Cycling the C&O Canal

Capital Crescent Trail

Trip Planning

Pedaling for 6-8 hours a day sitting in the same position causes fatigue.

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60 miles was my longest bike ride prior to riding from Pittsburgh to DC in 2009. When I did the 60 mile ride it wasn't part of the plan to wake up the next morning and ride 60 miles again. So I was more than a little nervous about my first ride from Pittsburgh to DC where I had planned on riding a minimum of 70 miles each day for five days in a row. Surprisingly, after 70+ miles each day my legs could go further. The miles seem to roll past a little easier when your not dodging traffic and negotiating intersections. Most of my fatigue was concentrated in my arms and my seat. Changing hand positions often and alternating between a standing position and sitting seemed to help manage the fatigue.

Once you have an idea of your daily riding distances, identify the towns that fit into your mileage range and provide the services that you require.  Use the mileage chart below as a reference.  From there you can research the lodging and restaurant options. Pick your Trail Towns. There are towns roughly every 30 miles so plan ahead to avoid riding an extra 30 miles when you're exhausted.  

You are allowed to park your car overnight but you must complete the C&O Canal Parking Permit Request Form: Click here for the parking form

Ask yourself, how many miles do I feel comfortable riding each day?

Daily mileage

C&O Towpath Group
C and O canal tee shirt store

​​​Mileage chart

Fitness & fatigue

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estimated daily mileage
C&O Canal Yahoo group

A key step in the planning process is to estimate how many miles do you feel comfortable riding each day? When trying to figure out how far to ride each day, keep in mind that you will have nothing to do all day but pedal your bike, eat some lunch, and do some site seeing.  Most people can comfortably maintain 8-10 mph on the mostly flat trail. Thirty miles a day would keep you pedaling at a very casual pace where you could stop for a long lunch, a few snack breaks and maybe even have time for some swimming or sunbathing (30 miles @ 8 mph = 3.75 hours of pedaling).    

Provided that the trail conditions are dry and that you're gear is not slowing you too much, a more advanced cyclist may maintain a slightly higher speed, between 12 to 14 miles per hour. To ride the C&O in two days you would need to ride at 12 mph for just shy of 8 hours. Add in bathroom breaks and lunch and you're easily looking at a 9 or 10 hour days. Many bicycle tour companies manage their daily mileage between 30 and 50 per day.

Trail conditions

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C&O Canal with grass median

A tee shirt customer from Virginia cycled from Pittsburgh to DC in two days.  He was trying to split the distance into two even days but he had friends in Frostburg so he planned his overnight there to visit with his friends.  It’s roughly 140 miles from Pittsburgh to Frostburg and 195 from Frostburg to DC.  That's a lot of miles each day.  You would need to be a considerable athlete to overcome the intense fatigue such distances would inflict.  I found his story very inspiring because I never imagined that even possible.

C&O Canal mileage chart

Fatigue is your biggest challenge.  Pedaling for 6-8 hours a day sitting in the same position causes your body to seize up.  Stretching and changing positions as often as possible helps but you are limited as to the number of different positions.  One technique I use to fight fatigue is to alternate each mile between standing and sitting.  Stand up on your bike this mile and sit on your seat for the next.  I find that this uses slightly different muscles and it gives your bum a break from non-stop sitting.

The key to an enjoyable trip is being comfortable.  Take breaks every couple of hours and stretch.  Make certain that your bike is properly adjusted so that you are as comfortable as possible.  Your clothes should not hinder your pedaling motion and if you feel clothing rubbing against your skin you should stop to adjust it.  It doesn't take long for rubbing clothes to break your skin.  

Use the chart below to project your daily riding distances.

Post questions in the forum which has over 1,000 members - Click the image below forum to get started 

C&O Canal muddy conditions

Everyone rides the C&O canal at their own pace completing daily distances that they feel comfortable with. Use the chart below to estimate your daily mileage and then research the towns in that target distance that provide the accomodations that you prefer.

A friend's family started in Harper's Ferry and spent 10 days riding north to Pittsburgh lodging each night in B&B’s and they took turns pulling the BOB trailer loaded with supplies.  They took their time and covered between 30 and 40 miles a day.  Friends from Dirt Rag Magazine rode the distance over 3 days and a couple hours on the fourth day.  That would roughly equate to three centuries in a row (100 mile days) and then a final day of around 35 miles.  That would make for some pretty long days. 

Mileage chart

The riding surface of the towpath varies from section to section. There are some short paved sections, and a dozen or so miles of manicured crushed stone, but 90% of the towpath looks like the image to the left.  The surface is not terribly rough, but be prepared to navigate around potholes, roots, rocks, and mud.  The trail conditions are considerably rougher than those found on the The Great Allegheny Passage which is constructed entirely with a crushed limestone surface. Also, conditions change from month to month due to weather and maintenance. In general, expect conditions to be a bit rougher than your typical crushed limestone surface found on rail-trails. It's best to select a bike and tires that perform well in muddy conditions and feel lucky if the weather stays dry.

Expect the best trail conditions between Mile 0 thru 20 and Mile 155 thru 184. These sections are smother with no grass growing down the middle. The image to the left shows more typical conditions. Most of the trail is "dual-track" with grass or loose debris filling the center between the two tracks. For this reason, I recommend that you think twice about using a two wheel trailer to haul gear 

Mileage chart

Daily mileage

There are groups for both the GAP and for the C&O Canal, join both to stay connected. They are free to join and do not require a yahoo email address.  

Benefits of joining the group:

  • Get instant trail status updates from trail maintenance volunteers
  • Great way to locate people to ride with or group rides

Basic rules with the yahoo groups:

  • These are public groups
  • Attachments are permitted
  • Members cannot hide their email address
  • Email addresses are listed in Yahoo Groups directory Membership does not require approval
  • Messages from new members require approval.
  • All members can post messages. 
Big Slackwater trail section
C&O Towpath tee shirt

(although folks have successfully used these trailers). Expect to see lots of these "typical" mud holes. The number of holes you encounter will depend on how much rain the area has received prior to your trip. Often, you can easily navigate around these types of holes simply by hoping over to the other track or riding down the middle.

Use this chart to project your daily riding distances. There's a really helpful website called the "bikecando" that I have used for identifying the services offered in each town. The site provides a detailed database of services for each town found along the trail. Click on the town and see if they have the services that you're looking for. This site expands beyond the C&O and includes the same details for services along the Great Allegheny Passage.

The towpath is not technically challenging

Fitness & fatigue