April 2005: Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park


Washington DC to Cumberland, 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 Cheasapeake 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-friendlytowpath 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. 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 the 15-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.

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 park entrance is at the junction of Falls Road (Route 189) and MacArthur Boulevard. Take Exit 39 off I-495 and continue on River Road (Route 190) West before turning left on Falls Road.