C&O Canal – North Branch Recreational Area
11600-11616 Pittsburgh Plate Glass Road SE, Cumberland, MD 21502
301-739-4200 | GPS 39.5874962, -78.7417563
The North Branch Recreational Area of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal is located south of Cumberland, MD, at mile marker 175.5 along the Canal towpath. This area is notable for providing views of a wastewater treatment plant known to birders as “The Tarps” for the tarp-covered settling ponds. The Tarps are highly attractive to shorebirds, a scarce commodity in western Maryland. The presence of The Tarps contributes to make the North Branch area, with 230 species reported, the #1 eBird hotspot in Allegany County and the #2 eBird hotspot along the entire C&O Canal.
The best views of The Tarps are from the Canal towpath, which runs along a slightly elevated embankment. From the parking area for Locks 74 and 75 (see map at left and directions below), follow the footpath south, crossing a small footbridge over the Canal, and then turn right to head west along the towpath, going in the upstream direction of the Potomac River. The towpath runs through a wooded area, and in just a quarter-mile from the parking area, you will start to catch glimpses of the wastewater treatment plant through the trees on the left (south) side of the towpath. The treatment plant is located on a triangular peninsula in a horseshoe bend of the Potomac River, making it easy to spot on a map. Maneuver for a good viewing position through the trees. A spotting scope can be very useful here for shorebird identification.
Apart from shorebirds at The Tarps, this area of the towpath also offers access to birds typical of the Potomac River Valley, and tho towpath makes for a pleasant walk on level ground. Picnic facilities are located near Lock 75, along with a restroom. Another restroom and drinking water can be found a short distance east, at the Irons Mountain Campsite located at mile marker 175.4.
The C&O Canal, administered by the National Park Service, is 184.5 miles long, extending from Georgetown in Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. The canal runs parallel to the Potomac River, which forms the border between Maryland and Virginia or West Virginia. The gravel towpath alongside the canal is open to foot traffic, bicycles, and horses, and is a gateway to great birding in the Potomac River Valley. Mile markers along the towpath make it easy to keep track of your location; the markers run from Mile 0 in Georgetown to Mile 184.5 at the Terminus in Cumberland. In addition, the canal is marked by numbered locks that were used to lift or lower boats at points of elevation changes; the locks are numbered starting with #1 at Georgetown in Washington, DC, to #75 at North Branch in Allegany County.
The Recreational Guide by Milepost, available through a link at https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/maps.htm, contains a handy list of access points and mileposts, with icons indicating the amenities available at each access point. See http://www.candocanal.org/access.html for another version of access points and parking areas. Also consult the Canal Trust’s “Plan Your Visit” website (https://www.canaltrust.org/plan/) for details on parking, picnic areas, and more all along the Canal.
About 230 bird species have been reported on eBird from the C&O Canal–North Branch area, and this is the #1 eBird hotspot in Allegany County. The Tarps are famous for attracting shorebirds, with 27 species reported, including Black-bellied Plover and American Golden-Plover, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Dunlin, and Baird’s, White-rumped, Buff-breasted, and Pectoral Sandpipers, along with the more common peeps (Least, Semipalmated, and Western Sandpipers). Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalarope and American Woodcock and Wilson’s Snipe occasionally drop in. Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs are regular all through the warm months.
Waterfowl frequent the Potomac River, with 27 species reported. The best time for waterfowl is early spring, but some species are present during fall migration as well, for example, both Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal. Wood Ducks breed in the vicinity and are found throughout the summer. The woods along the towpath hold a good selection of woodpeckers, flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, and warblers. Some specialty breeding birds are Yellow-throated and Warbling Vireos, Cliff Swallow, Field Sparrow, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and Scarlet Tanager. Other birds found here that are iconic of western Maryland include Black-capped Chickadee (not Carolina), Common Raven, and Winter Wren (fall through spring).
Pets must be on a leash.
Parts of the C&O Canal Towpath are wheelchair-accessible, but many sections, including this one, are soft-surfaced and the access path goes up a short but steep slope.
Recreational opportunities along the C&O Canal are numerous, and include fishing, biking, camping, boating, and historical features. See https://www.canaltrust.org/ and https://www.nps.gov/choh/index.htm and the Recreational Guide by Milepost (https://www.nps.gov/choh/planyourvisit/upload/Park_Planner_FY_2017_Recent-titled-2018.pdf) for details. ◾ The Canal Trust has produced a mobile app, the C&O Canal Explorer, with over 600 points of interest mapped in a searchable format, allowing you to find hiking trails, campgrounds, history, trailheads, parking, and more at a glance, along the entire length of the Canal. The app is available to download for 99 cents and runs on Android and IOS devices. ◾ Wake up with the birds along the Canal: through the Canal Quarters Program, visitors may arrange for overnight stays at seven historic lockhouses along the Canal: five in Montgomery County, one in Frederick County, and one in Washington County. See https://www.canaltrust.org/programs/canal-quarters/canal-quarters-lockhouses-overview/ for details. ◾ The C&O Canal Visitors Museum in Cumberland illustrates the history of the C&O Canal, featuring an exhibit area with interactive and educational displays. ◾ The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Allegany & Garrett Counties Bird Club, which hosts field trips in the region as well as meetings with informative presentations. Field trips and meetings are free and open to the public.
Paved lot at Lock 75, which is located at Mile Marker 175.7 on the Canal Towpath, off Pittsburgh Plate Glass Road SE. See Directions below.
From I-68 at Cumberland, MD, take Exit 43B. At the exit, turn left onto Howard Street for one block, then turn right to go south on MD Route 51/East Industrial Boulevard. In 5.6 miles, turn right to go west on Pittsburgh Plate Glass Rd SE. In just over half-a-mile, watch for a small lane on the left (south) side of the road; this will be the second left after you turn onto Pittsburgh Plate Glass Road SE. Turn left and then near left to the parking lot. This is the parking area for Lock 75 of the C&O Canal and provides the closest access to the area known as The Tarps. For alternate parking areas in the vicinity, consult the Canal Trust’s website at https://www.canaltrust.org/pyv/north-branch-recreational-area/.
Allegany County: C&O Canal – Spring Gap & Oldtown, C&O Canal Terminus, C&O Canal – Town Creek Aqueduct to Fifteen Mile Creek Aqueduct, Finzel Swamp Preserve (see entry under Garrett County), Green Ridge State Forest & Town Hill Overlook, Rocky Gap State Park
Bottomland DeciduousHedgerows Sewage Treatment Facility Old Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainRivers & Streams
BeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)CampingFishingFree - No Entry FeeHiking/Walking TrailsHistorical FeaturesParkingPets AllowedPicnic AreaRestroomsWater ViewYoung People / Families
#1 Hotspot in County or CityC&O Canal AccessHiker-Biker Trails (Paved)Historical SitesNational Parks & MonumentsWater Trails