Hike the Cabin John Trail
By Sean Kelly
Friday, Sept. 30, 2011
To experience the wooded seclusion of the Shenandoah, you don't have to spend hours in a car. The perfect fall hiking destination is hiding within a mile of the Beltway on the Cabin John Trail.
Extending nearly nine miles northwest along Cabin John Creek from MacArthur Boulevard to Goya Drive in Montgomery County, the picturesque trail can make you feel as though you're deep in the wilderness. The unpaved, blazed trail winds up and down through thick woods and beside flowing water. As the leaves turn colors and begin to fall, you're almost certain to see wildlife through the trees.
Busy roads separate the trail's five well-maintained, blue-blazed sections. As you hike away from the trailhead and immerse yourself in the forest alongside the creek, sounds of nature quickly replace sounds of traffic. Red, sandy stone beaches border the wide creek at every bend, and tall oaks, maples and sycamores edge the grassy fields nearby.
The most challenging section of the trail is the 2.6-mile path that goes from MacArthur Boulevard to River Road. It begins at Cabin John Park with a steep descent on steps formed by 41 railroad ties and then climbs a hill along the creek, testing leg muscles and endurance.
"This was a real eye-opener for us," said Potomac resident Steve Spencer, who hiked this section of trail with his wife, Kathy. "The scenery was great, and we saw a part of our county that we had never seen - right in our own back yard."
In this up-and-down portion, the trail's terrain changes quickly. Tree roots and big rocks cover the path, and sturdy shoes are a must so you don't slip down a wooded embankment into the rock-strewn creek bed.
This section of trail is the only one where you'll have to walk on the road to continue. Exit the trail on Seven Locks Road and cross under the Beltway. The through trail picks up again about a half-mile up the road at the telephone pole on the left before River Road.
Mountain bikers frequent the three-mile section of the trail between River Road and Democracy Boulevard.
"I've been riding this trail for 12 years, ever since I discovered it," said Dave Coombe of Rockville. "It's got a little bit of everything."
The almost two-mile stretch from Democracy Boulevard to Tuckerman Lane meanders along the creek and passes close by Cabin John Regional Park, an ideal spot for families visiting the popular Cabin John playground to take a short hike. Here, the trail gets tricky because other trails and paths to and from the park intersect it, so keep your eye on the blue blazes leading the way.
The final leg between Tuckerman Lane and Goya Drive is an easy 1.3-mile walk through the woods, with little variance in terrain and altitude. The most drama on this part of the trail happened last month, when a black bear was spotted near the Robert C. McDonnell Campground.
"There were no incidents with that bear," said Jeff Devlin, a Cabin John Management Area park manager. "Black bears have been coming into Montgomery County with more frequency the last five years. They don't generally bother anyone, but if you see one, leave it alone and notify park authorities."
While this nature hike will send you into the woods and in proximity of wild animals, there's probably more to fear when you emerge. The next trailhead usually requires crossing a busy thoroughfare.