Pedal right out of DC, into history & charm
Bike right from D.C. into natural beauty to explore history and charm along the path to Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown.
The C&O Towpath is great for just an autumn weekend or exploring for an entire summer. With plenty of opportunities to camp along the canal or duck into town for a cozy room along the way to the charm of the West Virginia mountains, the C&O Towpath is a perfect adventure for any bikepacker.
There are campsites every few miles along the Potomac River, so you don’t need to rush to find a good spot. Campsites should have water available, but bring plenty of water and a water filter just in case. Also, check the weather before you head out: it’s still rideable when it’s wet, but can get fairly muddy in the spring when it rains more often.
While the C&O Towpath is a great entry-level path, it’s always a good idea to train before you hit the trail. Because the path is flat, the greater challenge than muscle fatigue is fanny fatigue. Depending on how many hours you plan on riding per day, there can be a lot of friction in the saddle area as your legs propel you towards Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry. Try to ride a little bit every day in the weeks leading up to your trip to get used to sitting in the saddle every day, and to increase your mileage and hours riding.
If you’re camping instead of staying in a hotel or B&B, take a few rides with your gear, so you have an idea of how everything feels on your bike.
Stop by a local bike shop to make sure your bicycle is properly adjusted prior to leaving, and invest in a multi-tool and a quality pair of padded bicycle shorts (called chamois.) Your butt will thank you for it, and you will actually be able to enjoy that celebratory ice cream cone as you sit on a hard wooden bench in Harpers Ferry.
On the Trail
The path is a combination of brick, limestone and, as you pedal further away from D.C., dirt (and potentially mud.) Along the way, you’ll have a canopy of leaves during the summer that will burst into bright colors in the fall.
Between Washington, D.C., and Shepherdstown, WV, be prepared for a long ride filled with beautiful views of waterways and remnants of the days of trains and boats.
Enjoy riding along the Potomac River at a relatively flat, easy grade and look for the first aqueduct just before you hit 23 miles in— the ruins of of Seneca Creek Aqueduct. 42 miles into your ride, the path temporarily moves away from the Potomac for a great view of the Monocacy Aqueduct over the Monocacy River, the largest aqueduct on the trail. In between the 2, around mile 35, go off-trail for a little side adventure on the historic cable-pulled ferry. Besides the aqueducts, look for railroad ruins, and check out one of the many pizza shops along the way as you duck in and out of small towns on your way to Harpers Ferry.
As the oldest town in West Virginia, Shepherdstown has had a lot of time to figure out how to make quaint cool. With Shepherd University contributing to the theatrical and musical communities of the town, Shepherdstown will sweep you off your feet.
Head into town early or plan for an extra day to stop at Shepherdstown Pedal & Paddle and rent a canoe or kayak for a fun cruise down the river. It’s also your go-to spot for adjusting or fixing anything that may have gotten shaken loose during your ride into town.
Need something to read to pass the time? Four Seasons Books has you covered, and with plenty of discount and used books in their well-curated collection, you’ll even have cash leftover to take your new favorite book across the street to Mellow Moods Café & Juice Bar.
Before tucking in for the night in one of the many inns, grab some dinner and drinks in the historic setting of Mecklenburg Inn (known as “The Meck” to locals.) Whether you choose the historic Bavarian Inn, Thomas Shepherd Inn or sleeping under the bright stars, you’ll be well rested to head into Harpers Ferry.
Harpers Ferry is a National Historical Park with hiking trails, historical reenactments and classes, and guided tours. But that’s just the tip of the colonial iceberg.
History buffs have a long list of things to check out: the Civil War Living History Museum, a heritage tour by O’ Be JoyFull Historical Tours and Entertainment, the John Brown Wax Museum, the Harpers Ferry Toy Train Museum or one of the many other museums and historical outposts in town.
Take a break from your bike and try one of the other adventures in Harpers Ferry. Whether it’s a zip line, river kayak, or rafting, River Riders will get you suited up and moving. At sunset, catch the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry, and close out the night at one of the local restaurants— they all have great food and a variety of drinks.
Harpers Ferry is chock-full of quaint, clean B&Bs that might tempt you out of sleeping outside. Simply roll down Washington Street to find the one that bests suits your style and budget.
Stop by the Visitors Center to get more information and a map of town to find out what piques your interest.
This post was last updated on March 16, 2022