Leaves crunch under our bike tires creating a mesmerizing soundtrack to this blue-sky fall day on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Trees are in their post-peak colors dropping yellow, red and orange leaves around me as I anticipate the next scenic bend in the trail and a new vista. The canal water is still on this calm day and reflects a mirror image of each tree and animal we encounter. By the end of our seven mile ride we see four snapping turtles basking on half submerged logs and one deer standing at water’s edge looking curiously at us. I snap a couple pictures of each and wheel on amazed that I have not ridden this trail after seven years living just an hour away. This forested and peaceful slice of heaven is only fourteen miles upriver from Washington, DC!
Once the freight hauling waterway of the region back in the 1850’s, this is now one of the best natural playgrounds in Maryland. With coal no longer being profitable cargo the canal was closed in the 1920’s. The U.S. Government purchased the canal in 1938 to re-born as a park in 1971. Most come to see the spectacular Great Falls of the Potomac and take a short hike, but on weekends the crowds come across something they hadn’t expected; free bikes!
As if the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Park wasn’t enough to get folks out exploring this historic trail, add free bikes to the offering. The bike program is the brainchild of Ric Jackson, a park volunteer. He and his staff greet many a pleasantly surprised tourist and local at the Great Falls Tavern visitor’s center and explain the free bike rules. It’s quite simple. You give them your ID to hold as a deposit, sign a simple agreement and get fitted for your bike and helmet that is yours for two hours. Pass an easy bike riding test and you are off. Even someone that rides slow like me can cover seven miles in just an hour. They have over one hundred bikes of all sizes and even a few with training wheels for the littlest riders.
Ric started this program in November of 2012 by fixing up sixteen bicycles over the next several months. The first lucky riders took to the trail on a free bike in April of 2013. Just in the last year the program has had ninety nine volunteers to help visitors enjoy the park on a bike. Ric and his crew keep the bikes in tip-top condition and also help with fitting the helmets properly if needed. It takes a lot of spare parts, volunteers and donations to keep the program running smoothly. Donations are accepted at the visitor’s center. One of Ric’s fondest memories was when a family of twelve showed up and expressed an interest in going for a ride. Problem was the old man in the group was grumpy and didn’t want to go. He finally relented and when they rode back to turn in the bikes he and the rest of his group were thrilled to have taken the free-ride and were all smiles.
Upstream is the best direction to ride if you want to leave the crowds behind. On this particular weekend we were there the parking lots were almost full. Within a few minutes of mounting our bikes we left most of humanity behind and rode the old unpaved towpath in high spirits. A little over three and a half miles from the visitor’s center is the water intake for the DC water system, a good place to view the river, or take a lunch break. We stopped at lock number twenty-two on the way back and looked at the old lockkeeper’s house wondering what life was like back in the 1850’s when the canal opened. Each of the seventy-four locks in the C&O had its own lockkeeper house for the keeper and their family.
The bikes are available on weekends and holidays, but usually closed January through March unless there is a warm and dry winter. Call the visitor center, (301 767-3714) or go to the free bike Facebook page, (http://www.facebook.com/bikeloanerprogram) to find out if they are open. The hours for the free-bikes are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the Chesapeake and Ohio Park is open year round from dawn to dusk, but the visitor’s center is closed Monday and Tuesday. The park charges $10 per car load, or season passes are available and prices vary depending on the size of your vehicle. Pack a lunch, bring the family, and enjoy one of the best outdoor activities in the DC area while the weather is good.