National Park Service proposes entrance/camping fees for C&O Canal Towpath

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[Update: Feb. 10, 2015 — NPS rolls back proposed fees on C&O Canal TowpathBicyclists using the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath, one of the most popular bike touring trails in the nation, are facing new user fees along the entire length of the 184.5-mile trail from Washington DC to Cumberland, Maryland.

Park service proposes fees to ride on C&O Canal  Towpath

Park service proposes fees to ride on C&O Canal Towpath

Also, a $20 per night fee would be charged for the currently free hiker-biker campsites that are located along the trail.

The National Park Service announced the proposals a week ago Monday (Jan. 5) and is seeking public feedback. Boy, are they going to get some feedback.

The C&O Canal Towpath is a national park that runs along the Potomac River from Washington DC to Cumberland, Maryland, where it connects to the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail that rolls through the mountains to Pittsburgh, PA.

The combined distance of these two trails is 340 miles. Since the opening of the GAP trail, the long-distance, car-free nature of this corridor from urban DC into the countryside has drawn hundreds, if not thousands, of bicyclists on overnight trips. Studies found that the bicycle traffic has stimulated the economy in small towns along the trail.

The Bicycling magazine website recently chose the combined C&O Canal Towpath/GAP trail experience as one of the top 10 car-free bike paths in the US:

“The ride is an accessible adventure for families (the total westbound climb of the GAP portion is just shy of 1,800 vertical feet, with a 1.4% average grade) and will motivate the next generation of cyclists to further the car-free movement.”

C&O Canal Towpath

C&O Canal Towpath

Proposed fees

Here are the some of the increased fees that would affect bicycle travelers included in the Park Service press release:

Hiker-Biker Camping Sites: Current: No Charge. Proposed: $20 per night

Right now, the only location on the 186-mile linear park where a fee is charged is the Great Falls Tavern area in Potomac. The park proposes adding entrance fee collection to all areas outside the District of Columbia.

Park Annual Pass:

Current: $20 Great Falls, MD only

Proposed: $30 park-wide outside of the District of Columbia

Per Person Pass:

Current: $3/person for 3 days Great Falls, MD only


District of Columbia line to Seneca Creek(near towpath mile 22) — $7 for 7 days

West of Seneca Creek to Cumberland, MD — $3 in 2015 for 7 days; $7 in 2017 for 7 days

Entrance fees are not charged to persons under 16 years of age or holders of the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Senior, Access or Military Passes

 “The park also proposes to extend the daily pass effective dates from three days to seven days to better align with popular recreational activities, such as cycling the 184.5 mile towpath.”


In defense of the proposed fees, park superintendent Kevin Brandt said:

“Fee revenue is absolutely critical to the park operation, and we ask for the public’s feedback and support. National Parks are still one of America’s best bargains. I don’t know of anything a family can do for 7 days for just $15.”

Still, many trail users were flabbergasted by the proposed fees.

One wrote at the Yahoo Group for C&O Canal Towpath:

“For $20 in a primitive campsite, those porta potties better be pristine and lighted at night with squeezable Charmin exclusively for those with saddle sores.”

Another said:

“Strongly encourage everyone to contact C&O Canal HQ and tell them this is a very bad idea. It will kill businesses and dry up patronage all along the towpath. Better yet, call your Congressman and Senator and tell them to fund the NPS and stop this insanity.”

To understand the problem with user fees, consider the following from the

“Designed to fund a public service, user fees are a type of excise tax that comes in the form of a license or supplemental charge. This method of taxation can be considered regressive because, even though the fee or charge is the same for all income groups, a larger portion of income is taken from those with lower incomes than from those with higher incomes.”

Contact the NPS

If you have input you’d like to share regarding the proposed fees, go to the C&O Towpath user fee feedback page (might need Internet Explorer to leave a comment). The deadline for comments is Feb. 22. (Tom forwarded this link that works in Chrome — NPS feedback page).

Also, public hearings are scheduled:

January 21, 2015, at the Brunswick City Hall, Council Meeting Room, 1 West Potomac Street, Brunswick, MD 21716 from 6:30-8:00 PM

January 27, 2015, at C&O Canal Park Headquarters, 1850 Dual Highway, Hagerstown, MD 21740 from 6:30-8:00 PM

January 29, 2015, at Canal Place, 13 Canal St, 2nd floor, Cumberland, MD 21502 from 6:30-8:00 PM

February 5, 2015, at Glen Echo Town Hall, 6106 Harvard Ave, Glen Echo, MD 20812 from 7:00-8:30 PM

C&O Canal Towpath Trail at

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    • R. hewi.... on January 12, 2015 at 6:55 pm
    • Reply

    If you use the Capital Crescent trail that runs parallel to the C & O canal one could access it without entering a oark

    • John Andre on January 21, 2015 at 4:07 pm
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    Charging a family $15 or more to enjoy a few hours in the Park seems especially callous when many Americans are either under-employed or their wages have been stagnant for decades. Nor has the Park Service explained its sudden need for additional revenues. NPS should rethink its priorities and treat Canal visitors as welcome guests instead of revenue generators. They should manage more efficiently within their appropriated budget, which is generously supplemented by donated funds.

      • John on January 30, 2015 at 5:51 am
      • Reply

      One item of mismanagement that comes to mind is Canal Quarters. Why should I spend $150 a night to sleep in primitive accommodations (no heat, electricity, running water or toilet) when I can drop half the cash for a room at a local B&B or motel chain and get a hot bath, TV and Wi-Fi? NPS could get more bang for their buck with reorganizing the Canal Quarters into a hostel style lodging and charging $20 a head per night. And don’t get me started on all the Superintendent’s Homes sitting vacant that could be contracted out to private vendors as B&Bs, hostels and/or restaurants.

  1. Internet explorer requires to view linked document? Well, now we know how the park service intends to keep comment numbers low. Require a browser that nearly NOBODY uses. FAIL!

  2. THIS URL OPENS IN CHROME, it is a direct link to the comment form:

    • John on January 30, 2015 at 5:46 am
    • Reply

    There are always unintended consequences and I fear that with the implementation of fees to access the towpath patrons will experience and be forced to endure a heightened enforcement presence. Rather than a casual encounter with a NPS employee start off with “Hello, how are you today and how are you enjoying your towpath experience” the exchange will begin with “YOUR PAPERS PLEASE”! What ever happen innocents until proven guilty?

    • Richard on January 31, 2015 at 6:31 am
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    There will be a public meeting in Hancock, MD, February 9th at 6:30 pm at the town hall concerning the proposed fee implementation by the NPS along the C&O towpath. Strange that Hagerstown, Cumberland, Brunswick, Glenn Echo (metro DC) all were mentioned but not Hancock? Hummmm… The first or last civilization between Cumberland, Hancock derives most of its means from tourism, primarily the patrons utilizing the towpath. Any decreases will surly have only detrimental affects upon Hancock’s struggling economy.

    • John on February 9, 2015 at 7:01 pm
    • Reply

    It was reveled at the Hancock meeting this evening that the NPS is backing off on their intent to raise entrance fees and impose a $20 per night fee at all of the hiker/biker campsites. Instead, they are going to focus on collecting parking fees at Great Falls Tavern to close the budget shortfall. It was also discussed that the NPS C&O Canal owns some rather expensive and sophisticated “paving” equipment, however, has only enough discretionary funds to resurface only, ONLY two miles this fiscal year and no means to pay qualified personnel to properly and safely operate the paving machine. If that wasn’t enough there apparently is a whole slue of deferred maintenance items (locks, culverts, aqueducts, wears, etc…) and the general mentality by management is to let them fail before any genuine effort is forward to repair much less maintain them. In light of these facts, it is apparent that the entire infrastructure of the 184.5 mile canal/towpath is doomed to collapse into disrepair and ruin.

    1. Thanks for keeping us informed about the NPS rescinding their proposal. That’s certainly good news. I’m sorry to hear about the overall deteriorating condition of the trail, however.

    • Raymond on March 4, 2017 at 7:41 am
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    I am just wondering if these fees have went into affect. I am planning an early April ride from Cumberland to Harper’s Ferry.

    I used to live in the Cumberland area, and was always on the towpath, and hate the thought of now having to pay to use it. I was a member of the C&O Canal Association for a few years, until I moved south. I really do miss being a member.

    1. Hey Raymond…. You won’t have to pay. The park service decided against charging the fees. It was an unpopular idea.

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