One of the best bike rides from Washington is riding along the Potomac River to Great Falls. Reaching the Virginia side of Great Falls can be a challenge for cyclists from DC, but the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center on the Maryland side offers the same views and is a straightforward journey. The Visitor Center lies smack in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. The C&O Canal starts in Georgetown, taking you from the city to the countryside. My teenage nephew Greg was in town, so with his help I’ve documented our bike trip, taken on a Monday in late July (mixing in some shots from other days).
11:40am. The photo above is the start of the towpath, which meets the Rock Creek Park trail at the eastern edge of Georgetown. We skipped this part of the towpath and opted to first go to the riverfront and bike through Georgetown Waterfront Park on K St. Biking west, K St reverts to its original name of Water St from before the Georgetown street renaming.
The road runs under the Whitehurst Freeway, then ends when you pass below the remains of the old Aqueduct Bridge. This is where the Capital Crescent Trail begins. I prefer starting here rather than the adjacent towpath because the trail is paved while the towpath is gravel.
11:58am. Though you are never far from Canal Rd NW, and then the Clara Barton Parkway, the surroundings are lush and green.
The first section of the trail has many terrific views of the river. On sunny days you see all sorts of boats on the water, often congregating around the Three Sisters islands.
As you approach Fletcher’s Cove, the paved trail gradually rises closer to the towpath.
15 minutes after entering the trail, we arrived at Fletcher’s Cove. This photo shows the connection between the trail and the towpath. Not visible are two landmarks: turn left to see Fletcher’s Boathouse, towards the river, and on the right, across the canal, is the Abner Cloud House, an old white building. This is the last chance to get back on the C&O towpath. If you stay on the Capital Crescent Trail you will veer north over the canal and into Bethesda.
Shortly after Fletcher’s, the towpath will take you below the Arizona Avenue Railway Bridge, where the Capital Crescent Trail passes overhead. You are still in the District of Columbia, by the way.
12:09pm. On the towpath below the Arizona Avenue Railway Bridge. We had already biked 5 miles to get here from home. Great Falls is still more than 10 miles away.
The next major site is Lock 5, in Maryland. The first four locks were in Georgetown (which we had skipped). Before seeing the lock, you will bike across a bridge over a feeder canal, which lets water from the river enter the system.
12:31pm. We stopped at the entrance to Sycamore Island, home to a private club. Members can take a cable ferry to the island. Below the steps to the shore, one of the ropes rings a bell, signalling the island’s caretaker to pick up members.
12:36pm. The Chataqua Lock, Lock 7, has a nice lock house nearby.
12:47pm. Approaching Lock 8. Even on a weekday, we passed other people, jogging and biking on the trail.
12:57pm. Lock 11. The trail is flat, except of course at each lock, when you have a short hill up to the next level.
1:01pm. Not only does the towpath pass under the Capital Beltway, but lock 13 is right here in the shadows. Locks 8 through 14 make up the “Seven Locks,” a group of locks all within a short stretch (1.14 miles).
1:24pm. Our path was blocked at the area near Angler’s Inn. They seem to be replacing the canal here. The detour took us on a high path on the other side of the canal. Through the trees we could see one of my favorite sections of the canal, known as Widewater.
1:44pm. The detour ended at a bridge back to the west side of the canal. I was surprised to see what looked like a covered bridge. It wasn’t there the last time I biked here. I later learned this is the Stop Gate, and the structure was recently rebuilt atop the original stone foundations.
2:09pm. Great Falls at last. You can’t see the river from the towpath. Instead, look for the entrance to the boardwalk trail that takes you to this overlook on Olmsted Island. Great Falls isn’t a single waterfall, but instead a series of cascading rapids that rush through the Mather Gorge.
2:16pm. On the trail back to the canal, we stopped to admire one of the smaller rapids that pass below the bridge.
2:16pm. Lock 20, by the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, is known as the Tavern Lock. We went in the Visitor Center and saw the exhibits about the history of the park.
2:25. I had hoped to ride the Charles F Mercer boat, but a recent drought had emptied the canal of water.
2:40pm. For the trip back, we headed out of the park via MacArthur Blvd, riding for a bit along the side of the road in Potomac, Maryland.
3:32pm. Almost 8 miles down the road, I surprised Greg with a stop at Glen Echo Park, which I billed as an abandoned amusement park, trying to make it sound like the setting of an episode of Scooby Doo. The park is more interesting at night when the neon lights come on (see my photo post at Greater Greater Washington). The only ride still in operation is the carousel, which unfortunately was closed, operating only Wednesdays through Sundays.
4:11pm. To return to the C&O Canal towpath, we rode along MacArthur Blvd to a small parking lot across from Walhonding Rd, less than a mile from Glen Echo Park. From there a path led to the Sycamore Island Pedestrian Overpass, which lets you safely cross the Clara Barton Parkway. A small metal truss bridge takes you over the canal and back to the towpath.
5:03pm. Once we got to Fletcher’s Cove, we switched from the gravelly towpath to the paved Capital Crescent Trail. Soon we saw the office buildings in Rosslyn, and then Key Bridge, signalling our trip was coming to an end.
5:12pm. Back in the city, at Georgetown Waterfront Park. Our trip to Great Falls had taken more than five hours, but we had a great time. I’d recommend doing the trip with a hybrid bike, though you’d be fine on a touring bike if you don’t mind the bumpy towpath. A mountain bike would work, but it’s a long trip and fat tires might wear you down too quickly. The C&O Canal is a wonderful resource, and a great way to add variety to a trip to the nation’s capital.