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Experiencing History in the Great Outdoors: Where Recreation & History Intersect

April 23, 2015

State Parks National Park Service Recreation Civil War Trails

Experiencing History in the Great Outdoors: Where Recreation & History Intersect

Visitors from across the world are drawn to the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area to walk the ground hallowed by the Civil War, more than 150 years ago. The Heart of the Civil War, however, has more to offer beyond its position in American history. The stunning natural landscape sculpted by the Piedmont plateau and foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains provides an ideal setting for outdoor enthusiasts of all types. Whether you’re looking for an invigorating bike ride along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal or a family-friendly hike in a state park, you will find it here.

A fall view of trees and an open field.


  • Carroll County Bike Loops: Explore Carroll County—an area crisscrossed by both Union and Confederate troops during the Gettysburg campaign—with over 150 miles of bike trails. The ten loop trails have varying degrees of difficulty, so be sure to check out the routes before you hit the road.
  • The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal: this 185-mile towpath, once a bustling transportation corridor, runs along the Potomac River from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland. While cycling isn’t the only way to experience the Canal, it is a popular way to visit several charming Canal Towns in one day.
  • Frederick History Bicycle Loop: There’s no better way to see the city of clustered spires than on two wheels (perhaps even an old-fashioned high wheeler!). The flat, 10-mile course includes stops at 22 sites along the city’s 50-block historic district. There are also several Heritage Bicycle Tours throughout Frederick County, including trails related to transportation heritage and a City of Frederick "campaign ride."
  • Washington County  Bicycle Tours: Explore Hub City and the scenic surrounding countryside through eight different bike tours. Of particular interest to Civil War travelers may be the 33-miles South Mountain to Sharpsburg trail, which passes through the historic main streets of Boonsboro, Keedysville, and Sharpsburg.
  • Western Maryland Rail Trail: this 23-mile paved trail begins in the Heart of the Civil War and extends west into Allegany County along the Potomac River. Following the footprint of the Western Maryland Railroad, the path begins a half mile away from Fort Frederick State Park. The town of Hancock is considered the halfway point and makes a great place to stop for a bite to eat.


  • See Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights: The striking 300-foot cliff overlooking Harpers Ferry hosted the first Civil War battle in Maryland in September 1862. A landmark of strategic importance during the War, its panoramic views continue drawing visitors today. 
  • Gathland State Park: Part of South Mountain State Battlefield, Gathland is the only place where the Appalachian Trail intersects with a major Civil War battlefield. Gathland is home to the striking War Correspondents’ Memorial Arch. Once the estate of Civil War correspondent George Alfred Townsend, Gathland offers both natural beauty and exhibits on the site’s fascinating history.  
  • Washington Monument State Park: Located eight miles north Gathland, this stone tower built by Boonsboro residents in 1827 sits at the summit of South Mountain. The monument served as a lookout and signal station during the Civil War, and the Battle of South Mountain took place in the three gaps surrounding this unique structure on September 14, 1862. The tower continues to offer spectacular views of the Middletown Valley, as it has for nearly 200 years.A brown wooden sign welcomes visitors to Gathland State Park.
  • Monocacy National Battlefield: The site of the July 1864 "Battle that Saved Washington" is located just three miles from Frederick and offers several hiking trails. The trails at Worthington Farm include the 1.6 mile Worthington-McKinney Ford Loop trail and the 1.9 Brooks Hill Loop Trail. Stop by the Visitor Center on your way and be sure to share your #CivilWarSelfies
  • Tidball Trail: this gentle hike by the Newcomer House at Antietam National Battlefield is perfect for a traveler on a timetable. Just one of many hiking trails at Antietam, the ridge above the former Newcomer mill complex offers views of the Observation Tower and other landmarks.

On the water

  • Monocacy Scenic River Water Trail: the river running through Frederick County—and the namesake for the railroad depot and July 1864 battle—is a destination for kayakers and canoers looking for an adventure. The 42-mile trail stretches from Route 77 to the Potomac River is just one of Maryland’s many water trails.
  • Tubing on Antietam Creek: Experience the battlefield in an entirely new way with a five-hour tubing trip along the Creek. Visitors will float by iconic 18th century stone bridges of Washington County and encounter the flora and fauna of western Maryland from their tube. River & Trail Outfitters also offer a five-hour guided Civil War kayak trip beginning at Newcomer House.

 Not sure what type of travel suits you best? Take our quiz, “What Kind of Heritage Traveler Are You?”

Photos, from top: Cyclists along the C&O Canal, photo by Kurt Holter; a fall view of Tidball Trail; the only intersection of the Appalachian Trail with a major Civil War battlefield, at Gathland State Park.

Auni Gelles

Contributing Author: Auni Gelles

Auni Gelles is a public historian based in Baltimore, who worked for the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area from 2014-2017. She currently works as the Community Programs Manager at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Read More