Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park | PADDLING

Paddleboarding near Lock 15 on the C&O Canal (Mile 13.6)

Paddleboarding near Lock 15 on the C&O Canal (Mile 13.6)


See the Boat Ramps web page for a list of ramps and an interactive location map.

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.


Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park offers paddling opportunities on both the Potomac River and select segments of the C&O Canal. Those who do not have a canoe or kayak can rent one—along with paddle boards and rowboats—at Fletcher’s Boathouse at Mile 3.2 on the canal (mileposts similar to those on highways denote mileage along the towpath). You can take the boats on the Potomac River or on the canal. If paddling the river downstream to Georgetown, on most days the current is not very strong and you can paddle back without much extra effort. Stick to the Maryland side of the river where the currents are not as swift as on the Virginia side.

You can also rent boats at the Thompson Boat Center in Georgetown. It is located at the 0 Mile point on the canal—the confluence of Rock Creek and the Potomac River. Though both Thompson and Fletcher’s are authorized National Park Service concessionaires, you can’t pick up a boat at one facility and drop it off at the other in order to make a one-way paddling trip.

Canoe rentals at Fletcher's Boathouse at Fletcher's Cove

Canoe rentals at Fletcher’s Boathouse at Fletcher’s Cove

POTOMAC RIVER PADDLING

Paddling is allowed anywhere along the Potomac River bordering Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. However, paddling over dams and the Great Falls is extremely dangerous, and while allowed, this should only be attempted by expert kayakers. Those in canoes should not paddle in these areas.

Kayaking the Potomac River below the Great Falls

Kayaking the Potomac River below the Great Falls

It is possible to kayak over the Great Falls themselves where rapids are Class 5 and 6. If you plan to do this, the unwritten agreement with the National Park Service is to do it early in the morning or in the evening when the park is not crowded. They don’t want a bunch of spectators working their way down to the river for a closer look and perhaps falling in. Interesting enough, Great Falls Park—also a National Park unit—in Virginia on the other side of the Potomac River does not allow boaters to put in above Great Falls. Maryland doesn’t care if you want to kill yourself, so start your river trip any place you’d like.

 

Paddling on certain sections of the Potomac may be a one-way trip due to the current, whereas other sections are very calm and it is possible to paddle up- or downstream. Be sure you know what the situation is before setting off down the river because you’ll need a ride at your destination if you can’t paddle back to your starting point. Keep in mind that calm sections can become raging patches of whitewater during or shortly after a rain storm.


PADDLING THE C&O CANAL

It is also possible to paddle sections of the C&O Canal. Water on the canal barely moves, so you can travel in either direction without a problem. Canal trips offer a relaxing experience and are suitable for all ages, even very young children.

Paddling is allowed on the following sections of the canal:

Georgetown (Mile 0) to Lock 23 (Mile 22)

Mile 99.3 in Williamsport to Lock 44 (Mile 99.8)

Mile 112 to 113 in Big Pool

Mile 120 to Mile 121 in Little Pool

Mile 124.1 to Mile 124.7 in Hancock

Town Creek (Mile 162) to Old Town (Mile 167)

As you can see, most of these segments are so short that it’s not worth your time getting out of the car. In addition, though there may be water in the canal, it is often so full of lilies, tall grass, and other muck that it’s not even appealing to look at, let alone paddle through. Trees and limbs may also be down along the canal, and in the sections far from populated areas, it may be a long time before the park Rangers get around to clearing the debris.

C&O Canal near Old Town

C&O Canal near Old Town

The longest section is the 22-mile stretch from Georgetown to Violette’s Lock (Lock 23), and being close to Washington, this is where you are most likely to see paddlers. However, while this segment sounds appealing due to its length, there are a few reasons why paddling the entire stretch is not all that practical. First off, you cannot go through any locks, so to make the entire journey you must drag your boat around nineteen of them (Locks 1-4 come one right after the other at the start of the canal in Georgetown, so journeys begin or end at Lock 4). Secondly, while there may be water in this section of the canal, upstream from Dam 5 (Mile 5) it is often low to non-existent and also full of muck and grass.

View of the C&O Canal downstream from Lock 12 (Mile 9.3)

View of the C&O Canal downstream from Lock 12 (Mile 9.3)

There are only two segments I recommend paddling. One is from the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center at Lock 20 up to Lock 21, approximately two miles, one way. The National Park Service runs a Canal Boat Ride between these locks, so the canal and its water are in good condition. However, I was at the park one time when tours were cancelled due to low water.

Paddling upstream from Lock 20

Paddling upstream from Lock 20

The other segment is between Locks 4 and 5. This is a five-mile stretch with good water and no locks to go around. This is also where Fletcher’s Boathouse is located. While there may be clear stretches of water between other locks, most segments aren’t very long and paddling them is simply too much hassle.

Old Town to Town Creek is the second longest stretch of canal open for paddling. However, the water is beyond nasty, full of algae, lilies, and other vegetation. On top of that, the banks are rather steep, so it’s going to be tough getting out of your boat to portage around the locks—there are three. There is even one spot where the canal ends due to a land bridge, and the water doesn’t appear again for a tenth of a mile farther down the towpath.

The exit area to portage around Lock 69 is like paddling in sludge

The exit area to portage around Lock 69 is like paddling in sludge

Canal ends temporarily at a land bridge

Canal ends temporarily at a land bridge

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Last updated on April 24, 2020
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