As temperatures along with gas prices rise, it seems a shame to confine our travels to cars. The Washington area, despite its density, offers many alternatives to those willing to get out on their two feet, or on two skinny tires. With the help of local trail users and advocates for walking and cycling, I’ve assembled a list of 20 trails to try this spring:
Anacostia Tributary Trails. These are 25 miles of Anacostia Valley trails. Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association: This beautiful network includes Sligo Creek, Northwest Branch, Northeast Branch, Paint Branch and Indian Head. It provides excellent connections throughout the inner suburbs. Jim Sebastian, a transportation planner with the District Department of Transportation, called them some of the most underrated trails in the region.
BWI Trail. This 12.5-mile trail of asphalt with some wooden boardwalks encircles Baltimore Washington International Marshall Airport. Bike Washington: Many trail sections are surprisingly peaceful, despite the close proximity to airport runways. Park at Dixon Observation Area, about a mile west of Interstate 97 Exit 15 on Dorsey Road. It fills up fast.
Capital Crescent Trail. Seven miles of asphalt trail link Georgetown and Bethesda. Fionnuala Quinn, a very active member of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, said the Capital Crescent scenery is beautiful, and Bethesda and Georgetown have plenty for hungry or thirsty riders. Reachable from the Rosslyn and Bethesda Metro stations.
Capital Crescent Extension/Georgetown Branch. “I’m always surprised at the number of people who think the CCT stops in Bethesda,” Farthing said. “In fact, it continues through a tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue and on toward Silver Spring. It’s a less- crowded, though unpaved, option for those seeking a bit more space than the Georgetown-to-Bethesda portion.”
C&O Canal. The unpaved Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath stretches 184.5 miles from Georgetown west along the north side of the Potomac River to Cumberland, Md. Take smaller bites. I like to get out beyond the crowds at Great Falls and walk from the parking area at Pennyfield Lock, south of River Road, about three miles west to Seneca Creek.
Cross Island Trail. Break up a trip to Ocean City by stopping for this paved, five-mile trail on Kent Island, starting in the Terrapin Nature Area across Chesapeake Bay from Sandy Point and continuing to Kent Narrows.
Custis Trail. The six-mile, paved trail in Arlington County links the Washington & Old Dominion Trail to the west with the Mount Vernon Trail along the Potomac. It’s also a convenient route for biking commuters to reach Rosslyn and the District.
Cross County Trail. Fairfax County’s Cross County links Great Falls Park with Occoquan Regional Park, 40 miles south. It’s reachable from the Vienna or Franconia-Springfield Metro stations, or from the Washington & Old Dominion Trail. “This trail spans the county, alternating paved and unpaved, with a few stream crossings that might require cyclists to dismount and walk,” Farthing said.
Grand Tour of Arlington. Chris Eatough, the program manager at BikeArlington, said the Grand Tour is his personal favorite. An 18-mile, all off-street trail, it uses portions of the Custis Trail, Mount Vernon Trail, Four Mile Run Trail and W&OD Trail. “Great mix of surroundings, including urban, suburban, rural, riverfront and even some hills,” Eatough said.
Lake Accotink Trail. Bruce Wright, chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, said this is a popular, unpaved trail in relatively good condition around Lake Accotink.
Lake Fairfax Park/Colvin Run Stream Valley. Wright also recommended the popular mountain bike loop that starts in Reston. He said it’s also used by many hikers, although for shorter sections. Most cyclists park in the lot across from the ice skating rink, Skatequest, on Michael Faraday Court.
Lake Thoreau Loop Trail. A paved walking trail that connects surrounding neighborhoods with the South Lakes Village Center, Wright said. People use it for recreation, dog walking, running and getting to the shopping center.
Marvin Gaye Park Trail. This relatively new and well-maintained trail meanders through Northeast Washington neighborhoods, Farthing said. The park, rededicated in 2006, was formerly known as Watts Branch Park.
Matthew Henson Trail. The Montgomery County trail begins at the intersection with Rock Creek Trail at Winding Creek Local Park on Dewey Road, then continues northeast through Matthew Henson State Park near Hewitt Avenue and Bel Pre Elementary School and heads east to Alderton Road. It’s 4.2 miles of hard surface, with views of parkland and Turkey Branch Stream.
Metropolitan Branch Trail. The north-south Metropolitan Branch Trail is paved and open between Franklin Street and New York Avenue in the District. Red Line riders see it when they look right out of trains from Glenmont heading downtown. The trail is an alternative commuter route, with a built-in workout. Eventually it will link the full eight miles between Silver Spring and Union Station, with its bike service center.
Mount Vernon Trail. The very popular Mount Vernon Trail connects the Rosslyn area in the north with Mount Vernon, about 18 miles to the south along the Potomac River. My favorite is the quieter part south of the Capital Beltway. The Roosevelt and Memorial bridges provide D.C. links used by commuters on foot or on bikes. You can link up with Metrorail at Rosslyn, Arlington Cemetery, Reagan National Airport and Braddock Road.
Rock Creek Park Trail. The north-south Rock Creek Trail winds 25 miles between the Lincoln Memorial and Lake Needwood Park in Montgomery. It’s heavily used by commuters, but parts are narrow and in rough shape.
Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Trail. Try the 5.6 miles of 10-foot-wide rail trail between Routes 450 and 704 in Glenn Dale northeast through Bowie to the Patuxent River, near the Patuxent River Preserve.
W&OD Trail. The paved Washington & Old Dominion Trail runs 45 miles along an old rail bed between Purcellville in the west and Shirlington, near Interstate 395’s Exit 6. Quinn described it as relatively flat, with interesting sights as well as plenty of good spots to stop for food and drinks and many places to get on and off the trail, which is adjacent to the East Falls Church Metro station.
Wilson Bridge Trail. You’re not far from the cars and trucks, but this trail on the north side of the Wilson Bridge offers some spectacular views of Washington and Old Town Alexandria. On the Virginia side, it links with the Mount Vernon Trail, Route 1 and Old Town. The east side ends at National Harbor in Prince George’s County.
There are many excellent Web sites with details on these trails as well as many more. Of particular note are James Menzies’s site, BikeWashington.org , which I drew on extensively for this report; Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, at fabb-bikes.org; the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, at waba.org; and BikeArlington, at BikeArlington.com.