C&O Canal – Spring Gap & Oldtown
Spring Gap: Oldtown Road SE, Oldtown, MD 21555 | GPS 39.5643168, -78.7192646
Oldtown: Green Spring Rd SE, Oldtown, MD 21555 | GPS 39.5403785, -78.6122251
(301) 722-8226 (C&O Canal Visitor Center at Cumberland)
Spring Gap and Oldtown are two of the best birding spots along the C&O Canal in Allegany County. Located just 6.6 miles apart, these two areas provide easy access to the canal towpath and to visitor amenities. Spring Gap is located at Milepost 173.3, between Lock 71 and 72, and Oldtown is at Milepost 166.7, at Lock 70.
Between Spring Gap and Oldtown, the towpath roughly parallels the North Branch of the Potomac River, which forms the border with West Virginia. In some places, the towpath is separated from the river by as much as a quarter-mile. The towpath itself is generally shaded by the large oaks and sycamores that dominate the tree canopy, but there are some fields visible through the treeline to the south. The fields bring some additional variety to the birdlife found along this section of the towpath. On the north side of the towpath can be seen wooded hillsides and valleys, with many small streams running south into the Potomac. The towpath will take you across many of these small streams.
You can also access some field habitat if you walk south on the towpath from Oldtown. There is also good birding walking north along the towpath from Spring Gap toward Lock 72. Note that both Spring Gap and Oldtown are near a train line that follows the river on the West Virginia side, and the passing trains can cause quite a bit of noise.
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 left, contains a handy list of canal 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 for details on parking, picnic areas, and more all along the Canal.
There are separate eBird hotspots for Spring Gap and Oldtown:
C&O Canal–Spring Gap – 129+ species
C&O Canal–Oldtown – 128+ species
The assortment of birds is somewhat different between the two hotspots, and the combined bird list has about 150 species; see https://ebird.org/barchart?byr=1900&eyr=2020&bmo=1&emo=12&r=L507442,L507444.
A few species of waterfowl can be found on the Potomac River or in small ponds and larger streams, including Wood Duck, which breeds in the vicinity. Common Merganser can reliably be found in spring. Wild Turkeys breed in the wooded areas. Northern Bobwhite was considered a possible or probable breeder during the first Breeding Bird Atlas project, but has not been reported for years. Still, you should keep your ears open for their distinctive calls when passing near shrubby fields. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are easy to hear during the warm months, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are commonly seen along the towpath. Chimney Swifts are also common as flyovers.
Near Oldtown, Common Gallinules might be found during May, and the third Breeding Bird Atlas project will attempt to determine if they breed here. Only a few shorebirds might be hoped for, including American Woodcock, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, and Greater Yellowlegs. Expected waders include Great Blue Heron and Green Heron. Great Egret might rarely turn up.
Both Black and Turkey Vultures occur, with Turkey being more regular. Osprey sometimes pass through in spring, but do not breed in the vicinity. Bald Eagles can be found sporadically throughout the year, but like Osprey, are not known to breed here. Broad-winged Hawk is a confirmed breeder, and both Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks might nest. Local owls that might breed in the area are Barred, Great Horned, and Eastern Screech-Owl. There may be a few Kestrels hanging out near the shrubby fields, particularly in spring; they have been found to nest in the area.
Belted Kingfishers breed along the river and canal and are easy to see and hear all year. Most of the Maryland woodpeckers are present: Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, Pileated, Northern Flicker, and in winter, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Swallows include Barn, Tree, and Northern Rough-winged; look for them along the river or swooping over open areas. There might also be a Cliff or Bank present from time to time.
Other regularly occurring woodland or edge species include Eastern Wood-Pewee; Acadian Flycatcher; Eastern Phoebe; Great Crested Flycatcher; Eastern Kingbird; White-eyed Vireo; Yellow-throated Vireo; Blue-headed Vireo (during migration); Warbling Vireo; Red-eyed Vireo; Blue Jay; both American and Fish Crows; Common Raven. The local chickadees are Black-capped, not Carolina. Tufted Titmice are numerous and easy to see. Both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets are present during the winter months, as are Brown Creepers. White-breasted Nuthatch is the only reported nuthatch species. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are abundant breeders.
House and Carolina Wrens both breed in the area and Winter Wrens are present from December through March. All three mimid breed locally: Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, and Northern Mockingbird. Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, and Wood Thrushes also nest here. Cedar Waxwings can be found all year but may be more abundant during the summer. Both House Finches and American Goldfinches are abundant year-round. There may be a stray Purple Finch in the winter.
Local sparrows include Chipping (breeder); Field (breeder); American Tree (rare in winter); Dark-eyed Junco (winter and spring); White-throated (fall through spring); Song (year-round, possible breeder); Swamp (winter); and Eastern Towhee (year-round, possible breeder). Yellow-breasted Chats can be found in the shrubby fields in summer. Eastern Meadowlarks breed locally, along with Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Common Grackles, Orchard Orioles, and Baltimore Orioles. Look for the nests of the orioles near the water.
The towpath can be a good place to look for warblers in migration, with 23 species reported. The canal really shines during breeding season, when the set of confirmed and possible breeders includes Ovenbird, Worm-eating, Louisiana Waterthrush, Golden-winged, Blue-winged, Prothonotary, Cerulean, Northern Parula, Kentucky, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Yellow, Pine, Yellow-throated, and Prairie.
Scarlet Tanager, Northern Cardinal, and Indigo Bunting round off the set of confirmed local breeders. There are also data that point to possible breeding by Blue Grosbeak and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
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. There is some bird viewing possible from the parking lots and picnic areas at both Spring Gap and Oldtown, and from the campground area at Spring Gap.
The Oldtown Toll Bridge is a one-lane wooden bridge that carries Green Spring Road SE across the Potomac into West Virginia, just south of the canal towpath. The toll bridge was built in 1937 and is one of the last privately owned bridges in the country. Reportedly the toll collector extends a tin cup into which you put your money. Pedestrians and bicyclists can cross the bridge at no charge. The bridge has no railings and can be a bit unnerving to drive across. Use of the bridge is only possible during low water conditions as its concrete pilings are not very high. The bridge owners also own a small campground along the river on the Maryland side.
Spring Gap has restrooms, a camp store with groceries, picnic tables, a car-accessible campground, and a boat ramp. Oldtown has restrooms, food concessions, and picnic tables.
◾ 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 at the link at left 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.
Designated gravel lots at Spring Gap and Oldtown.
Spring Gap and Oldtown are located in Allegany County, southeast of Cumberland.
To reach Spring Gap: From I-68 east of Cumberland, 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 (aka Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Byway). Follow Route 51 south for 7.8 miles. As you near Spring Gap, Route 51 will make a sharp curve to the left, turning from due south to due east. Watch on the left for an intersection with Kirk Hollow Road. The entrance to the Spring Gap parking area is on the right, just 200 feet after passing Kirk Hollow Road. If you come to Subway Drive on the right, you’e gone too far and will have to turn around and go back. After entering the short road that leads to the parking area, you’ll cross a bridge over the canal and the parking area will be on the right (west) and the campground area is to the left (east). The towpath runs along the south side of the canal.
To reach Oldtown from Spring Gap: From the parking area, return to Oldtown Road SE/MD Route 51 and turn right to go east. Stay on Route 51 for 6.6 miles and then turn right to go south on Oldtown Cemetery Road SE. In just 300 feet, at the T-intersection, turn left to go east on Opessa Street SE. In another 625 feete, turn right to go south on Green Spring Road SE. The entrance to the Oldtown Parking Area will be on the right (west side of the road) in just 460 feet. If you have crossed the canal, you’ve gone too far. To reach the towpath from the parking area, walk out to Green Spring Road and turn right to cross the bridge over the canal. The towpath runs along the south side of the canal.
Allegany County: C&O Canal – North Branch Recreational Area, 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, Rocky Gap State Park
Bottomland DeciduousHedgerows Old Fields, Shrubby Meadows Forested SwampFreshwater Marsh or FloodplainMud Flats (Tidal or Non-Tidal)Rivers & Streams
BeginnersBicycle Trails (Bikes may be prohibited on some trails)Boat or Canoe/Kayak LaunchCampingFishingFree - No Entry FeeHiking/Walking TrailsHistorical FeaturesParkingPets AllowedPicnic AreaRestroomsSnack Bar, Camp Store, Food ConcessionsWater ViewYoung People / Families
C&O Canal AccessHiker-Biker Trails (Paved)Historical SitesNational Parks & MonumentsThe Rivers of the Western Shore