The C&O “greatest engineering feat”: The Paw Paw Tunnel

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Where? Paw Paw tunnel, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Oldtown, Maryland, USA

Click on the picture to get directions from Google Maps

Address

Towpath, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Oldtown, Maryland, 21555

Note: These directions will take you to the Paw Paw Tunnel campground. There’s limited parking on site. The trailhead is right there and there’s a sign with a map.

Map

Hours of operation from their website, it’s open daily from sunrise to sunset.

For more information, and to stay on the loop with closures, visit the National Parks Service website. At the moment, the towpath downstream is closed.

Fee None! FREE

Restrooms There’s porta potties at the parking lot.

Pets The Paw Paw tunnel is on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal which is a National park that allows dogs on a leash. The only sections where dogs aren’t allowed is on the Maryland side of the Great Falls and on the Billy Goat Trail A. You can learn more about this on the Canal Trust website.

Some of the horseshoe-shaped bends on the Potomac river.

Quick History Facts

Since a straighter path was more desired for the purposes of the C&O canal, the Paw Paw tunnel was built to bypass the bends with a horseshoe shape that form in the Potomac on that particular location. It took a long time and a lot of money to complete its construction. There’s also the rumor that the tunnel is haunted. For more History facts on the tunnel you can read the Canal Trusts website and Wikipedia’s recount.

How to get there?

We used the All Trails App to get to the Paw Paw tunnel campground parking space. Click on the picture above for the specific directions we put on our GPS on Google Maps. From the campground, we headed to the trailhead onto the C&O towpath.

This is how the trailhead looks from the Paw Paw tunnel campground parking lot. Once you make it up to the short incline, you’ll be on the C&O towpath.

The distance from the campground to the tunnel is short. I estimate that is around half a mile. We didn’t walk but rode our bikes there. Unfortunately, I was so caught up in the moment that I forgot to time it.

Starting to ride our bikes on the C&O canal towards the Paw Paw tunnel.

We weren’t sure how long it was going to take to get to the tunnel, and since we had our bikes with us, we decided to just ride them. That made the trip even shorter and easier, of course.

The C&O towpath is made of clay and crushed stone. It’s relatively easy to walk it. On a bicycle, it can get rough and bumpy. This applies to strollers, wagons and wheelchairs.

Our current gear to make our bike rides as smoothly as possible. I pull the trailer where our 4yo goes when he gets tired and my husband has the tandem bike extension to ride with our son. When the trailer isn’t in use, it carries the backpacks. A kind neighbor gave us the tandem extension. We bought this bike trailer online a year ago and it’s still going strong. Great quality!

I strongly recommend the Schwinn Trailblazer Child Bike Trailer. We bought it last year and it has carried our child and backpacks in all our bike rides ever since. It’s still in great shape with a lot of life left. We got the single seat one but there’s a double seat option as well.

Outdoor Parenting Hack

I am of the opinion that with little kids, ours is 4, if a trail can be biked, I would rather do that. Little kids are still learning how to process their emotions and will throw tantrums when tired, hot, hungry and confused. Therefore, I want to minimize the possibility of this jeopardizing the experience.

Having a vehicle to move him around is a life saver. That’s also why I would love to come back to this trail after a snowfall; to see the Paw Paw tunnel beautified with snow and to pull our kids on their sled. Because flat trails are perfect for snow hikes with little kids. You just pull them on the sled. Read more about that here!

After leaving our bikes on the grass, next to the picnic table, we headed to the tunnel (on the left). To the right is the Paw Paw tunnel hill trail head.

What to expect?

Once you reach the Paw Paw tunnel entrance, you’ll also see the Paw Paw Tunnel Hill Trail. This is a loop that takes you over the tunnel and then back to the campground through the tunnel. It is advised to not take your bicycles through the tunnel because the path is very narrow, wet and bumpy. We left ours near by the trail head. If you need to cross with your bikes, it’s best to walk them.

About to enter the Paw Paw tunnel.

We didn’t complete the Paw Paw tunnel hill trail hike. One, because we had our bikes and we couldn’t take them with us on this trail and, two, because we were there a little after noon and it was horribly hot. I think this hike is better for fall, spring, and/or winter. If you want to do it during summertime, try to get their during the early morning hours or late afternoon.

According to the All Trails directions pictured above, the out and back loop from the Paw Paw tunnel campground to the Paw Paw tunnel hill trail is approximately 3.7 miles. That’s not long. Just know that going over the tunnel is a hill. So, it’s going to be strenuous. The hike is categorized as moderate.

Also, there’s this warning about the hill trail having cliffs and being steep.

The tunnel

When you enter the tunnel, it doesn’t feel like is as long as it is!

Starting our way into the tunnel.

The way in definitely felt longer than the way out. I didn’t time our way in, but our way back took 20 minutes. Therefore, crossing the tunnel back and forth will give you about 40 minutes of tunnel time.

Being inside the tunnel is similar as being inside a cave. The temperature is nice, it’s moist, the ground is wet and bumpy, comfortably humid and dark, very dark!

If you wonder how the light at the end of the tunnel might look like when we leave this world, this is a good example.

You do see the light at the end of the tunnel at all times, which is comforting. Even though, seeing the light gives you the illusion that the exit is closer than it is. At some point you feel like you are moving but aren’t really advancing. If you are claustrophobic, be advised!

At the exit of the Paw Paw tunnel.

When you reach the exit, the scenery is even more beautiful. There’s a boardwalk and a rock wall on the side that lets you appreciate the magnitude and extent that the construction of this place took. The view reminded me of the end of Grist Mill Trail in Patapsco Valley State Park, where you see the Patapsco river on one side and the forest on the other. In this case, the C&O canal on one side and the mountain on the other.

After exiting the Paw Paw tunnel this is the view. The C&O canal to the left and the rock wall to the right.

This path continues for miles. Remember, it’s the C&O canal that ends in Cumberland. Also, if you were to hike the Paw Paw Tunnel Hill trail, you would end up at the boardwalk and then make your way to the tunnel. In that case, this would be your “entrance” to the tunnel.

Since we weren’t going to hike that trail, we turned around and crossed the tunnel, again! Then to the campground, pee break and back to the car to our next destination.

Bring the following essentials

  • Flashlights! Headlamps are best, but any handheld flashlight will do. If you can’t bring one (or forget to), then your phone’s flashlight is ok. The tunnel gets very dark! We have two of this and they are great!
  • Sunscreen anytime you will be exposed to the sun you should wear sunscreen. Here’s the two main sunscreens I use for the face and body
  • Plenty of water and snacks especially if you are going during this time of the year, summer, when it’s very hot.
  • A meal if you plan on staying longer there isn’t much near by the campground area. After exploring the tunnel, we headed to Cumberland where there are many restaurants and fast food places to choose from.
  • Proper gear for hiking and/or riding your bicycle Read REI’s hiking essential list here and cycling essentials here. Read all the way to the end for a list of the gear we use and love featured in this adventure.

One more thing

The Paw Paw tunnel is located in Allegany County, where there are other must see places such as historic Cumberland, Lake Habeeb at Rocky Gap State Park, the terminus of the C&O canal and the beginning of the Great Allegheny Passage. I highly recommend visiting them all and stay tuned for future posts about our visit to these places.

This is how crossing the tunnel looks like. Go to my Instagram page for more videos!

I hope you have a great time visiting this beautiful place. Being in contact with nature is proven to make you feel better and happier. Let me know if you go how it goes and remember that the easiest way to stay on the loop is to follow me on insta, where I also share videos and more on my stories/highlights!

Please, share with your family and friends and comment below, and/or send me an email/message with suggestions of what else you would like to see here. I want this page to be as helpful as possible. Thanks for reading!

Other gear featured in this blog post that we love:

  • Bike helmets
  • Bicycle Bell for all our bikes to alert people
  • Bicycle Basket
  • Bike Phone Holder

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