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Winter Fun on the C&O Canal in Maryland

Winter Fun on the C&O Canal in Maryland

Park ranger demonstrates how to open a lock

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:

Outdoor Recreation

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.

Forest scene covered in snow
Photo Credit: Francis Grant-Suttie

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.

Small bird perched on a tree trunk
Photo Credit: Anna Champagne

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).

Outside of a tavern
Photo Credit: Mike Mitchell
Caption: Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center

Each one is a great place to learn about ranger-led programs, special events, and the culture and history of the C&O Canal.

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.

Old lockhouse in the winter
Photo Credit: Mike Mitchell

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:

Beans in the Belfry
Photo Credit: Brunswick Main Street
Snowy scene at a rail stop
Photo Credit: Tammy Riley
Caption: The train station in Cumberland, MD.


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

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