We sat down with Heidi Schlag from the C&O Canal Trust to give us the rundown on everything we need to know about the C&O Canal, including the best activities to do, what to expect, tips for first visit, and more! Take our word for it, after reading this, you’ll definitely be wanting to add a trip to the C&O Canal to your next visit to Montgomery County, Maryland.
Visit Montgomery: Upon arriving to the park, what can one expect in terms of fees and parking?
Heidi Schlag: The only place in the C&O Canal National Historical Park that charges admission fees is Great Falls, where a car is $20, an annual pass is $35, and a person on foot or on bike is $10. All other entrances in Montgomery County are free. Parking can be a challenge at some of the smaller trailhead parking lots, especially on beautiful weekends, so it is good to go early in the day.
VM: What are the must-see sites at the park?
HS: Great Falls is at the top of the list. The Overlook Trail and the Billy Goat Trails all offer great views of the Falls thundering over the rocks, fully exhibiting Mother Nature’s power. The historic tavern is also there, along with the Mercer canal boat, which will offer mule-pulled boat rides again in 2020.
Of course, the towpath is the spine of the Park, running 184.5 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland. It is hugely popular for hiking, cycling, running, and walking. A variety of historic structures and ruins line the towpath.
The aqueducts are amazing feats of engineering, as is the Paw Paw Tunnel in Allegany County, MD.
VM: What are the most popular activities that happen at the park?
HS: Almost all outdoor activities are available at the C&O Canal–many people don’t realize that. Guests can hike, cycle, climb, rock scramble, kayak, canoe, horseback ride (west of Seneca only), camp, snowshoe, skate, and more. However, not all of these activities are allowed in all areas of the Park, so it is important that guests visit the Park’s website and familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations for their safety.
VM: What types of wildlife can someone expect to see?
HS: The C&O Canal National Historical Park includes many different habitats as it travels from the coastal plains of Washington, DC to the mountains around Cumberland. This includes a variety of water sources, preserved woodland, and different rock formations within the Park, which all provide excellent habitat for many animal species. Because of this, the C&O Canal, specifically the area around Great Falls, is one of the most biodiverse parks in the National Park System. The diversity of birds and butterflies within the park attracts people from all over the world throughout the year. Of course, most everyone who visits the Park will see turtles sunning themselves on branches in the canal, and we have deer, foxes, raccoons, skunks, fish, and bats, along with the occasional bear in western Maryland.
VM: Is camping allowed at the park?
HS: Yes, camping is allowed at both drive-in and hiker-biker campgrounds only.
VM: Are there any seasonal activities for winter and fall?
HS: Fall and winter are both great seasons for hikers, cyclists, and runners, who can get more miles in due to the cooler temperatures. The Park is also a great place to see the vibrant autumn foliage. Many people love to snowshoe in the winter snow or just stroll the towpath and enjoy the Park’s serenity.
VM: What are the best times to go to beat the crowd?
HS: On beautiful weekends, there is no way to beat the crowds! The Montgomery County section of the C&O Canal is almost always busy. The trick on Saturdays and Sundays is to go farther west, where there aren’t as many visitors. Weekdays are often less crowded.
VM: Do you need to be an experienced hiker to hike the trails?
HS: No, you don’t. The towpath is flat with no discernible grade. Even the hiking trails are not very strenuous. You also don’t need to be an expert to tackle our most difficult trail, Billy Goat A; however, you should be physically fit; prepared with adequate hiking shoes, water, and a map; and obey all posted closures and warnings.
VM: What is your favorite part about working for the C&O Canal Trust?
HS: I love that my job allows me to help preserve the parkland and its historic structures. Getting to spend days working outside is also great, but it is very fulfilling to know that I am working for the greater good and that we will leave this park for future generations to enjoy.
VM: How many visitors annually?
HS: In 2021, the Park hosted over 5 million visitors park-wide, making it the 11th most visited national park in the nation. This places it above the Statue of Liberty, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. I don’t think many people realize what a treasure we have right here in Maryland.
VM: In your opinion, what is the most fun thing to do in the park?
HS: My favorite thing is to stay in our Canal Quarters Lockhouses. We have restored seven historic lockhouses, which are open to guests for overnight stays. It is a great way to step back in time and experience what life may have been like for the lock keepers who once worked on the canal. Each lockhouse depicts a different time period and offers a different experience. I highly recommend it! There is something special about being in the Park during the peace of night, with nature surrounding you, especially so close to the nation’s capital. The lockhouses are an excellent spot for a staycation or weekend get-away.
For more information about the C&O Canal visit The Canal Trust or National Park Service.