Photos by Emily DeTitta
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which this year is celebrating its 50th year as a national park, was the eighth most-visited park in 2020 among the more than 400 national parks administered by the National Park Service. Montgomery County, which is one of four Maryland counties through which the C&O Canal Park passes, derives considerable economic impact for being a host of one of the nation’s great natural resources.
For more than 100 years, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park was a lifeline for communities along the Potomac River. Today, it endures as a pathway for discovering historical and recreational treasures. The 184.5-mile-long recreational, educational and historic attraction welcomes more than five million visitors most years. Even in 2020—a year dominated by the COVID-19 health crisis—the C&O Canal Park had 4.9 visitors.
It is estimated that the four Maryland counties and 10 canal towns that host the park attracted approximately $98.4 million in visitor spending in 2019, according to figures supplied by the National Park Service.
The early favorable weather of 2021 makes it likely the C&O Canal Park will again have an overwhelming number of visitors.
According to National Park Service’s Social Science Program, which coordinates the collection of recreational visitation statistics for the park service, the 10 most-visited park areas it administers in 2020 were Blue Ridge Parkway (14.1 million visitors), Golden Gate Recreation Area (12.4 million), Great Smokey Mountains National Park (12.1 million), Gateway National Recreation Area (8.4 million), Lake Mead National Recreation Area (8 million), George Washington Memorial Parkway (6.2 million), Natchez Trace Parkway (6.1 million), C&O Canal National Historic Park (4.9 million), Cape Cod National Seashore (4.1 million) and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (4.1 million). In comparison, Yellowstone National Park had 3.8 million visitors in 2020.
Among the C&O Canal Park highlights in Montgomery County are:
- The Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center. The heart of the C&O Canal National Historical Park is the anchor that can arrange a walking tour with a park ranger, a solo phone tour or guided tours of Riley’s lockhouse tours.
- The Great Falls. There are three overlooks available to view the waterfalls and the Potomac River. Each are about a five- to 10-minute walk from the visitor center and two of them are handicap- and stroller-accessible. Expect to see a variety of wildlife like deer, beavers, red foxes and many different species of birds.
- The Billy Goat Trail. Offers scenic views of the Potomac River and has three hiking sections that are set for different skill levels. Section A, which is 1.75 miles long, is the most technical and strenuous hike in the trail and does not allow dogs. Section B is 1.4 miles long, is a moderately challenging hike and allows dogs. Section C is 1.6 miles long, is perfect for beginners and less-experienced hikers. Also allows dogs.
- Canal Quarters Lockhouse Program. Managed by the C&O Canal Trust, the lockhouse program gives guests the opportunity to step back in time and live like a lockkeeper for the night. Each of the seven historic lockhouses – with five in Montgomery County, Maryland – are restored and furnished to reflect the time period in which they are built, and each location tells a different story about the development of the C&O Canal. Three lockhouses are considered “full-amenity” structures that include running water, electric, air conditioning, full bathroom and more. Full-amenity lockhouses are available to rent for $160 per night.
For more information on exploring all 184.5 miles of the park, download the explorer mobile app for more than 600 points of interest mapped in a searchable format. It allows users to find nearby hiking trails, campgrounds, historical sites, trailheads and parking.