Doggin’ America’s Historic Canals

Canals are great places to take your dog. From earliest Colonial times, ambitious entrepreneurs dreamed of connecting America's waterways to ease travel and promote commerce. George Washington was one of the first. He chartered the Patowmack Company in 1784 to construct a series of five canals along the Potomac River to reach into the virgin territory of the Ohio Valley.

The American Canal Age lasted approximately from 1790 until 1855. Many of the great projects were still under construction when the rise of the railroads made them obsolete and unprofitable. Most canals were privately funded and limped along financially until the early 1900s.

Some abandoned canals were filled in; others drained and returned to nature. Old canals were naturals to be converted into parks and are great places to take your dog for a hike. Towpaths are often left in their natural state or covered with gravel - not paved over like most abandoned railroads. The hiking is always easy on wide, flat towpaths once trod by horses and mules and there is usually plenty of swimming for your dog.

When you're out traveling, look for a canal park to enjoy with your dog. Here are a few to consider:

Ohio & Erie Canal - Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio
Just 15 minutes south of Cleveland is the dog-friendly Cuyahoga Valley National Park along the Cuyahoga River. The Cuyahoga takes 90 miles of twists and turns bumping into resistant rock to cover 30 miles as the proverbial crow flies. The American Indians who lived in the valley as long as 12,000 years ago called it “Ka-ih-ogh-ha,” the crooked river. There are 1000 miles of canals in Ohio and a navigable water link between Lake Erie and the Ohio River was the first priority. In 1832 the Ohio & Erie Canal became a reality. The main trail to hike with your dog through the park is the nearly 20 miles of the Towpath Trailalong the route of the historic canal. Ten trailheads make it easy to hike the crushed limestone path in biscuit-size chunks. The trail is a mix of meadows and forests and the remnants of locks and villages.

One of the river’s severe turns creates a peninsula from which a 19th century village took its name. When the Ohio & Erie Canal opened in 1827 Peninsula became a booming port town overnight. Fourteen bars and five hotels sprung up to service the flow of traffic on the canal. The canal era lasted a few scant decades before railroads drained their customers.

Peninsula is an ideal starting point to experience the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail with your dog. Boston Store is an easy 2.5-miles to the north for a car shuttle or an out-and-back canine hike. A short distance to the south is Deep Lock Quarry with a 1.2-mile loop trail up the valley hills to the old excavation site, now liberally covered in trees. Along the way you pass Lock 28, the deepest lock on the canal, dropping the water level 17 feet, a critical linchpin in the entire waterway.  

Chesapeake & Ohio National Historic Park - Potomac River, Washington DC/Maryland
April is the time visitors descend on the nation's capital to drink in the cherry blossoms. But after strolling about the Tidal Basin, active dog owners will want to escape the crowds for the canine hiking along the old Chesapeake and Ohio canal. George Washington was one of the early American speculators who dreamed of the riches an inland American waterway could bring that would float goods from the West to Washington down the Potomac River. A canal that could connect the Potomac River to the Ohio River in Pittsburgh would provide a continuous water link from New Orleans to the Chesapeake Bay.

The canal, dubbed the "Great National Project" by President John Quincy Adams, was finally started on July 4, 1828. It would take 22 years to complete - actually construction just stopped since the canal route never made it out of Maryland with only 184.5 of the planned 460 miles dug - and was obsolete before it opened. Battling the young and ever-improving railroads, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal lasted for 75 years floating cargo from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown. The ditch survived filling in through the efforts of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas who championed the canal as "a long stretch of quiet and piece."

At the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center dogs are denied the extraordinary views of the powerful Great Falls of the Potomac and Mather Gorge - they are banned from the boardwalk trails on the Olmsted Island Bridges and the rockscrambling on the Billy Goat "A" Trail around Bear Island. But canine hikers are welcome everywhere else and park staff even maintains a watering bowl for pets at the Visitor Center drinking fountain.

The packed sand and paw-friendly towpath is one of the most scenic of its ilk - the canal section around the Great Falls opens wide and the boulder-edged water calls to mind the Canadian Rockies rather than suburban Washington. Away from the Potomac a trail system penetrates the wooded hills above the river. These wide dirt trails make for easy dog walking through an airy, mature forest.

The key route is the Gold Mine Loop that pushes out from behind the Visitor Center. Various short spur trails, some marked and some not, radiate off the 3.2-mile loop. During the Civil War, a Union private camped at Great Falls discovered gold-bearing quartz while tending to his chores. After the war he returned to Great Falls and began mining operations that triggered a mini-gold rush to the area. Although the Maryland Mine was active from 1867 until 1939, it yielded less than $200,000 of precious metal. The Falls Road Spur takes you to the ruins of the mine and mine diggings can be seen at several places on the trails.

The River Trail above the Washington Aqueduct Dam takes canine hikers along river's edge for about one mile. Even though the water can seem placid at this point, beware of unpredictable currents in the river - the Potomac River has claimed scores of lives over the years. The prime attraction for canine hikers at the western end of the canal route is Paw Paw Tunnel at Mile 155 (from I-70 in Hancock take Route 522 south to Route 9; turn right and drive 28 miles to the town of Paw Paw). Bring a flashlight for the15-minute dogwalk on the towpath through the 3,118-foot tunnel. It took 14 years and six million bricks to bypass the six mile stretch of the Potomac River known as Paw Paw Bends. The return trip can come via the orange-blazed Tunnel Hill Trail, a strenuous two-mile haul to a ridge 362 feet above the tunnel.

Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park - New Jersey
When canal building fever swept America in the early 1800s it didn’t take much imagination to dream of a water route between New York and Philadelphia across central New Jersey. Ships could navigate up the Delaware River to Bordentown and to New Brunswick in the east so all that was required was to dig a ditch between the two villages.

Construction began in 1830 and by 1834 the canal was open. The main artery - 75 feet wide and seven feet deep and all hand dug - stretched 44 miles and another feeder line ran down the Delaware River to Trenton for 22 miles. The Delaware and Raritan was one of America’s busiest canals and staved off competition from the railroads at a profit until almost 1900. It remained open until 1932 until the last coal barge was grounded. The State of New Jersey took over the property as a water supply system and today the canal remains virtually intact. The state park is a 70-mile linear park connecting fields and forests along its route.

Canine hiking along the old towpath in uses natural and crushed gravel surfaces. Several mill buildings, wooden bridges and canal structures are reminders of the bustling times that were once routine here. The canal still brims with activity today - almost any time you can count on sharing the trail with joggers, fishermen, cyclists, horseback riders - and other dogs.  

Hike back to another century with your dog along the canal route as you encounter wooden bridges and 19th century bridge tender houses, remnants of locks, cobblestone spillways and hand-built stone-arched culverts.

Schuylkill Canal Park - Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania’s first canal system was cobbled together in 1815 using 120 locks to stretch 108 miles from the coal fields of Schuylkill County to Philadelphia. Railroads began chewing away at canal bus-iness in the 1860s and the last coal barges floated down the Schuylkill River in the 1920s. Today, the only sections of the canal in existence are at Man-ayunk and Lock 60, built by area name donor Thomas Oakes, at the Schuylkill Canal Park

In 1985 the Schuylkill Canal Association formed to keep the canal flowing and maintain the lock and towpath. In 1988, the area was added to the National Register of Historic Places. After years of fundraising and handiwork volunteers have rebuilt Lock 60 and it is now in operating condition. You can see it work during Canal Days in June. 

You can either enjoy the flattest walk in Montgomery County here or the steepest. The peaceful canal towpath covers 2 1/2 miles from the Lock House, built in 1836, to the eastern end of Port Providence. Across the canal are houses and town buildings looking much as they did throughout the canal era. Upstream from Lock 60 are the Ravine Trail, with three ascents to the 100-foot high rock bluffs overlooking the Schuylkill River, and the Valley View Trail, which deadends - for dog-walking - at the Upper Schuylkill Valley Park. No dogs are allowed in that park. 

Erie Canal Park - Camillus, New York
As early as 1809 DeWitt Clinton had been appointed one of seven commissioners to examine and survey a route for a canal from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. Months after he was elected Governor in 1817, on July 4, Clinton turned the first shovelful of dirt for the Erie Canal, of which he was its greatest champion.

Eight years later, hand dug by farmers and immigrant workers, the 363-mile long waterway linking the Atlantic seaboard and the American interior. The Erie Canal, the county’s first heroic engineering marvel, quickly became the world’s most successful and famous canal.

The original canal was gradually expanded to 70 feet wide and seven feet deep but its usefulness in the railroad age was waning. By 1922 the canal here was dry and abandoned. In 1972 the township purchased a seven-mile stretch from New York State and volunteers began an energetic campaign of cleaning the canal bed, building infrastructure and filling the canal once again.  

Land on either side of the canal has been cleared to provide hiking trails along a four-mile stretch of the enlarged Erie Canal route in Camillus. The park is centrally located so you can hike an approximately four-mile loop with your dog on either side of Devoe Road. Most canine hikers will opt for the East Side trails that end impressively at the imposing piers and abutments of the Old Erie Canal Aqueduct that carried water in a wooden trough over the Nine Mile Creek. It took three years to build the aqueduct in 1839 and it is being restored today. The Nine-Mile Creek, by the way, is an excellent canoe trail to paddle with your dog.

This is all easy trotting for your dog with plenty of shade. There are also a couple of side trails to extend your hiking day around the Erie Canal. 

John Sims operated a provisions store on Warners Road where it crosses the canal in 1856. He did well enough to eventually sell out and move his family of seven children to Belle Isle. The original building stood until it burned in a fire in 1963. Volunteers built a replica of the Sims Store to serve as park headquarters on Devoe Road. The first floor retains the feel of a 19th century general store and the upstairs rooms serve as a museum of canal history. Behind the Sims Store the Clinton Ditch Trail runs along portions of the original Erie Canal.

Delaware Canal State Park - Pennsylvania
The 60-mile Delaware Canal is the only remaining continuously intact canal of the great towpath canal building era of the early and mid-19th century. The last paying canal boat completed its journey through the Delaware Canal on October 17, 1931. Today, the canal retains almost all of its features as they existed during its century of commercial operation.

The towpath runs from Easton to Bristol and is a National Recreation Trail. Together, the Delaware Canal State Park and the Delaware and Raritan CanalState Park have formed a series of looping trails connecting Pennsylvania and New Jersey, using five bridges across the Delaware River. Loop trail connection bridges are in the Pennsylvania towns of Uhlerstown, Lumberville, Center Bridge, Washington Crossing and Morrisville.