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Hidden behind the bustling streets of Georgetown is the picturesque C&O Canal and its unspoiled towpath, which extends 184.5 miles into Maryland. You leave urban cares and stresses behind while hiking, strolling, jogging, cycling, or boating in this lush natural setting of ancient oaks and red maples, giant sycamores, willows, and wildflowers. But the canal wasn’t always just a leisure spot for city people. It was built in the 1800s, when water routes were vital to transportation. Even before it was completed, though, the canal was being rendered obsolete by the B&O Railroad, which was constructed at about the same time and along the same route. Today its role as an oasis from unrelenting urbanity is even more important.
You can enter the towpath in Georgetown below M Street via Thomas Jefferson Street. If you hike 14 miles, you’ll reach Great Falls, a point where the Potomac becomes a stunning waterfall plunging 76 feet. This is also where the National Park Service runs its Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center, 11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac, MD (tel. 301/767-3714). The center is open year-round Wednesday through Sunday 9am to 4:30pm. At this 1831 tavern, you can see museum exhibits and a film about the canal; there’s also a bookstore. The park charges for entrance: $10 per car, $5 per walker or cyclist.
The park offers many opportunities for outdoor activities (see below), but if you or your family prefer a less strenuous form of relaxation, consider a mule-drawn 19th-century canal-boat trip, led by Park Service rangers in period dress. They regale passengers with canal legend and lore and sing period songs. Boats operate at Great Falls spring through fall, Saturday and Sunday at 11am, 1:30pm, and 3pm; in summer, the boats operate on Fridays as well, at the same times. Barge rides last about 1 hour and 10 minutes, and cost $8 per adult, $6 for seniors, $5 per child, and free for children 3 and under. Note: The canal barge rides halted operations in 2018 to allow for repair of canal locks but were expected to resume in 2019. Call to confirm!