Ian Cooper comments on the C&O Towpath

Cyclist Ian Cooper offers a report on the C&O canal towpath, which I have mentioned in a previous post. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas deserves a lot of credit for preserving the canal as a park, but as Ian reports, it does not make the grade as a bicycle facility.

Ian Cooper with Trail-a-Bike rig on the C&O towpath trail

Ian Cooper with Trail-a-Bike rig on the C&O towpath trail

Aside from the issues of safety and of priorities which Ian raises, do the parts of the path which are “paved” with pebbles the size of golf balls meet the National Park Service’s criteria to prohibit cyclists from parallel roads, introduced into the current transportation bill in Congress?

An article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper seconds some of Ian’s comments, while indicating that improvements are in the works. The effectiveness of the improvements is certainly open to question: more gravel will not eliminate dropoffs or necessarily provide a good or durable riding surface. The article includes the photo below.

Rough conditions on the C&O towpath trail

Rough conditions on the C&O towpath trail, Paul Christensen photo for the Tribune-Review

An online article by a bicycle tourist also reports some difficult conditions on the trail.

Ian says about that article:

The first image on the left of the page shows a little of how muddy it can get, though it can be worse than this when the path gets very narrow and bumpy. This is a different area of the trail (farther north than my ride), and again this is very wide and non-grassy in comparison with some of the trail south of Harper’s Ferry and Point of Rocks, MD. The author tells how safety is a real issue on the trail due to the bad condition of the surface.

In both the above images, the wide trail allows you to choose a path through the mud. This isn’t always the case in the part my daughter and I cycled. Sometimes you just have to stop and walk. Sometimes you get no warning, hit a pothole or a mud patch and have to rely on skill to maintain control.

Here are Ian’s comments on his own ride:

I know the C&O well. Here on the Maryland side it’s not paved, and I think anyone doing more than 10 mph on it would be taking a grave risk. I cycled with my daughter from DC to Harper’s Ferry June 2nd – 3rd, 2011 with my daughter on a Trail-a-Bike behind me. I will never use it again, as the National Park Service has stated that it must remain unpaved, as it is to retain its historical attributes as a canal towpath. The only reason I didn’t give up on using it during that trip is that I have a lot of experience cycling in winter conditions, so I had confidence that I could counter-steer and retain balance during times when the bike lost traction in the mud. Also, we were heading north, so we were cycling on the canal side of the trail, where the drop-off was only 10ft. I dread to think what might happen if a less confident or less skilled cyclist lost control going southward and fell into the river.

We averaged 5mph. On regular roads, I would have done the trip in less than half the time (in part because the road goes pretty much straight there, while the ‘so-called’ multi-use trail takes a dog-leg approach alongside the river). Also, this trail is overgrown with weeds, is ‘paved’ with loose pebbles the size of golf balls, and is 4 ft wide in places with mud patches and 10+ft drops on each side. In my view it is the worst bike trail I’ve ever seen and is literally a death trap for cyclists (which is presumably why bike trail advocates avoid referring to it as a bike trail). Sadly, most so-called bike infrastructure is poorly designed, poorly implemented and lacking in funding for maintenance. I have yet to see a bike trail or bike path that is well designed, well implemented and well maintained. Until I do see such a thing, I am 100% against such follies.

The photo below was taken around 12 noon on June 3 somewhere near White’s Ferry and is the only image I have showing the actual trail. It shows what should be considered a ‘good’ part of the trail in this area – this part is wide, relatively flat and has only a gentle slope away to the canal on one side. As you can see, even though there’s perhaps 8ft of trail, most of it is grassed over and there’s only two thin tracks of usable surface. Sometimes the trail gets so treacherous that the wet and slippery grass in the middle becomes the safest place to ride.

A better section of the C&O towpath trail

A better section of the C&O towpath trail

The C&O has few road crossings, it’s true. But if you use it in May or June, before the flood season is completely over (and presumably before any yearly maintenance is carried out before the summer season), you see it at its worst, when it is difficult just to maintain control of the bike. At some points, especially the stretch between Seneca and Point of Rocks, MD, it is quite literally frightening. In many places the trail is very narrow, it has a steep ten foot drop on one side to the old canal, and a steep twenty foot or more drop on the other side to the river (sometimes both at the same time). In May and June, the trail is so overgrown that stinging nettle bushes often thrust out into the trail. The trail is filled with pebbles and rocks, and overgrown grass and stinging nettles sometimes make all but a section between 6 and 12 inches wide unusable. This thin section can be muddy, it can change from dry to wet very quickly, it can be deeply rutted from use by previous cyclists, and other parts can be washed out so badly that cyclists can experience sudden potholes. It is extremely treacherous.

In my view, this stretch of the C&O Canal towpath should be closed as a multi-use path as its lack of adequate maintenance means that it is only a matter of time before a cyclist or a runner gets killed on it.


15 responses to “Ian Cooper comments on the C&O Towpath

  1. As pointed out, the towpath isn’t designed as a bike trail. It’s designed for… mules. Yes, it can be muddy and bumpy in stretches. There are a lot of web sites that talk about the towpath, as a little research would show- it isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain level of alertness to ride it. As to the level of risk, that’s something the users of the park have to figure out on their own. All you have to do is slow down and be careful. There’s a lot of cyclists that do the trail every year, from 7 to 70 (or older) years old and survive (happily) the experience. This probably isn’t a location where the park service is going to force people on to the towpath- there aren’t any parallel roads in the park that the Park Service controls. The most dangerous sections of the towpath, in my opinion, and the smoothest surface ones near DC, which get extremely crowded on nice weekends.

  2. Thanks for your observations about roads. I’d hope to be able to figure out where the best roads and the worst sections of the path are, to make an informed choice.

    I have ridden on the towpath in DC and also upstream, and I wouldn’t place bets on which part is more hazardous. The hazards are different, to be sure. There are likely more crashes at the DC end, because there are more users.

    Similar issues occur on the Erie Canal towpath in upstate New York, though when I rode it (near Rochester) I found it to be in generally much better condition than the C&O Canal towpath.

  3. I’ve ridden the C&O Canal many times, including a number of overnight trips and even two end to end tours, and I have to take issue with the writer’s portrayal of the towpath as fraught with threats to life and limb. While I agree that the conditions can at times be challenging, if you simply do a little advance research and planning, it can not only be “survived” but thoroughly enjoyed. If you are expecting or desire a smooth, asphalt paved surface, this isn’t it, but there are plenty of those for folks who want them. There are even a couple of paved trails that parallel some stretches of the towpath if you need a break from it (the Capital Crescent near DC and the Western MD Rail Trail in Hancock, MD). Of course, on those sorts of trails you then have to contend with the “racer wannabes” that view paved multiuse trails as their personal training tracks. I think the Canal is an excellent choice for an extended, relaxed, multi-day tour, as long as the rider doesn’t have unrealistic expectations. It is a dirt trail, and it is adversely affected by rain. I probably would NOT choose to ride it with a child on a Trail a Bike, but then I wouldn’t ride a busy road with one either. It helps to choose carefully when you ride… fall is actually the best season, in my opinion. But with virtually no need to interact with cars and with campsites every few miles (or other lodging options a bit further apart), the Canal offers an opportunity to get away from life’s stresses and travel at a relaxed pace, and enjoy some lovely scenery and history along the way. I hope your readers are not put off by Ian’s characterization of the Canal, as I think the good outweighs the bad, and it is a wonderful outdoor research, for which I am very grateful.

    I also think it unlikely that the “parallel roads” issue would apply with the canal, as there really aren’t any such roads in the park. And I would hate to see the Canal towpath paved.

    I was a bit confused by Ian’s statement “I know the C&O well. Here on the Maryland side it’s not paved” … The C&O is ONLY on the Maryland side of the river, or the DC side for the last few miles, none of which are paved. His statement makes it sound like there’s some other portion of the trail, across the Potomac, that is paved, which is not the case. Perhaps I misunderstood, and he was referring to the Capital Crescent trail inside the DC city limits?

  4. I’m pushing 70 and have been riding the C&O Canal on my bike for the past 40 some years.

    Yes it can be bumpy,sometimes muddy and frustrating but it is still a National treasure and the solution isn’t to shut it down or pave it over it is to provide the resources necessary for it’s proper use.

    I ride a varity of bikes and wouldn’t want to do all 184 miles on my skinny tired Cannondale road bike or my recumbent trike but I have and will continue to ride (and enjoy) the path on a hybrid or mountain bike. It is not a high speed commuter path or a single track MTB challange. It is what it is…An historical artifact that allows bicycles,and hikers and is best (IMHO) enjoyed at moderate speeds on a properly suited machine or walking gear. (I wouldn’t walk it in dress shoes or barefoot either)

    • I have ridden short parts of the towpath on my road bike, but was thinking about trying the towpath with a folding trike You mentioned riding it with a trike and wondered if you had any advice.



      • I (the blogger) have ridden parts of the towpath but not on a trike. The post about the C&O canal is a guest post by Ian Cooper. I don’t recall his mentioning riding a trike. You might look through the comments and see who did.

  5. Frank Krygowski

    My wife, daughter and I rode from DC to Cumberland MD on touring bikes with full packs. (Well, my daughter’s was a road bike equipped as near as possible to be a touring bike.) I was on 37 mm tires, my wife on 32s, and my daughter on 28s.

    Actually, we were on and off the C&O trail. Due to heavy rain prior to and sometimes during our trip, we found part of the C&O covered in mud with just the proper consistency to pack between our fenders and tires. That required frequent stopping and scraping to remove, and caused us to leave the trail and take to the Appalachian hilly roads. At other times, the roughness was enough to make us choose parallel roads for a while. But many times, riding was quite pleasant, even if perhaps a bit rough. (My bike was much more heavily loaded than theirs. Perhaps because of their lighter loads and narrower tires, roughness bothered them more than me.)

    So don’t anticipate a smooth ride on a road or touring bike. But danger and death? We never felt any anxiety. In fact, the nearest any of us came to a serious crash on that coast-to-coast ride was on a day we chose to abandon the C&O. A slick steel bridge surprised my daughter at the bottom of a very short, steep hill, and her bike skidded, but she recovered and didn’t fall.

    The C&O certainly should not inspire fear or danger warnings. It was very valuable to us in providing a level way through the Appalachians. Given the choice, I’d probably use it again even with touring bikes, but I’d arrange for drier weather! On a mountain bike, I think it would be a breeze.

  6. I think the biggest danger is the amount of trees that have been allowed to grow up along the C & O Canal (and not the surface). They make for a nice canopy, but a dead limb or rotten tree can fall at anytime (not just during a storm). And if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time you are a goner. I ride the towpath daily and I see trees that have fallen all the time for no particular reason (meaning a bad storm). Also, there are thousands of trees coming off the side of the canal as it slopes down to the Potomac just waiting to take out the towpath. Besides the cyclist death in July 2011 near Edward Ferry other have been injured.

    Regarding the surface, I think an effort to place a smooth crushed limestone surface should have been a priority rather than fixing the Angler’s breach in Montgomery County./

  7. jeezus, what is this twit bitching about?
    it is a flat freaking track for 184 miles.
    it is free.
    it is wild–sort of.
    it is quiet, except for bicyclers, who make noise, and yap away as though they were in their mild level offices, being important.
    please discourage cyclers from demonstrating their ‘manliness’, and stay on their local streets.

    • It sounds to me like he’s complaining about the risk of falling down steep slopes into the canal or the river, along with his young daughter. Who’s the twit?

  8. I ride this trail all the time. The C&O Towpath is a wonderful experience to ride. I would imagine if you’re kinda wimpy though the trail could be scary and intimidating. But it’s the unknowns that make this trail the adventure that it is. Heck, there’s even bears and rattlesnakes in the woods surrounding the trail on the western end. I’m prone to be more wary of them then a puddle of mud or stinging nettle weeds. If you can’t handle the wilderness, then this trail is not for you. Get a road bike instead, but then you have to watch out for the scary cars. Eeeek! Maybe throw the bike out and learn to hike.

  9. chris markley

    I have ridden the Great Allegheny Passage (which includes the C&O in its entirety four times: three times from Pittsburgh to DC and once from DC to Pittsburgh. My rides were in 2013, 2014 and 2015. I completely disagree with this author’s description of the trail. I rode it on my 39-year-old traditional steel touring frame, with 35mm tires with only a very small amount of tread. I have seen riders on more road-race oriented bikes with much thinner tires doing just fine on the C&O. I do not recommend that, but I can say that the C&O is a very pleasant trail. My average moving speed on the C&O is 12 to 13mph, no problem. This year, in June, it rained every day during my trip and the C&O was quite muddy in many sections, but I was just fine. Again, I am not a mountain biker, and I was just fine. I was touring solo, self-supported, camping out the whole way. The campsites are plentiful, free, include working, tested water pumps. About the golf ball size gravel — I never encountered any. I am baffled by this story about the dangers of the C&O. I look forward to riding the entire Great Allegheny Passage in its entirety many more times. I am 52. I am not an athlete. I am a regular guy on an ancient bike, who rides cautiously and loves the C&O deeply.

  10. My wife and I were riding just south of Sheperdstown, WV on the C & O Canal recently. As we were heading north several large trees along with their rock base began to slide into the canal. Spectacular. We stopped, watched, and ducked under a low-hanging branch as we moved on. Love the C & O.

  11. The nost dangerous section is the narrow towpath and steep drop to the Potomac just upstream of Dam 5, at Little Slackwater. Signs should be posted warning cyclists to dismount through this section. If riders from each direction were to meet here it could be disastrous. But overall the author is painting an inaccurate picture. Sure, there are steep drops to the canal or river all along the towpath. And it can be a bit muddy after a big rain. And yes, much of the path is a pair of dirt tracks. But with a modicum of caution the trail is a wonderful asset that can be enjoyed on two wheels. In June 2016 my adult son and I rode from Connellsville on the GAP to Harpers Ferry on the C&O and really enjoyed the whole experience.

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