Cumberland to Georgetown: Pedaling Through History on the C&O Canal

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Cumberland to Georgetown: Pedaling Through History on the C&O Canal

The Great Bicycle Tour of the C&O Canal – Organized by the

San Mar Children’s Home, Boonsboro, Maryland   

David T. Whitaker

August 2019


“Hey, hey, hey — lock ready!

Oh, hey — hey, lock!

These words like the lock-house, covered in time

Live on for us in an old man’s mind

Never, no more, on the C&O Canal Line”

~ John Starling – The Seldom Scene


The Adventure Begins

On Saturday morning, July 13th, we boarded buses at San Mar Children’s Home near Boonsboro. Our bicycles and gear were loaded up in separate trucks and we began our journey toward I-68 and downtown Cumberland, Maryland. So began the 2019 edition of The Great Bicycle Tour of the C&O Canal, a four day tour of the length of the canal.

After the scenic trip up and over Sideling Hill and the several mountains on I-68, the buses dropped us off near Canal Place in Cumberland. We unpacked our bicycles, donned helmets and sunblock and start the 184.5 mile journey down the historic C&O Canal Towpath towards Washington, DC.

Passing the historic canal boat Cumberland, our adventure had begun. 
There were miles and miles of smiles by all the riders on our way down to the historic Paw Paw Tunnel.

Bicycling the Canal Towpath

The C&O Canal Towpath is for the most part a double wide dirt trail that runs through forests, and farmland usually alongside the Potomac River or within a mile of the river. Some parts of the towpath are very well maintained with new and improved surfaces. Other parts of the towpath are more rugged and contain muddy patches and occasionally rock or concrete surfaces. Riding the towpath comfortably usually involves fatter tire bicycles such as hybrids, mountain bikes or gravel bikes.

The towpath surfaces vary a good deal from Cumberland to Georgetown. The smooth packed clay or sandy surfaces near Georgetown or Great Falls tend to be more rugged west of Shepherdstown. Every few miles along the towpath the scenery changes ever so slightly. For a few miles, one can be riding along pasture land on a foggy morning with several deer alongside the trail watching you pedal by. A couple hours later, the towpath can morph into a path alongside the Potomac River or a scenic dirt pathway through secluded forests that amble by historic lockhouses and restored canal aqueducts.

There is also the extraordinary 3,118 ft. long Paw Paw Tunnel, which is a memorable adventure in itself. If you have not yet experienced the Paw Paw Tunnel, you are missing one of the most unique historic structures on the east coast. The Paw Paw Tunnel was begun in 1836 and completed in 1850. One enters a dark and slightly wet world where a headlight or flashlight is necessary. The canal runs through the tunnel and the towpath runs alongside the south side with a wooden fence separating cyclists from the canal. Go check it out! 

As a cyclist on the C&O Canal one enters an almost trance-like state after 30 or more miles. The trees, tweeting birds, turtles and frogs in the canal and the canopy openings to the river and to adjacent towns and villages transport your thoughts to another time and place. It is a great diversion from the daily grind at home, work or the office. Mile after mile, the path in front of your bicycle beckons you to keep going to explore what comes next and you want to experience the what the next town offers. 

Today’s C&O Canal

I last rode this San Mar event 25 years ago and I was very surprised at the new features I encountered along the C&O Canal in 2019.

My first observation is that the towns and communities along the C&O Canal National Park have increasingly embraced the outdoor opportunities afforded by the canal. Cumberland, Hancock and Williamsport have constructed facilities specifically for the C&O Canal user. From nearby restaurants, new visitor centers, adjacent paved surface trails to new aqueducts with water and canal boats, these Western Maryland communities recognize the economic value of cyclists and other canal users.

A stop at the Visitors Center at the Cushwa Basin in Williamsport or at Buddylou’s Restaurant along the towpath in Hancock are highly recommended. These places are unique in Maryland and offer trail users opportunities to freshen up and refresh oneself for the miles that lie ahead.

What is TGBT - The Great Bicycle Tour of the C&O Canal?

The July 2019 TGBT was the 32nd annual benefit ride for former San Mar Children’s Home, which is now known as San Mar Family and Community Services.

The Great Bicycle Tour of the C&O Canal, (i.e., TGBT) is an annual completely inclusive four day bicycle tour of the 184.5 mile C&O Canal. It is designed and run for cyclists of all skill levels and ages. The volunteers and support staff from San Mar know every mile of the towpath and they design an cycling event for both tent campers and hotel users. They provide everything one needs from rest stops, SAG support to meals. All one has to do is pump tires, fill water bottles and ride. The average mileage is about 54 miles a day, although Day 4 from White’s Ferry to Georgetown is a little over 40 miles. On the last night of the tour everyone stays as a nearby hotel to celebrate the event and a community meal.

Having last participated in this ride in 1994, I truly believe that the San Mar staff have significantly improved all aspects of the tour. Everything runs like clockwork and the TGBT is truly one of the best run cycling tours I have ever ridden.

San Mar Family and Community Services

San Mar exists to serve children and youth who have experienced trauma in their young lives by connecting them with safe and caring persons and families. In San Mar’s Treatment Foster Care program, the positive aspects of the nurturing and therapeutic family environment are combined with active and appropriately structured treatment.

San Mar is also a licensed as an Outpatient Mental Health Clinic that serves the entire Washington County community. The Center offers care for diverse mental health needs, evaluation and treatment for children, adolescents, families and adults in the community.

Over the years, funds raised by San Mar through TGBT have been used for a variety of initiatives, providing computers, sending kids to camp, providing expressive art therapy, tutoring, furniture, and vehicles have been purchased and maintained for transporting the youth in care. San Mar serves members of the Hagerstown and Washington County community who are in need of essential community services.

TGBT 2020

The 33rd edition of the Great Bicycle Tour of the C&O Canal will be held in July 2020. You are encouraged to come and ride through history and experience the history and timeless beauty of the C&O Canal National Park.

To learn more, explore the TGBT website and check back in late 2019 for information on the 2020 TGBT:












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