Capital Beltway (I-495) – Great Falls (MM9-MM20)
The most popular section of the towpath may be the least inviting to ride at times, particularly if you enjoy the solace of escape. On weekends, particularly those with good weather, this section of the trail is packed with people, often slowing one’s pace to a crawl. While most users of the towpath are good citizens who lovingly share the space with loaded bike tourists, it seems this section has more people oblivious to calls of “on your left” than you can shake a stick at. Practice patience during those times.
Negativity aside, this is a beautiful stretch of the river and the towpath. One of the more stunning sections is the broad reservoir of the canal east of Great Falls. The landscape has a unique feel and topography compared to the rest of the trail. It’s a great spot for a water break at one of the several benches. Don’t get used to those -they’re a rare site on the remainder of the towpath headed west.
The main highlight is unsurprisingly the main attraction: Great Falls. An old school bike rack allows you to lock your ride (sadly no bikes allowed) and walk over a series of bridges and boardwalks to a stunning vista of the main falls on the Potomac. It’s worth a stop whether you’re starting or ending your tour 15(ish) miles away in DC. Note, the bridge and overlook is closed into the summer of 2017 for maintenance.
Great Falls is a good marker for in the towpath. Heading to DC one is greeted with more contact with civilization, transforming from rural to suburban to urban as the ride progresses. Heading to Cumberland, towpath riders get their first taste of true solitude within a few miles. It’s also the beginning of the 31 hiker/biker campsites – perhaps the best aspect of the towpath for self-supported bicycle tourists.
Swains Lock (MM 16.6)
Vehicle access *****
River access *****
Trail town amenities *
Cell phone signals ***