The “Road that Built the Nation” is a great vacation destination, especially when combined with stops along the C&O Canal. Authorized in 1806 to become America’s first interstate highway, the Historic National Road took four decades to complete from Baltimore to Vandalia, Illinois. At about the same time, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was being built nearby. Alas, railroading eventually won the race for extending commercial trade out west. But both the 170-mile Maryland portion of the National Road and the 184.5-mile-long C&O Canal route have become hubs of historical and recreational activity, offering hiking, biking, bird watching, sightseeing and mule-drawn barge rides. Most sites featured below are part of two official Maryland Byways.
1. Baltimore’s INNER HARBOR entertainment area is located where many pioneers came ashore to begin their American odyssey. The Baltimore National Pike, which linked into the National Road, ran past the country’s oldest railroad station, now occupied by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.
2. A former mill town, ELLICOTT CITY features the first railroad station in the nation, as well as Thomas Isaac’s Log Cabin, built in 1780 and used as a way station along the old road.
BREAK TIME: Great antiquing opportunities, and a few nice seafood restaurants, are available from Ellicott City to New Market.
3. Once a stopover for travelers seeking food, supplies and lodging, NEW MARKET is now an antiques mecca with many Federal-period homes and also the Wild West-themed Adventure Park USA.
4. FREDERICK features a nationally acclaimed historic district. Drift back in time with notable citizens like Francis Scott Key. Then enjoy galleries and boutiques in this, the first of three “Maryland Arts & Entertainment Districts” on the route.
BREAK TIME: Go golfing, watch minor-league baseball or relax at Baker Park, where there’s a swimming pool, playgrounds, tennis courts and summer concerts.
5. Veer south into BRUNSWICK to visit a railroad museum and canal visitor center where you can get information about 31 hiker-biker campsites spaced every few miles along the canal from Swain’s Lock (Mile 16.6) to Evitts Creek (Mile 180.1).
6. HAGERSTOWN, also an “Arts & Entertainment District,” earned the nickname “Hub City” for its road, rail and water transportation links. Learn more at a Transportation Gallery inside the new Discovery Station.
BREAK TIME: Catch performing arts at the Maryland Theatre, racing at the local speedway or minor-league baseball inside Municipal Stadium.
7. The staff at the HANCOCK-based C&O Canal Museum and Visitors Center can point you toward country roads that lead to wayside markers, locks and other canal sites. Bring your fishing rod.
8. The third of our “Arts & Entertainment Districts,” CUMBERLAND is home to a canal visitor center. The impressive Paw Paw Tunnel, located nearby, took 14 years to cut through 3,118 feet of rock.
BREAK TIME: Admire arts and crafts at the Canal Place Heritage Area or mountain scenery from your seat on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.
9. In LaVALE, at the only toll gate remaining on Maryland’s portion of the National Road, a plaque lists the original fees required for wagons, animals and pedestrians to pass.
10. FROSTBURG, now a university town, grew up around a National Road tavern at the current site of St. Michael’s parish. Tour a train depot, a local history museum and a renovated, 19th-century warehouse occupied by the Thrasher Carriage Museum.
BREAK TIME: Historic log cabins at the Spruce Forest Artisan Village in Grantsville are studios for artists, weavers, wood carvers and others.