Over the years, a lot of great hikes have started on the C&O Canal’s towpath and have wound up leading us to a nearby structure or overlook. A few months ago, we set off on such a hike and wound up sliding down a steep embankment leading to the western portal of Kessler Tunnel. We were already familiar with both the Indigo and Stickpile Tunnels, but there was something more remote or exciting about Kessler. For starters, the tunnel is 1843′ long and was part of the now abandoned Western Maryland Railroad. The WMRR saw the last of its train traffic in 1975, and shortly thereafter the rails were pulled up.
What’s left of the old WMRR these days is a flat path running through the woods–often alongside of the C&O–and three seemingly anomalous tunnels located literally in the middle-of-nowhere. This path could someday become a part of the Western Maryland Rail Trail, but at the moment that seems years away–at best. As for the tunnels, Indigo is now a protected bat hibernaculum blocked by a steel gate and, as we shall see, Kessler is pretty much impassable as well.
We started the day at the Paw Paw Tunnel parking lot and headed toward the tunnel before veering off onto the Tunnel Hill Trail. At the top of the hill, we took a right on Tunnel Hill Road. As is the case in most good hikes, we only had a vague idea of where we were going, so after about a mile on the road, we took a left onto a trail just beyond a yellow gate. Eventually, we were overlooking a steep gorge with a narrow, perfectly flat bottom that contained an occasional pole and other signs of past human activity. The tunnel was down there somewhere!
The trail led downhill at a moderate grade and eventually crossed the railroad cut near an abandoned trestle deep in the Paw Paw Bends. From here, it was a matter of walking back up the cut toward the tunnel. A small stream passes through the middle of this man-made gorge, and the hike is swampy. However, it does beat heading down the steep ravine closer to the tunnel.
All of the stories that we’ve heard about the Kessler Tunnel’s eastern portal are true: not only is it hard to reach, but it’s also flooded. High above the entrance, a large pipe carries water from a small stream and deposits it as a waterfall on the right as one faces the tunnel. The drainage system is in a state of disrepair, and the water backs up into the tunnel before the overflow heads down the cut toward the Potomac River.
The tunnel’s western portal is fairly muddy, but it isn’t nearly as dilapidated as the eastern end. Judging from how the light from the other side reflects on the water, it appears that the tunnel floor is flooded most of the way. It would take a kayak or waders in order to see if Kessler Tunnel supports a similar bat population to Indigo. Indeed, what exactly lies between the portals is a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, this is a great round trip hike of approximately six miles that explores a bit of the C&O Canal and a forgotten railway that may someday be turned into a rail trail. That sounds good, but it would take a lot of work.