I have taken many long-distance cycling trips since I became interested in bicycle travel. But I hadn’t done the one thing I’d really wanted to do all along: roll my bicycle out of my back yard in Bethesda, Maryland, and bike to somewhere far away.
I live close to the C&O Canal National Historical Park, so the canal towpath is a perfect option for a cycling excursion from home. I visit the towpath often to walk or bike, and I’ve bicycled its entire length twice. I’ve always thought a trip from home to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, via the towpath, with a side trip from Harpers Ferry to Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland, would make a perfect three-day bicycling trip.
During a stretch of unseasonably warm weather this past October, I finally ran out of reasons to put off this trip. I made a two-night reservation at a bed and breakfast in Harpers Ferry, loaded clothing, supplies, and snacks into one of my touring panniers, and headed for the canal.
(Mile markers appear along the towpath at one-mile intervals and provide a handy reference for describing locations along the canal, as in the captions below.)
Biking along the edge of the world: fog on the Potomac River.
Mile 13: The beautiful Widewater section of the canal in the morning fog.
Mile 35.5: White’s Ferry remains a busy river crossing. The Gen. Jubal A. Early (named after a Confederate general) is the last ferry still operating on the Potomac River.
Mile 39.4: A gigantic silver maple shades Lock 26, the trunk wider than the length of my bike.
Mile 42.2: The restored, 560-foot-long Monocacy Aqueduct is the longest aqueduct on the C&O Canal. I would cross five aqueducts on this trip.
Mile 51.5: The Catoctin Aqueduct, with its unusual elongated center arch, was mostly collapsed by 1973. Since restored, it reopened in 2011
Mile 60.7: Trains often pass through the B&O Railroad tunnel and across the bridges at Harpers Ferry, which is on the opposite side of the Potomac from the canal. To reach town, you climb a wide spiral staircase here and take the walkway on one of the bridges.
Harpers Ferry occupies the strategic point of land where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers merge. Once an industrial town, it became known for John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal here in 1859, an event that helped incite civil war a year and half later.
Union and Confederate troops traded control of the town throughout the Civil War. After the war, severe floods helped end industry here. Much of Harpers Ferry is now a national historical park managed by the National Park Service.
Harpers Ferry itself is well worth a visit. However, I’d visited many times before, so I didn’t do any exploring. But staying overnight at the Stonehouse Bed and Breakfast was a first for me.
The view down the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah River flows into the Potomac from the right.
I stayed in the cozy top floor room at the Stonehouse B&B, conveniently located in the lower part of Harpers Ferry, just steps away from the national historical park.
One side of my room faced the Amtrak train station and railroad tracks, used frequently by both passenger and freight trains. I could hear their horns all night long. The earplugs I wore on the second night helped a lot.
The view from my room in the other direction toward Washington Street, which heads steeply uphill.
As I crossed the Potomac in the morning to return to the towpath, the low sunlight lit up countless spider webs on the railroad bridge.
The next morning I biked another 12 miles up the canal towpath to Boonsboro Pike (Maryland Route 34), and then another easy 4½ miles on roads to the Antietam National Battlefield visitor center near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Antietam preserves the grounds of the exceedingly costly Civil War battle that took place here on September 15, 1862. By the end of 12 hours of fighting, about 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. It was the single bloodiest day in American history.
A focal point of the fighting, the small, white Dunker Church (in the background, a reconstruction of the original) appears prominently in a famous photo taken at the time of the battle.
The Mumma Cemetery, a family burial ground in the midst of the battlefield, contains graves of local people dating back from before the battle to the present.
The observation tower, built long after the battle along the Sunken Road, marks the site of some of the day’s heaviest fighting.
Split-rail fences border the farm fields around Sharpsburg, a calm and quiet countryside that for one day in 1862 was transformed into hell on earth.
Cannons overlook the Burnside Bridge, another battlefield landmark, where for three hours a few hundred Confederates held off a much larger Union force trying to cross the bridge.
Antietam National Cemetery contains the graves of 4,776 fallen Union soldiers. Confederate soldiers were buried elsewhere, in nearby Hagerstown, Frederick, and Shepherdstown.
I headed home the next day, retracing my route down the canal. I had biked almost 75 miles from home to my farthest point in Antietam, and a total of 162 miles over three days.
Mile 30.9: The lock and ruins at Edwards Ferry mark the halfway point between Harpers Ferry and home.
The Widewater section of the canal again, less than a dozen bicycling miles from home.
David Romanowski, 2016