Escapes: The C&O Canal

D.C. might not be an outdoorsman’s paradise, but this big city has more to offer than concrete jungles and asphalt gardens. The nation’s capital is actually an extremely outdoor-friendly city, with miles of trails, parks and waterways. So, interested in crossing a stream rather than 23rd Street? Or, want to ditch the cab for a bike? Here is the first in a series of stories profiling some of D.C.’s accessible and appealing outdoor adventures.

The C&O Canal

For a bike ride that shouldn’t be too strenuous, head out to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. A National Historic Park, it starts in Georgetown, with locks spilling into waterfalls in a green strip near the high-end shops. The lower end of the canal is just down off M Street and is perfect for a stroll after class.

To explore further up the canal, a bicycle is probably necessary. Students without their own bikes can borrow them for free at the Mount Vernon Campus, where your GWorld card will be held as collateral. The bikes aren’t fabulous, but if you’re not happy, ask to try another one. From the Mount Vernon Campus you can either take the bike on the wheelchair-accessible shuttle, or ride down Foxhall Road to where it meets Canal Road. Look carefully here – there is a bridge with a small path under it, and it will take you right to the canal path. Once on the pathway, you can ride as far as Cumberland, Md. – 184 miles upriver.

The path is not at all strenuous, rising a few feet at the occasional locks. As you exit Georgetown, the view is pretty much limited to traffic passing the Key Bridge, but you’ll see more wildlife the farther along you go. It soon gives way to herons, beavers, deer, turtles, fox and even bald eagles. Once I spent a half-hour watching a snake hunting bass in a shallow pool off the canal. On another occasion, I was introduced to the wildlife when I accidentally hit a squirrel that made a dash under my tire.

The truly spectacular stuff on this ride is further out of the city, but at a steady pace even someone out of training should be able to make the 15 miles out to the sublime views of Mather Gorge Wide Water Lagoon and Great Falls. The first time I took the trip, it took about three hours to get out and two to get back.

At Mather Gorge, the river drops majestically below the trail, and there is a rock outcropping where you should allow time to enjoy the view. Great Falls is the main attraction on the D.C. portion of the canal and was recently featured in Outside magazine. The Potomac falls over enormous rock formations, running around and over Olmstead Island in a display that will surely awe even the most experienced outdoorsman.

For those who don’t want to do the bike trip in one day, talk to GW Trails about renting camping gear at very reasonable prices. There are campsites at Marsden Tract and Swains Lock, and information can be found at http://www.nps.gov/choh/index.htm. Students should remember that even on short day trips, they might be out of the way of immediate rescue, and should have fun, but abide by outdoor safety rules.

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