By John Briley
Sunday, September 17, 2000
WHAT: Biking on the C&O Canal towpath, near Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
BEST FOR: Mildly enthusiastic pedal pushers with a thing for nature; ye of harder core can find challenge despite the flat terrain by pushing your distance limits.
THE PEEPING: I wanted to be different. I didn't want to drive all the way to Harpers Ferry just to bike on the C&O Canal towpath, the very same towpath that originates in Georgetown, where it is invariably clogged with fellow outdoor lovers, all competing for the same piece of enviro-solitude.
No, I went to Harpers Ferry seeking a lonely, hilly road, tickled by the sun-sliced shadows of an autumnal canopy and winding past cherry-red barns, sparkling trout ponds and maybe a kid or two in dirty overalls playing in the fields while wildlife frolicked in the background.
And I was certain I could achieve that vision--until every local biking expert I talked to in Harpers Ferry said, "Have you thought about the C&O towpath? That's about the purtiest ride around here."
So I found myself 60 miles from D.C. entering the towpath from a footbridge not unlike those found below Georgetown, and pedaling into territory not unlike that found near Cabin John: a flat, straight lane separating a river and a gully, bordered by dense ground cover and overhung by a mix of oak, maple, birch and sycamore.
But I soon awoke to the subtleties of location, as though my eyes were adjusting to a dark room. Foremost was the sparse crowd. Sure, I saw other cyclists and a few walkers, but I also had miles at a time entirely to myself, something that never exists on a September Sunday on the D.C. portions of the path.
Second was the canal's appearance, grown in with shrubs, weeds, grasses and small trees--a tangle wood straight from the Brothers Grimm.
At my first big break in the trees, near Huckleberry Hill around Mile 62 (out from D.C.), I discovered an unfamiliar Potomac River, wider and wilder than the one back home (Great Falls excepted), cradled by bigger hills and rockier rocks. Across the shimmering river--and, in fact, glowing on all sides of me--were the colors of fall: yellow, maroon, even a few green holdouts, clinging to their chlorophyll.
So brilliant were the colors that for the first five miles I barely broke a sweat, stopping every few minutes to snap another photograph. I cycled on, past a couple of trailside campgrounds, a Gothic-looking cave and neglected locks--dry, grass-shrouded reminders of the canal's futile struggle to compete with the railroad as a commercial byway.
At one point, following the unmistakable throb of live music, I encountered a family of fisherpeople, fat, content and devoid of pretension, lolling on the muddy banks with beers and puny spinning rods that quite possibly lacked bait. Across the river, a band thumped out Southern rock in an RV corral while biker types huddled around smoldering barbecues.
Later, at near Mile 69, I ate my lunch atop the bridge that arcs across Antietam Creek as a lazy leaf made its final descent to the creek below, and a solitary water skier carved a distant section of the river. Same towpath? Yes. Different experience? Absolutely.
DETAILS: Harpers Ferry is about 65 miles west of D.C.; take I-270 west to I-70 west, then U.S. 340 west for about 15 miles. The quickest access to the towpath is from Sandy Hook Road, on the Maryland side of the Potomac.
Heading west on U.S. 340, go left on Keep Tryst Road (about one mile east of the bridge to West Virginia); stay left past the first stop sign to the top of the hill, then go right onto Sandy Hook Road and follow under the railroad trestle. A few parking areas are on the right side of the road, and footbridges over the canal lead to the towpath.
The Outfitter at Harpers Ferry (111 High St., 888-535-2087, www.outfitterharpersferry.com) rents mountain bikes for $15 a day.
LODGING: The Harpers Ferry area has numerous B&Bs, including the Carriage Inn (417 E. Washington St., Charles Town, W.Va., 1-800-867-9830, www.carriageinn.com; rooms from $75); Cottonwood Inn (Mill Lane, Charles Town, 800-868-1188, www.cottonwoodbb.com; $75 to $110); and the Washington House Inn (216 S. George St., Charles Town, 800-297-6957, www.washingtonhouseinnwv.com; $99 to $150).
Hiker-biker campgrounds are spaced every five miles along the towpath from Swain's Lock (Mile 16.6) to Evitts Creek (Mile 180.1), with well water and pit toilets ($10 a site per night; limit one night per site per trip). Or try the Antietam Creek campground (Mile 69.3), with grills, toilets and water ($10 a night; parking adjacent to sites). Sites are first-come, first-serve (301-739-4200).
OTHER OPTIONS: Some locals recommended a ride through the Antietam Battlefield, an open, hilly road ride (from I-70 west, take U.S. 40 Alt. west (Exit 49) and follow signs to Antietam).