On July 21st and July 22nd I took the longest bike ride I have ever taken. I decided to make the ride from Alexandria, Virginia down the Mount Vernon Trail, across the Potomac into DC to the C&O Canal, through Maryland, and back across the Potomac to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. All told the trip was around 140 miles round-trip. The trip was through some of the most beautiful terrain the the DC area has to offer and was both challenging and rewarding.
The first part of this journey was over routes that I have traveled countless times. I entered the C&O Canal National Historic Park by the start of the Capital Crescent trail. This trail parallels the canal for the first couple miles until you reach Fletcher's Cove. After that point, it splits off from the canal, making its way to Bethesda. Instead I made my way over to the towpath of the canal, in all of its bumpy glory. The surface of the towpath is, at best, dirt covered in small stones, and at worst, a rutted, bumpy, boulder covered mess that challenges your skeletal fortitude. The further you get away from "civilization" the more it becomes the latter. Thankfully, there had not been a lot of rain, so the bumpiness was not accompanied by muddy sections. After Fletcher's cove I passed by some of the earlier locks along the canal and the lock-keeper's residences beside them. In the past I had traveled the first twelve miles of the canal into Washington -- just outside the beltway. This time I would keep travelling past Old Angler's Inn and make my way quite a bit further down the canal.
My first new sight was the Widewater section of the trail. When I first biked on the C&O, that section was closed to bike traffic due to a wash-out that had happened many years ago. Now it was open, and the view from the towpath was absolutely beautiful. Along the path were several benches where you can sit and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. After snapping some photographs, I continued onward toward Great Falls.
I had seen Great Falls from the Virginia side years ago, but the view from the Maryland side is definitely more engaging. There is a walkway that takes you over the boulders and rapids right into the heart of the falls. I locked up my bike and took the walk along with a lot of other people to see the swift moving waters of the Potomac. It seemed amazing just how far the walkway continued over the rocks. Finally it ended up at an observation area where we could see the largest part of the falls -- and a lone kayaker who was making his way through the rapids.
After Great Falls the number of people on the trail started to drop dramatically. The level of upkeep on the trail also declined, with much less in the way of gravel, and much more grass down the center of the towpath. Thankfully, the conditions were dry, so it wasn't the mudbath that it is sometimes known to be. With fewer pedestrians to dodge, my I got into a comfortable cadence and watched my sylvan surroundings pass me by. Along the way I passed several hiker/biker campsites with chemical toilets, picnic tables, and water pumps. Around mile 35 on I passed by White's Ferry, the only remaining ferry across the Potomac river. I took a break, buying some gatorade and snacks and watching the cars go across the river on the ferry.
Nicely rested, I continued on my journey and passed by the Dickerson power plant, with its industrial hum, and large smokestacks seeming to float behind the trees along the canal. Not too long thereafter I came upon the Monocacy Aqueduct which used to carry the canal over the Monocacy river before the Monocacy empties into the Potomac. After sustaining some damage a while back it had to have a scaffolding around it to support the structure, but recently it has been restored to its prior glory and it is a sight to behold.
Once past the Monocacy aqueduct I was on the last leg of my trip, so my pace quickened and I made my way past Point of Rocks, where the train tracks start to parallel the canal quite closely. The next town I passed was Brunswick, which would be the last town before I reached Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. My destination was in my sights.
Finally, after about 70 miles of riding, I was able to see the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and the mighty train tracks coming right out of the mountain heading across them. I had arrived in Harpers Ferry. After carrying my bike up the stairs and onto the bridge, I crossed the river and entered West Virginia. After a quick spin around the historic town, I made my way to the Secret Six Tavern, and after a brief wait, sat down and hungrily devoured my dinner. From my table I watched the sun set over the valley and reflected on my long journey.
After dinner I had to pull out the HID lamp and make my way back a couple miles to the Harpers Ferry Hostel, where I was to spend the night. It was amazing how dark it was out there. My bright light also seemed to attract every insect within a ten mile radius of me. Thankfully I was wearing my biking goggles. The ride up to the hostel from the towpath added one last insult to the injury with a rather sizeable hill. After having a little trouble finding the place, I checked in, took a much needed shower, talked briefly with some of the other guests, and then went right to sleep. The hostel was quite nice with comfortable accomodations, a friendly staff, ammenities like shampoo, linens, and towels, and a very pleasant atmosphere -- all for $20 a night.
The following morning, I woke up, took another shower, and then packed my things for my ride back home. The hill that I took the night before made for a very fast ride back down to the canal and I was on my way. This time, I stopped in Brunswick, Maryland for some breakfast at Beans in the Belfry, a cozy little coffee shop in a converted old church. The food was good, the coffee wasn't bad either, and it has to be the first coffee shop I've been in with stained glass windows.
After finishing my coffee and pastry I headed back to the trail for the long ride home. This time I made far fewer stops along the way, doing my best to keep going at a good clip. I stopped again at White's Ferry and grabbed a drink and took a break. Then it was back onto the trail for the remaining 45 miles. I took a break at Widewater with about 25 miles to go and took in the beautiful scenery. Then it was down to the last stretch.
Finally, I saw one of the sweetest sights of the trip. The Capital Crescent overpass. Not only did this mean I only had about twelve more miles to go until I got home -- it meant I was only a few hundred feed from blessed pavement. Once I got to Fletcher's Cove I transitioned over to the paved portion, and almost instantly I was going almost 4 miles an hour faster than I was on the towpath.
Invigorated with the end of my journey in sight I turned up the gas and flew down the end of the Capital Crescent trail and into the city, making my way down to the Mount Vernon trail. Even though I had 135 miles behind me (and 65 that day) I managed to drop a lot of cyclists and finish my journey with sunlight to spare. When I got home, I hopped in the pool to cool off and enjoyed some celebratory relaxation. Surprisingly, by the end of my journey, I only had mild saddle soreness, and my muscles, while tired, were not hurting. I even biked into work the following day.