Step back in time on a C&O Canal Boat Ride

Posted By Katie on Sep 17, 2013

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c&o canal

C&O Canal boat ride in Potomac, Maryland

The C&O canal offers visitors a chance to step back in time with two unique canal boat ride experiences.  I took my youngest children to Great Falls Park in Potomac, Maryland, to ride a historic mule-drawn canal boat.  We experienced riding a canal boat up and down the lock, and got a small glimpse of what life must have been like in the late 1800s on the C&O canal.

History of the C&O canal

The C&O canal runs for 184.5 miles and has 74 locks that moved boats up and down the river.  Construction of the C&O canal began in 1828, and the canal operated for nearly 100 years.  In its peak season, as many as 800 boats navigated the canal.  This crowded thoroughfare moved commodities and people up and down the Potomac River Valley at a leisurely pace of about 4 miles per hour.

C&O canal

Workers in period clothing guided the boat into the canal and operated the locks.

Tips for the C&O canal boat ride at Great Falls Park

1.  Arrive early and explore the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center.

We left for our canal ride promptly at 11:00, and I enjoyed having a few extra minutes beforehand to explore the interesting displays in the visitors center.  It is small but well done and worth 15-20 minutes of your time.

C&O canal

Mules pulled the canal boat.

2.  Plan for a leisurely outing.

Nothing moves quickly on the C&O canal, which is the beauty of this excursion.  I immediately noticed how quiet the ride was–no engines, motors, or humming to add noise as the boat moved along the canal.  The C&O canal would be a perfect place to come in October to enjoy spectacular fall foliage in a peaceful setting.

The workers on the canal dressed in period costume and told stories of the canal boats.  Our guide was delightful and full of knowledge.  He spoke to the children as well and made sure they understood the canal system.  At the end of the ride, he passed out homemade instruments and let the children participate in their own canal band.

C&O canal

Our guide invited the children to participate in his band.

3.  Spend time exploring the park and towpath.

Tables are available for picnicking, and there is a small food stand that sells hamburgers, hot dogs, and fries.  Walk to see Great Falls from the Maryland side just about 15 minutes away from the C&O canal boat ride.  The towpath is popular for biking, jogging, or walking.

C&O canal

The locks move the boat up 8 feet in a few minutes to send the boat up the river.

Good to know

Where: Along the C&O canal near Potomac, Maryland.  Purchase tickets at the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center (11710 MacArthur Blvd, Potomac, MD)

When:  The Great Falls canal boat runs April through October.  Rides depart Wednesday- Sunday 11:00am, 1:30pm, 3:00pm.  Call ahead to make sure the water levels are sufficient for the boat to run.  301-767-3714

How Much:  $8/adult, $6/senior (62+), $5/child (ages 4-15).  Children three and under ride free.

How Long:  The C&O canal boat ride lasts about an hour.

Amenities:  restrooms, picnic tables, food stand, and historic Great Falls Tavern visitor center.

C&O canal

How else can we help?

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Katie is a busy mom living in Northern Virginia with her husband and five children ranging in age from toddlers to teens. When she isn't traveling, she is planning her next trip. Katie loves all types of travel, but she especially loves beach vacations. The Outer Banks of North Carolina is a favorite family destination.


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