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The C&O Canal in Washington, D.C, isn’t just a canal. It is a recreational wonder that threads 184.5 miles through cities and greenways along the Potomac River in Maryland, Virginia and D.C.
When you travel to a large urban area like D.C., finding someplace that doesn’t involve city streets to get a little exercise isn’t always easy. Beautifully, D.C. does have a lot of options, but they are often right in the middle of the tourist zones. The C&O Canal trail (short for Chesapeake & Ohio Canal) is an option for running, biking, walking or hiking that is ridiculously easy to access from central Washington, D.C. The canal, which is part of the National Park Service, takes you along a riverbank that feels pretty far away from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Mile 0 of the historic path is right in Georgetown, and then continues along the Potomac River.
The C&O Canal park is such a beloved jewel that there is a non-profit C&O Canal Association that was founded in 1954 to support, protect and promote it. Of course, it accepts donations to several funds that have been set up over the years to help in canal conservation.
Running and walking the C&O Canal trail
One can connect to Mile 0 in Georgetown via other paths and trails on or near the Potomac River. We were staying in the George Washington University area and took a few blocks of city streets to the C&O towpath where it starts near Pennsylvania Ave and the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway NW. (The feature image above is taken near the start of the trail).
In Georgetown, you move along a quite busy segment of the C&O canal towpath, past locks and historic markers – sometimes making for a slow run since it is interesting and scenic. Click here for a National Park Service map of the first 17 miles.
But if you are running, walking or biking more than just a few miles, you’ll soon find yourself in an area that feels quite far away from the urban tumult. If you don’t want to power yourself quite so far, there are quite a few access points along the way accessible by car and public transportation. Here is a good list from the C&O Canal Association that also has links to Google maps.
C&O Canal National Park Service information
We are lucky this was not a park that was closed or limited during budget cutbacks a few years ago. Along the C&O canal there are visitors centers, bathrooms, water fountains, places to rent bikes and boats, and picnic and camping areas, not to mention great signage. In addition, the park site has links to endless amounts of information about the 150+-year-old canal, which was named U.S. National Historical Park in 1961.
Want more? Cyclists and runners groups are very active in the area. Try Bike Washington, or The C&O Canal for bike-specific information, although much of it will be applicable to perambulating by foot too. In addition, for those who want even more, there is an annual 100-mile run along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, appropriately called the C&O Canal 100.
No matter what your reason for being in Washington, D.C., take a trek to the C&O canal to get some exercise, enjoy history, get a breath of air, or just to get away from bustling city streets.
Read more Washington D.C. travel tips
Map of Washington D.C.
In the map below, pins mark the exact location of all the sites mentioned in our articles on Washington D.C. Zoom in or out on the map using the controls. Switch easily from map to satellite view. Click on each pin to pull up a tooltip with the name and any additional information.
George Mason Memorial
Air Force Memorial
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
National Gallery of Art
United States Botanic Garden
Boathouse and Fletcher's Cove
Capital Crescent Trail
Start of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath
To learn more about The Newseum, go to our article, Newseum: Must-See D.C. Museum for News, Politics & History Buffs.
Sculpture Garden on the National Mall
A magnificent Sculpture Garden in the summer, and an ice skating rink in the winter. Learn more about the free concerts offered in the summer by referring to our article, Jazzin' It Up In D.C.'s Sculpture Garden.