The Potomac

When we stayed for six weeks in Washington D.C. in 2008 I bought a second-hand bike and cycled up and down the Potomac.  To the north west of D.C. the river comes down from the Allegheny Plateau. To the South-East of DC the river flows into the long inlet of Chesapeake Bay. The river is 405 miles long and the 21st largest in the USA.


The Chesapeake and Ohio canal sits on the north (Maryland) side of the river and connected Washington with Cumberland, Maryland. Sometimes known as the 'Grand Old Ditch', the canal was used to transport coal from the Allegheny Mountains until it fell into disuse in 1924. The canal rises 604 feet over its 184.5 mile length through 74 locks. The major obstacle to navigation on the Potomac River is the set of rapids at Great Falls. These lie 15 miles upstream from Washington D.C.

Great Falls on a cold day at the end of March, 2008
Great Falls on a cold day at the end of March, 2008

I cycled up to Great Falls three times. The first time was at the end of March.  It was a cold day and I got a soaking trying to find my way to the canal tow-path. I struggled up the graded path on my ridiculously heavy second-hand Schwim bike with its great big balloon tires. I had some kind of fairly rudimentary map that had disintergrated in the rain and I was never sure where the Great Falls were.  The weather got colder and colder.  I asked one of the very few people on the tow-path if there was somewhere I could get a hot drink. He said there were some facilities at Great Falls and I pushed on.


To get to the Falls the path rises up from the woodland it passes through into rocky passes and canal-side lakes.


The Falls are spectacular and I took a few photos before making a hurried return to Washington. The facilities at the Falls were closed and I swear I was in danger of getting hpyothermia.  Somewhere along the tow-path I found a woman's woollen hat stuck up in a bush.  I wore it to try and keep my head warm. Finally, after what seemed more like 30 than 15 miles I arrived at a little shack selling fishing bait, coffee and flapjacks. Never has hot coffee from a styrofoam cup tasted so good.


It was still a good schlep back through Georgetown and the D.C. traffic - past the Watergate apartment block and down The National Mall - to get to the Georgetown Law School buildings where we were staying in downtown D.C.



The same view in late April after torrential rain storms in the Potomac's catchment area
The same view in late April, 2008 after torrential rain storms in the Potomac's catchment area

The second time I cycled to Great Falls in mid-April it was a beautiful day and spring was breaking out in the riverside woods. The contrast with my ride in March was remarkable. I returned a third time to the Falls a week later after torrential rain storms. I found the river in spectacular flood, up above its banks in many places.


Here is an album of photos taken between Washington D.C. and Great Falls.