C &O Canal / Potomac River, Washington D.C.
In 1885: Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, upon returning to Washington from her first visit to Japan, approached the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, with the proposal that cherry trees be planted one day along the reclaimed Potomac waterfront. Her request fell on deaf ears. Over the next twenty-four years, Mrs. Scidmore approached every new superintendent, but her idea met with no success.
1912: February 14, 3,020 cherry trees from twelve varieties were shipped from Yokohama on board the S.S. Awa Maru, bound for Seattle. Upon arrival, they were transferred to insulated freight cars for the shipment to Washington. D.C.
March 26: 3,020 cherry trees arrived in Washington, D.C. The trees were comprised of the following varieties.
1965: The Japanese Government made another generous gift of 3,800 Yoshino trees to another first lady devoted to the beautification of Washington, Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. American-grown this time, many of these are planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument. Lady Bird Johnson and Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of Japan's Ambassador, reenacted the planting ceremony of 1912.
Every year they have the National Cherry Blossom Festival & National Building Museum.
Day-long event with hands-on, family friendly activities, followed by ceremonial program with remarks by Washington dignitaries and special performance.
Month of March, usually the last week
All along the Tidal Basin and pretty much of the historic dowtown DC
If you're looking for a brief day outing from Washington, Alexandria, or points nearby, then take a drive up the George Washington Parkway. It begins in northern Virginia, near Arlington, and runs along the Potomac to Great Falls. The views on the way are great. And you don't pay a thing to stop and take it all in. There are also a number of long hiking trails, creeks, and woods. While on the way up to Great Falls, this is an excellent place to stop.
On the Virginia side of the Potomac, just outside the town of McLean, is a national park dedicated to Great Falls. It offers excellent hiking, biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, and kayaking. Our favorite hiking trail in the park is the "River Trail," which follows the Potomac downstream and offers outstanding views of the valley.
Entry is $5 per vehicle for 3 days, $3 per individual hiker or biker. An annual pass for the Park (also valid across the river at the C&O Canal National Historical Park) costs $20. The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass ($80) is accepted.
For directions to the Park, see the website below.
This small stone house was once the home of the lockkeeper for this branch of the C&O Canal. Lock B once stood at what is now the intersection of 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. Boats would arrive at the lock, pay a toll to the lockkeeper, wait for the water levels to be adjusted and then travel from the B Street Canal to the City Canal or vice versa.
It's not clear when the lockkeeper's house was built, but the National Park Service certifies that it was in existence by 1833. This is easily missed I think if your not walking around taking in the sites.
There is a display board in front of the building that talks about the lock house
South of M St, the main drag in Georgetown, you find the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park Visitor's Center, which is the starting point for a half hour canal boat ride. You are given the experience of 19th century travel on a mule-powered canal boat, going through one set of locks. The attendants are all dressed in period clothing and share anecdotes and historical tidbits about the canal and its history.
There are several trips per day, according to the season. check the website for up todate information.
The exact address is: 1057 Thomas Jefferson Street, NW Washington, DC
Harper's Ferry, at the border of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, and at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, was a strategic Civil War location with lots of history. Long before the war, Harper's ferry was established as a manufacturing and transportation center, as the US Armory and Arsenal was established in 1799. In the 1830s, this town hosted the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Winchester & Potomac Railroad, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.
Before the war, John Brown's raid was a key event in the history of Harper's Ferry as his band of abolitionists attempted to seize the weapons at the armory to fight a guerrilla war in the south to free slaves. Once the war started the Federal troops destroyed the Harper's Ferry armory and weapons manufacturing machinery.
During the war, the town changed hands 8 times, leaving much of the area in ruins. One key battle in September 1862 left 12,500 Union prisoners in the hands of Stonewall Jackson, allowing his forces to join the battle at nearby Antietam and prevent an even worse defeat.
Today Harper's Ferry National Park is a popular tourist destination. It offers a unique historic village with shops and restaurants alongside historic buildings and ruins, all in a beautiful scenic location.
Parking fee for vehicles in the lower town is $6, but you can leave your car at the park headquarters outside of town and ride the bus. The first time I visited, the town lots were full, but the second time in the winter there were several spots available. The battlefields are located outside of the central, historic town and have plenty of parking.
In July 1859 John Brown, two of his sons, and others met in Maryland about seven miles from Harpers Ferry to begin creating an army and drafting plans to attack Harpers Ferry. They intended to seize the 100,000 rifles at he armory, then use them to arm lsaves throughout Virginia. On October 16, 1859, Brown and his 21-man "Provisional Army of the United States" took over the US Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in an effort to create an uprising among the slaves. Militia units and federal troops responded from surrounding areas, some led by future Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and JEB Stuart. For the next two days several of John Brown's raiders along with numerous townspeople were killed as the raiders were gradually pushed from the Armory and Arsenal into the small firehouse in the far corner of town. Finally, on the morning of October 18th, twelve US Marines broke down the door of the Armory's firehouse, capturing Brown and the remaining raiders. In all, 17 people died including 10 of Brown's men.
The 45-minute trial took place on November 2nd 1856, as Brown was charged with murder, conspiring slaves to rebel, and treason against the state of Virginia. He was sentenced to a public execution that took place on December 2nd, and was attending by VMI cadets led by Major Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. John Wilkes Booth also witnessed the execution.
It is said that the John Brown's failed raid raised tensions between the North and South the led to secession and the American Civil War.
Directions: Harpers Ferry is about 30 miles northwest of Washington DC along the Potomac. The fastest route is via Interstate 270 to I-70.
The C&O Canal is a 184.5 mile transportation route that was built from 1828 to 1850; the plans for the final 180 miles of canal to the Ohio River were abandoned due to the growth of railroads. It runs along the northern edge of the Potomac River from its starting point in Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland. It operated until 1924, and was essential for nearby communities to ship coal, lumber, and crops to market. The canal had 74 locks to raise ships 605 feet from DC into the Appalachians.
While much of the canal has been drained and overgrown, the towpaths along its entire length are still in use. In 1938 the US government took over the canal in hopes of converting it to a park, but plans were delayed until it was finally declared a national park in 1971. Today the park contains 20,000 acres and some three million visitors bike and walk on the old towpath. Some sections of the canal have been restored and visitors can ride park service boats through the locks with a park ranger "skipper" on board.
The only two parts of the canal I have visited are around Mile 0 in Georgetown and the area of Miles 58-60 at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The Georgetown section is very quiet in the fall, despite bustling M Street just a block away; the only people I saw on this section of trail were a few joggers and some office workers on their lunch break. When I visited the Harpers Ferry section several years ago it was busy with lots of bicyclists.
There are 2 Great Falls Parks. In the C&O Canal National Parkway is the Great Falls Tavern on the Maryland side. On the Virginia side is Great Falls Park, a unit of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Both are National Park Service units.
On the Virginia side, the The Patowmack Canal 1785-1828 is the primary historic resource and the falls are the natural wonder. The canal was an effort to convert the Potomac River into a viable highway to the west. "As early as 1754, George Washington envisioned a system of river and canal navigation along the Potomac River to reach the fertile Ohio Valley. Largely through his efforts, the Potowmack Company was organized in 1785 to carry out this mission."
To open the river, 5 canals had to be built around impassible rier sections. Small, raft-like boats, poled by hand with the help of the river currents carried furs, lumber, flour and farm produce to Georgetown. Although a vast improvement over slow and cumbersome overland transport these transportation improvements were still inadequate. Plans to build a separate, more reliable channel paralleling the Potomac River were soon put into place.
Today, the river is used by kayakers for white water experience. often you'll see several kayaks in the water below the falls. They'll work their way up river, then run back down. Many practice 'righting' themselves in this area.
From the Beltway (I-495):
Take exit 44 for Route 193, Georgetown Pike. About three miles down the road, you will come to another traffic light at the intersection of Old Dominion Dr. At the traffic light, you will see a sign for the park. Make a right at the light. Old Dominion Drive will dead end at our entrance station, about one mile down the road.
The Potomac River winds its way through a scenic valley to Washington, and then into the Atlantic. Perhaps the most beautiful spot along this river is at Great Falls National Park. The park has two sides, one in Maryland and the other in Virginia.
I visited the Virginia side. It's spectacular, with three overlooks providing views of the falls. In addition, the Mather Gorge narrows the river into a deep, rapid-flowing stream.
In addition to the Potomac, one can view the remains of the old Patowmack Canal. This was part of the network of canals that ran along the Potomac from Georgetown up to Cumberland. Here, boats could circumvent the dangerous waterfalls. Of course, the railroads made them obsolete.
This is a favorite place for hikers, boaters, rock-climbers, and others. It has picnic grounds, a nice visitors center, and informative plaques. Pay heed to the warning signs; many have been killed and injured here for their failure to do so. Above all, respect the wild river that runs through here. It can be treacherous and totally unforgiving.
To get here, follow the 495 Beltway to the Georgetown Pike (Route 193), then head northwest following the signs. The park is on the right. From Alexandria, Arlington, or Crystal City, simply follow the George Washington Parkway to the 495 loop, then turn south and turn right onto 193.
This park, upriver from Washington on the Maryland side, ostensibly shows a section of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was briefly used for commerce before the arrival of the railroads. But the main attraction is Great Falls on the Potomac. Follow the towpath until you see the signs for the "Great Falls Overlook." The best time to see Great Falls is during the spring. The water volume over the falls is considerably less in summer and fall -- I suppose they could be downgraded to Pretty Good Falls during these seasons.
In addition to the falls, there are a number of hiking trails for all levels of fitness. Feeling frisky? Then take the "Billy Goat Trail" along the Potomac. It's not for the faint of heart, though. Wear good hiking boots and bring water.
Admission to the park is $5 per private vehicle for 3 days. Walkers and cyclists pay $3 for 3 days. The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass ($80) is valid.
From Washington, take the George Washington Parkway to I-495 (direction Maryland). Exit immediately after crossing the river (Clara Barton Parkway). Follow the Signs to Great Falls, MD.
The Great Falls of the Potomac are one of the spectacular natural areas near Washington, DC. Great Falls, Maryland is within the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. The park contains the C&O Canal and towpath, as well as a short trail to an overlook of the Great Falls. The Great Falls are the largest of rapids on the lower part of the Potomac, and mark the beginning of the Potomac Gorge. Other trails lead to overlooks and canyons and abandoned mines. Day use fee at Great Falls is $5; a pass from the VA side is also valid here.
To get to the park, take the Canal Road west, then the Clara Barton Parkway; then take MacArthur, which gets you to the park.
Only a 15-minute drive westward from Washington DC, Great Falls Park is a pocket of wilderness in this sea of development. The Virginia side allows great views of the Great Falls of the Potomac River from three overlooks. The falls are very impressive, and seem much more like a scene from the west than something so close to a large city; total, they drop over 70 feet. There are also over 10 miles of hiking trails in Great Falls Park; some lead to the ruins of old towns and canals, others to rocky gorges. A $5 entrance fee is charged. See my Great Falls page for more.
One of the ranger programs on C&O Canal is the mule-drawn canal boat rides. Park rangers will be dressed in period clothing and tell the story of families who lived and worked on the C&O Canal. When I visited it's too early for the ride, but along the Canal there's a lot of mule poo.
They give group boat rides on the C&O Canal in Historic Georgetown. But the group has to be 10 or more. Travelling with anyone? Or maybe you can get in with a group that's boarding? Looks interesting!
Great Falls (MD or VA). On the Potomac River just north of the District in either Maryland or Virgina is an area called Great Falls. This is a nice way to get out of the city and do some light hiking. Walking along the old C&O Canal (Maryland side) offers a view of what transportation was like before the 20th century and then when you get to the falls you are rewarded with spectacular scenery!