I’m cruising along at a comfortable 8 mph,
listening to sounds of the river and chirping birds
and braking for an occasional woodland creature
making a suicide scamper in front of me. I am
happily biking along the NCR trail. Most residents
in the Hereford Zone and vicinity are familiar
with this wonderful path for walking and biking.
I don’t need to tell you how peaceful a getaway
it can be. But what you may not realize is that you
can walk, bike, or jog on foot or horseback a
total of 80 miles from Hunt Valley to York and back.
The trail is mostly along private property and park land in Maryland but once you cross the famous Mason Dixon Line into Pennsylvania you are now on the York Heritage Rail Trail and it has a decidedly different flavor. While the railroad was the precursor of the path the NCR takes in Maryland, little evidence of it remains. In Pennsylvania it is still very much a part of the trail. You travel alongside the tracks the entire way, except when criss-crossing over them. Even the old switches still remain in place and were used until only recently. The last trains stopped running in 2004.
The first stop, New Freedom, comes complete with railroad museum and little café type restaurants. If you decide to stop in New Freedom, be sure to visit Bonkey’s on East Franklin Street, just a short detour off the trail. This is an old converted movie theatre serving ice cream cones, sundaes, milkshakes and assorted sweet treats of enormous portions at prices that will take you back to your childhood. It’s a nostalgic stop that will put back the calories you just walked or biked off , but well worth it.
Next stop, a little town called, of all things, Railroad, Pennsylvania. You’ll find a small restaurant and a bed and breakfast right on the trail. No need to go out of your way to make a refreshment stop. A few more miles and the path takes you right through the heart of Glen Rock. As you ride though the center of town you will pass the library, several shops and the Glen Rock Mill Inn, a refurbished sawmill turned into a full service restaurant. Relax on the patio or inside beside the bubbling natural underground spring-fed fountain. This historic building is filled with antiques while being an antique itself.
The trail has benches and small cafes along the way so you are never far from a rest area. You’ll pass Hanover Junction where President Lincoln disembarked from the NCR before giving his famous Gettysburg Address. The Howard Tunnel is only a few mile markers further and a truly wonderful hideout on a warm summer’s day. The dark coolness is a most welcome respite. This is the oldest railroad tunnel still in use in the US today. The final 5 miles takes you into the heart of York, Pennsylvania and the hustle and bustle of the city.
Fifty miles south of the NCR trail, the C & O Canal towpath starts in the midst of Georgetown. You can walk, jog or bike this motor-less nature trail for 185 miles. Avid cyclists can make this trek in only 1 day, but most will savor it a little at a time. Make it a day’s outing or take several days and stop at camp sites or bed and breakfasts along the route. The trail follows the Potomac River along the old canal route used to connect Cumberland, Maryland to Washington DC back in the early 19th century. In some places the only land between the canal and the raging river is the actual 8 foot wide trail itself! Steep twenty foot drop offs down to the river and the rapids make for edge of your seat viewing on one side, while the peaceful canal meanders along on the other. Ducks and geese appear every so often. And the history lessons you get from the markers at each of the old locks make this more than just a ride.
For a real taste of life along the C&O, try a mule drawn canal boat ride or stay overnight in a renovated lock house on the towpath. Our first destination was Great Falls National Park. The roar of the Falls can be heard miles down stream. But that doesn’t prepare you for the jaw dropping experience of walking across the boardwalk over the falls to Lookout Point. Water rushing over rocks the size of cars is so loud you have to shout to be heard. After several hours of riding with only the sounds of nature and the hum of your tires on the gravel, you’re adrenaline is pumping and you’re ready to move on again as far as your fitness level and curiosity will take you. If you’re hiking, try the Billy Goat Trail. It hugs the edge of the Potomac and allows you to climb over boulders to make the 2 mile trek from start to finish. But be prepared, this can take as long as 3 hours.
After a full day of fresh air and physical activity, nothing compares to the feeling of fatigue mixed with accomplishment as you sit down to relive the experiences of the day. Time to reward yourself. Our journey started and ended close to Bethesda, so we had our choice of dozens of great little restaurants, many with outside seating. We chose to relax at the American Tap Room Grill over generous drinks and delicious appetizers accompanied by soft live piano music and a cozy fire. A nice contrast of modern 21st century sophistication juxtaposed with a taste of life in the 19th century.
Next time out, we hit the trail at the 55 mile marker at Brunswick, a small historic town outside of Frederick. Our quiet ride was interrupted occasionally by the knocking of a woodpecker or the honking of geese. We saw dozens of turtles sunning themselves on logs resting along the banks of the canal. The world famous Appalachian Trail joins the C&O aLoch 33. They run together for about the next 3 miles. In the distance, we heard a train chugging through the mountains.
On this ride, freight trains occasionally passed alongside us as we pedaled. Not a natural sound, but nevertheless one to take you back to an earlier era. The peaceful atmosphere gave way to the sounds of the rushing river as we headed upstream along the Potomac toward Harper’s Ferry and it’s junction with the Shenandoah. The farther upstream we headed, the quicker the water flowed. There are narrow dirt foot trails down to the water’s edge where little sand banks beckon you to take a dip but the treacherous currents make for extremely dangerous swimming. Experienced kayakers and canoeists know this as The Needles, some of the areas most challenging white water. You can walk across the raging Potomac to West Virginia on a footbridge at the conflux of the 2 rivers where the Appalachian Trail splits off the towpath and heads south.
Back in Brunswick, we were in the mood for a cool drink and a light snack. We found the perfect spot at Beans in the Belfry, an old reformed church turned café. Colorful stained glass windows surround comfy conversation pits of overstuffed sofas with mounds of pillows. The aroma of fresh brewed coffee and mouth watering homemade desserts invited us in. We literally sank into our own private corner and recounted the experiences of the day.
We live in a special part of the world - the beauty of nature is everywhere. The warm weather beckons you to clean out the cobwebs, dust off the bicycle, put on your walking shoes and join in the fun. Stretching beyond your old boundaries and challenging your limbs can take you places you may never have considered visiting. I tried it and am hooked. A world of adventure is inviting you to exercise your mind and your body. And, it’s good old fashioned fun!
Photos & Article by Wendy Hartzler