For anyone who enjoys bike riding or hiking, the path along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal is special.
Riding there on a recent chilly spring morning, I see the Potomac River to my left, serene in some spots, roaring with foamy fury in others. To my right, the opaque emerald of the canal's sluggish water glints in the sun, chopped into segments by wooden locks. Mallards bob in groups and egrets take flight as joggers keep pace alongside their dogs.
These days, enjoying the towpath doesn't have to mean heading home at dusk or even setting up a tent at a campground. Instead, visitors can stay overnight in one of six restored lockhouses lining the canal from Washington to Williamsport.
The C&O Canal National Historical Park's Canal Quarters program offers guests a chance to inhabit the historic structures that were once home to lockkeepers. Fifty-seven lockhouses were built along the 184.5-mile canal in the 1800s, and six of the surviving 26 can be rented for overnight stays of up to three nights.
After spending the night in Lockhouse 10, I am pedaling to my next stop for a tour of another lockhouse, this one a bit more rustic than my lodging. By the time I reach Lockhouse 22 on my heavy 20-year-old red mountain bike, I have an unattractive streak of mud along my back, but I am exhilarated by the ride.
I meet up with Bud Cline, who manages the historic stone structure with his wife, Dell. When he was a kid, Cline said, he wanted to be a national park ranger — but volunteering for the C&O might be even better.
"We're history buffs, wildlife photographers and amateur naturalists," says the retired scientist, who lives in North Bethesda, as he unlocks the wooden front door to the attractively weathered building.
Inside, the small stone-walled structure is at least 10 degrees cooler and dark. Everything is as it would have been in 1830. The floor is rough pine. A steep, narrow staircase bisects the space, creating two sparsely furnished rooms, both with a fireplace. Upstairs, two bedrooms hold four beds and four trundles, with mattresses resting on woven rope.
There is no electricity, no running water, no heat or air-conditioning. To get to the portable outhouses, overnight guests must cross a footbridge to the other side of the canal. (Cline said he and his wife bring chamber pots when they stay.)
Yet people rent the lockhouses, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, year-round, he says.
"We get people from all over the world," Cline says. "We've had guests in January and February. Those who really want the authentic experience will pick one like this."
Visitors must bring their own food and linens and carry out their trash. They can't use the indoor fireplaces, and pets are not allowed. But for a reasonable fee of $100 to $150, these lockhouses offer an unusual opportunity for an immersive experience in a national park, soaking up history and enjoying the canal path, fresh air and scenic views.
Thousands of people have stayed overnight in the restored lockhouses since the first one opened in 2009, says Becky Curtis, director of programs for the C&O Canal Trust, the nonprofit arm of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. She hopes more will be renovated, particularly closer to Cumberland, since now the available lockhouses are clustered along the eastern terminus of the path, with Lockhouse 49, at mile 108, the farthest west.
Each lockhouse was restored to reflect a different era in the life of the canal.
"You're literally brought back into that era, with all the furnishings of that era," Curtis says.
Lockhouse 22 represents the earliest years, when the canal was constructed to transport goods such as flour and coal between the nation's capital and Cumberland, a journey that took about five days. Other lockhouses draw on historical influences such as the Civil War, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the canal's Four Locks community.
My stay at Lockhouse 10 felt like a trip back into history, to a time when the federal government purchased the bankrupt canal from the B&O Railroad and began converting it into a national park.
Furnished as it would have been in the 1930s, the lockhouse is only about eight miles from the Georgetown end of the canal and not far from the busy Clara Barton Parkway, but if you ignore the hum of traffic, you can convince yourself you've stepped into another era. And you get heat, electricity and plumbing. The two-story house has two upstairs bedrooms and can sleep as many as nine.
A Fannie Farmer cookbook and a cloth bag of Lincoln Logs are among the Depression-era touches, along with a claw-foot tub in the small upstairs bathroom. A screen door off the kitchen leads to a porch, an outdoor picnic table and a fire ring. Of course, there is no television or wireless Internet service, but the moonlit view of the canal, path and Potomac out the window is entertainment enough.
Still, there are modern amenities nearby. Before I arrived, I picked up a takeout meal at Fish Taco, recommended by Heidi Glatfelter, spokeswoman for the C&O Canal Trust. The casual restaurant is one of several food options in a shopping center at the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Seven Locks Road in Cabin John.
As I ate my salad and delicious tacos at the wooden table in the snug living room, I paged through a guestbook I found on the windowsill. "Walking from Cumberland, Md., to Georgetown," read the entry from Oct. 22, 2013. "Loving having a shower and electricity for our last night on the canal." Other groups had rented the lockhouse for Thanksgiving, July Fourth and a bridal shower.
A scrapbook documents the government takeover of the canal through newspaper articles and letters. The $2 million purchase, on Sept. 28, 1938, was heralded as creator of a jobs, putting people to work repairing the canal and path.
By that point, the canal and lockhouses were a mess. The canal, originally planned as a vital transportation route, was made obsolete by the B&O Railroad before it even reached Cumberland in 1850. Still, the canal staggered along until 1924, with lockhouse occupants available 24/7 to lift boats from one level to the next at 74 locks.
Now the C&O towpath is a major tourist attraction, dotted with walkers, runners and cyclists even midweek, and becoming a virtual traffic jam on summer weekends, particularly near Great Falls.
At this popular spot, you can visit the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center, which shows a 12-minute movie from 1917, documenting a trip along the canal. In the small museum, I learn that mule-drawn boats could carry up to 125 tons of cargo and that being a lockkeeper could be kind of fun, especially when travelers stayed for nights of food and music.
You can also take a short walk to the Great Falls overlook, where I happened to see two kayakers braving portions of the rapids. And you can sign up, in season, for a ride on a mule-drawn canal boat.
For many visitors, the Great Falls area is enough. But the canal offers much more.
"I try to come here once a week," says Geza Serenyi, 69, of North Potomac, embarking on a seven-mile walk from Lockhouse 22 to No. 23 (known as Violette's Lock) and back. "Last week, I heard many, many frogs and I actually saw two little ones, no more than 2 to 3 inches. To me, it's amazing we're 20 minutes outside of Washington and we could be in the middle of the wilderness."
If you go
The program is administered by the nonprofit C&O Canal Trust. Registration is required for the overnight stays and can be made up to 12 months in advance. Only one party, of up to eight people, may register per lockhouse per stay. Maximum stay is three nights. There is no wait list.
Lockhouse lodging rates range from $100 to $150 per night.
The lockhouses are adjacent to the canal towpath and most are accessible by car and have parking by permit only, which is included in your registration.
For more information or to sign up for a night at a lockhouse, visit canaltrust.org/quarters. Registration by phone is available 9 a.m. to noon Mondays through Fridays by calling 301-714-2233.