Week Three #explorethereserve: The C&O Canal and Monocacy Aqueduct
How lucky that the beautiful C&O Canal National Park and Potomac River border Montgomery County’s Ag Reserve.
What is #explorethereserve?
Welcome to #explorethereserve week three! This community project will highlight weekly locations with ideas for getting off screens and heading outside to improve mental and physical health, explore our corner of MoCo, and provide inspiration for COVID-safe adventures in and near the Ag Reserve.
Click here to learn more about this #explorethereserve project, the Agricultural Reserve, and tips for safety and comfort. Check out other #explorethereserve adventures linked at the bottom of this post.
The C&O Canal and Monocacy Aqueduct Past and present
In our nation’s history, prior to the rise of railroads, the C&O Canal was the method for transporting goods in this region. After falling into disuse and disrepair in the latter half of the 20th century, it was slated to be paved over and transformed into a highway. Luckily, a Supreme Court justice advocated for its preservation as an area of natural beauty, outdoor recreation, and rich history,
Thanks to these efforts, we can enjoy the C&O Canal today. It is a beautiful spot to enjoy year round and holds many fascinating features to explore and appreciate, like the Monocacy Aqueduct.
Exploring the Monocacy Aqueduct
To visit the Monocacy Aqueduct, head to the small town of Dickerson near the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain (watch for speed cameras!) and turn down Mouth of Monocacy Road. As you drive down to the Canal, notice the farms and forests that line either side of the road. Once you cross the greenway for the power lines and pass over the railroad tracks, please be advised that the road gets quite rutted and riddled with potholes.
Once you arrive at the Monocacy Aqueduct, take a moment to observe the natural beauty around you. This area has been called home by generations of people for a very long time, from the local Native Americans to the early European settlers and beyond. The fertile land, grand forests, and nearby rivers were valuable resources for all. George Washington visited the mouth of the Monocacy in October 1790 during a tour of possible sites for the young nation’s capitol.
The later construction of the Canal sought to distribute these resources more widely, and feats of engineering like the Monocacy Aqueduct enabled its use in a diverse landscape. You can still see the stone remains of a granary between the parking lot and the Aqueduct, though no traces remain of some other historic infrastructure like a past post office.
The Monocacy Aqueduct is the longest of the 14 on the C&O Canal, enabling the canal to cross over other bodies of water. (If you find this hard to imagine, check out the Conococheague Aqueduct, the only one on the C&O with water.) The building stones were quarried at Sugarloaf Mountain and hauled to the Canal site by a temporary railroad.
The Aqueduct was the repeated target of Confederate attacks during the Civil War but could not be blown up due to its strong construction and dense stone. Over the years, it fell into such serious disrepair that in 1998 it was designated one of America’s most endangered historic structures. Fortunately, it received the attention and work it needed and repairs were completed In 2005, enabling us to enjoy it today.
If you choose to head on to the towpath for a walk, jog, or bike ride, you will notice many markers of progress–though the Canal is no longer functional, you will hear train whistles, see planes flying overhead, and to the south, notice the stacks of the power plant. In the forest lining the Canal and River, you will see towering majestic trees as well as craggy snags and decaying logs, all providing shelter and nourishment for the ecosystem here. Time marches on and all things are transformed in its passing. Exploring the Reserve means reflecting on its past, appreciating its present, and considering its future.
OPTIONS & IDEAS FOR #EXPLORETHERESERVE WEEK Three, The C&O Canal and Monocacy Aqueduct:
- The Monocacy Aqueduct is more accessible than many Canal sites, with a decently sized gravel parking lot, handicapped accessible toliets, and a recently resurfaced towpath. This is great news for visitors with limited mobility or who need to use strollers for small children, making enjoying the C&O possible for a wider range of people.
- The aqueduct area is a uniquely expansive area on the canal, with wide swaths of inviting grass as well as picnic tables and river shores. Why not pack a picnic or bring a frisbee or soccer ball? Blow some bubbles, cast a line, and skip some stones in the River? For a slower pace, bring a folding chair and book, journal, or sketchbook.
- There’s not only the Canal towpath to explore here. Launch your boat, kayak, or SUP at the nearby boat ramp and enjoy the scenic Monocacy and Potomac.
- Wear some comfy shoes and walk/jog the towpath or bring your bike for a ride. Traverse the elevated “towpath” and the basin portions of the Aqueduct to appreciate its engineering and craftsmanship.
- Bring a pair of binoculars and a birding guide or app to appreciate the bird activity along the Canal and river. On one of my walks I saw an enormous Great Blue Heron glide over the towpath twice near mile 42 and tons of bird activity and song by Lock 27.
- Bring a plant guide or access an app to identify the towering trees and lush undergrowth around you. You may be surprised at what you find when you slow down and change your focus–I was photographing some wildflowers and discovered a sleeping bee.
- Head south on the towpath, toward the power plant and Washington, DC (same side of the river as the parking lot) and discover: around mile marker 42 an old stone chimney and foundation from Dr. Boyd’s homestead and mill, further south Lock 27/Spinks Ferry and its charming lockhouse, and down to mile marker 42 the Dickerson power plant. Go a little further to mile 40.6 and you’ll see an Olympic whitewater kayak training course.
- Head north on the towpath, toward Frederick (cross the river via the Aqueduct) and discover: at mile 42.4, the Indian Flats campsite, named for a transitory Native American settlement there and at Milepost 43, you may observe some fish weirs in the Potomac, one marked by a prominent boulder at its point.
DIG DEEPER INTO LOCAL HISTORY, nature, & culture:
- The C&O Canal Companion: A Journey Through Potomac History, Mike High
- Chesapeake and Ohio Canal: Official National Park Handbook
- The History of Dickerson, Mouth of Monocacy, Oakland Mills, and Sugarloaf Mountain, MD, Dona L. Cuttler
- Sugarloaf: The Mountain’s History, Geology, and Natural Lore, Melanie Choukas-Bradley
(AFFILIATE MARKETING NOTICE: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you purchase a book from any of the links above, I will earn a small commission fee.)
Websites and Organizations
- C&O Canal Virtual Tour Check out some highlights of the canal by mileage
- Canal Quarters Though Spinks lockhouse is not an option, an overnight stay at a lockhouse is an unforgettable experience! (Our family loved our stays at Lockhouse 21 and Lockhouse 10.)
- Dickerson Whitewater Course Amazing whitewater kayaking
- The Dickerson Biking Trail, Sugarloaf Regional Trails Take a bike ride or a drive and learn more about this area’s rich history
- Historic Ag Reserve Properties: The Dickerson Generating Station Considering the history that was lost to development
- Piscataway-Conoy Tribe Learn more about the people who originally called this area home
“Trail to History Planned” Frederick News Post, July 21, 2015 Learn more about a Native American heritage trail in this area
SUPPORT Ag reserve LOCAL BUSINESSES
Please check operating days and hours via business websites/social media.
- Calleva Farm Cafe Enjoy a farm fresh breakfast or lunch in the fresh air
- Comus Inn This historic restaurant is back and features big outdoor fun
- Dickerson Market Stop in for bait, drinks, and snacks–but their fried chicken is out of this world
- Savage Farm Their family farm store sells a variety of meats, eggs, and other local products
- Soleado Lavender Farm Due to COVID, the farm is currently closed to visitors but check out their online shop for amazing lavender products (their lip balm is the best!)
- Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard Stop in for award-winning French style wines at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain
LET’S KEEP EXPLORING the ag reserve!
New adventures will be posted each Wednesday morning on the Taste Travel Teach website and linked via the Taste Travel Teach FB page.
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Suggestions for upcoming #explorethereserve adventures? Click on the Contact button here or send a FB message to Christine.
Thanks for reading and taking part in #explorethereserve. I hope you enjoyed learning, exploring, and discovering more about Montgomery County’s Ag Reserve. See you next Wednesday for a new adventure!
About Taste travel Teach & Christine Rai:
- Click here to learn more about me and my credentials.
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- Contact me here about teaching a class, leading a tour, or speaking to your group.
- My current project: I’m finishing up my first book, a sunny guide for positive living featuring my vibrant multimedia art.
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