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A Day on the C&O Canal

A 5.2-mile hike between Old Anglers and Great Falls Tavern offers a well-rounded introduction to scenery and history of the canal.

Brett Daly of Potomac makes a weekly trip to the C&O Canal at the Old Angler’s Inn entrance.

“That’s almost like my Times Square,” said Daly, who has been coming to this spot on the canal almost every Sunday for ten years. “That’s the epicenter, there are always people there to hang out with, and it’s always the beginning of your day, no matter what you decide to do.”

The Potomac River is roughly 413 miles long, and drains nearly 15,000 square miles of land in Maryland and Virginia. It is the fourth-largest river on the East Coast, and it forms a natural border between Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Even with the immense size and importance of the Potomac River, it is often overlooked as a recreation spot. But to those who seek it out, the Potomac, and the C&O Canal that runs along its Maryland shore can be an excellent place to spend the day outdoors. There are plenty of local access points to C&O Canal National Historical Park, but one of the best introductions to the canal is to is to hike its towpath, ride the canal boat at Great Falls Tavern, and hike back.

“The canal offers a great place for outdoor activities of any kind,” said Don Harrison, president of Friends of the Historic Great Falls Tavern. “The Tavern offers great beauty and history, right outside the Washington D.C. area.”

A POPULAR SPOT to access the C&O Canal towpath is across from Old Angler’s Inn, at 10801 MacArthur Boulevard in Potomac. Across the street from the restaurant is a free parking lot for park patrons. A very short walk down a path and over a bridge brings a visitor to the towpath. To the left is the lower part of the trail — it's 11.4 miles to the canal's beginning, just below Georgetown. Ahead is the river, and an excellent spot for kayakers — there's a put-in nearby where kayakers access the river, and the proximity to the parking lot and tranquil canal waters makes this a popular place for kayaking and canoeing outfitters to give lessons.

To the right, the towpath leads Great Falls Tavern. The gravel path is

easily traversed both on foot or by bike. It is 2.6 miles from the beginning of the path, to the front door of the Great Falls Tavern.

“It is not the hardest hike in the world,” said Steve Distin of Potomac, who was spending his first ever afternoon on the canal, “It’s a nice Sunday afternoon walk. It’s beautiful.”

The Tavern, located at Lock 20, started out as a home for those who were constructing the canal. Eventually it became the home to the first lockmaster of Lock 20, W.W. Fenlon, in 1828. In the following years, the building was expanded considerably as it later served as a hotel and a tavern, and now is maintained by the National Park Service, and stands as a showcase and museum for the area.

Unfortunately, the Tavern is currently undergoing some renovations, but planners hope to have them done by the end of the year. “It’s going to look like a tavern from 150 years ago,” said Harrison, “It will be fun, but the purpose is to educate visitors.”

GREAT FALLS TAVERN is far from the only attraction to this part of the canal. A canal boat ride aboard the new Charles F. Mercer is a must for anybody getting acquainted with the canal.

Modeled after the packet boats that ferried visitors between Georgetown and Great Falls during the canal's heyday, the Charles F. Mercer was built last summer, and is now a living part of the Canal’s history.

“The [Charles F. Mercer is] our most popular attraction,” said Harrison, “you get to go over, through, above, and below, a real working lock. It’s almost exactly like it was 150 years ago.”

The Charles F. Mercer is pulled by mules, which the riders can meet after the ride is over. The boat passes through Lock 20, which brings the boat 8 feet above the level at which it started on the way upstream, then back through the lock on the return.

“You never really realize how cool some of this stuff is until you see it for what it is,” said Joanne Young, a University of Virginia student. “The history of this place is so interesting, and the tour guides do a great job presenting it.”

Until Oct. 28, the Charles F. Mercer runs Wednesday through Friday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m. and 1:30 and 3 p.m. It costs $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, and $5 for children. It is a one-hour ride.

“After the walk, it’s nice to sit down,” said Distin, “the boat ride is fun, and it provides a nice break in the middle of the afternoon.”

Travelers can also cross a bridge to Olmsted Island, right in front of the Tavern, where the Great Falls Overlook provides some of the most beautiful sights that the Potomac River and C&O Canal have to offer.

The walk back from Great Falls to the Old Anglers parking lot is slightly downhill; overall the 5.2 round-trip hike is flat enough to be accomplished by nature lovers of all ages.

“It’s perfect,” said Daly, “Not too hard, but still hard enough so I feel like I accomplished something. I honestly can not think of any way I would rather spend an afternoon.”