Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal at the Great Falls of the Potomac

Top of Mather Gorge at the Great Falls of the Potomac - boundary between Virginia (left) and Maryland (right). Downstream is the coastal plain and in about 90 miles, the Chesapeake Bay. Upstream is the Piedmont, Appalachian Mountains, and Appalachian Plateau.
In Maryland, we have to create our own Sunday adventures in the fall months. Why, you ask? First of all, hunting on sundays is illegal, except for archery hunting of deer on select private properties in very rural areas. Second of all, Pro Football sucks. Well, at least the Ravens and the Redskins suck. So...let's go do something else.
We drove down about 60 miles to the Great Falls Tavern section of the C&O Canal Trail National Historic Park. I've written about the C&O Canal a few different times, like here and here, and probably some other places, but here's a background of this 185 mile long National Park along "The Bloody Potomac." The C&O Canal aka "The Grand Old Ditch" operated for almost 100 years from the 1830s to the 1920s. It covers 600 vertical feet of grade change over its length, which basically describes the necessity for the canal - George Washington thought it would be an ideal way to move extracted resources (coal, timber) out of the Ohio River Valley. When canal construction reached Cumberland, Maryland (a coal center), the upstart Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had already reached the town, rendering the Canal a little obsolete....and ending all plans to extend the Canal the final 180 miles to the Ohio River. As I wrote about in the above-linked blog entries, the Canal and its aqueducts were frequent targets of sabotage (from both sides) during the United States Civil War, depending on who controlled the Canal at that moment.

Boats were moved upstream through a series of flooded locks. Here is Lock 20, at the Great Falls Tavern. The "Canal Trail" is the trail on the left - when the canal was in operation, they called it the "Tow Path," used by the mule teams to tow the barges through the locks.
One of the largest access points, and most convenient to I-495 outside of Washington DC is the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center ($5/car access fee). If you don't care to see the Visitor Center or use the bathrooms, other public access points are nearby, and very visible. NPS has a great write-up on the history of the site, so it's just worth mentioning that it started as a housing for the lock-keeper, then the growing numbers of canal workers, and right before the Civil War - a lodging for Canal tourists.

Mrs. Swampy and Swamp Jr. - enjoying another warm autumn day. Swamp Jr. is 8 weeks old and is up to 13lbs and 24" long. Whoever his daddy is, must be a tall man (joking).

There are a lot of great things about the C&O Canal Trail - it's incredibly well-maintained, the scenery is beautiful all year long, and you can use it to your own limit. I mean, if you don't feel challenged after 1 mile, there are another 184 miles for you. Likewise, it's easy to handle with kids & babies because there is almost no vertical grade, and the trail has been compacted by 100+ years of mule teams. If you find yourself in Washington DC - take this detour, you'll be thrilled that you did.

Now, if you want to do some dumber stuff outside than old Swampy, you gots to try pretty hard. Here is today's winner. A for effort, F for scrambled brains...there's a 40' waterfall about 100' ahead of him....just around the bend.


Eastern Shore Outdoors said...

I love your posts, but wanted to provide clarification on Potomac kayaking. There is a traning area about 10 miles downstream where Olympic kayakers train. As a Bethesda native, I am proud that whitewater medalist Dave Hearn is also from Bethesda. I live on the Eastern Shore now, and enjoy your take on life here.

Kirk Mantay said...

Thanks for stopping by - you're right - in this article, I short-changed kayakers (I am one also, but just a rec boater). I know that GF is a hugely popular spot, and I've kayaked downstream myself(Seneca area); I'd like to kayak the Point of Rocks area as well.

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