Tavern, up and down the Potomac, suntanned joggers and cyclists, couples in love and the occasional dog walker enjoy the smooth towpath terrain. The garden of the Old Stone House attracts anyone and everyone looking for a little shade and cool grass to set down their shopping bags. The Canal recaptures the activity and animation it briefly enjoyed in the past. We couldn’t think of a nicer way to spend the day.
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