Guide to the C&O Canal National Historical Park
The park was established in 1961 as a National Monument by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in an effort to preserve the run-down remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, including various original structures.
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The Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Canal National Historical Park winds around through Maryland and D.C. for a total of 184.5 miles. The park was established in 1961 as a National Monument by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in an effort to preserve the run-down remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, including various original structures.
Two popular access points include the canal towns of Brunswick and Point of Rocks, with Mile marker 0 beginning in Georgetown and Mile 184.5 leaving you in Cumberland.
The National Historical Park is popular amongst cyclists and was designated as the first section of the U.S. Bicycle Route 50 in 2013. So, don't forget your bike at home!
Since there is no shortage of activities along the park route, I've put together a guide to make the trip less overwhelming. Don't forget to pack sunscreen, water, and snacks, but keep all trash with you.
Address: 142 W. Potomac St., Williamsport, MD, 21795
Hours: The park is open 365 days a year from sunrise to sunset
Phone Number: 301-739-4200
Official Website: C&O National National Historical Park
Parking: There are several access points to the park, with parking available at each entrance, as there is no main entrance
Fees: There are fees associated with entering the Great Falls section of the park; however, no other section has a fee. Costs vary depending on the vehicle, but a standard car must pay $20 before entering the Great Falls section. You can get an annual pass for $35, which is worth it if you visit more than once a year.
History of the C&O Canal
Before visiting the C&O Canal National Historical Park, it never hurts to know background knowledge. Initially, the canal was used to transport lumber, coal, and agriculture products between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, MD.
While construction began in 1828, it was not completed until 1850, after the B&O railroad had already reached Cumberland. Since the railroad was much more efficient than the canal, it proved inefficient when it opened, but it stayed in operation until 1924, when it was damaged beyond repair by a flood.
After the flood, people continued to live in shanties and cabins along the canal until 1961, when the park was established. If you're looking to see evidence of the transportation along the canal, check out the sites from Seneca to Georgetown.
For more information on the history of the C&O Canal, visit the C&O Canal Trust.
Operating Hours and Seasons of Visitor Centers
There are several visitor centers across the park, each with varying hours, so it's essential to understand which ones will be open for your visit. So here's a rundown of the appropriate openings and closings.
Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center
- March-December: Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 AM to 4:30 PM
- January-February: Thursdays through Sundays from 10 AM to 4 PM
- Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day
Brunswick Visitor Center
- Thursdays and Fridays from 10 AM to 2 PM
- Saturdays from 10 AM to 4 PM
- Sundays from 1 PM to 4 PM
Williamsport Visitor Center
- Open March through November
- Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 AM to 4:30 PM
Hancock Visitor Center
- Open Memorial Day through the end of September
- Saturdays and Sundays from 10 AM to 2 PM
Cumberland Visitor Center
- Open daily year-round
- April-December: 9 AM to 5 PM
- January-March: 10 AM to 4 PM
- Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day
How to Get to C&O Historical Park
The official C&O National Historical Park website details the best directions on how to get to the park:
In Washington, DC, the C&O Canal begins in Georgetown on 29th Street NW, south of M Street, and runs alongside Canal Road / Clara Barton Parkway out of DC to the west. The entrance to Great Falls is at Canal Road and MacArthur Blvd in Potomac, MD. Park Headquarters and the Williamsport Visitor Center are located off I-81 at exit 2. Cumberland Visitor Center is off I-68 at exit 43C.
Things to Do at the C&O National Historical Park
There is so much to do along the C&O canal, so you must come prepared. You can go biking, boating, birding, hiking, running, horseback riding, rock climbing, and more.
However, swimming is not permitted in canal waters and is discouraged in the Potomac Water due to strong currents, hidden flood debris, and deep holes.
Here are a few of the top activities for kids at the C&O National Historical Park:
Become a Junior Ranger
Young outdoor enthusiasts can take advantage of the Junior Ranger program, which offers various challenges, life-long nature skills, and treasured history information.
You can request a digital copy of the program via email or receive a hard copy in the mail. Some copies will be available at various visitor centers; however, it's best to call ahead to ensure they have availability.
Once kids complete their booklet, they can print out their official badge or design their own. If your kids don't love being outdoors, the Junior Ranger program is a great way to get them involved while having fun.
Finally, you don't want to miss National Junior Ranger Day, which takes place in April and is another fun way to get kids involved in nature.
STEM Activities in the Park
The C&O National Historical Park has STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) activities. Kids can make their own explorer backpacks, which can be done by repurposing items around the house.
In addition, kids can download a printable scavenger hunt and find various birds, plants, and critters throughout the park. Kids will also enjoy learning about the different types of rocks found along the canal. (I know my kids are fascinated by rocks.)
Since there is no shortage of sites throughout the park, encourage your kids to come up with games like I Spy and see what their young eyes discover.
Boat Rides Along the C&O Canal
Boats through the canal are available seasonally and take you for a ride in a replica of the Charles F. Mercer canal excursion boat. You want to check the calendar for the most up-to-date operating hours, but if you time it correctly, the family can go on an unforgettable boat ride.
Kids will enjoy that the park staff operate the boat just as they would in the 1870s, when things were bustling on the canal. While tickets are required, they are free and you can get them at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. In addition, tickets are first come first serve, so I highly recommend getting there early.
Finally, the boat ride lasts about 45 minutes, so you want to plan accordingly, especially if you are planning lunch afterward.
Visit the Billy Goat Trail
One of the most popular trails along the canal is the Billy Goat Trail, which has three sections - A, B, and C. Section C is ideal for families as it's an easier terrain, allows pets, and runs for 1.6 miles.
Section A is often closed due to flooding and is considered strenuous, so not the best for little feet. In addition, section B is challenging and has been closed in the past due to erosion and trail damage.
The trail is located in Potomac, MD and is southeast of the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. If you plan on visiting Section C of the Billy Goat Trail, you want to park at Carderock.
Check Out the Bluebells in the Spring
If you are looking for spring family photos, check out the bluebells along the canal. I have pictures of my kids with the bluebells and they are some of my favorite photos of my children.
Since the bluebells don't last long, you want to time your visit correctly and aim for March and April. You can catch these beautiful flowers over by Great Falls, the Billy Goat trailand various spots along the towpath.
Volunteer at the C&O Canal National Historical Park
I'm a big advocate for youth volunteer opportunities, because it helps instill important values in our children. There are several ways to volunteer at the C&O Canal National Historical Park, including Canal Community Days, school and family opportunities, and canal stewards.
Whether it was your resolution for the new year, or you have an itch to give back, consider volunteering at the National Park to keep it clean and beautiful. It's also a great way to show your children the importance of keeping our earth a clean and green place.
Tips for Visiting the C&O National Historical Park
I compiled several tips to help plan your trip to the C&O Canal National Historical Park because being prepared will help make your trip much more successful. If I left something out, don't forget to leave a comment below. We always enjoy hearing from our readers and what they like best!
- Check the Weather - You will spend most of the time outside, so ensure you have dressed appropriately, like loose and light-fitting clothing. You also want to check park conditions to avoid potential closures.
- Hold on to your Trash - The park is a trash-free zone, meaning anything you bring in must leave with you. I highly recommend bringing a trash or grocery bag to place your food waste. Also, don't forget poop bags if you bring your pup!
- Bring Water - You're not guaranteed water while along the route, and the well water has been treated with iodine, so it is unsafe to drink. Also, if you are going on a hot day, ensure you bring plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
- Have Snacks - While you can find some restaurants on various parts of the canal, it's always smart to have protein-rich snacks with you. Just remember to keep the trash with you and don't feed the animals.
- Have a Plan - Visiting the C&O National Historical Park isn't like taking a walk in the neighborhood park. Since there are nearly 200 miles to see, it's best to know which areas you want to visit before making the drive.
- Be Prepared for a Lack of Service - There are areas along the route that do not have good cell reception, so you must let someone know you are visiting the park before heading out.
- Be Respectful - While this should go without saying, ensure you or your group don't destroy the beautiful nature along the way and stay on the designated trails.
- Wear Insect Repellent - To prevent tick bites, ensure you use an appropriate amount of insect repellent before starting your day. Also, staying on the trail will reduce your risk of a tick taking a hike on your leg.
The C&O Canal National Historical Park is full of history, adventure, and learning. Since the canal stretches over 184 miles, it's best to map out your route before hitting the trail. I hope this guide has helped you on your venture to the C&O, and we can't wait to hear how it went!
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