More than 78 miles of the C & O Canal’s 184.5 miles are located in Washington County, Maryland. Though the National Park Service (NPS) site has a historical designation and a rich history rooted in transportation and commerce, it’s no secret that people flock to the Canal year round to recreate outdoors.
Whether you’re going for a stroll, hiking, biking, fishing, birdwatching, horseback riding or enjoying boating or paddle sports, there are 78 miles of Canal with diverse landscapes and scenic views. United States Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once described the Canal as a “a refuge, a place of retreat, a long stretch of quiet and peace,” and many people find it to be just that.
The best place to start your journey on the Canal is at an NPS visitor center. Three of the seven visitor centers along the Canal, as well as the park headquarters, are located in Washington County: Ferry Hill Plantation in Sharpsburg, the Williamsport Visitor Center at the Cushwa Basin, and the Bowle's House-Hancock Visitor Center. At each visitor center you can learn about the history of the Canal, find out about any closures to the towpath that may affect your travel plans, and you can pick up a park brochure with a trail map. The visitor center hours vary, but they are typically open spring through fall.
There are numerous access points for the Canal in Washington County, ranging from drop-off only points to small pull-off areas and large established parking lots. Any visitor planning to leave their car overnight must obtain a parking permit in advance. Parking areas with large lots are located at the Railroad Bridge/Shepherdstown (mile 72.4), Big Slackwater (mile 85.4), Williamsport Visitor Center (mile 99.8), Four Locks (mile 108.8) and the Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) at Pearre (mile 135.9).
If you’re planning an extended through-hike or -bike on the Canal, you’ll find a dozen camping areas along the towpath in Washington County. Most are free hiker-biker campgrounds, located every six to eight miles. Two of the Canal campgrounds in Washington County are drive-in/walk-in campgrounds: Antietam Creek Campground and McCoy’s Ferry Campground. They are first-come, first-served and do require a small fee. Another unique option for overnight lodging is Lockhouse 49, located at Four Locks. The restored lockhouse has been converted to lodging as part of the Canal Quarters program through the C & O Canal Trust. It sleeps eight people and is fairly primitive, with electric baseboard heat, a stove, and a portable toilet
There are several watershed sections of the Canal and the towpath runs alongside the Potomac River, making it a great place for fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and boating. There are popular fishing spots all along the Washington County portion of the Canal. A fishing license is required for anyone age 16 or older. Boat launches are located at Dargan Bend, Snyder’s Landing, Taylor’s Landing, Big Slackwater, Four Locks, McCoy’s Ferry and Little Tonoloway. Be sure to click on the boating link above for more detailed information about rules and regulations. And speaking of boating, you can step back in history by taking a Canal boat ride at Williamsport, offered during specific times of the year.
For a complete listing of recreational activities on the Canal, click here for a copy of the Recreation Guide by Milepost: https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/upload/Park_Planner_2014final2.pdf.