Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel

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Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | The Paw Paw Tunnel

The Paw Paw Tunnel

Welcome to the first post in a new series called “Running Detour.”  In each post of this ongoing series, I’ll write about a run done at a location that deviates from the usual route or traveled path — or at least, my usual route.  Hopefully, this will be useful to others who may be looking for new and different locations to run.

When I think of a detour, the first thing that comes to mind is something inconvenient.  A detour is often something unplanned that takes us off our normal or anticipated route.  Detours take longer and delay us from getting to where we ultimately want to go.

However, a detour can also be a good thing.  A detour can deviate from our normal path, but it can also provide experiences we wouldn’t have had otherwise.  A detour can delay the arrival at our destination, but it can also enhance the journey.  Detours can take us someplace special that we never knew existed.  Life is full of little detours and it is often the detours that we remember most.  These detours, good or bad, enhance our lives.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | A detour can enhance the journey

A detour can enhance the journey

And that is what the Running Detour series is all about.  Too often in running, we get caught up in getting to our ultimate destination.  As runners, we often try to get there as fast as we can.  We train and train, with our eyes focused on that race or goal.  We push ourselves to run faster, run further, and finish quicker.

Don’t get me wrong, running goals are important.  But too often in our race to finish, we forget to stop and look around.  A Running Detour is about taking a break from the usual.  It is about getting off our normal beaten path and experiencing something new and different. A Running Detour is about enjoying the journey.

The first Running Detour takes us to the Paw Paw Tunnel in Oldtown, Maryland, just across the border from Paw Paw, West Virginia.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | C&O Canal Historic Park | Paw Paw Tunnel

C&O Canal Historic Park | Paw Paw Tunnel

The History

The Paw Paw Tunnel is a 950 meter or 0.59 mile tunnel on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal.  The C&O Canal runs 184.5 miles along the Potomac River from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland.  The C&O Canal first opened in 1831 and remained in operation until 1924.  Today, the C&O Canal is a National Historic Park.

According to the National Park Service and Wikipedia, construction of the Paw Paw Tunnel began in 1836 and halted in 1842 due to cultural tensions among the crew and financial difficulties of the original construction company.  After construction resumed in 1848 with a new company, the tunnel was completed in another 3 years in October 1850.

In total, construction of the tunnel cost more than $600,000, which is much more than the initial $33,500 estimate.  Due to the increased construction costs of the tunnel, the C&O Canal Company almost went bankrupt.  Instead of building the C&O Canal as planned for another 180 miles to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania — through mountainous landscape that would require many more similar Paw Paw Tunnels — the C&O Canal Company ended the canal in Cumberland, Maryland.

After finally opening in 1850, the Paw Paw Tunnel was used for commercial shipping for 74 years until 1924.  Between this time, the tunnel was periodically closed due to floods, rock falls, and other maintenance.  It was often a bottleneck for boats since it allowed no room for passing or turning around.  According to the National Park Service, there was one stand-off between captains that refused to yield that lasted several days.

However, despite these shortcomings, the Paw Paw Tunnel was a major construction and engineering accomplishment.

The Details

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | Paw Paw Tunnel Sign Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | Paw Paw Tunnel Sign

To get to the Paw Paw Tunnel, you can park at the C&O Canal National Historic Park – Paw Paw Tunnel parking lot and campground just off Highway 51 or Oldtown Rd SE.  Along the entire C&O Canal, there is a towpath that is great for running and biking.  My wife and I often run our long runs on the towpath closer to Great Falls Park.  From the parking lot, it is about a half mile run along the C&O Canal towpath to the tunnel entrance.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | Paw Paw Tunnel Entrance

Paw Paw Tunnel Entrance

Inside the tunnel, you’ll need a flashlight or headlamp.  However, I don’t recommend running inside the tunnel, even with a headlamp. It is very dark and the ground is hard and uneven.  There are also random puddles from water seepage and the wall curves inward toward the center.  If you’re tall, you would need to watch your head when running, especially when moving to the outside to allow space for those coming in the opposite direction.  If you do go through the tunnel, it’s best to walk the 0.6 miles and resume running on the other side.

If you’re up for a challenge, you can take the Tunnel Hill trail over the tunnel instead.  The Tunnel Hill trail is about a 1.5 mile trail the tunnel builders used and lived on during construction.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | Tunnel Hill Trail School House Sign

Tunnel Hill Trail School House Sign

There are signs that state the Tunnel Hill trail is 2 miles, but my GPS measured just under 1.5 miles.  The trail is not overly technical, but there are some steep inclines and a few places with steep drop-offs if you were to get too close to the edge.  There are also some rocky areas, but nothing difficult.  It is definitely runnable if you’re looking for a decent climb. It would be great for hill work with some rewarding views of the Potomac River at the top.

The Running Detour

For this Running Detour, my wife and I ran the half mile on the C&O Canal towpath to the tunnel entrance and walked through the tunnel.

As mentioned above, the tunnel is very dark and there are often people walking in the opposite direction. Walking through the tunnel takes longer than running (obviously), but it is safer for everyone.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | Just Inside the Tunnel

Just inside the tunnel

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | Further Inside the Tunnel

Further inside the tunnel

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | Emerging from the other side

Emerging from the other side

On the other side of the tunnel, we ran another roughly 4.5 miles total (out and back) along the C&O Canal towpath. On the other side of the tunnel, it is easy to see why rock slides might be a problem.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | East side of tunnel

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | East side is prone to rock slides

This side is prone to rock slides

Following the towpath, you can see the various locks that were used during operation of the canal.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | C&O Canal Lock

C&O Canal Lock

The fall foliage was also in high gear today, adding a nice dose of color to the journey.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | C&O Canal Towpath

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | C&O Canal Towpath

Views along the C&O Canal towpath

On the way back, instead of going through the tunnel, we took the 1.5 mile Tunnel Hill trail.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | Tunnel Hill Sign

Tunnel Hill Sign

As mentioned, the Tunnel Hill trail is not overly technical, but does have some nice steep inclines.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | Tunnel Hill Trail

Tunnel Hill Trail

Closer to the top, there are a few nice views of the Potomac River.  The fall colors were an extra bonus today.  Since my wife and I were planning our long run in less than 24 hours, we decided to walk the Tunnel Hill trail, but running would have added some great hill work.  Maybe another day…

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | Tunnel Hill Trail Potomac River Overlook

Tunnel Hill Trail Potomac River Overlook

In case it matters, there are convenient port-a-potties at the campground parking lot and a couple places along the towpath.

Overall, it was a nice and relaxed 7 mile run. The weather and fall colors were beautiful and it was a great running detour.

Conclusion

As mentioned above, even though it’s important to have a goal and destination in mind, it is also important to take little detours every now and then to make sure you’re enjoying the journey.

If you can make it to the Paw Paw Tunnel, this little running detour is highly recommended.  If this is outside your area, try to find another running detour you can take every once in a while.  You may find that these little detours can leave you refreshed and allow you to better focus on your ultimate goal.

As always, comments are appreciated.  Let me know of any thoughts or questions below. Thanks for reading.

Phil the Runner (PtR) | Running Detour: Paw Paw Tunnel | C&O Canal Towpath Wildlife

A few locals we encountered on our running detour. They were shy.

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