I used to figure that when it came to bicycling, I was doomed to feeling inadequate because I didn’t like riding in traffic or up big hills. Then I discovered a way to bike through the mountains with nary a car in sight and with grades barely capable of rolling marbles downhill.
By its nature, a canal cannot go up and down mountains; if it did, the water would bunch at the bottom. This is why the hiker-and-biker-friendly C&O Canal towpath—all 184½ miles of it, from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland—is so flat.
Flat does not mean boring. The Potomac River is always near, glimpsed through the trees or taken in from wide-open vistas. There are enormous, Mississippi-esque bends and stretches of rushing rapids. The towpath is a shady tunnel of green in summer, but in fall—my favorite time on the canal—the poplars fire lemon yellow, hickories strike gold, and maples blush red. Leaves flutter down to become a jeweled carpet.
I fell in love with the canal when I lived near it some years ago; recently I discovered a favorite section to visit, especially in autumn. This 13-mile stretch offers not only beauty and solitude but also good restaurants and coffee bars, wonderfully musty bookshops, gorgeous old architecture, cobbled streets, and pleasant inns in the towns on either end, Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown.
These places, an hour from Washington, are a leisurely two hours apart by bike and four hours apart on foot.
Imagine this: You start the day in Harpers Ferry. Maybe you don’t even drive there but arrive by train. When you disembark at the Victorian dollhouse of a station, there you are, staring at the Blue Ridge Mountains decked out in fall color.
You walk into the maze of gray stone lanes and narrow houses and drift up the hand-hewn staircase in the rock. Harpers Ferry is where John Brown tried to jump-start the Civil War by attacking the federal armory; the National Park Service now runs the town as an open-air museum.
Harpers Ferry is a microcosm of the Civil War. It changed hands nine times, upheavals that drove out most of its residents. It had been a bustling town, but the war put an end to that, ruining families and fortunes. Its dramatic location—a hillside perch at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah—was no protection. Quite the opposite: “I would rather take Harpers Ferry 50 times than defend it once,” said Stonewall Jackson.
If you’d like to make a weekend of it, you can stay at Stonewall’s old headquarters, now a bed-and-breakfast restored down to its period wallpaper. Its garden boasts a climbing rose that the general admired, still blooming 150 years later and lending its name, theJackson Rose, to the B&B. Another nice inn is Laurel Lodge, an elegant 1914 Craftsman-style house on a cliff above the Potomac, with breakfast-table views of eagles soaring against a backdrop of mountain.
The only lodging in “lower town,” or the national park, is Town’s Inn. It’s a great location and a good choice for groups or families—several rooms have multiple bunk beds—and for history buffs: Its thick stone windowsills are the kind that make you think, “If these walls could talk . . . .”
To start out on a walking or biking trip from Harpers Ferry, cross the pedestrian bridge that takes you over the Potomac to the canal, then turn left. There’s ample time to cycle to Shepherdstown, have lunch, and ride back. If you prefer to overnight in Shepherdstown, you can rendezvous with your bags at the lovely Thomas Shepherd Inn. Shuttling luggage and people is something area innkeepers are glad to arrange, using local outfitters or their own cars. Bike rentals are available in both towns. Choose a mountain bike or a hybrid with at least 1½-inch tires to cushion you on the towpath’s occasional bumpy bits.
Another idea—if you’re not traveling by train—is to go the other way, riding from Shepherdstown to Harpers Ferry and back, because Shepherdstown is such a good place to return to for dinner. My new favorites there are the Press Room, which has outstanding northern-Italian food, and the vegetarian-leaning Stone Soup Bistro.
While Harpers Ferry feels like a time capsule, Shepherdstown is an airy hamlet with lovely old buildings and trees. It’s a college town, which gives it a bit of edge—Shaharazade’s Exotic Tea Room hosts belly-dancing workshops. On German Street at the Shepherdstown Sweet Shop Bakery, you’ll find good coffee and pastries as well as serious breads such as German black bread—although there’s tomato-rosemary for the more timid. You’ll see a trail of people with ice-cream cones; you can follow them to Mimi’s Homemade Ice Cream.
Only a few blocks from all of this is the canal—with the added bonus of a friendly town up around the bend.
If You Go
If you don’t bring your own bike, you can rent one at the Outfitter in Harpers Ferry (888-535-2087; theoutfitteratharpersferry.com) or Shepherdstown Pedal & Paddle (877-884-2453; thepedalpaddle.com).
Overnight options include Harpers Ferry’s Jackson Rose B&B (double rooms $125 to $140 a night; 304-535-1528; thejacksonrose.com), Laurel Lodge ($95 to $150; 304-535-2886; laurellodge.com), and Town’s Inn ($90 to $120; 877-489-2477; thetownsinn.com) or Shepherdstown’s Thomas Shepherd Inn ($115 to$175; 888-889-8952; thomasshepherdinn.com).
Dinner reservations are recommended on weekends at Shepherdstown’s Press Room (304-876-8777) and Stone Soup Bistro (304-876-8477; stonesoupbistro.com).
MARC and Amtrak trains serve Harpers Ferry from DC’s Union Station for $9 to $16 one way; they also stop at suburban Maryland stations. Amtrak allows folding bikes or boxed bikes checked as luggage, and it offers boxes for $10 (800-872-7245).