Sunday, March 22, 2009

C and O Canal Campsite Guide

So this long blog entry is my little piece of public service for those planning on biking the C and O Canal. I know that when I first went along the Canal, I was able to find some descriptions of the campsites but no pictures or anything that gave me a real feel for them. Hopefully this guide can serve as a planning tool for those who are doing the Canal for the first time or as a memory tool for those who are trying to recall where that "really neat" campsite was or which one had the lockhouse right next to it. This guide only covers the Park Service campsites along the way (there are private campgrounds as well). To learn more about biking the Canal, I would recommend two books: "The C&O Canal Companion" and "Linking Up: Planning your traffic-free bike trip between Pittsburgh, PA and Washington, DC". I carry both of them any time I bike the Canal. Finally, I should note that there are a few campsites that I do not yet have pictures of (I hope to fix that this summer). The missing campsites are all in areas where I normally bypass the Canal (the Slackwater/Williamsport bypass, or where the Western Maryland RailTrail runs parallel).

To start off, the C and O Canal is a National Historical Park and is thus maintained by the Park Service. Importantly, this means that the camping is free along the Canal. Campsites are located right on the trail every 5 to 10 miles of the Canal's length (with a few longer stretches here and there). Each campsite is basically a clearing with a picnic table, fire pit, port-a-potty, and a well-water pump. Many of them also have access to the Potomac River (though it is often muddy access).

Starting on the DC end of the trail, with pictures beneath each entry (Canal mileage in parentheses):

Swain's Lock (16.6) - This first campsite breaks a few of the Canal campsite rules: it is accessible by car and has running water (up near the lockhouse). Because of it's location and accessibility, this site often has many campers (occasionally of the loud/drunk variety), but is sufficiently sized for many groups. Finally, there is a secluded (secret) site here separated from the others - go into the camping area, then head down towards the river and upstream, follow the little path you find until it ends at this separated campsite.
Horsepen Branch (26.0) - Standard campsite in the woods, though it is pretty narrow and right on the trail. I frequently camp here since it is a good short ride from DC but far enough out that it is not crowded.

Chisel Branch (30.5) - Standard campsite.

Turtle Run (34.4) - Standard campsite.
Marble Quarry (38.2) - Standard campsite. The site has a section that is clear of trees and gets sun in the afternoon.

Indian Flats (42.2) - Standard campsite just past the Monocacy Aqueduct (0.2 miles).
Calico Rocks (47.6) - Nice deep campsite, lots of room for a large group.
Bald Eagle Island (50.3) - Standard campsite. Caution: railroad is near to the site and can be noisy at night.
Huckleberry Hill (62.9) - Standard campsite, somewhat crowded against the trail.
Killiansburg Cave (75.3) - Standard campsite, but crowded against the trail. Also, not much room here for any sizable group.
Horseshoe Bend (79.7) - Standard campsite. Best place to camp before the Slackwater detour at 84.4, since Big Woods has a water supply issue.
Big Woods (82.5) - This site is notable because, as the C&O Canal Companion says, "the water pump is rather inconveniently located a fifth of a mile downstream". This makes fetching water a chore. Note that this is also the last site before the Slackwater detour.
Opequon Junction (90.9) - Standard small campsite, a bit crowded onto the trail.

Cumberland Valley (95.2) - Standard campsite, nice trees for shade.

Jordan Junction (101.3) - Campsite relatively close to Williamsport. Supposedly has a funny smell sometimes because of a nearby tannery.
North Mountain (110.0) - Standard campsite on the side of a hill. Looks like a nice place to camp, though I have never stayed here myself.
Licking Creek (116.0) - Small campsite removed from the trail a bit.
Little Pool (120.4) - Nice secluded campsite between the Potomac and Little Pool.
White Rock (126.4) - Standard campsite. (no picture)

Leopard's Mill (129.9) - Standard campsite. (no picture)

Cacapon Junction (133.6) - Standard campsite with nice view of two rivers and some railroad bridges. This is opposite the point where the Cacapon River enters the Potomac. (no picture)
Indigo Neck (139.2) - Campsite at the foundations of an old lockhouse (and lock).
Devil's Alley (144.5) - Nice campsite opposite a good size mountain that you can climb on if you have extra time. Also, good (non-muddy) access to the river at this campsite.
Stickpile Hill (149.4) - Nice site in the woods. Has a small bridge over a ditch, which makes it even more fun.

Sorrel Ridge (154.1) - Large campsite at a lock. Note that the sign is missing, though it would be pretty hard to miss the campsite itself.
Purslane Run (156.9) - Standard campsite.
Town Creek (162.1) - Possibly my favorite campsite on the whole Canal, Town Creek is many times larger than most of the other sites. Additionally, the view of the river and mountains opposite is great.
Potomac Forks (164.8) - Campsite at the point where the Potomac forks into the "North Branch" and the "South Branch". This campsite is situated at a lock with a standing lockhouse and a railroad bridge. The canal is watered here (with many water lilies growing in the Canal) and has a number of small wooden bridges.
Pigman's Ferry (169.2) - This campsite is a fenced-off area surrounded by farmland. There are not many trees here, so shade will be harder to find.

Iron Mountain (175.4) - Large, deep campsite.

Evitt's Creek (180.0) - The trainyard here is so close that you can see the trains sitting just across the canal, which means occasional noise at night.


emckain said...

We are planning a trip the end of this month from DC to Pittsburgh. How many of the campsites have showers?

eric said...

So, actually, none of those mentioned have showers. The hiker-biker campsites are "primitive", but many of them have decent access to the river for washing or you could always do a little sponge bath with the well-water pump. We always stay in these hiker-biker campsites, but there are less rugged campgrounds along the way too. A complete list can be found here:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information. The park website has many dead links. Good pictures too!

Bobby said...

I've biked the canal a couple times, but always forget which H/B campsite is which. Thanks for the pictures. They're really helpful as I plan my next trip!

Loopy said...

This is a wonderful resource! I was looking for exactly this info and found NOTHING... so THANK YOU for posting this!!!

Anonymous said...

oh thank you thank you for this! I have been digging around for info as I am a woman going on my own and wanted to get a feel for what these sites looked like. really appreciate you taking the time and effort to document and post. Thanks and thanks

Anonymous said...

Thanks! This is the only place I could find this information. Very helpful.

Anonymous said...

This truly is a "public service announcement." Thank you!

Can you tell me though, do these go in order from DC to Pittsburgh? I'm planning on going from Pitt to DC. Are there as many up in the Pittsburgh area as in the DC area?

What do you think of a woman going by herself in mid October? Thanks again.

eric said...

Yes, these are in order from DC. The 150 miles between Pittsburgh and Cumberland (the GAP) isn't part of the C&O Canal and doesn't have these standard free campsites. But there are a good number of other options along the way. This site has a good list ( and there are other options, like the bunkhouse in Rockwood.

Mid October is fine, as long as you are ready for chilly nights. I tell people to imagine a cold, rainy night in that season and to bring one set of clothes for that situation. By yourself should be fine, though up to your preferences. You really are never far from civilization and the trail is used enough during the day that you never need to wait more than an hour to meet someone, even in the most remote sections. The first time I did this trip it was by myself.

Dale Banks said...

Thank you very much for this information. Could not find anything else on the net this thorough.

cityofneworleans said...

Going c&o may 7 2014. Photos help. Thanks for the great info cityofneworleans

whisperingwind said...

I too, am starting the C and O this month. I am leaving Cumberland Md Tuesday May 6. Although I have hiked the trail 6 times in the past, I can never get enough of this trail. However, upon completion of this trail, I will be turning around and hiking back to Harper's Ferry, and hiking south on the Appalachian Trail to GA.

Thank you for the pictures. It brought back memories. I have not been on the trail since 2010.

Matthew S. Schwartz said...

THANK YOU! I have been looking for something just like this. You're the best. :)

lazygirlonabike said...

Thanks for the guide... cycled the trails 3 years ago and although I have many photos I am planning to stay at different camp sites this time as we are doing it in reverse. Good to have an idea of the sites not previously used. Perhaps I can do something similar to help other riders.

monika singh said...

Camping Near Delhi Comment Thanks for sharing good information !

Michele Pennella said...

I'm planning to hike from Washington to Pittsburgh on September, and this information was perfect! Thank you for your effort! I hope to contribute with information for the Cumberland-Pittsburgh part.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful! I have ridden the GAP twice but never the C&O and your site photos helped me visualize and plan for my trip in mid-October.

birdingbiker said...

I was wondering if trains accept bikes (and bike trailers!). I know there is a train in Harpers Ferry but I have been unable to find any concrete information on that regard. Is there any other public transportation option along the route to load the bikes? Thanks!

eric said...

@birdingbiker: So, there should be roll-on bike service on Amtrak as of last year. I haven't used it myself, but have seen it reported in a number of bike touring articles. Not every town has a train stop, but there are enough and the train route goes right along the whole way to Cumberland. See this article:

VAon2Wheels said...


What I've found about the roll-on/roll-off bike service is that is available, but only on/off points are DC, Cumberland and Pittsburgh. Not sure about the trailer though. I'm taking the train for the first time later this month and I'm hoping my packed panniers will be allowed to come with. Amtrak's website says no, but others I've heard from say they allowed them to stay on. Hoping for the best.

@eric -- Thanks so much for this awesome collection of pics. Info on the web is spotty at best. This has been a big help as I make final preps for my first through-ride of the C&O. Cheers!

eric said...

@birdingbiker and @VAon2Wheels: We recently biked the DC to Pittsburgh route and took the Amtrak train from Pittsburgh to DC. The deal is this: They don't want to handle your bike at all, presumably for legal reasons. This is actually great, because you won't worry about someone breaking anything. They have special cargo room that they will lead you to, with bike hooks on the walls. You can leave your bike loaded until you get there. In the room, you'll want to pull your bags off (at least the big/heavy ones) so you can lift the bike up to the hook. They have floor space right below your bike for you to put the bags. So we just rolled the bikes over to the room, pulled off the bags and hung the bikes. On the other side, you also go back to get your bike and can grab and remount your bags immediately. Pretty seamless, in my opinion.

Harry Lee Kwai said...

You're a star, Eric. Many thanks for your thoughtful guide replete with pics. Most helpful, as others have said. I am planning a first time rail trail trip on C&O and GAP. Then, Katy Trail in Missouri. All this from my starting point in Portland Oregon. Your campsite guide gives me confidence. Aloha, bruddah Eric.

bob_vinyl said...

This is great info! I'm thinking about doing about 50 miles (between Conococheague and Catoctin aquaducts) of the C&O as a backpacking trip with my kids (15 and 12) in August. Is there usually space at the hiker/biker campsites? Do I need to plan alternates just in case one is full or is that really unlikely? Thanks!

eric said...

You should be fine. I've never been to one that was really too crowded to fit another tent (though we have seen some that were too crowded for our tastes and gone on to the next one). A plan to just drop in has always worked for us.

bob_vinyl said...

Thanks! This info is super helpful!