Day Twenty One: Harpers Ferry to Washington, D.C.: End of the C&O canal, and the best day

So Dan may have glossed over the fact that our hotel in Harpers Ferry was outside of town on the highway…and getting there was a several mile uphill ride with water cascading down a culvert on a slanted shoulder with trucks going 75 mph just inches away.

But anyway.

We got up early and set off in the drizzle, riding through the middle of town this time instead of on the highway, with its historic churches and cobblestone streets and red brick buildings. The Shenandoah valley was beautiful and lush and green, and we saw lots of hikers setting out and decided we would come back sometime (by car probably!!!) and spend time hiking.

I was moved to see this small building where the abolitionist John Brown was trapped with his small army of 21 men, after their plans to raid the armory in Harpers Ferry in order to secure weapons for a rebellion by enslaved people were thwarted.

We had to go back over the Appalachian Trail bridge and portage our bikes and bags down the stairs to get back to the Chesapeake and Ohio towpath, which was much easier without pouring rain. During the ride we crossed several bridges that clearly had been underwater during the previous day’s downpour.

The conditions were pretty good and we only had 60 miles left in our 1400 mile journey, and we were riding fast for us (10-11 mph was a good pace on this trip given the weight of our gear). The plan was not to stop for lunch or much else, but we did take a break to when we saw this immense maple tree…and sat on the remains of the old lock house there to eat some fruit, and marveled at all that this tree must have witnessed in its hundreds of years.

Great Falls Tavern

It was Saturday and not surprisingly we saw increasing numbers of cyclists, hikers, and walkers on the C&O towpath (and some horses) as we approached Washington D.C. The canal hasn’t been used for transportation since the 1940s and we had been riding past the ruins of walls and structures that were part of that system for days, and so it was cool to find a working lock in the midst of Great Falls National Park.

We chatted with a park ranger a bit about our stay at a lock master house (there are several others for rent along the canal, most more rustic than the one we were in), and learned it took about 10 minutes typically for a boat to wait for the water to rise after the gates were dammed so it could continue on their way. The park has a canal boat that they were preparing for tours, which uses mules to pull the boat along the towpath.

It was really lovely in the park, which is only about 15 miles outside of Washington, and we saw lots of herons, ducks and geese. When we said goodbye to the ranger, he said “we’re always looking for good people to volunteer in national parks after they retire” which was very kind. (And also on our bucket list.)

Dan rode with this fellow for a ways, and learned that he built his bike and was a banjo player…and discovered that the bike was pretty fast after he started telling banjo jokes and the guy sped off. (Example: what is perfect pitch? When you throw an accordion in a dumpster and it lands on a banjo.)

Mile zero for the towpath is in Georgetown and the Potomac started to include many more boats and kayakers; it was a little wild to find ourselves in the middle of a typical Washington weekend day, with tons of people out on errands and sightseeing. When we left Minnesota, most places had mask mandates and requested six foot distancing between people. Because of the high rates of vaccination, mask requirements started to shift over the three weeks of our trip and we always checked before entering any building about their requirements, which increasingly suggested no masks were required for anyone who was vaccinated. The crowds in D.C. certainly suggested that most people were returning to before pandemic activities and happily so.

We could see the Washington Monument in the distance as we biked along the Rock Creek Parkway and were delighted to see Dan’s brother Tom on the sidewalk across the street as we were getting closer to the Lincoln Memorial, which was our end point. Tom joined up with us and there were lots of hugs (careful ones because of his shoulder) and we pressed on.

The brothers Gjelten

We left our bikes with Tom and ran up the steps to the Lincoln statue, which was not quite the movie ending we expected because there were approximately a zillion other people there. I did get a little teary though…we made it.

14 thoughts on “Day Twenty One: Harpers Ferry to Washington, D.C.: End of the C&O canal, and the best day

  1. Congratulations! 🎈🥳 🥂🍾🚲🚲🎆

    I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted and exhilarated after tagging along with you from Minneapolis to D.C.!
    Thanks for sharing your amazing trek once again! You’ve inspired me to get out my bike and pump up the tires, but I have yet to ride around any of the many lakes in our mid-FL city. (Drivers are too scary).
    Also, we thank Enid for linking us to your amazing journeys. (If you’ve haven’t been there before, try to see the US Memorial Holocaust Museum, the US Native American Museum, and the museum of African American History/Culture while at the Capitol Mall. Well worth the 1,100 mile ride).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As Carol said, I loved tagging along with you both during this biking adventure. Your words and pictures were fabulous. Thank you for your posts and safe travels back to MN.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a remarkable adventure; such fun to read of your experiences. I can’t imagine how it feels to have done this! Lives well- lived! Hello to Tom G!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Congrats guys!! Thanks for taking all of us with you on this awesome journey!! So glad you made it safely!! The photos are amazing!!

    Now, ready to bike back?🤣🤣

    Looking forward to brews on our patio!


  5. I thoroughly enjoyed following along with you two. Your summaries are very thoughtful and really help to put one in your place as you traveled. Congratulations, and well done!!


  6. I enjoyed reading about your adventures. A friend of mine, John Husmoe, forwarded to me when he learned that I was interested in bikepacking. I’ve done a ton of long-distance backpacking and am considering bikepacking the new Empire State Trail. Question for you: How do you secure your bikes when you go into a grocery store or restaurant?


    • Thanks for reading Confluence! We do carry locks (OTTO locks, made of Kevlar, and available on Amazon – they aren’t as secure as a ULock but much lighter and more flexible.) When we dine inside, we always get a table with a view of the bikes. Going into stores, we just send one person in, and the other stays with the bikes. Locking the bikes up doesn’t protect all the gear that is attached, obviously. I always take my Garmin computer when I leave the bike, even for a few minutes – it is my most valuable component and easy to swipe. I’d say that 90% of the hotels we’ve stayed in have allowed our bikes in our rooms, sometimes after a little cleaning. I’m sure you understand that I get really nervous if I’m separated from the bikes on a long trip! Good luck on your trip – you’ll love it. It is a great way to travel.


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