I went through a couple of books pertaining to the C&O Canal and counted the number of free hiker/biker campsites in the park and came up with a final tally of thirty-four. Some are larger than others, and they’re all a little bit different, although the amenities are pretty much the same. However, those planning to stay at the Big Woods site should be warned that the water pump is 1/4 mile away from the campground. The campsites are approximately five miles apart–on average–but can range anywhere from three to eight miles, the exception being that the first site heading upstream from Georgetown is at the 16 mile mark (Swains Lock).
Before going into any details about the campsites, there are a couple of interesting facts that every camper should know. For starters, the sites are generally located at least a mile from the nearest parking area. Also, they are labeled as “overnight,” meaning that campers should move on the next day. This gives all hikers and bikers an opportunity find a campsite on their journeys from Georgetown to Cumberland–and all points in between.
In the typical hiker/biker campsite, one will see a picnic table, fire pit w/grill, port-a-john, water pump, trash bag receptacle, and room for two or three tents. I’ve seen more than one group of campers at the sites (rarely), but I’m not sure about proper camping etiquette. For the most part, campers seem to move on if a campsite is taken. That’s not a big deal for bikers, but, for example, hikers would find the additional eight miles to Opequon Junction painful if Big Woods is full (or vice-versa).
The water does have a bit of a taste to it. I have never cooked with it, but I’ve drank plenty of it over the years. When hitting the canal for long distances, we’ve always made it a point to bring a bottle of Mio or a box of Crystal-Lite flavor packets. There is a taste similar to sulfur that comes through, but it doesn’t dominate a 20 oz. container of water if it’s embellished with flavoring. We’ve noticed recently that there is a sign on the pumps showing that the water is treated with iodine. The sign relates that iodine is a natural and effective way to disinfect water; however, those with iodine allergies or thyroid troubles should avoid drinking it.
In all, the campsites are popular with bikers, but they are absolutely essential for those hiking the entire length of the canal. Motels, B&Bs, and eateries can be many miles apart, and things like water pumps, fire rings, and toilets are important necessities. With that in mind, the list of overnight hiker/biker campsites on the canal is as follows: Swains Lock ( mile 16.6); Horsepen Branch (26.1); Chisel Branch (30.5); Turtle Run (34.4); Marble Quarry (38.2); Indian Flats (42,5); Calico Rocks (47.6); Bald Eagle Island (50.3); Appalachian Trail (58.3); Huckleberry Hill (62.9); Antietam Creek (69.6–$10 fee); Killiansburg Cave (75.2); Horseshoe Bend (79.6); Big Woods (82.4); Opequon Junction (90.9); Cumberland Valley (95.2); Jordan Junction (101.1); North Mountain (110.0); Licking Creek (116.0); Little Pool (120.3); White Rock (126.4); Leopards Mill (129.8); Cacapon Junction (133.6); Indigo Neck (139.2); Devil’s Alley (144.5); Stickpile Hill (149.4); Sorrel Ridge (154.1); Paw Paw (155.8); Purslane Run (157.4); Town Creek (162.1); Potomac Forks (164.8); Pigmans Ferry (169.1); Irons Mountain (175.1); and Evitts Creek (180.1). Enjoy!