Canal Road and the Clara Barton Parkway form a barrier to pedestrian and cyclist access to the C&O Canal National Historic Park. Red dots represent existing crossing points, green dots are existing parking lots, and blue dots are two places where people have suggested improvements. Base image from Google Maps.
The park runs along DC’s southwest border, with the trail and towpath being side by side between Georgetown and Arizona Avenue. There, they diverge, with the trail going to Bethesda and the towpath to Great Falls (and all the way to Cumberland, Maryland).
Between Georgetown and Bethesda, there’s no safe way for people of all abilities to walk or bike to the park. The only options are to climb down a dirt trail, carry your bike, or take your life in your hands with traffic — or do all three.
If you want to visit the park but aren’t willing or able to scramble, ramble, or gamble, your choices are to go down to Georgetown or up to Bethesda, or get in a car and go to one of the automotive access points.
The park is very accommodating of cars
The car route, if you have one, is extremely easy. The Crescent Trail website lists ten public parking areas between Bethesda and Georgetown — a distance of ten miles!
These are all dedicated parking lots, not on-street parking. “Whenever possible, avoid using neighborhood residential streets for parking, as this becomes an imposition on residents when substantial numbers of trail users park there,” the website even notes.
Getting to the towpath part of the park by car is also very easy. In DC alone, there are two large parking lots at Fletcher’s Boathouse, another parking lot at Chain Bridge, and another just inside the DC line at Little Falls. If you keep going there are parking lots every mile or so all the way out to Great Falls, where there is a huge parking lot. In total, there are 15 parking lots along the towpath within its first sixteen miles north of Georgetown!
Access to the park is generally excellent in Maryland. The Clara Barton Parkway forms a barrier to access between the Maryland line and Great Falls, but there are numerous pedestrian bridges, crosswalks and other crossings. It’s even not that hard to access the park from Virginia: You have to cross the Potomac River, but there are pedestrian and bike facilities on both the Key Bridge and Chain Bridge.
But for the DC section of the towpath, Canal Road is a formidable barrier and there are no formal crossings. Plus there’s high-speed traffic.
Better access points could be on the way
This might be changing, however. In November, DDOT installed a traffic signal at Canal and Reservoir Road. The signal isn’t on yet, but when operational it will have a “beg button” that lets people on foot and riding bikes cross.
But even with the light, access will be via Reservoir Road, which is narrow and steep, and which lots of cars use to travel at high speeds. Reservoir has an extremely narrow sidewalk on one side, and telephone poles in the sidewalk make it almost impassable in spots.
Once across Canal, access to the park itself is via an even narrower part of Reservoir Road, with no sidewalk. Even with the traffic light, the new access point won’t work for everyone until the sidewalk is fixed.
DDOT’s long-range MoveDC plan calls for an additional access point where the Capital Crescent Trail crosses Arizona Avenue, with a sidewalk down Arizona from MacArthur Boulevard. The National Park Service has also suggested the idea of a trailhead here.
The Palisades Citizens Association recently endorsed this path, calling on DDOT to make the access point a priority. But it’s actually been on DDOT planning documents for over a decade, and there aren’t any immediate plans for action.
Without some real access points, enjoying the beauty of the C&O Canal in DC will only be for people who can drive there.