When I first moved to Virginia, I didn’t like it very much. There is a lot to dislike about Northern Virginia: the traffic here is just about as bad as it is in LA; it’s way over-developed; there are creepy developments of ugly, new, cookie-cutter houses – all on top of each other, natch – all over the place; the traffic is terrible; a lot of the people have a disgusting sense of entitlement; there is an annual car tax; the traffic is terrible; sometimes it seems like there’s nothing more here than shopping plaza after shopping plaza after shopping plaza; the traffic laws are draconian (15 mph over the speed limit is considered “reckless driving”…and they’ll arrest you for it if they feel like it); the winters sometimes suck (read: it snows too much); there are always helicopters flying overhead; and did I mention the traffic is terrible? On top of that, in our early years here, voters passed an amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, which is one of my “causes”, and public library hours were drastically shortened due to budget cuts, which just infuriated me. Moreover, I have few friends here and I’m too shy to make any more. So although I don’t think I’d ever classify myself as an unhappy person, I wasn’t too happy about the state we were living in.
But somewhere along the way my perspective changed, and the more I explored the area I live in, the more I grew to love it. I got involved with volunteering, and I started going to parks more often, at first looking for wildlife to photograph, and then just because being outside makes me happy. I came to realize that this area has an amazing number of high quality parks, and all kinds of trails and paths apart from that. There are tons of really awesome things to explore here. Sure, there are still helicopters, and sometimes you can’t even escape traffic noise, and sometimes it takes you five times longer than it should to GET to the park because traffic is so bad, but it’s also hard to go ten miles and not come across a park – if you include little neighborhood parks, you probably can’t even go three miles without hitting at least one park. I haven’t lived in many states: just Maryland, DC, and Virginia, but I know our park system is better than Maryland’s and DC’s (although DC isn’t really a state, of course), and now all of the sudden I find myself wondering if when we do eventually move from Virginia (which has always been the plan), if I’m going to miss it terribly. (And not only that, but thanks to our new Attorney General the same-sex marriage ban was found unconstitutional earlier this year (although it’s still in effect at this time), and a couple years ago Fairfax County restored regular library hours.)
I think most people agree that water, in the form of a river, creek, lake, bay, ocean, or whatever, improves any park experience, and one reason there are so many awesome parks nearby is our proximity to the Potomac River. Because the river is so historic, much of the land that runs along it on both sides is devoted to parks and trails, many of them containing not only beautiful views and abundant wildlife, but both colonial and Civil War-era ruins, Native American artifacts, and ancient geological features. Proof of continuous human use for the past 12,500 years has been found in the site now known as Riverbend Park! Though I am not a history buff, I became interested in some of the history surrounding the Potomac River, so I read a book or two about it, and I’ve started scouting out hikes I can do along the Potomac. One of the most important pieces of history was the Chesapeake & Ohio (C & O) Canal, which ran parallel to the Potomac River on the Maryland side (the Potomac forms the boundary between Maryland and Virginia for those of you not up on your U.S. geography) and which was a very important source of transportation of goods prior to the dominance of railroads.
Today all 184.5 miles of the C & O Canal towpath – from Georgetown in Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD – comprise a very long, very skinny National Park. You may be familiar with the “rails to trails” concept where old railways are converted to biking/pedestrian trials; well this is a “towpath-to-trail”. In many places the canal itself no longer exists, but the towpath remains and is popular with cyclists and hikers. There are stops with restrooms (and often, historical markers and the remains of the old locks), most with parking, every few miles, and designated camping areas every 15 miles or so. On Memorial Day, I decided I wanted to see the Monocacy Aqueduct, which crosses the Monocacy River just before it joins the Potomac, so I hopped in my car and headed to my home state of Maryland. Just over the Rt. 15 bridge and a few miles south, I found:
Both sides of the Civil War loved burning bridges, and the Confederacy tried several times to destroy the Monocacy Aqueduct before eventually admitting it was just too damn strong.
I guess time and neglect are harsher foes than explosives, because a few years ago, the Monocacy Aqueduct was beginning to crumble. Fortunately it has since been restored, though of course it is no longer used as an aqueduct. As part of the C & O Canal towpath trail, bikers and hikers bike and walk over it.
You can also climb up to the sides …
… but be careful: there is no railing on the north side.
(It’s hard to get a perspective here, but it’s a few-story drop to the river.)
Here is the towpath just past the aqueduct: many miles of the trail look very similar to this. As you can see, the canal is no longer there:
After a few miles north on the towpath from the Monocacy, you come to Dickerson Conservation Park, which is mostly used for fishing in the Potomac, but where the towpath actually runs along water (only 25 miles of the 184.5 are watered today):
Keep walking and you’ll come to Nolands Ferry. The towpath goes over this culvert.
A little further still and you come to Point of Rocks. This is the Route 15 bridge in Point of Rocks, taken from the towpath. Here is a somewhat annoying fact: there are only three ways to drive between Maryland and Virginia: the American Legion bridge on 495 (a.k.a. the Capital Beltway), the Point of Rocks bridge, and White’s Ferry, which is another stop on the towpath, and also literally still a ferry, which means it’s somewhat slow, doesn’t operate at all hours, and incurs a toll. As a Virginia resident whose entire family, and many friends, live in Maryland, it can be pretty frustrating that the only practical way to get to Maryland is 495. (495 is almost always a traffic nightmare.) It’s not practical to take Route 15 to get to Baltimore, but it is a very pretty drive if you are trying to get to some other areas of Maryland, and standing there in Maryland after hours of hiking in the sun, I found myself happy to get into my convertible and drive across the Potomac once again to get to my home in Virginia.
Sigh: “happy”, “home”, “Virginia” – did I really just string all those words together in one sentence??