Hiking the C&O Canal, Maryland

We couldn't believe the kayaking along the Potomac
We couldn’t believe the kayaking along the Potomac

We adored our hike along the C&O Canal in Maryland. A day with the family was exactly what we needed. The C&O Trail Map is at the bottom of this post.

Sometimes hiking is like life. You just have to go with the flow and enjoy the unexpected things that come your way. This was the case on our 50 Hikes 50 States Hiking Project when we got to Maryland. For this trip, my husband, daughter and I flew into Dulles to start our three-state hiking weekend.

I was excited for Maryland. I had researched several hikes and picked out the Billy Goat Trail in the C&O National Historic Park. It looked exciting and one that my daughter would love. Bouldering, climbing on the side of a hill, and good views over the Potomac River ensured a fun and challenging time.

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Sometimes, You Have to Modify

My husband’s cousin and new wife were going to meet us at the trail head to hike with us. We’d be able to combine a good hike and some social time with family while at the same time knocking out another state on our hiking project. It was a win-win-win.

The trouble started on our approach into Dulles. Our Southwest pilot announced we were on our final approach. We zipped up the computers, closed our tray tables, and passed over our trash….and just as we were about to touch down, we didn’t. The nose of the place jutted upward, and we aborted our landing.

Then circled. For an hour. The pilot never explained why, but by the time we landed, we were an hour late. Then rain started to fall. By the time we met our family at the park, things were muddy and slippery, and daylight would soon fade away.

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No Billy Goat for Us

So we made lemonade out of our lemons, grabbed three umbrellas for the five of us, and started walking the C&O Canal Towpath (next time, we’ll also do the Four Locks Walking Tour.) Sadly, the visitors center had closed, but we did learn through the well-place interpretation about the history of the canal and structure of the various buildings. We meandered along the canal, enjoying the light rain, and catching up on family gossip.

I knew the Billy Goat Trail would have to be another day’s adventure.

As we continued along the trail, I saw a sign for the Great Falls. My expectations were quite low. Great Falls? of what? where? We were walking along the Potomac River (which we couldn’t see from the canal), and I couldn’t imagine how any waterfalls might be at all interesting. I expected a trickle.

Boy was I wrong.

Surprise on the Potomac

We approached the first set of falls and immediately snapped pictures and stated how beautiful we found the river. Rust and granite colored boulders diverted water into fast moving chutes. Bright green ferns shadowed pools.

We kept walking along the elevated boardwalk, and could hear the roar of something.


Like life, the thoughts of “what’s up ahead” propelled us along the hike to Olmstead Island and to an overlook of the Great Falls of the Potomac. Wow! Who knew???

In front of us spanned a very wide swath of the river tumbling with rapids and dotted with daredevil kayaks shooting them in gallant fashion. We watched the adventurists scale the boulder walls of the river porting their kayaks, dropping them at the top of the falls, and hoop-hollering their way down the water slides to get out of the kayaks and portage themselves again to the top.

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We stood there for almost in hour in the light rain, visiting with each other and catching the kayaking antics. What a thrill! My daughter even declared she wanted to start kayaking and get involved in a fun sport!

It was also fun to link the namesake of the island, Frederick Olmsted (architect of New York’s Central Park) to Denver’s history and his creation of several parks in Denver.

Covered Bridges and Canal Boats

Hunger started to yell, so we headed back to our trail head, checked out a covered bridge, and viewed one of the original canal boats. After seeing the Potomac, the reasons to built the C&O Canal started to make lots more sense. Of course industry wanted an easier way to move its goods than by shooting the rapids of a wild river, which, I’m sure, was much more wild at the time the canal was built!

Although our cousins lived nearby in Virginia, they didn’t have any local knowledge either on where to eat. We yelped up a nearby location, and stumbled into the Old Angler’s Inn. We wondered if its hoity-toity ambiance would turn away our hiker bodies, but a pleasant outdoor seating situation invited us in for a lovely and affordable meal.

I dug into the lentil burger dotted with goat cheese and yogurt sauce. The battered fries rounded out this vegetarian meal and satisfied my need for a solid meal after a day of airplane snacks. Frogs croaked in the background as we continued to visit with family and round out our day.

The long day ended with virtual hugs. When our cousin heard we were staying in Bethesda for the night, he insisted we eat at the original Original Pancake House in the morning for breakfast. And that’s where we started the next day as we queued up our Delaware hike. Follow along.

What You Need to Know about this Trail (Click for interactive map)

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