The DC end of the C&O Towpath is a bustling, energetic contrast from the solace and quiet only a few miles away. Bike shops and abundant food choices greet you in Georgetown, some just steps away from the towpath. Mile marker 0 is often a bit tricky to find for newcomers, as the historic towpath dumps cyclists onto the Rock Creek Parkway trail without a sign to find what many are there to complete or begin their journey… a view of the canal opening into the Potomac River. Luckily there are videos showing how to access the marker.
For completists, riding the historic towpath through Georgetown is likely a must. For others, riding along Georgetown Waterfront Park to the entrance of the paved Capital Crescent Trail is a better alternative. The paved trail parallels the historic towpath, where one can trade pavement for gravel a few miles down at Fletcher’s Boat House.
During good weather, this is one of the two busiest stretches of the towpath. Washington is the largest city (by far) on the route, and locals are out in force, particularly on weekends. Normal trail etiquette is to ride single file and announce when passing, just like any major trail in the US. Don’t be surprised to see runners, walkers and even a kayaker or two on this section.
The towpath crosses the District/Maryland border and continues its journey to some of the outer suburbs. If you’re beginning or ending your journey, you may find it tempting to pass by some of the historic locks and signs, but take a water break here and there to soak in some of it.
The distant highway hum you pick up from afar is the Capital Beltway, the unofficial signal that you are entering or leaving the DC area. The trail quality under the Beltway is notoriously awful and the area is not well lit regardless of the time of day. Pump the brakes a tad when you go under and keep an eye out for ruts.
A common question posed by newcomers: is it safe in DC? Generally, the District is as safe as any other major city in the world. There’s the added benefit that the towpath travels through some of the wealthiest suburbs in the United States, and the terminus is in arguably the ritziest section of the District. That said, this is a city. Do not expect to leave your bike unlocked and find it there when you return for a leisurely coffee in Georgetown. If you’re staying at a hotel or hostel in DC, ask ahead about bike parking options. Secure indoor options are better than outdoors, but a good lock is a must.
There are no campsites on this portion of the C&O.