Big Slackwater: Almost Ready

Heading in from downstream

C&O Canal fans, rejoice!  Well, maybe not just yet.  The Big Slackwater Project is near its completion, but there are still some machines and “No Trespassing” signs in the vicinity of McMahon’s Mill.  However, the downstream end of the new section of the towpath was open, and several hikers and bikers were out for a tour of the trail.  There are some low-hanging trees and patches of brush and weeds in the way, but I’m guessing that everything will be spruced-up in time for the big ceremony on October 13th.

Concrete section of the wall

The towpath’s wall has two distinct looks: a concrete front with a “faux” rock surface and an actual rock wall.  Where there is concrete, the towpath has a cement surface as well, and where there are rocks, the towpath is made up of the usual fine gravel and dirt that C&O regulars have come to know.  At one point, a small stream flows down from the hills and underneath the towpath, and there are several places where the trail is pinched right up against the cliff.  It’s definitely unique, and the close proximity of the river adds to the scenic beauty.

Crazy Geometry

As stated, the new towpath alternates between surfaces, and some of the odd angles in the cement sections add to the quirkiness of the trail.  I suppose that’s just the way things are when a path is stuck between a cliff and a really big river.  Likewise, the wall is already very popular with fishermen.  There were a number of bass boats within thirty yards of the trail, and the anglers were busy tossing their lures toward the shore.  Some of the crevices underneath of the concrete are bound to make for shady, secluded homes for some pretty impressive lunkers.

Anyone around the bend?

The line of sight is pretty good from the big picture perspective.  The new towpath is built on a large bend in the river known as Whitings Neck, and one can nearly see from one end to the other with literally no obstructions.  However, the shape of the cliffs does make for some peculiar angles in small sections.  It’s not out of the question that two speeding cyclists could meet head-on in several places.  It might be a good idea for bikers to start ringing their bells in such situations.  The result of not doing so could be an impromptu game of Kerplunk–Potomac style.

Between a rock and a wet place

So, what does all of this mean?  In the Summer of 2010, ground was broken on the Big Slackwater Project in order to span a breach of 1.7 miles (if my shoddy math is correct) in the C&O Canal’s towpath, and in spite of a few bouts with high water, the work will be completed pretty much on schedule.    Likewise, hikers and bikers will no longer be subjected to the trials and tribulations of the detour (at least most of the time), and–perhaps most importantly–people will now have the opportunity to explore a section of the park that was once only viewable from a boat.

The big picture

I couldn’t help but leave the Big Slackwater Project area with a number of personal observations.  For starters, this is a magnificent piece of work, and Candee and I  agreed  that this may have been the most awe-inspiring hike we’ve ever taken on the C&O Canal.  I have no doubt that this section of the towpath will be as big of an attraction as the Paw Paw Tunnel or Monocacy Aqueduct.  However, the rock and dirt portions have me believing that erosion could be a problem after really bad floods.  The people who did the work know their job a lot better than I do, but the detour will probably be in use from time-to-time while repairs are being done.  Nevertheless, my first-ever hike along the cliffs of Big Slackwater was unforgettable, and I think canal junkies and casual visitors alike will be pleased with the final results.

Rock, dirt, and gravel section

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8 responses to this post.

  1. It’s breathtaking just looking at the photo, so I can’t imagine what it was like being there. Beautiful. Now I’m excited for Fall to roll in. You’ll have to hike back and take some pics of the changing trees.

    Deffo worth waiting for (the new changes to this area)


  2. Hi

    Do you know when will the whole section will open? A group of us, 15 riders from Ohio will be through there on the on September 25, I’m hoping that we may ride this new section.




  3. Posted by LevelWalker on September 10, 2012 at 6:39 pm


    It’s great. The river is pretty much RIGHT THERE. I think the consensus will be a definite WOW!


  4. Posted by LevelWalker on September 10, 2012 at 6:42 pm


    I’m not really sure, but we’re going to try to get you an answer. The towpath has been closed for about a mile upstream from the mill. and there is still some heavy equipment and material at the mill. We couldn’t really see what’s left to be done from the towpath, but we will definitely check into it.


  5. Posted by Tabi on September 10, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    Great post! I’m looking forward to walking it. Do you think that section would be a good place to take my dogs?


  6. Posted by LevelWalker on September 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm


    A coupe was walking their dogs while we were there, and they seemed to enjoy the hike. I’m not sure what rules will apply in the future because the path is pretty narrow. It will be interesting to see what the NPS decides regarding horses and dogs. The towpath is still closed from the McMahon’s Mill end, so there will probably be signs going up in regard to rules as the project nears completion.


  7. Posted by Jamie on September 17, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    I hiked Big Slackwater with the Boy Scouts in 1970 when I was 14. After all these years, only a few mental pictures remain. I returned to the area recently after several decades in central and northern New York. Looking forward to making new memories along this portion of the Potomac.


  8. Posted by LevelWalker on September 17, 2012 at 10:39 pm


    Thanks for the great comment! I think hiking in this area has been limited mainly to locals in recent years, and people are going to be blown away by the area formerly bypassed by the detour. During through rides, etc. we’ve always considered this area (even above and below the detour) as burning miles. From now on, though, I think many people will regard this part of the park as one of the most scenic. I have to say that I envy anybody who can (sorry about the cliche) see it again for the very first time. The C&O Canal has really dedicated support groups(Canal Association, Canal Trust) to go along with the NPS, and I think Big Slackwater will be a huge hit for many years to come.


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