A Weekend Escape from D.C.
High on my 2013 list of adventures was a bike overnight – my first since our 2008 three-day trek from Boston to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Though I was longing for an extended trip, an overnight was much more manageable with our busy schedule. Adventure Cycling Association’s Bike Overnights page really pushed the point further with the tagline, “Don’t wait to go cross country. Go overnight."
Selecting the type of overnight was tough, as I would prefer to start directly from home – but home is in the dead center of Washington, D.C., meaning many of our first miles would be less than peaceful. Thankfully, some local cyclists stepped in with some inspiration – Crystal and Adam recently completed a cross-country journey, and Lisa led a group of friends on an overnight. Each of these treks started on the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal towpath in Georgetown, a route that quickly evacuates you from the city and into nature. The 50-mile route out to Lock House 28 at Point of Rocks was ambitious – loaded touring can make 50 miles feel like 150, depending on the road surface, frequency of stops, and elevation changes – but the flat and uninterrupted C&O seemed manageable. Reservations were made with the C&O Canal Trust, and invites were sent.
Our planned group of seven whittled away to only Kate and myself, and as the day arrived we realized we had gotten ourselves quite nervous about the mileage and trail conditions. I had just put in a 45-mile commute the day before, and would be carrying all of our gear for the trip; so when, within minutes of our departure, both of my shoelaces snapped and the valve stem on my front wheel crumbled in my fingers, I was not put at ease. Nevertheless, we made it out the door with spare tubes and a backup set of shoes/cleats. Our padded gloves, however, remained in the closet. Oops.
We wound our way through town for a stop at Baked & Wired in Georgetown (all good bike trips begin with caffeine and sugar), then we were off on our way, using the paved Capital Crescent Trail (CCT) to avoid the bumpier C&O for the first few miles.
We passed numerous lock houses, and the Great Falls visitor center, making excellent time despite the crowds enjoying the beautiful weather. There aren’t many designated scenic overlooks on the C&O, but there sure is enough to see, whether it is passing hikers and cyclists, turtles and fish in the canal, ruins of historic structures, or glimpses of the river below. As a result, time passes equally fast and slow. The trail is straight and relatively level, and you can lose track of the surface conditions very quickly while admiring the sights, a perfect example of tunnel vision. We had to constantly remind ourselves to stop and eat, drink, and stretch, and also to stay back from your riding partner. If you're staring at their back wheel, the occasional large pothole in the trail, or slow moving walker, can be obscured and lead to emergency maneuvers. At one point (on day two), I got too close to Kate as she barely nipped the tail of a large snake lying on the trail. As it recoiled only feet in front of me, my heart nearly leaped out of my chest at the unexpected nature encounter!
We ate a small lunch at around Mile 30, and continued on toward more snacks and cool beverages at Whites Ferry (Mile 35). Unfortunately, at Mile 34.5 Kate pulled up with a flat. Her 700×25 tires had performed well (and continued to perform well), but a snakebite puncture with low tire pressure/volume was inevitable. Had she been loaded, I bet there would have been many more flats. I'd stuck with a 700×28 tire, which I consider a minimum recommendation for the trail.
During the stop we met some great touring cyclists, many from D.C., who were also passing through. One couple aboard a tandem were on a shakedown ride in preparation for a month-long tour in Europe the following month! We leapfrogged each other a few times, and enjoyed some great conversations and company. Before we knew it, and with ample daylight remaining, we reached our destination and began scoping it out. No electricity or water were found, but ample bedding, a porta-john, firewood, and secure bike storage would do.
We had planned on checking out the food situation in Point of Rocks (1 mile south on the trail), where there is a pizza joint, a gas station, and a creamery. But a flurry of text messages revealed that one of our friends who couldn’t make the bike portion of the trip was on her way by car with dinner! Chips and fresh guacamole, hot dogs, corn, and a few bottles of Port City Brewing Optimal Wit. Honestly, I don’t think there could have been a tastier dinner to be had that night.
After unpacking, we quickly became aware of why the canal is no longer operating – the CSX freight tracks run parallel to the canal, only a few hundred feet from the lock house, and they are well used. During the day these trains don’t amount to much, maybe an interrupted conversation. But at night, on the rock hard beds in the lock house, the additional noise interrupted much needed sleep. We found, however, that with proper bed selection and strategic closing of windows and shutters, the noise could be kept to a minimum.
The next morning we awoke and began to change into clean cycling clothes, but were interrupted frequently by passersby, who wanted a peek inside the house. Happy to oblige, we answered their questions then finally shooed them away so we could finish packing up. We were out the door at 9:30, ready to hit the trail. But first, coffee and breakfast at the newly opened Deli on the Rocks.
Once again we met a couple of touring cyclists from D.C., and again we leapfrogged back and forth until they split off at Whites Ferry. I hope they had a good ride!
The ride home was mostly uneventful, save for the snake encounter. We realized (too late) that we were setting a fast pace and not eating or drinking nearly enough, despite our attempts to remember to do so the day before. We did take a few rest stops, but our big mistake was not having a list of "attractions" handy with their respective mile markers. On the verge of bonk we pushed onward, thinking the visitor center at Great Falls was around each bend ... for more than 7 miles! By the time we arrived we were cooked. Lots of PB&J, plus some salty snacks and ice cream from the concession stand, helped revive mind and body. And we got to see the lock in operation.
After missing some great opportunities this past summer, I also made sure to purchase my own copy of the National Park Service Passport. There is even a stamp for Lock House 28, which I had to paste into my book.
In no time we were back in familiar territory, and on the mostly smooth, paved CCT. In Georgetown, we stopped for iced coffee (and air conditioning) and then a rest along the banks of the Potomac. By this time we had put in 101 miles, and had about 3.5 mile left before home. It was so nice to be back on paved roads that I barely noticed the horrible noises coming from my dust- and grit-encrusted drivetrain. A full cleaning is scheduled soon, along with a handful of other maintenance measures.
Ravenously hungry, we cleaned up and headed out for dinner at a favorite casual restaurant, and enjoyed a few brews from the new local brewery. What a reward for our efforts! The topic of conversation … our next bike adventure. It wouldn't be five years until that one. In fact, it was only two weeks away, and in France!
Tip for this adventure: The gravel surface and relatively straight nature of the C&O Canal towpath take a toll on the mind and body. Set intervals ahead of time to stop and eat, drink, and stretch. Also, tape a list of hiker/biker campsites and other attractions on your handlebar to help you remember distances to and from stops.
Favorite local bike shop: BicycleSpace in D.C.