Chuck invited me to join him on an overnight bike trip on the C&O canal, starting from Hancock, MD, heading up the river to Indigo Neck campground.
I haven’t visited this area since the 2014 tour with my brother, so I jumped at the chance to see an unfamiliar part of the C&O national park.
Day 1: Hancock, MD, to Indigo Neck Campground, 15 miles
It was blazing hot as we got ready in Hancock (around 85 F perhaps) so it was a welcome relief to start cycling and get into the shade of the woods.
It felt more remote and wild than sections of the towpath near Harpers Ferry. We only saw one other person the entire time.
It was hot and dry when we got to camp and thankfully the bugs were minimal.
With the long hours of daylight at this time of year, it was a leisurely afternoon setting up the tent and having dinner.
Chuck brought a folding saw, which we put to good use cutting firewood for the campfire. (Pro tip: A squirt of lighter fluid helps get damp wood going!)
As the evening wore on, the birds became more vocal with the whippoorwills dominating the song.
The campfire was our focal point as we shared tales and watched the flames turn wood to ash as day gave way to night.
Day 2: Indigo Neck Campground to home, 82 miles
I woke to light rain on the fly. I headed to the picnic bench and made hot granola and coffee for breakfast. The rain continued through the morning, necessitating a waterproof jacket but never heavy enough to be unpleasant.
Brenda, another bike tourer, was away first that morning at 8.30. Chuck and I were away a bit after 9.
Since we’d ridden the canal towpath into Indigo Neck campground the day before, we decided to ride the parallel Western Maryland Rail Trail (WMRT) on the return to Hancock. The WMRT is paved, which was a benefit as the rain steadily increased.
It’s a beautiful ride through mountainous western Maryland. Being an old rail line, there is virtually no ascent or descent, so it’s an easy ride.
It was much cooler than the day before with low mist clinging to the mountain sides, which made the whole place look like the set of Jurassic Park.
I said goodbye to Chuck in Hancock, where he stopped at his truck.
I continued, planning to ride all the way home, which would be about 80 miles total for the day, the furthest I’ve ridden since 2014!
I rode to the terminus of the WMRT, having missed the connection to the C&O canal about a mile earlier. I was loathe to backtrack so I rode through Fort Frederick State Park to regain the canal at the far end of Big Pool.
From there I rode the towpath along the river’s edge and in and out of the woods.
Aside from one large group, the trail was mostly empty and I enjoyed miles of solitude. The rain fell heavily at times, and the trail was muddy, but I love these kinds of conditions as they remind me of home.
The riding was super fun until around mile 70, once I was on familiar ground past Shepherdstown. Then my legs began to ache. And ache.
The last few miles into Harpers Ferry were hard. It doesn’t seem to matter how long a ride is — 50 miles, 80 miles, 100+ miles — the last 10 miles always feel hard.
Overall, this was an excellent mini bike tour with friends.
I explored a local area that I’ve only visited once before, many years ago, so it felt like new terrain. Plus, 80 miles in the rain on mostly muddy gravel was a solid challenge that had me digging deep, which is exactly the sensation I’m searching for.
The Welsh 3000s is a challenge to walk all the mountains over 3,000 ft in Wales in a single expedition.
It’s a route that I’ve dreamed of for over two decades (!) but just never quite got round to doing. So I was incredibly excited to finally give it a shot.
Unbelievably, it’s been done in under 5 hours by elite runners, and under 12 hours by fast runners. I once harbored ambitions to try to do it in under a day myself, but not anymore. This time, we opted to do it over 3 days with 2 high camps, still a challenging itinerary. For me, it would certainly tick the “summit” box with 16 planned summits and since it involves at least one mandatory scramble, I’d also get to tick that box.
We chose to start our route from sea level, which meant our final peak would also be the tallest, Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon). It made for a beautiful, logical line, around 38 miles in length.
We left the town of Llanfairfechan and climbed up into the mountains. Behind us lay the Menai Strait and Anglesey, ahead lay the challenge of the Carneddau range.
Day 1 was all uphill, since we started at sea level and climbed three of the 3000 ft summits. Once we gained the ridge proper though, the bulk of the ascent for the day was done.
Summit #1: Foel-fras, 942 m (3,090 ft)
Snow lingered on the north slopes of the mountains and ice lay in the puddles. Since it was above freezing, it was all slushy and we didn’t need to worry about winter conditions. The ground was wet and my boots eventually succumbed to repeated immersions to leave my feet damp.
Summit #2: Carnedd Gwenllian, 926 m (3,038 ft)
Summit #3: Foel Grach, 976 m (3,202 ft)
After pitching the tents, we collected and filtered water from a stream at the col. Then back to the tents to cook in the dusk light and enjoy a hot dinner with a view of city lights sparkling in the distance.
It was a wild and windy night!
It snowed during the first half of the night, but it turned to rain as the night wore on. During the night the wind shifted direction so it was hitting my tent side-on and flattening it on me during the stronger gusts.
Suffice to say, I didn’t sleep much that night!
Day 2: Carnedd Llewelyn camp to Y Garn camp
11.8 miles / 5,121 ft ascent / 8 summits
The rain and wind lessened through the morning so the conditions were reasonably benign when we set off, just a tad chilly. Only the visibility remained poor through the morning.
Summits #4 – 7: The central Carneddau
From camp, we skirted the shoulder of Carnedd Llywelyn and climbed Yr Elen first, to avoid having to ascend Carnedd Llywelyn twice.
We climbed the summits along the central ridge line of the Carneddau in quick succession, as they only have modest drops between them:
Yr Elen, 962 m (3,156 ft)
Carnedd Llywelyn, 1064 m (3,491 ft)
Carnedd Dafydd, 1044 m (3,425 ft)
Pen yr Ole Wen, 978 m (3,208 ft)
The cloud thinned as we ascended the final summit of the Carneddau range: Pen yr Ole Wen.
We opted to descend the east ridge, a mild grade 1 scramble that we’d both done several times before (15 – 20 years ago though!). Although the direct descent from the summit of Pen yr Ole Wen to the west end of Llyn Ogwen tempted us with the promise of a cafe, it’s not a particularly pleasant descent.
We dropped below the cloud base as we passed Ffynnon Lloer at the base of the east ridge. The Glyderau were poking out of the cloud, which was rapidly thinning.
We elected to scramble the north ridge of Tryfan rather than the south ridge from the Bwlch Tryfan, which would have been a longer route. We made rapid progress up the steep trail but spent WAY too long route finding on the scramble itself.
Tryfan kept us guessing to the very summit. We were committed to a gully with an unknown exit. Thankfully, it snuck round a corner and popped us out right next to the summit rocks, Adam and Eve.
Summit #8: Tryfan, 915 m (3,011 ft)
The silver lining of spending all afternoon on the ascent of Tryfan was that we traversed the main Glyderau ridge in the glorious evening light. The thick clag on the summits earlier in the day was long gone, replaced by a magical cloud inversion.
Where the Carneddau are mostly boggy, open summits, the Glyderau are all shattered rock pillars (the name itself means “heap of stones”).
Most of the summits involve a degree of scrambling to attain the airy perches. We had good weather so it was a really enjoyable section of the walk, even despite our weary legs.
Summit #9: Glyder Fach, 994 m (3,261 ft)
Summit #10: Castell y Gwynt, 972 m (3,189 ft)
Summit #11: Glyder Fawr, 1,001 m (3,284 ft)
Day 3: Y Garn camp to Pen-y-Pass
15.9 miles / 5,867 ft ascent / 5 summits
Having pitched our tents in the dark the previous evening, we had no idea just how scenic the camping spot was! It was a gorgeous morning, all the more so because we were up early at first light, to ensure we had time to complete another big day.
This is one of the best wild camps I’ve had in a long time. Barely a breath of wind, no bugs, beautiful scenery, a hot breakfast. Basically, as good as it gets.
We were walking by 7.30 am and immediately started the climb up Y Garn. It’s an easy ascent on a good path, so we just plodded along and enjoyed the incredible views.
Summit #12: Y Garn, 947 m (3,106 ft)
The route from the top of Y Garn to Elidir Fawr is one of the finest high-level walks in Snowdonia I think. Especially on a day like this, with bright blue skies and a stunning cloud inversion.
After the rocky summits of the main Glyderau, the easy trails on Elidir Fawr were a welcome change underfoot.
Summit #13: Elidir Fawr, 924 m (3,031 ft)
The cloud filled in as we descended off Elidir Fawr down to Nant Perris. We passed the huge Dinorwig slate quarries on the way down. In the valley, some sheep had escaped into the single track road in front of us. Try as we might, we couldn’t get past them, so they kept running towards the main road, which would have caused a problem. Thankfully a passing local shepherded them into an empty field and alerted the farmer. Oh, the dramas of rural life!
Our route continued on an undulating path along the valley floor for a few miles, before heading up into the Snowdon range for our final group of three peaks.
Somewhere during our ascent to Cwm Glas, we missed the left turn and continued following a trail that led us to far to the right, to the base of the Pearson arete (a classic hard scramble, one for another day!).
Although we were some way off route, it wasn’t a total disaster as there was a faint traversing trail that took us back towards Cwm Glas. However, with time pressing, we opted to go to Bwlch Coch, the col between Crib Goch and Garnedd Ugain, rather than try the full traverse of Crib Goch (our original plan, but a longer route).
This meant we would do an out-and-back route to tag the summit of Crib Goch. One benefit to this was that we could leave our bags at the col to do the scramble. However, it also meant we had to do the hardest scrambling over the pinnacles in both directions.
I’m really out of practice scrambling, so it was vaguely terrifying in a few places. The moves are simple, but the route is very exposed. So we took our time and made sure we were safe.
Summit #14: Crib Goch, 923 m (3,028 ft)
The cloud layer descended again, so we lost visibility going up the penultimate mountain.
We tried to avoid some of the scrambling to save time, by using a traversing path, but we ended up having to climb a heinous scree gully to get to the summit.
Not a particularly fun route, but I was still smiling because we were so close to achieving our objective. Only a short walk from the summit of Garnedd Ugain to Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) remained.
Summit #15: Garnedd Ugain, 1,065 m (3,494 ft)
All that remained was the highest of the lot: Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon). It’s the highest mountain in Wales and can be a tourist magnet on summer weekends. As it was a misty, windy, Monday evening, we only saw a few other groups on our way to the summit.
Summit #16: Yr Wyddfa / Snowdon, 1,085 m (3,560 ft)
We had the summit to ourselves, just the wind and thick cloud for company.
It was hugely satisfying to knock this one off and complete the 3000s. I was relieved that my right knee and lower back didn’t give me any trouble.
We had a taxi booked for 8 pm from Pen-y-Pass car park so we had to dash down the Miner’s track to make it in time. We arrived at 8.02 pm. Not bad timing, given that we booked it a few hours earlier on the summit of Garnedd Ugain and had to estimate our pickup time.
What can I say to wrap this up?
A brilliant, brilliant trip!
Undoubtedly I have some recency bias because it’s been a long time since I’ve been backpacking in the UK like this, but I would say this was one of the best short trips I’ve ever done.
It had a bit of everything: a classic and challenging route, wild camping, scrambling, full variety of weather, great companionship, and stunning scenery in one of my favourite parts of the world.
One of my goals this year is to camp out for at least one night every month. I managed it in January (see January bikepacking overnighter) but missed February (life and work were busy).
It looked like March was going to be another miss, but right at the end of the month, after launching a big work project, I was able to sneak out for another sub-24 hour overnighter.
Day 1: Home to Big Woods, via dam 4, 27.5 miles
Like the January trip, I rode from home along the C&O Canal towpath to one of the backcountry campsites: Big Woods hiker biker site.
I got away at 3.30 pm, headed upriver on the canal towpath. I’ve ridden this section countless times, but I always enjoy the meditative experience of riding in solitude alongside the river. There were only a handful of dog walkers out on the trail on a mid-week afternoon and I enjoyed the quietness.
Although Big Woods is before dam 4, I decided to prolong the riding into the early evening and ride on to see dam 4. It’s an impressive low-head dam that I stopped at with my brother on our north east tour in 2014. A great place to enjoy the river and appreciate its power.
Big Woods campsite is set back from the towpath, down by the river. It’s one of the more secluded, smaller hiker biker campsites. There was no-one else here, so I had the campsite to myself.
I had enough light to pitch the tent and have dinner. It was cool, but not cold. The river was flowing fast, specked with foam.
Across the river, on the West Virginia side, I could see the lights of one house, but they might as well have been on the moon, for the mighty Potomac stood between us. Otherwise, it was just me and the woods.
It was a pleasant night and I slept well. The only drama was the camp pillow deflating on me but I survived somehow, haha.
Day 2: Big Woods to home, 24.2 miles
I awoke to birdsong at first light, around 6.30 am. I made breakfast outside — a weird boil-in-the-bag biscuits dish that had the consistency and texture of one of my son’s slime creations — and enjoyed it from the warmth of my sleeping bag.
I watched the sun creep down from the tops of the tall sycamore trees, painting them gold, until finally hitting my tent and announcing the beginning of the day.
It was time to strike camp and get going!
My return route was a reversal of yesterday’s, minus the few extra miles up to dam 4.
It was a cool morning, so my extremities took a little while to warm up. There were only a few dog walkers out, so it was another couple of hours of tranquil riding alongside the bubbling river.
With every ride along the canal, one learns or notices something new. This time, I saw the cliffs along the Maryland shore in a new light. Of course, I’ve seen them many times before, but I’d never really appreciated their size and how remarkable it is that the canal company could build the canal between the cliffs and the river.
I was home by mid-morning and back at work by noon. It was another successful S24O (sub 24-hour adventure) by bike.
I’m already looking forward to the next one, perhaps I’ll head downstream this time, and stay at Marble Quarry campsite. There’s also 50+ miles of singletrack near Seneca that’s on my radar, but I probably need 2-3 full days to get there and enjoy that. One for the future though!