C&O Canal Towpath Bikepacking – May 2017

In Trip Videos, Trips by Brian Raines

There was rain.  There was mud.  There was trail magic! There were campfires.  There was tremendous adventure and fun.

Into every life a little rain must fall – we’ve all heard it and we’ve all lived it, but in this instance an edit is required.  It should read – into every life a lot of rain must fall.   Four days worth of it and the accompanying mud that comes along with it when you are bikepacking the C&O Canal Towpath.

There was slippery mud, peanut butter mud, rocky mud, sandy mud – just about every type of mud you can imagine.

The Solomons Island Cycling (SIC for short) bikepacking group set out on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend to ride SOBO (southbound) from Cumberland, MD to Washington, D.C.  Friday was the best day for weather and the perfect way to kick off the trip.  I wasn’t able to launch with the group Friday morning and instead joined them at camp on Friday night.

Friday was sunny but the rain leading into the weekend set the stage for the muddy weekend to come.  After a sidebar into Paw Paw, WV for sandwiches and drinks the group headed back to the towpath for the slide through the Paw Paw Tunnel (note: the tunnel is scheduled to be closed during a portion of the 2017 season for repairs – link).  The NPS will be conducting some rock scaling (removal of loose rock) forcing the closure for 120-150 days beginning June 2, 2017.  So we were just able to sneak through the tunnel before closure.

First night of camping was at the Fifteen Mile Creek Campground.  The intent was to camp at the Devil’s Alley Hiker/Biker site but it was occupied at arrival.  If you are not familiar with the hiker/biker campsites along the towpath they are located approximately every 5 to 6 miles and offer a fire ring, picnic table, port-a-potty, and well pump.  The well pumps are tested regularly and treated with iodine (so if you have any iodine allergies take note).  If you encounter a well pump without a handle that means the water is not suitable for drinking at the present time.  The water quality and clarity varies between sites.  Sometimes the water is crystal clear and other times quite brown.  I have personally never felt the need to filter the well pump water but do frequently add some water flavoring to cover the taste.  The best feature of the well pumps is the water is typically quite cold.  On a hot day dunking your head under a well pump is quite refreshing.

A piece of new equipment I added for this trip was a pillow. I know that doesn’t sound like much but a good night’s sleep is imperative to trip enjoyment. The Sea to Summit Aeros Premium pillow is pretty amazing. I had been using a Teton pillow that was about 3 times the size packed and half the size deployed. The Aeros Premium is easy to inflate and you can apply micro adjustments to the firmness. It is close to a full sized pillow and well worth every penny. I highly recommend this pillow.

Fifteen Mile Creek is a drive in site so it was fairly busy on this holiday weekend.  It is near Bill’s Place in Little Orleans.  Bill’s Place is about the only “place” in Little Orleans and has quite the history and back story.  Let’s just say it is full of character.

Hiker/Biker campsites are free, but the drive in sites typically require payment so be mindful of your logistics and plan accordingly.  H/B sites are first come, first serve and you don’t reserve them. Late arrivals are frequent and should be welcomed.  No one wants to ride/hike the extra 5 miles to the next site but large groups are common so keep that in mind, particularly if you require special needs such as a hammock location.

Saturday started out with light drizzle but spirits were high.  Our plan was to make it to Williamsport for a late lunch at Desert Rose and then early camp at the Cumberland Valley H/B site at milepost 95.  Lunch was great (and warm and dry).  If you haven’t frequented Desert Rose Cafe while on a towpath adventure you should.  They offer great food, great prices, don’t mind dirty/smelly/muddy cyclists, have an abundance of snacks to take with you AND are more than willing to rinse off your water bottle and refill them with fresh water.

An early stop for the evening was a good idea.  We began setting up camp around 3PM.  We had plenty of time to set up gear, get a fire going and relax.  Cumberland Valley H/B is a great site – large and flat with plenty of trees.

I added a shelter tarp to my kit for this trip.  It came in quite handy as a bike cover.  I usually remove my panniers from the bike each night and store them under my tent vestibule.  It can be quite cumbersome taking them and off.  Leaving them on the bike worked out well with the shelter tarp.  The tarp came with stakes and tie downs. In the future I will continue this practice even in the nicer weather to keep the morning dew off the bike and keep the panniers and bags in place.

More rain welcomed us the next day on Sunday.  We had a long trip ahead of us today and we got off to a good start.

We left the trail to head into Sheperdstown, WV for lunch at the Blue Moon Cafe.  It is a long journey off the trail into Sheperdstown but it was a welcome and much needed break.

Somewhere along the way we also had to detour around what we thought was a towpath closure for flooding.  When we arrived on north side of the detour it became apparent the detour was not necessary.  It did add some considerable mileage and a few hills to our route for the day.

Our next stop of Harper’s Ferry.  Have you ever been to Harper’s Ferry on a holiday weekend when the weather was mostly bad with a little spot here and there of decent? Yeah, it was crowded to say the least.  Combine a high volume of walkers with tremendous puddles none of them wanted to step in with loaded bikes.  It ended up that we had no choice but to venture through the puddles often times leaving mud splashed walkers in our wake.  It happens.  Go for a walk on a muddy towpath you should somewhat expect to get a little muddy.

South of Harper’s Ferry our peanut butter type mud and puddles gave way to a slick dark variant of mud.  It was very slippery and wafted a less than pleasant odor.

When we rolled our bikes into Indian Flats H/B we found a crowded campsite.  We were one of two larger groups plus a couple of hikers and another cyclist. But the best part was the trail magic that awaited us on arrival.

Gary’s son Patrick had already arrived at our destination and set up pop-up tents, brought a portable shower and had two grills cooking hamburgers and hot dogs.  What a welcome sight this was – coolers of gatorade, water, chocolate milk, and more! TRAIL MAGIC happens!  It is real and it is amazing.

The next day was the final stretch.  Our pick up location was the Jones Point Park in Alexandria, VA under the Wilson Bridge.  There was finally some sun again which felt great.

A broker rear rack bolt almost spoiled the fun but some paracord and zip ties combined with offloading a pannier to my bike allowed us to continue with barely a hiccup.

We passed through a very crowded Great Falls in small groups and reformed as a group on the south side.  With our pickup in Alexandria we had another obstacle to clear – the Mt. Vernon Trail.  The Mt. Vernon Trail has been around for quite some time.  It’s a narrow trail that is very crowded on weekends and since Monday was a holiday and the first dry sunny day in some time it was packed.  We picked our way through the crowds and finally landed safely at Jones Point Park.

Adventure complete.

Lessons learned…

  1. Traveling south to north is probably a better alternative on a busy weekend.  Crowds further south in the Great Falls and Harper’s Ferry areas of the towpath can be large.
  2. Sheperdstown is a long ways off the towpath.
  3. The shelter tarp to cover the bike is a great setup.
  4. If everything goes according to plan there is little adventure.
  5. Cumberland Valley H/B is a good campsite, as is Indian Flats H/B.
  6. Ear plugs – tent walls are very thin walled.