Outrunning Summer Storms on the C&O Canal

A planned father and son, three-day bikecamping trip on the C&O Canal gets interesting, but the second day’s 50-mile ride becomes a point of pride. 

Bicycle Adventurers: Jim and his 12-year-old son, Jay. Parents, you can connect with Jim at his website: alltogetheroutthere.com. Jim is always looking for other parents who are trying to do bike/camping trips with special needs kids.

When: June 15–17, 2016

Accommodations: Our first night, we stayed at Calico Rocks hiker/biker campsite at mile post 47.6. Our second night we skipped the creepy Lockhouse 22 (!) and rode on to the Omni Hotel in Washington, DC.

Distance: 60+ miles over two days on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal. This National Historical Park runs 184.5 miles from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland. Here’s a map.

Bonus tip for this adventure: If you’re starting your trip in Harper’s Ferry, make sure to get dropped off on the right side of the bridge for your trip! Having to cross the bridge with our loaded bikes made for a bit of a false start.

Day One

When my oldest son completed sixth grade, we celebrated with a bike camping trip together on the C&O Canal. I’ve been a lifelong bike camper, but this was my son’s first trip and I wanted to try to make it fun, easy, and enjoyable for him, and the flat and amenity-rich C&O Canal trail is the perfect spot for an introduction to bike camping.

After an early morning departure from New Jersey, we met up with family in the DC area who dropped us off in Harper’s Ferry, and even took care of bringing our car to downtown DC so it would be waiting for us! While our departure day was beautiful — sunny, but not too hot — the forecast looked increasingly dire.

We took off on the canal path from Harpers Ferry toward DC after lugging our bikes across the bridge. Getting dropped off on the other side of the bridge was an honest mistake. I had no idea what a challenge it would be getting two loaded bikes over that bridge!

Riding the canal path was easy going for my 12 year old. Earlier in the year, we bought him a used 24in. wheel Trek mountain bike for $100 and equipped it with a water bottle cage and an inexpensive rear rack. He carried most of the light but bulky gear (air mattress, sleeping bags) in a single pannier so he could experience riding a loaded bike but not get too bogged down.

Fifteen miles went by in no time as my son and I lost ourselves in speculation about how the canal we were biking alongside could have possibly been constructed without heavy machinery. We wondered aloud about how quickly men with shovels could move so much earth with just shovels and how much progress that might have made in any given day. 

By the late afternoon, after taking many breaks to keep things easy, we approached Calico Rocks campground. This was where we planned to spend our first night because there are a couple of restaurants just down the road from the campsite. After some pizza and sodas at the Aroma House, we made camp along the Potomac River.

As the sun set and the mosquitos swarmed, I realized just how close a freight train line ran to our tent location. Even with earplugs, I knew it would be tough to get a good night’s sleep. We fell asleep in the tent to the sound of insects humming, Bill Evans playing some piano on a Bluetooth speaker, and the sporadic din of a passing freight train.

Day Two

We awoke to light rain dancing on the tent roof. The Dark Sky app on my iPhone showed that the rain would let up in less than a half hour, so we lay on our sleeping bags, sketching out plans for the day while we waited out the sprinkles. 

Unfortunately, the weather forecast called for violent and dangerous thunderstorms with hail and lightening by late afternoon. Originally we planned on tent camping again about 30 miles down the trail, but with the threatening weather, we decided to try to get to DC in one day — a 50-mile ride, way longer than my son had ever ridden — to avoid the storms. 

If he could not make it, I had a bailout plan ready and knew we could rent one of the lock houses from the C&O Canal Trust and spend the night there. 

Once the rain let up, we tried to make some breakfast at the campsite, but discovered that the cistern pump wasn’t working. We came to learn by talking with other cyclists on the trial that this is a pretty common occurrence. Hungry, but excited to get moving, we broke camp and headed down the trail. 

The canal path was a bit muddy from the early morning showers, but nothing too difficult or treacherous. After an hour of riding, we pulled off at another site with a working pump and made coffee and oatmeal, joining a group of four guys who were riding from Pittsburg to DC. 

By midmorning, the sun was shining and as the day wore on we pedaled through the cool shade offered by the tree-lined canal path, punctuated with pockets of steamy, hot air when the canopy opened up to the sky. 

After lunch, we came across an available lock house. It had no electricity and neither one of us really relished the idea of spending the night in a place that seemed downright creepy during the day. We imagined for a few minutes what the place would be like in the middle of the night with the only light coming from intermittent bolts of lightening and decided to push on to the more luxurious accommodations that awaited us in DC. 

We took a break at the beautiful Great Falls Park and had lunch at the snack bar there. We locked up the bikes and explored on foot for a bit. By that point, it was nice to get a break from riding, and we soaked in the amazing power of the water cascading down the Potomac River. 

My son’s legs were fading a bit as we rolled into Georgetown and we both got a bit cranky as we tried to find a way to connect from the C&O Canal to the Rock Creek bike path. But once we found it, we were on familiar territory as we’d ridden that scenic and comfortable path many times from the Omni Hotel down to the National Mall on our annual trips to Washington. 

Soon we were wheeling our mud-caked bikes into the lobby of The Omni. By the time we had showered the mud off, the skies had turned black and sure enough, it looked nasty out there from the comfort of our hotel room. 

We had a blast on the ride. My son completed a 50-mile day and still brags about it. Now some kind of bike camping trip seems to be an annual tradition to celebrate the end of the school year, and we’re looking at doing Pine Creek Gorge in Pennsylvania ... hopefully with better weather!

Your favorite local bike shop? We bought our son’s used bike at the amazing Second Life Bikes in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Bike overnight tips and tricks? I completely stumbled upon an amazing solution for hauling gear on the front of my Surly Long Haul Trucker. As my Velo Orange bag wasn’t quite large enough to carry some of the gear I wanted up front, I zip-tied a Wald 139 basket onto my front rack. I then discovered that my Mountainsmith Modular Cube Hauler bag fits exactly perfect into the Wald. Combined with a mesh net to keep everything in place, I will continue to use this “basket + bag” combination for all my trips.

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HOW ABOUT YOU? Inspire others by submitting your own bike overnight adventure!

1 response so far ↓

Jeffrey T Mezzullo - Apr 24, 2017 at 7:21 PM

Great story. Can't wait to do this trip with my son. Me and some friends did the W&OD C&O loop a couple weeks ago. Always love it.

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