Unit #12 / 412 - Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park
I never knew it was so dangerous.
For the past four years I've hiked the Billy Goat Trail with dates, friends, out-of-town visitors, and even students from my boarding school job. The trail is one of the most popular attractions of Great Falls National Park, part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, and includes not only a stunning view of the falls, but hikes ranging from flat and easy to rocky and difficult. Averaging about four hikes per year at this, my "local national park," I've often come across people soothing their mid-hike heat in the Potomac River.
What I never knew is that an average of seven swimmers, waders, fishers or rock jumpers die each year in the waters encompassing this national park. And that's not just when the water swelled to the record high height of nearly 32 ft. in 1936 (seen in this distant brown post), that's every year: when the water is at its 4 ft. average depth or 3 ft. summer average low.
The Potomac River at Flood Stage, seen from the Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls National Park
The reason it's so dangerous is that, like the rocky landscape viewable above the water, just beneath the surface lay a bed of huge rocks. Exacerbating this is an undertow that can flow at speeds 3-4 times the current speed at surface level. This can happen in water as shallow as the height of peoples' knees, swiping them away and trapping them on a underwater rock where it can often take three days to recover the body.
Now, before you run away from this national park, be comforted by its high attendance (especially of Maryland residents or international tourists looking for a nature experience close to DC), and also the huge effort the National Park Service puts into helping visitors safely enjoy the park. Many of those efforts are done through traditional signs you would expect, some of which are actually ripped out of the ground by visitors preferring to dip in the water guilt free.
But beyond what you'd expect, the Park Service even staffs Great Falls with police officers to help patrons realize the severity of the risk. They also organize a cadre of volunteers who recreate historically accurate canal boat rides, oversee the towpath serving as an easier hike or walk through history, and monitor the Billy Goat Trail to make sure visitors have both a fun and safe hike.
One of those is John, who works full-time at the Pentagon and has volunteered as a Billy Goat Trail Steward for over three years.
I was fortunate to not only witness John assisting hikers, but also be guided along the 2-4 hour trail in company of Marc Korman, the Maryland House Delegate whose district includes both my former home and this national park.
I was thrilled to have Marc join me to #FindYourPark in his elected area because when I wrote all my representatives nine months ago--asking for their advice as I sought sponsorships for my trip--Marc was quick to reply with some leads and words of encouragement. He also shared his appreciation for the Park System, including the national parks he's visited with his wife and family. Soon after my launch, he even wrote to congratulate me.
Click here if you'd like to read the Bethesda Magazine coverage of my hike with Marc.
And sharing the parks with people is one very important part of my trip.
In nearly every interview I've done to date, the journalist asks, "What's your favorite park?"
Though I'm guessing I'll have the answer they want when I finish this trip, "The ones that let me spend time with those I care about," is the truth.
And ultimately, that's what I love about the parks. They are there to assist us in what matters the most: relationships with others and providing experiences that strengthen them. Just like Delegate Marc spoke about the way he and his wife bonded during their national park visits, and how they hope to share them with their children.
In my now 12 years of annual road trips, the most profound lesson I've learned is that it's important to cherish people while you have them: whether that's a family member you see every day, an old acquaintance you reconnect with when you're in town, or a stranger you meet because you're living out of a van for 3 years.
So for me, and my local national park, I'll appreciate this final visit before I depart to experience my country with both established friends and new ones I'll make on the road.
And I'll remember that, more than swimming, the greatest danger to our humanity is neglecting to spend time with those we care about--and what better place than at one of America's national treasures.
Click here to read about more parks you can experience with someone.
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5 Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Highlights (You Can Do)
For this unit's highlights, I've let Ranger Rebecca takeover and share her 5 Highlights. Rebecca has worked at the C&O since 2008 and can be seen as the featured narrator in this C&O Canal YouTube video.
"This is my list of Top 5 things to recommend in the C&O Canal NHP, but my true feelings are that what makes this park special are the little surprises you find when you explore without an intended goal. I am not just being cliche when I say I still discover something new every single time I am in the park, even after working here since 2008."
1. View the Great Falls from Olmsted Island Overlook. Hike the Billy Goat Trail Section A while you are here, if you are up for it!
Easy E and I did the hike!
Easy E would love to see more of you where all his pictures are posted on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
2. Meet the Mules and experience the mule-drawn canal boat excursion, currently running at Great Falls Tavern. Ride the canal boat (or at least watch it go through the lift lock) and make sure you get a chance to say hello to the mules between boat trips.
3. Walk through the Paw Paw Tunnel at Mile 155 on the towpath. 3,118 feet long, took 6 million bricks to construct, pitch black as you walk through the middle. One of the most impressive engineering structures on the canal.
View the official NPS pamplet on the Paw Paw Tunnel here.
4. Spend the night in a canal lockhouse as part of the Canal Quarters Program. Houses are restored and furnished to represent different time periods in the canal's history - all the way from the 1830's to the 1950's.
More info here: http://www.canaltrust.org/programs/canal-quarters/
5. Walk the towpath in Georgetown. Make it to Milepost 0 - the Tidelock behind Thompson's Boat Center. Stunning views of the DC skyline on a hidden section of the canal.
Sixth item :) Bike the entire towpath and see it all!!!
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Click here to read about each of the other 400+ parks.
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
(Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota)
-Isle Royale National Park
-Keweenaw National Historical Park
-Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
-River Raisin National Battlefield Park
-Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
-Grand Portage National Monument
-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
-Pipestone National Monument
-Voyageurs National Park
-Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
-Theodore Roosevelt National Park
-Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
-Apostle Island National Lakeshore
-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway