The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historic Park does not run all the way to the Chesapeake Bay or the state of Ohio, but it does offer 184.5 miles of adventure from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. It was designated a National Monument in 1961 and has since become the country’s most-visited National Historic Park.
Most people visit the park for recreational trails, but there are many ways to enjoy the beauty and history of the area in every season. Here are a few activities to try this winter on the C&O Canal in Maryland:
The dirt and stone towpath along the C&O Canal is suited for various outdoor activities, including cycling, hiking, walking, and trail running. It is not groomed for cross-country skiing, but skiing is possible, particularly in Western Maryland, where snow is more likely to accumulate. Canine-drawn sleds/gigs are also permitted in the winter between mile marker 27.2 and mile marker 162.2.
The National Park staff does not monitor ice conditions throughout the winter, so anytime you go on the frozen canal (which has moving water as deep as 15 feet in places under the ice), you do so at your own risk. However, ice skating and ice fishing are both permitted in most places in the park. Use common sense and caution and look for signage prohibiting these activities before hitting the ice.
Nature Watching and Photography
The many habitats along the C&O Canal make it one of the most biodiverse national parks. Although many cold-blooded species (like reptiles and insects) and some mammals (like bears and chipmunks) use hibernation to get through the cold months, plenty of animals have adapted to the winter in the mid-Atlantic. For example, game species, like white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, can be found foraging in wooded and grassland areas near the canal.
Winter is also an excellent time for birding and bird photography. The C&O Canal birds are easier to see because they are not hidden behind a canopy of leaves. There is a chance to observe birds not typically seen in Maryland in the summer, such as Yellow-rumped Warblers, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.
In winter, flocks of waterfowl, such as Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers, American Black Ducks, and other duck species, also arrive and congregate on the Potomac River, which runs parallel to the canal.
This C&O Canal Species Checklist can help you learn about the wildlife and plants you can observe and photograph when you visit the park.
Touring the Visitor Centers
Several official C&O Canal Visitor Centers are located along the canal. The following Maryland locations are open all four seasons (except holidays).
Each one is a great place to learn about ranger-led programs, special events, and the culture and history of the C&O Canal.
- Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center is located at mile 14.3 in Montgomery County.
- Williamsport Visitor Center is located at mile 99.8 in Washington County.
- Cumberland Visitor Center is located at mile 184.5 in Allegany County.
Staying at Canal Quarters
Seventy-six lockhouses were built along the C&O Canal to house the lockkeepers who stayed on-site to operate the locks. Several lockhouses have been preserved or restored and can be rented out for overnight stays through the award-winning Canal Quarters Program.
Each lockhouse is furnished with items from a different time period, so you can expect a unique historical experience no matter where you stay. Some lockhouses are rustic (no heat, running water, or electricity) for an actual step back in time; others have modern amenities for a more convenient stay.
Learn more about staying at a lockhouse.
Visiting Canal Towns
The construction and use of the canal led to the growth of many canal towns. For nearly 100 years, the canal made these communities bustle, and when it declined, the town populations also declined. However, seven Maryland canal towns still exist and are worth visiting to see historic landmarks, unique architecture, museums, and other attractions.They are also an excellent place to find a bite to eat or a place to stay if you aren’t booking a lockhouse.
Here are a few stops worth considering:
- Poolesville (mile 30.9): Shop for antiques at the historic John Poole House and visit the Old Town Hall Bank Museum and Exhibit Hall to learn about Poolesville’s history.
- Point of Rocks (mile 48.2): Take a pic of the unique Victorian-style Point of Rocks Train Station and enjoy a self-guided walking tour of Point of Rocks Community Commons Park.
- Brunswick (mile 55): Visit the Brunswick Heritage Museum and have a meal and a drink at Beans in the Belfry, an eclectic restaurant in a restored church.
- Sharpsburg (mile 76.8): Explore Antietam National Battlefield and get a scoop of Egg Nog or Peppermint Stick ice cream from Nutter’s Ice Cream.
- Williamsport (mile 99.4): Savor a Williamsport beer and visit the Springfield Barn, a history museum and one of the largest barns in Maryland.
- Hancock (mile 124.1): Go shopping at the 48,000-square-foot Hancock Antique Mall & Indoor Flea Market and visit the Western Maryland Rail Trail for scenic views of the Potomac River.
- Cumberland (mile 184.5): Take a scenic ride on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and visit Cumberland’s downtown area to tour the arts and entertainment district and view historic landmarks.
Winter is considered the off-season for public volunteer events (Canal Community Days) at C&O Canal. However, volunteers are needed for the Canal Steward and Canal Quartermaster programs, which allow you to adopt a part of the towpath or a lockhouse. Private corporate clean-up events are also welcome all year.
Lead Photo Credit: Mike Mitchell | Caption: Park ranger demonstrates how to open a lock
About the Author
Anna Champagne is an outdoor writer, photographer, and traveler. She can often be found gardening and birdwatching in her backyard and exploring creeks, trails, marshes, and parks with her husband. Anna lives in Frederick County, Maryland. You can learn more about her on her website www.champagneoutdoors.com.