This is a fine little urban jaunt along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., following the C&O Canal from mile 3.1 to mile 0.5. There are terrific views of the Potomac River and the Rosslyn, Va., skyline. And the canal in Georgetown was once its Main Street, where buildings were oriented to take advantage of the waterway.
Coming into Georgetown from the west, you see how the canal once connected the countryside to the city. Above Georgetown, today’s canal traffic consists of canoes and kayaks. While out for a walk, you might be passed by a mule towing a boatful of tourists out of Georgetown. Plan to have lunch in Georgetown after an easy walk of about 5 miles roundtrip—which you can cut short to suit your desires.
Trailhead parking: There is parking at Fletcher’s Boathouse and at parking meters in Georgetown. If you’re coming into the city by car, from I-495 Beltway, take the exit for Clara Barton Parkway west toward Carderock. Take the first right exit at Carderock Recreation Area and Naval Surface Warfare Center. Turn left at top of the ramp and cross over Clara Barton Parkway. Turn left again and reenter Clara Barton Parkway eastbound. Continue east under the Beltway to the end of the parkway at Canal Road. Continue on Canal Road to Fletcher’s.
Options: You can walk in the reverse direction by starting in Georgetown, reachable by public transportaiom.
Start. Abner Cloud House, Fletcher’s Boathouse. Fletcher’s Boathouse has been operating since the 1850s. There is a canoe and boat rental, refreshment stand and bait shop, picnic area and a lot of friendly old-fashioned charm. It was operated by the Fletcher family for generations, and since 2004 has been managed by a park concessionaire. Fletcher’s is still the place where many city kids get their first fishing experience.
Across the towpath from Fletcher’s is the Abner Cloud House. It is the oldest structure on the canal, built in the early 1800s and predating the C&O project by more than two decades. Cloud’s house was a residence and storeroom for the grains and he shipped to Georgetown.
The paved trail running parallel to the canal and visible from time to time is the Capital Crescent Trail, built on the former bed of a B&O line.
0.9, Incline Plane site. This ranks among the canal’s more peculiar stories. During the go-go years of the canal, there were huge traffic jams clogging the final four locks and the terminus at Rock Creek. Traffic was especially bad when canal boats docked at Georgetown docks. The incline plane was built to get Potomac-bound boats around Georgetown without having to crawl through traffic—the same problem facing motorists today. The incline was a giant wooden ramp. At canal level, a 112-foot caisson was filled with water, allowing the boat to enter. Then, using a system of pulleys, the canal boat floated in the caisson like a toy boat in a giant bathtub. It was then lowered to the river. Despite numerous problems and accidents, the plane sped up traffic and remained in use until it was destroyed by flood in 1889.
2.1, Key Bridge, Alexandria Aqueduct. Passing under the Key Bridge, there is a pocket park and exhibit on the Alexandria Aqueduct—another curious C&O story. Not to be left out of the massive public works project that was the C&O, Virginia built an aqueduct over the river. This connected to another canal on the Virginia side that carried canal boats to the port at Alexandria. To country folks visiting the city in the canal era, seeing boats sledding down the incline plane or floating high above the Potomac was the 19th century version of a George Jetson universe.
2.2, the 34th Street footbridge.
2.6, C&O Canal Visitor Center.
C&O Canal National Historical Park
C&O Canal Trust
Cultural Tourism D.C.
Through this a one- or two-day journey through Potomac Heritage, you experience the breadth of the American ideal of freedom through voices and images. You’ll also relax on a short walk to a stunning (and still secret) overlook of the Shenandoah River, and pause to ponder it all on a visit a winery or two. Frederick Douglass is best known as a formerly enslaved man who became the orator-in-chief for emancipation. W.E.B. DuBois is remembered as the political organizer who set in motion the creation of the NAACP. Often forgotten today is that both were champions for the Civil Rights and equality of all people—including Irish immigrants who built the C&O Canal and American women battling for the right to vote.
This tour begins in Washington, D.C., then heads west to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., followed by the Civil Rights Walking Tour in the Potomac town of Leesburg, Va.
Stop 1, Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, 1411 W Street SE, Washington, D.C. Douglass was born on a plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around 1818. He escaped to New York in 1838 disguised as a sailor, then traveled speaking about his experiences in slavery. Soon, he was one of the most famous orators in America. For nearly 60 years, he championed the cause of equal treatment under the law.
Cedar Hill today is furnished largely the way Douglass left when he died in 1895. See gifts from U.S. Presidents, paintings and photographs, and his incredible library. You can take a self-guided tour, but make time for a guided tour—you’ll never forget it. And the view of Washington from the Hill rivals the view from anywhere. The house is kid-friendly (Douglass’s grandchildren were daily visitors), but on sunny days, today’s kids love to play outside on the Hill—allowing two adults to “tag team” visits indoors.
Stop 2, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. About an hour up the Potomac via Interstate 270, then south/west on U.S. 340. After crossing the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, turn left into the Harpers Ferry NHP visitor center at the top of the hill.
Harpers Ferry brings to life America’s industrial history beginning in the early 19th century, slavery and the Civil War, and the founding of the modern Civil Rights movement.
There are six major exhibits interpreting African American history. The John Brown museum includes artifacts, storyboards and video presentations charting the history of slavery and the abolitionist movement. Also in Harpers Ferry’s lower town are Black Voices and the Storer College Niagara Movement exhibits. Black Voices is an interactive audio-visual exhibit depicting the stories of enslaved people.
The Storer College Niagara Exhibit reveals the story of the school founded for freed African Americans shortly after the Civil War. The college hosted the 1906 meeting of the Niagara Movement, founded by W.E.B. Du Bois. It was the group’s second meeting, and its first meeting on American soil. The meeting is considered the beginning of the modern Civil Rights era. Its members launched the NAACP a few years later. There are more Niagara.
Stop 3, Murphy Farm. In 1906, the Niagara delegates walked from Storer College to John Brown’s Fort, which had been dismantled and moved to the farm by the Murphy family. From the park visitor center, it’s an easy 30-minute round trip to the site. Near the site is an overlook with incredible views of the Shenandoah River.
Leaving the park visitor center, backtrack on Route 340 to the bottom of the hill. Just before the bridge over the Potomac, turn right onto Harpers Ferry Road (Route 671). In 5 miles enter the Hillsboro, Va., area. There is a vineyard on 671, and two more on Route 9, where you will turn right to continue the trip.
Continuing on Route 9, go east on Route 7 to Leesburg.
Stop 4, Leesburg’s African American Heritage Tour. Stretch your legs before dinner walking the streets of this historic town while experiencing Civil Rights history on an architectural walking tour. Pick up a brochure at the visitor center, 16 Loudoun Street, or request one by phone or email by visiting their website.
In 1861 President Lincoln ordered construction of a ring of fortifications to protect the Union Capital during the Civil War. The result was 86 forts and 93 batteries connected by 32 miles of military roads. Today a network of 20 preserved sites forms a linear ring of parkland and trails in Washington, D.C. For a brochure describing the Civil War Defenses of Washington, see http://www.nps.gov/cwdw/planyourvisit/brochures.htm.
This 5.6-mile stroll down tree-line sidewalks and wooded paths visits three of these sites and includes a walk through Glover-Archbold Park, a favorite natural area of Capital City residents. There’s no need to pack a lunch because the midpoint of the segment goes right through Tenley Circle. Both ends are accessible via public transportation. You can also walk just the north or south portions, using the Metro station at Tenley as an end point.
Start: Oregon Avenue at Fort DeRussey in Rock Creek Park.
End: Chesapeake & Ohio National Historical Park at Canal Road and Foundry Branch.
Parking: Oregon Ave., near Fort DeRussey (0.0), Fort Reno on Chesapeake Street. (2.0), Canal Road (5.6)
0.0 Fort DeRussey, at the Oregon Avenue entrance to Rock Creek Park. Fort DeRussy was built on a hill to provide crossfire on the approaches to Fort Stevens on the 7th Street Pike (now Georgia Avenue) and to control the countryside to west of today’s Rock Creek Park. It supported Fort Stevens in the only battle fought in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, July 11-12, 1864. The parapet’s earthworks still display the openings where guns were mounted. The moat around the parapet is evident, and rifle trenches outside the parapet can be seen. From here, go south on the Western Ridge Trail.
0.1 Military Road.
0.4 Grant Road. Turn right
0.6 Broad Branch Road. Turn right.
1.2 36th Street. Turn left
1.5 Cross Connecticut Avenue.
1.6 Turn right on Ellicott Street.
1.7 Reno Road. Turn left, then immediately right on Fort Drive.
1.8 Cross Nebraska Avenue.
1.9 Fort Reno. Named for Major General Jesse Lee Reno, who died from wounds received at the Battle of South Mountain in 1862, it was built during the winter of 1861 shortly after the Union Army’s defeat at the First Battle of Manassas. Situated at the highest point in Washington, Fort Reno eventually became the largest and most heavily-armed fort circling the city. Its commanding views of the surrounding countryside made it an important link in the defense of Washington.
2.0 Chesapeake Street, at south end of park. Go south on 40th Street away from park.
2.3 Cross Tenley Circle; stay on 40th Street.
2.4 Veasy Street. Turn right, then left at the end of the street.
2.5 Van Ness Street. Turn left.
2.6 Turn right on foot trail into Glover-Archbold Park. A three-mile trail runs the length of the park, which stretches from the Potomac River nearly to Tenley Circle. With seven stream crossings along the way, the defining feature of the route is Foundry Branch.
3.3 Cross Massachusetts Avenue.
3.7 Cross Cathedral Avenue.
3.9 Cross New Mexico Avenue.
4.1 Reach footpath to Battery Kemble and Palisades Park. For a side trip to Battery Kemble, turn right here, then turn right at the trail fork. Cross 44th Street at Edmonds Street; then stay on the trail. Cross Foxhall Road. Cross 49th Street into Palisades Park. People who grow up in Washington, D.C., know Battery Kemble Park as one the best sledding hills in the city.
4.4 Trail junction. Continue straight.
4.8 Trail junction. The path leads left (east) into Whitehaven Park.
5.1 Cross Reservoir Road.
5.6 Tunnel under Mac Arthur Boulevard. Reach C&O Canal Towpath at Canal Road and Foundry Branch.
C&O Canal, www.nps.gov/choh/
DC Heritage Tourism Coalition, www.culturaltourismdc.org
Fort Dupont Recreation Center, www.nps.gov/fodu
Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, www.cr.nps.gov/museum/collections/keaq.html
NPS National Capital-East, (202) 690-5185. www.nps.gov/nace
NPS National Capital-Central, (202) 426-6841, www.nps.gov/nacc
U.S. National Arboretum, www.usna.usda.gov
Rock Creek Park, www.nps.gov/rocr
Washington Parks and People, www.washingtonparks.net
Cultural Tourism DC, an independent coalition of more than 230 culture, heritage and community organizations, encourages metro-area residents and visitors to explore the authentic culture of the Nation’s capital via “DC Neighborhood Heritage Trails.” Developed by Cultural Tourism DC in conjunction with community groups, who collect neighborhood stories and images, three of these trails are found along the Potomac Heritage Trail route.
Discover – or see with new eyes – this traditionally African-American enclave in Far Northeast when you follow A Self-Reliant People: Greater Deanwood Heritage Trail. With its signature, small, wood-frame houses on large lots, Deanwood looks like a country town. The community developed in the 1890s on the site of a tobacco plantation when the city’s big real estate interests and government focused on areas closer to downtown. The Greater Deanwood Heritage Trail can be accessed from the Minnesota Avenue Metro station near Fort Mahan Park and the Fort Circle Parks Trail.
Lace up your walking shoes and experience Brightwood by following the signs on this self-guided DC Neighborhood Heritage Trail. Indulge your inner Civil War buff in one of DC’s early communities, where you will see the site of the only Civil War battle to take place within the District of Columbia. The Brightwood Heritage Trail is near Fort Stevens, accessible from Rock Creek Park just south of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and intersects the Civil War Defenses of Washington hiking route.
Until the 1950s, Southwest was Washington’s largest working-class waterfront neighborhood. Then, in one of the Nation’s first experiments in “urban renewal,” nearly all of Southwest was razed to build something entirely new. The Southwest Heritage Trail is situated along the PHT bicycling route between the C&O Canal Towpath (near Thompson’s Boathouse) and the Frederick Douglas Bridge, passing north of Fort McNair.
To view the entire suite of Cultural Tourism DC’s Neighborhood Heritage Trails, go to Neighborhood Heritage Trails.