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, constructed at about the same time and along the same route. 

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). At this 1831 tavern, you can see museum exhibits and a film about the canal; it also has a bookstore; check to make sure the center is open before you arrive. The park charges for entrance: $20 per car, $10 per walker or cyclist (valid for 7 days).

The C&O Canal 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. Passengers will travel about a mile along the canal, through the locks, while being pulled by mules—the same way canal boats traditionally were propelled.

Note: Parts of the C&O Canal tow path and its locks are under ongoing construction from either storm damage or restoration. Depending on when you visit, sections of the trail may be closed altogether. Call to confirm!