Trip Report: Mudbogging on the C&O Canal Towpath

On Saturday, June 29, arguably one of the hottest days of the year so far, 8 intrepid and courageous backpackers gathered at Canal Place in Cumberland for a weekend of bikepacking.

Many were bike aficionados but hadn’t bikepacked before. Some were testing out new bikes, or new gear. It didn’t take me long to realize that this slice of DC UL members and applicants formed the Plantar Fasciitis Special Interest Group (PF SIG) of DC UL Backpacking. Many of us, myself included, have struggled or continue to struggle with foot injuries that keep us from the long-distance hiking that we love.

All of us were ready to hit the trail, in this case the C&O Canal Towpath heading east out of Cumberland. Its terminus is Washington, DC, but we only planned to ride 44 miles in to Fifteen Mile Creek, where we’d camp for the night, making the return trip in the morning.

Jim, with a smile on his face – always a smile, even during the hottest and muddiest times – informed me that our campsite was just steps away from the infamous Bill’s Place, a rural biker’s bar known to generations of Little Orleans and Fifteen Mile Creek campers. That gave us all something to look forward to, and so we set out around 10:45 a.m. on Saturday morning.

Photo credit: Carrie P.

The heat quickly got to us. Water stops were frequent. Most of the hiker/biker campsites along the trail had iodine shocked water that had to be primed by pump. I stopped at many to refill as often as possible. I also ate plenty of salt and electrolytes. 

Trail conditions on the C&O are difficult to predict and vary from season to season. The National Park Service has received money to improve sections of the trail, but weather effects, flooding, and overuse have wreaked havoc on some sections more than others. I was quick to recall that our section was one of the roughest sections in the entire 184.5 miles, but I knew we all had the moxie we needed to make it through. I just hoped we’d all be smiling by the end of it.

Scenery along the C&O varies, from locks and lockhouses, to steep rock cliffs, water lily plants, turtles, and rivers, and the mile-long Paw Paw Tunnel. A bike light was donated to the gods of the canal when Bill’s light took a tumble in the middle of the tunnel and landed with a splash in the pitch dark water below. 

Saturday was the conclusion of a week with no rain, which left us with minimal muddy areas and a few puddly sections; however, this did not turn into a puddles pity party. Everyone forged onward, arriving in rolling waves at our campsite from about 4 p.m. through 6:30 p.m.

Paw Paw Tunnel from both sides. Peter J. approaching the west entrance. Photo credit: Carrie P.

Tents were pitched as everyone arrived at camp. Some went to enjoy the cool air conditioning at Bill’s Place while others waded in the cool waters of the Potomac and ate their dinners. Bill, who by a feat of inhuman strength and endurance, had towed a single-wheeled trailer for 44 miles, vowed to leave it behind and pick it up by car the next day.

Inside the Paw Paw Tunnel. Photo credit: Peter J.

Departing from DC UL style, we had several hours to kill at camp. Some tried to read on broken Kindles (Peter J.). Others toyed with their gear or bikes. We enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the Potomac as evening fell and boaters floated by.

Our view from Fifteen Mile Creek campsite. Photo: Ali S.

Just around sunset, a dark storm rolled in. The rain came in waves overnight, with bright flashes of lightning and loud bursts of thunder. It gave us all a little wariness about the conditions of the trail for our return trip.

At rest in camp. Photo credit: Ali S.

We had planned to depart originally at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, but I was reminded by, hmm, let’s see, everyone, that this meant the sun would have already been up for hours, and that we’d be missing the coolest part of the day for riding. An executive decision was made that the wake-up call be given at 6 a.m. with a roll out time of 7 a.m.; however, when I awoke around 5:50 the next morning, most people were already up and milling about as the sun rose weakly in the east. We drank our coffees, ate our breakfasts, and rolled out a little ahead of 7 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Only a few barriers stood in our way. Photo: Ali S.

It didn’t take long to see that the rain had affected the trail significantly. There were puddles everywhere, and some swamps and marshes to boot. Everyone took the challenge in stride, in true DC UL fashion, experiencing only a few falls (me and Steve G.), and one flat tire in the very last puddle stretch (Steve G.). There were a few downed trees, in the process of being cleared by the park service or other trail users. We had to dismount and hike through.

John, and then Jim, arrived in Cumberland first, and waited in the cool shade of the bike shop’s tent, while others rolled in over the next hour and a half. Many thanks for waiting for us!

The promise of pizza and beer was strong, and as soon as everyone rolled into Cumberland, the bikes were hosed and packed and we headed for Puccini, a pizza restaurant and bar just minutes away. Our suffering soon melted away with that first bite of pizza, and we were back to talking about more bike trips, our favorite backpacking trips, our new and old gear, and more. Congratulations to new DC UL member David who completed his first DC UL trip with flying colors.

Even though there is no DC UL badge for bikepacking, everyone on this trip earned the bragging rights for completing this mud-bogging, quad-burning, hamstring-tightening adventure.

Coming back to Cumberland. Photo credit: Ali S.

Sights on the trail included deer, fish (reported by John), moles, geese, turtles, and frogs.

Turtles on a log. Photo credit: Carrie P.
Photo credit: Carrie P.
A deer outside the Paw Paw Tunnel. Photo credit: Carrie P.

Suggestions are open for future bikepacking trips for the DC UL Plantar Fasciitis Special Interest Group. The Pine Creek Rail Trail in the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania and the Great Allegheny Passage are possibilities. Stay tuned!

Featured photo credit: Peter J.

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