Hancock Bike Tour on the C&O Canal

12 – 13 May 2023

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.

With Chuck at the parking lot in Hancock, about to set off
Enjoying the shade along the C&O canal
Round Top Cement Mill
Sideling Hill Creek flowing into the Potomac river

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.

Indigo Neck hiker biker site
First job after getting the tent up: collect and filter water from the pump

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!)

View from my tent towards the rest of the campsite

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.

There’s something mesmerizing about a good campfire

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.

Chuck on the Western Maryland Rail Trail

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.

Crossing over Sideling Hill Creek
Looking out from the rail trail at the Sideling Hill Creek Aqueduct and Potomac River
Me and Chuck
An Eastern Tent Caterpillar (I think!)
Chuck riding past a giant rockfall on the Western Maryland Rail Trail

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!

Signs every few miles along the WMRT
Typical scenery on the southern end of the WMRT. I didn’t see a single other cyclist or walker outside of Hancock.
Smiling during a lull in the rain

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.

Cliffs along the side of the Potomac
The impressive Dam 5
Beautiful riding along the newly restored section of the towpath near to McMahon’s Mill

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.

The trails were rather muddy with the rain!
One filthy bike, sign of a good adventure!
Snake sighting! An eastern ratsnake close to Lock 37

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.


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