Harpers Ferry to D.C. and Back Again

Apr 19th, 2022

I was sent by my employer to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, for a three-week course. What should I do over the weekends while at school? Hhhmmm, let’s see, I could ship my bike and finally get to do some of the rides I’ve read about in Adventure Cyclist magazine. Living in Arizona, however, the first thing I had to figure out was how to get my bike there.

I went to my favorite local bike shop, Arizona Bicycle Experts. They gave me advice and a couple of bike boxes to squeeze my large Salsa Fargo into. I wanted to learn to pack it myself so I could travel in the future without having to pay somebody to pack it for me.

Since I had travel time and school, I decided to ship it ground to save money. I called my local shippers to get approximate quotes. I had the weight and dimensions, but it seemed difficult for them to give me an estimate. I finally remembered a small ad I had seen in Adventure Cyclist for Bikeflights.com. It is an online company that has negotiated cheaper rates with the shippers; you give them the weight and dimensions, a credit card number, and they email you a shipping label in about an hour. You then take your box to any location and drop it off. 

My plan for weekend number one was to ride the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park to get a taste of what the Blue Ridge Parkway is like. Mother Nature and logistics conspired to limit this ride to one day. I rode from the north entrance near Front Royal to Elk Wallow. A beautiful but cold ride! (Being from Arizona, I had assumed it would be warm in May, but you know what happens when you assume something.)

Weekend number two was approaching. The weather was not terrible. Since Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, I thought, “Why not jump on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath and head to D.C.?” With reservations secured at a hotel just north of the National Mall, I headed out on Saturday morning, crossed the footbridge at Harpers Ferry, and joined the C&O.

A bike leans against a tall, old white building. The rest of the scene is rural with green trees and grass.
My Salsa Fargo takes a break by one of the lockkeeper houses on the C&O Canal.
Allan Metts

The first 25 miles were solo through quiet, forested terrain. The trail was fairly flat and easy riding. Usually, I commute to work and ride at a ‘get-there’ pace. For this trip, I had all day to ride 66 miles and really had to force myself to slow down. I cruised along, taking in the many turtles in the remaining canal segments and the deer and geese (those honkers didn’t want to let me by on the path). It was peaceful but solitary and, I have to admit, a little boring riding by myself. One of the things that intrigue me when reading Adventure Cyclist stories is how bicycling offers the potential to meet new and unique people one otherwise would probably never meet.

Before I forget to mention it, this was my first bike overnight, so I was very excited. As I rolled into White’s Ferry landing, I noticed a couple that was obviously touring headed onto the path towards D.C. I took a quick break, ate some cold leftover pizza, and then rejoined the trail. It was not long before I caught up to Jim and Karen. I said hello, and Jim and I immediately started chatting like longtime friends.

Jim and Karen, from Missouri, had ridden the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, where they joined the C&O and were now headed to D.C. We rode the rest of the way together, taking in the sites. At Great Falls, we got to see a mule-powered canal boat with period-attired actors. The little museum at Great Falls was very interesting.

People lead mules down gravel path with a canal to the right side of the path.
A mule-powered barge on the C&O Canal at the Great Falls lock and museum.

We pressed on, Karen listening to her music, Jim and I chatting. It was starting to become a long day and the words “cold beer” kept popping up. But our banter carried us forward and, before we knew it, we were approaching Georgetown. I took pictures of Jim and Karen at the beginning of the canal. They were clearly proud of having ridden the GAP and C&O trails

We found a quiet restaurant in Georgetown, celebrated over a couple of those “cold beers,” and then parted ways. Jim and Karen had a few days in D.C. before their ride would gather them up for the trip back to Missouri.

I began thinking back to my several previous trips to D.C. at various times in my life and remembered how, with aching feet, I would watch the bike tourists cruising around the mall. I longed for a bike. Now it was my turn. I rode from Georgetown to the Lincoln Monument, had the requisite picture taken, then cruised east on the Mall. No aching feet but the butt was starting to get tired. I hit the hotel and went out for a quick bite and maybe a couple more cold beers.

Sunday morning dawned cool with light rain — I was going to get wet. As I rode out in the drizzling rain, I saw that George Washington University was preparing to have its graduation commencement on the National Mall. Watching the ladies all dressed up, waiting in their heels in the rain to use a port-a-potty, made me feel better about my situation. At least I was in bike clothes designed for rain.

Since I don’t see this part of the country with my bike often, I wanted to make the most of it. Instead of taking the C&O towpath all the way back to Harpers Ferry, I decided to take the Washington & Old Dominion (WOD) rail trail from Arlington to Leesburg, Virginia. This would probably be a good time to remind you again that I am a desert-dweller, so it goes without saying I would have enjoyed the WOD more without the constant rain.

At Leesburg, I jumped back over to White’s Ferry. It cost me two dollars to ride the ferry across the Potomac.

A collage of photos: of the author on a blue bridge over a river, friends met along the trail.
A scenic and fulfilling first bike overnight
Jeffrey Northcut

Once back on the C&O, I felt like a horse heading for the barn. By now, the weather had improved and I was enjoying the ride. I was hustling because I had a ride waiting on me at Harpers Ferry. Approaching 137 miles in a little over 24 hours, I was starting to get tired. I rolled into Harpers Ferry, headed to the Quality Goods hike and bike shop, and bought my C&O T-shirt. Then it was a celebratory lunch with another couple of cold beers on a deck overlooking the Harpers Ferry train station.

I have to say, my first bike overnight was all I hoped it would be. I saw beautiful country and intriguing things, met interesting people, and blew people’s minds when I said I’d ridden my bike to D.C. I’m looking forward to more bike overnights in the future, and next time I hope to have my family in tow.

Tip for This Adventure

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association is a great resource for anyone visiting the D.C. area. Also, as I mentioned in the story, Bikeflights.com was a great way to ship my bike.

This article was originally published in 2015, and not all route information has been updated.

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