Looking for a multi-day bikepacking trip, BRO Travel Editor Ellen Kanzinger and Digital Content Coordinator Shannon McGowan decided to see what all the hype is about on the C&O Canal Towpath with a 184.5-mile ride from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md.
Leading up to our trip, we heard stories of the great swarm of Brood X cicadas that were once again coming to our region this summer. The last time these 17-year cicadas emerged, the two of us were still running around in elementary school. As we started to put together our gear list for the C&O, several colleagues recommended we pack earplugs to help drown out the unavoidable buzzing of these creatures at night. Despite all the hype, we still had yet to see one.
Shannon: The more people warned us about these noisy critters, the more excited I became to get out there. I saw it as a good problem to have because it meant we would be outdoors without the option of drowning out the sound. I was excited to direct all my energy and focus into nature and biking.
Ellen: One of the main skills Shannon and I wanted to practice on this trip was the art of checking in on each other. Before we left, we communicated our expectations for the trip, outlined our individual fears, and came up with concrete ways to support each other on the trail. We also reaffirmed over and over, to ourselves and to each other, that it was okay if we didn’t make it all the way to Cumberland. Did we want to bike the whole trail? Absolutely. But no one was making us do this, and finishing wasn’t worth unbearable pain and injury.
Here’s the great thing about biking the C&O—this itinerary worked for us. But there are countless ways to piece together a trip, especially if you want to take more time for longer stops along the way.
We have to give a shout out to Endeavor Cycles in Charlottesville, whose owners helped Ellen buy her first pair of chamois and fixed Shannon’s bike just before we were supposed to leave.
Ellen: You were cutting that one a little close there, Shannon…
Shannon: Winnie had a case of the first-day jitters!
That night before our trip, we drove to Cumberland, Md., and spent the night at the Fairfield by Marriott Cumberland, checking and rechecking all of our gear, making sure the weight was evenly distributed. Located just steps from the meeting point of the C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage and walkable to downtown shops and restaurants, the hotel is perfectly located for cyclists and hikers doing any part of either trail. Just around the corner, the Howard Street Parking Lot offers long-term parking for those setting up a shuttle.
Day 1: 42.5 Miles
Mandela Echefu of Wheelzup Adventures shuttled us down to MM 0 in Georgetown. There was a light misting and fog pretty much the whole drive, so we were nervous that we would start our trip in rain but things cleared up by the time we reached D.C. A friend met us at the start, just a few steps from her apartment, with bagels and coffee from Call Your Mother to send us off. It was here that we realized we forgot to pack a tire pump so we quickly popped over to District Cycle Works and earned the title of first sale in their new shop.
Shannon: To be fair, I brought it to Cumberland. I just didn’t pack it on my bike before we left.
The first section out to Great Falls was beautiful, although a bit muddy and crowded. We stopped for lunch on the patio at Old Angler’s Inn (MM 12.1).
Ellen: It was here we got our first glimpse of the infamous cicada.
Shannon: There were a couple that no matter how many times we helped them roll back onto their feet, they would just get stuck upside down in foot traffic again and again… GET. A. CLUE. CICADAS.
Ellen: The food is delicious but I would recommend making a reservation ahead of time as it gets crowded fast being so close to the park.
The farther away we got from D.C., the more the crowds thinned out. Expect some rougher riding conditions around areas close to towns where it sees more daily use. We stopped for ice cream and dinner to go at White’s Ferry Store & Grill (MM 35.5) before the final stretch to our night’s accommodations at Indian Flats Campsite (MM 42.5), where we watched a beautiful sunset over the Potomac River, capping off the perfect first day.
Day 2: 56.1 Miles
With our longest day ahead of us, we started our day bright and early with a brisk 11-mile ride to Beans in the Belfry (MM 53.8) in Brunswick, Md., for breakfast. Next stop, Harpers Ferry!
Ellen: Harpers Ferry was one of the places I really wanted to see on the trip and we managed to blow right past the overlook without even a second thought.
Shannon: Having never been to Harpers Ferry I wanted to keep the views a surprise, so I had no idea what to be looking for. We biked under a train tunnel with a big ass “Harpers Ferry” sign written on it. I called out to Ellen to look and when she replied back with, “Oh yeah, so cool!” and kept going, I figured we just weren’t there yet.
Ellen: I have to be honest. I couldn’t hear a word you said. My bad.
The next stretch included three downed trees we had to navigate through/around/over, including one that required us to take all of our bags off and pass our bikes over a massive mess of limbs and leaves. Right as we passed by Antietam Battlefield around lunchtime, we got caught in a thunderstorm. Within minutes of the downpour starting, we and everything we were carrying was soaked. With the lightning closer than we would have preferred and surrounded by towering trees, we sheltered under a nearby bridge to take a break and eat a dry snack.
Shannon: IT WAS A LEVEL 10 EMERGENCY AND AN ALL HANDS ON DECK SITUATION. CODE LIGHTENING, CODE LIGHTENING.
Ellen: Yeah we got really wet but it turned out totally fine…
Once we finally got going again, there was not a single part of us or the trail that wasn’t covered in mud. And we mean absolutely caked on. We were supposed to camp at the Jordan Junction Campsite (MM 101. 2), but when we reached Williamsport, Md., for dinner, what we really wanted was a running shower and a bed we didn’t have to blow up ourselves. Luckily, the Red Roof Inn was just a mile into town, giving us a place to shower and clean all of the mud off ourselves and our bikes.
Shannon: We had to battle a massive and pissy flock of mama geese to get there, making us doubly deserving of a shower and dry bed.
Ellen: What do you mean by we? I got through the flock of geese completely unscathed…
Shannon: They were definitely out to get me. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if you high fived them as you went through at this point.
Day 3: 45.9 Mile
We were slow to get up on our third morning. Maybe it was the fact that it was Monday or maybe it was the lingering pain from riding 60 miles the day before that had us hanging around our motel room. After a quick breakfast in Williamsport and a second encounter with the flock of geese, we were on our way again.
Shannon: “Encounter”… That’s an awfully kind word for it.
We stopped for lunch at Buddylou’s (MM 124.5) in Hancock, Md., located right off the trail. This is probably where the cicadas were the most apparent as their fallen bodies scattered the sidewalk and deck. We also grabbed some dinner to go since there wouldn’t be anywhere to stop close to our campsite. After lunch, we swung by the C&O Bicycle shop for some more chain lube.
Ellen: Let’s just say those gears weren’t sounding right after being caked in mud the day before.
By the time we got to Devils Alley Campsite (MM 144.5), we were ready to be done for the day. Luckily, we stopped just in time to get our tent set up before it started raining again.
Ellen: It was one of the creepier campsites, but I didn’t realize just how creepy until Shannon revealed all that she noticed the next morning.
Shannon: SO, I hope y’all are reading this part with the lights on and during the day because the more the sun went down, the CREEPIER it got. Here’s why: It started in the portapotty where I saw one of the more intense bible verses printed out from a label maker pasted to the wall. After reading that, I made the connection that the name of the campsite was Devil’s Alley… Since I have a track record of being too skittish at camp once the sun goes down, I kept the rest to myself to spare Ellen of my wacko nighttime fears. As we walked through camp with our headlamps I found ANOTHER threatening label-maker-made bible verse attached to the picnic table. I thought, “Okay, it’s just some bible verses, no big deal… Amen amirite?!” But then my headlamp flashed on something screwed into a nearby tree. A. Bright. Red. Reflector. Cross. I did my best to ignore it but then it happened again when my headlight found another reflector cross that had the words “Jesus Saves” eerily scratched into it. I don’t know how I kept this information from Ellen that night or how my bladder was able to hold my pee all night long to avoid a solo trip to the bathroom, but thankfully we made it through the night.
Ellen: I’m honestly really concerned that I didn’t notice any of this… Although my contacts were out by this point so everything was a little fuzzy.
Day 4: 40 Miles
After a quick breakfast at the campsite, we were on our way knowing the end was less than 12 hours away. About halfway to our lunch spot, we came upon Paw Paw Tunnel (MM 156.1), the only section either of us had been on before. Huge warning signs let us know there was construction and to take the detour up and over the tunnel.
Shannon: The day before, we ran into old friends/mentors of mine who were coming from the opposite direction. They insisted that we take the tunnel instead of the detour. Katie, Karl, and Calvin, if you’re reading this, know that we wish we had listened to you!
Ellen: Being the rule follower that I am, I felt it was prudent to listen to the signs and not get ourselves into any trouble.
We did not have a good time. The National Park Service website says the detour is 1.5 miles with 375 feet of elevation change. But in the moment, it definitely felt like we were climbing Mount Everest as we pushed our bikes and gear uphill.
After a tortuous trip up and down the mountain, all we could do was laugh at the added work so close to the end of our trip. We joined a group of other thru bikers for lunch at Schoolhouse Kitchen (MM 165.6) in Oldtown, Md. Then it was a push to complete the last 20 miles of our journey.
With less than five miles to go, we saw the rain clouds forming in the distance and felt a few drops starting to come down. We both looked at each other and yelled, “YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME. WE ARE SO CLOSE TO THE END.” Luckily the rain clouds heard us and quickly passed us over. Then, suddenly, the steeples of Cumberland were in sight and we had less than a mile to go. We were laughing and crying as we passed under the towpath sign.
After taking a few obligatory “we did it” photos, we wiped down and changed in the public bathrooms behind Cumberland Trail Connection. For our final meal, we treated ourselves to dinner and drinks at Crabby Pig before driving back to Charlottesville, Va.
Leaving Cumberland and the trail behind us, we were high on the accomplishment after doing something neither of us was certain we could do. In what can only be described as Mother Nature apologizing for all the rain she dumped on us, we experienced the most epic sunset we’ve ever seen on the drive home. We don’t say this lightly.
Shannon: The C&O can be whatever you want to make it. We met people on a morning stroll and multi-day camping trips; paddlers practicing their rolls in calmer water and taking on the class III-V whitewater sections of Great Falls; kids out biking for the day and groups biking 334.5 miles all the way from Pittsburgh to D.C. Recreationalists of all skill levels and all ages were constantly coming and going on this trail, and it gave it a special sense of outdoor community.
I’ve never experienced a trip where the stakes felt so high while still feeling so low. I felt immersed in nature and challenged by our mileage while also feeling comforted by the nearby Canal Towns along the entire trail. It was nice to have the choice to push ourselves while having several alternative plans to fall back on.
Ellen: Hands down, biking is the best way to see the entire canal. It’s honestly becoming one of my favorite ways to get anywhere, whether it’s around town or out to a scenic destination. With so many miles to cover, it would have taken us way too long to hike the entire thing. And there’s no way to see everything—the locks, the changing scenery, the wildlife—from the car. Ergo, the bikes allowed us to cover a lot of miles while stops were easily accessible and encouraged.
Biking that many miles isn’t as rough when you’ve got a friend by your side and permission to not check your email all day. I can’t remember a time when I was more fully aware of my surroundings as when we were dodging puddles, keeping an eye on those clouds moving in, checking in with our bodies, and engaging all five senses as we pedaled our loaded bikes over the gravel-covered path.
Our Gear List
– I got my hands on one of Swift Industries’s Zeigest bags before the trip and it exceeded my expectations. Ellen can attest, I must have said “this is the bike bag of my dreams” once a day! It keeps its shape making it easier to organize and protect everything inside. The hood is also completely water-resistant, the bag kept everything dry when we got caught in a major storm!
– Witch Hazel wipes are one of my classic go-to’s for hiking or biking trips. They keep all your bits feeling refreshed after a long day of moving with no showers.
– Tiger balm is my muscle’s new favorite friend. It comes in a tiny glass jar making it easy to pack and is great to slap on your sore muscles to relieve some of the pain.
– My solar-powered charging bank kept my phone, Garmin watch, and JBL clip speaker charged. It was really nice to be able to charge it back up in the sun.
– My BRAAP Pack and Hoagie Hauler from R.E.Load were just what I needed to keep the most important tools in an easy-to-access place. My BRAAP Pack felt like Mary Poppins’ carpetbag with the number of things I was able to keep in it.
– My Anna Ruby sunglasses from Nectar were perfect for biking, keeping the sun out of my eyes and staying on my face despite the sweat pouring down my face.
– Thank goodness Shannon brought along her massage ball roller because my shoulder blades were screaming by the end of every day. Aleeve also helped with that.
Header image: Shannon, front, and Ellen in front of one of the canal locks and lockhouses. Photo by another bikepacker whose name we did not get but thank for this great photo