Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park | GOLD MINE LOOP TRAIL HIKE

Gold Mine Trail Loop Hike map (click to enlarge)

Gold Mine Trail Loop Hike map (click to enlarge)


NOTE: Sections of the towpath, locks and other historical structures, trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, boat ramps, and visitor centers are constantly being closed due to damage and/or repair. When planning an adventure within Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, make sure that areas you plan to visit are open by checking the National Park Service’s official Current Park Conditions web page.


Length: 4.1-mile loop
Time: 3 hours
Difficulty: The Gold Mine Loop Trail is easy, but other trails on the hike are moderate to moderately strenuous.

Like most trails within Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, the Gold Mine Loop Trail is located in the Great Falls area and begins near the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. The trail itself requires hiking on other trails to reach. There are a number of options, but the Gold Mine Spur is the most direct and the only one that starts from the Visitor Center. You can take it, hike the Gold Mine Loop Trail, and return on the Spur, or you can come back another way and create a second loop—a Figure 8—so you don’t have to see the same things twice. This is what I chose to do, picking the Overlook Trail and Lock 19 Spur as my return route. It’s the same distance either way. I also took a short detour on the Falls Road Spur to see the ruins of an old gold mine, which adds .2 mile to the hike.

GOLD MINE SPUR

Start of the Gold Mine Spur in the Great Falls area of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Start of the Gold Mine Spur in the Great Falls area of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

The Gold Mine Spur begins in the forest behind the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. The trail starts off uphill on a climb of moderate difficulty. You’ll notice that as soon as you get away from the Visitor Center and the C&O Canal towpath that the crowd disappears. I saw a dozen hikers at most during the three hours I was on this hike, compared to the hundreds who are walking the towpath.

The hike proceeds through the forest for the entire time, so there is no need for sunscreen or a hat to protect your head from the sun. The trail surface is fairly smooth with some roots here and there, so you can make good time. For navigational purposes, the Gold Mine Spur is marked with light blue blazes (paint splotches) on the trees. When in doubt as to where to go, look for the blazes and follow them like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs.

Typical terrain of the Gold Mine Spur in the Great Falls area of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Typical terrain of the Gold Mine Spur in the Great Falls area of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

There are three intersections with other trails before the Gold Mine Loop Trail. Two are clearly marked with sign posts. The first is the intersection with the Lock 19 Spur, and it comes .3 mile into the hike. The terrain levels out at this point. Keep straight to stay on the Gold Mine Spur.

Once past the Lock 19 Spur, the trail widens and follows an elevated platform for a tenth of a mile. There is no way that this is natural, so my guess is that the trail follows either an old railroad bed or a road. However, after a tenth of a mile the trail comes off of the platform and runs down the middle of a gully. I can’t explain that one.

Gold Mine Spur in the Great Falls area of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park follows an elevated platform for a short distance

Gold Mine Spur in the Great Falls area of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park follows an elevated platform for a short distance

After the elevated platform, the Gold Mine Spur in the Great Falls area of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park proceeds through a large gully

After the elevated platform, the Gold Mine Spur in the Great Falls area of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park proceeds through a large gully

There is a tree with a double blaze on it at .6 mile into the hike. The blazes stairstep to the right, which indicates the trail continues to the right. This is not shown on the trail map, but if you stay straight you will come out on MacArthur Boulevard. In fact, you can see cars passing by in the distance. Turn right to stay on the Gold Mine Spur.

Unmarked intersection with the Gold Mine Spur and a connector trail to MacArthur Boulevard, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Unmarked intersection with the Gold Mine Spur and a connector trail to MacArthur Boulevard, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

The third intersection comes .2 mile after the double-blaze turn. There is a trail sign for the Gold Mine Spur but nothing that identifies the other trail at the intersection. This is the Overlook Trail, the trail I took back to Great Falls Tavern. However, on the way out the hike remains on the Gold Mine Spur, so take a left.

The Gold Mine Spur finally meets the Gold Mine Loop Trail at the 1-mile mark on the hike. Being a loop you can go left or right. I chose to go left, hiking around in the clockwise direction. The trail remains wide, smooth, and fairly level.

Intersection of the Gold Mine Spur and Gold Mine Loop Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Intersection of the Gold Mine Spur and Gold Mine Loop Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

GOLD MINE LOOP TRAIL

As soon as you turn onto the Gold Mine Loop Trail you come to the first of seven intersections, the VFW Spur. I have no idea what VFW stands for, but all it does is take you to MacArthur Boulevard.

A quarter mile later is the intersection with the Falls Road Spur. This leads to the ruins of the Maryland Mine, .1 mile up the trail. This is one of thirty or so former gold mines in the park. Supposedly it was a Union soldier guarding the Great Falls area during the Civil War who discovered the gold. He kept it a secret and returned after the war and started buying up land from the local farmers. He only ended up finding 11 ounces, but the find sparked gold fever and set off a rash of mine openings—the Maryland Mine was one of them. It operated from 1890 to 1940 and had better luck than the soldier, pulling 5,000 ounces of gold from the vein of quartz down below. The trail is steep, but if you like old buildings be sure to take the detour. There is no need to go beyond the buildings, as the trail just continues on to MacArthur Boulevard.

Building from the Maryland Mine located in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Building from the Maryland Mine located in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Building foundation at the Maryland Gold Mine located in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Building foundation at the Maryland Gold Mine located in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Water tower from the Maryland Gold Mine days, Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Water tower from the Maryland Gold Mine days, Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Building foundation at the Maryland Mine located in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Building foundation at the Maryland Mine located in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Other than the trip to the mine, the hike around the Gold Mine Loop Trail is simply a walk in the forest. There are five more intersections—Rockwood Spur, Valley Trail, Anglers Spur, Woodland Trail, and Lock 16 Spur—all of which are clearly marked. Since you are hiking clockwise, even without directional signage it’s easy to figure out which way to go—always stay to the right.

Once you hit Rockwood Spur the trail surface becomes rocky and you’ll find yourself hiking down a few moderately steep hills. The rocks protrude to about toe height, so if you are shuffling your feet it’s easy to trip. You’ll find most of the rocks on the downhill stretches where the rain water has rushed down the hills over the years, washing away the top soil and exposing the rocks.

Typical terrain of the Gold Mine Loop Trail south of the Rockwood Spur in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Typical terrain of the Gold Mine Loop Trail south of the Rockwood Spur in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

It turns out the trail is heading downhill because it is approaching a small stream. Waterways tend to be at the lowest point on the terrain, which is the case here. The stream comes right before the Woodland Trail intersection. You must cross it by using stepping stones in the water. As expected, the trail immediately starts climbing out of the small valley on the other side of the stream. The terrain remains hilly until you get back to the start of the loop.

Creek crossing on the Gold Mine Loop Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Creek crossing on the Gold Mine Loop Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Creek across the Gold Mine Loop Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Creek across the Gold Mine Loop Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

You’ll be back at the start of the Gold Mine Loop Trail at the 3-mile point on the hike (including the .2 mile detour to the Maryland Mine). You need to get back on the Gold Mine Spur for a short distance in order to connect with the Overlook Trail, but the Gold Mine Spur is not identified by trail signage at this point. You’ll see the VFW Spur sign, and when you do, take a left. This will put your back on the Gold Mine Spur.

Back to the start of the Gold Mine Loop Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Back to the start of the Gold Mine Loop Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

OVERLOOK TRAIL

As mentioned earlier, you can retrace your steps and take the Gold Mine Spur back to the Visitor Center. Never one to want to see the same things twice, I opted to take the Overlook Trail, which comes a tenth of a mile from the turn onto the Gold Mine Spur. The trail’s difficulty is between moderate and strenuous, as it is very hilly, with some hills being extremely steep.

Typical terrain on the Overlook Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Typical terrain on the Overlook Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

The Overlook Trail comes to an unmarked intersection 3.7 miles into the overall hike, .6 mile after the Gold Mine Spur intersection. This is the only source of confusion on the hike. While a sign points out the Overlook Trail, it fails to mention the second trail, one marked with blue blazes. It turns out that the blue-blazed trail is just a short loop that hooks back around and comes out a little farther down on the Overlook Trail, so either way you end up at the same spot. I took the blue-blazed trail, but recommend just staying on the Overlook Trail because while the detour heads towards the Potomac River, trees block the view the entire time, so nothing is gained.

Intersection of the Overlook Trail and an unmarked trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Intersection of the Overlook Trail and an unmarked trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

The Overlook Trail gets its name because there is an actual overlook of the Potomac River. The view is largely blocked by trees, so my advice is to skip the short detour to the overlook. I even made a dangerous descent to a rock outcropping in hopes of getting a better photo, but I still couldn’t see much. However, if you want to check it out for yourself, be on the lookout for the OVERLOOK sign. It is not on the trail map.

View of the Potomac River from the Overlook Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

View of the Potomac River from the Overlook Trail in the Great Falls section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

The Overlook Trail does not lead directly back to the Visitor Center. You must take the Lock 19 Spur to the left and head towards the C&O Canal. A right takes you back to the Gold Mine Spur.

LOCK 19 SPUR

The Lock 19 Spur, which takes you to Lock 19, is very rugged, almost like rock climbing. However, it is short and you can see the lock and the towpath from near the start. The waterfall you see at the lock is the sluice. All locks had them, but today many have been filled in with dirt or are covered in vegetation and hard to spot. In most cases, the sluice was just a rudimentary ditch that was dug parallel to the lock. When the upstream gates were closed, it allowed water to flow around the lock instead of backing up into a pool of excess water that could spill over the banks of the canal or put additional pressure on the lock gates. The water emptied back into the canal just past the downstream gates. The idea is similar to that of a spillway on a dam.

Trail down to Lock 19 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

Trail down to Lock 19 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

Lock 19 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

Lock 19 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal

To get back to the Visitor Center, you can cross over the canal on a footbridge and take a right on the C&O Canal towpath, or stay on the same side of the canal that you came in on and follow the dirt path back, also taking a right. The dirt path comes out behind the Visitor Center, passing the Gold Mine Spur trailhead where the hike began. Either way, you’re just a couple of minutes from Great Falls Tavern.

Rear of the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Rear of the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center in Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park

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Last updated on June 5, 2024
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