S'mores on the Green Line

By Christopher Swope
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 22, 2001

It's a starry night in Greenbelt Park, except that most stars are hidden behind the orange hue of city lights. That's okay, because at the campground where we pitched our tent, nature's other cues are dead-on: leaves rustle, squirrels skip and the shrill cry of locusts fills the summer air. These plus the campfire are enough to make our long hike out here worthwhile. Yet we won't forget all night that we are not just camping inside the Beltway but practically on the Beltway. The distant din of highway traffic never fades -- a constant reminder that our slice of nature, just 12 miles from the Washington Monument, is actually quite urban.

No, Greenbelt can't match our backpacking trip in Alaska several years ago, but hey, we're pleased just to be camping. In summers past, when weekends got unbearably steamy in our un-air-conditioned Dupont Circle apartment, my wife, Jessica, and I used to toss our tent and sleeping bags into my '88 Honda Civic and search a map for tepees. Then we'd point the car to any tepee within a 90-minute drive that looked close enough to a body of water to spark our curiosity. The tepee signified a campground, where we knew what awaited us was roasted marshmallows at night, warm bowls of oatmeal in the morning and 10 degrees less heat all day long.

Then my Civic died. After the funeral, we went car-less. Getting around by subway, bus and cab has saved us from parking headaches and high insurance bills. But there was one bad side effect: our spontaneous summer camping trips stopped. It seemed all but impossible to enjoy a night in the great outdoors without having a car to get us there.

Or so I thought. Now that I ride the trains enough to care about the $2 bonus on a $20 fare card, I began to wonder: Is it possible to go camping by Metro? Hankering for a night in the tent, I got out the old maps and again searched for tepees -- really close tepees. I was surprised to find Greenbelt Park, which not only sat inside the Beltway but appeared to be a doable hike from the Green Line.

We prepared for Greenbelt much as we did for Alaska, packing food, water, a first-aid kit and toilet paper. We were pretty sure they'd have toilet paper in Greenbelt, but we figured even urban campers must take nothing for granted. Neither of us had been to this place called Greenbelt before, and we had no idea what we would find.

We arrived at the Dupont Metro station at 11 a.m. Saturday, waddling under the weight of overstuffed backpacks. None of the cafe bar coolios at Xando glanced over his newspaper at us, but I knew we looked out of place as we stepped on the steep escalator into the station. That hardly compared, however, to when we popped out at Greenbelt 45 minutes later: two backpackers in a sea of commuter parking, as lost as Dorothy in Oz.

My map showed a road that would lead us toward the park, but all I saw were cars, blacktop and, in the distance, 18-wheelers on the Beltway. Parking-lot orienteering suddenly seemed harder than bushwhacking through Denali. I asked a Metro officer sitting in a police cruiser for directions. Had he ever seen campers backpacking through this lot? "I see strange stuff all the time out here," said Officer Taran Payne, pointing across the lot. "See that orange thing over there? It's a truck with doll babies all over." We walked over to find a GMC truck with Maryland plates. Doll heads lined the roof and a line of Barbies sat legs-crossed on the hood like the Rockettes on a coffee break. Greenbelt was weirder than we'd expected.

Finally we found our way out of the parking lot and hoofed through a quiet neighborhood of 1960s garden apartments. At last, we had our hiking groove. Just as the wilds of Denali offered an occasional view of Mount McKinley, the sidewalks of Greenbelt served up the suburban equivalent: the Beltway Plaza Mall. Given the circumstances, the mall with its Target and Giant was a welcome sight. Jessica had developed a craving for granola bars and I thought we could probably use more water.

After a quick stop, we wandered out to Greenbelt Road, an eight-lane strip of chain restaurants, stores and gas stations. We hiked on the sidewalk, but it is safe to say that pedestrians -- let alone pedestrians toting backpacks -- are an endangered species in these parts. Highway hiking was loud and unscenic, but thankfully it was almost over. The park entrance appeared across the street from some boxy office buildings and a T.G.I. Friday's.

The woods along the leafy park road were a quiet antidote to strip-mall traffic. That was the good news. The bad news was that while we'd found the park, the campground was still two miles away. That called for a break. We shed our packs for a while at the Sweetgum picnic area and snacked on trail mix as several families unloaded coolers from their cars and grilled burgers for a Saturday cookout.

Resting at a shaded picnic table, I read up on the park's history. Colonists cleared the land and grew tobacco and corn here for 150 years until the late 1800s, when they wore out the soil. The forest gradually grew back, but in the 1930s, the land got tied to Franklin Roosevelt's utopian vision for building model towns -- so-called greenbelts -- that would fuse worker housing with nature. Parts of Roosevelt's plan came to pass, but construction stopped as critics labeled it socialist. The National Park Service took control of the unused land when the Baltimore-Washington Parkway was built in the 1950s and has maintained these 1,100 acres ever since.

We still had two miles left, but at least this part of the hike seemed like a hike. We ducked into the woods on the Azalea Trail. The trail was lined with low-lying ferns, and I noticed lots of butterflies and a couple of frogs jumping into a creek. Three deer, all does, spied us from afar. Nature, at long last. Yet soon another trail took us so close to the parkway that only a few trees and the guardrail separated us from speeding cars and buses. So much for nature. More frazzled than soothed by our walk in the woods, we finally reached the campground -- 4 1/2 hours after leaving home.

"You made it!" said one of the park rangers in a tone that made me wonder. Had we been spotted? Were rangers taking bets on us? Ranger Angela Henson told me that she's only seen a handful of people hoof it from the Metro and was shocked when I said we walked all the way from Greenbelt. We should have gotten off at the College Park station, she said. It's a lot closer to the campground by foot.

We walked to a drive-up booth and another ranger, Jason Perkins, checked us in. If people don't ride the Metro out here much, I asked, where do campers come from?

"Germany," Perkins said.

Sure enough, just then a couple of guys speaking German stepped out of a motor home. "We get a lot of Europeans," the ranger added.

It seems there are plenty of people who take advantage of the park's Metro-accessibility. But they're not nature-starved city-dwellers like us. They're D.C.-bound tourists using the campground as a roofless Motel 6.

I set up the tent on a shady campsite and Jessica, worn out from the hike, napped. Not that our 4 1/2-mile march left me bounding with energy either, but I wanted to see more of the park. The Blueberry Trail cuts conveniently through the campground, making it an obvious choice. It was a pleasant one-mile loop through the woods, but just as the Azalea Trail hadn't bloomed with azaleas, the Blueberry Trail was less fruitful than its name. A creek bore the scars of all the suburban development surrounding the park: steep banks cut from rainwater that runs off parking lots rather than soaking into the ground.

No, Greenbelt sure isn't Alaska. But there's no subway stop at Denali, so I guess it will have to do. The highway noise couldn't stop us from enjoying the slow rhythm of campground life. I made the campfire. Jessica cooked up some tortellini with sausage on our tiny stove. We roasted marshmallows at night, gobbled down warm bowls of oatmeal in the morning, and the temperature was indeed 10 degrees cooler than Dupont Circle. It was just like old times. Except that hanging over it all was the dreaded thought of walking all the way back to the Metro the next day.

So we took a cab.


GETTING THERE: Greenbelt Park is indeed Metro-accessible, but don't walk our 4 1/2-mile route from the Greenbelt Metro station unless you like extra pain. According to the Park Service, the University of Maryland-College Park Metro station on the Green Line is only 2 1/2 miles to the campground. From College Park Metro, take Calvert Avenue eastbound to Good Luck Road, continuing east. At Parkdale High School, make a left on a paved trail and follow that to a chain-link fence. Turn left and the ranger station is 200 yards ahead. The F-6 bus toward New Carrollton runs much of this route on weekdays only. Tell the driver to let you off at Parkdale High School. Our cab ride back to the Greenbelt Metro station cost $12 one way. Info: Greenbelt Cab Co., 301-577-2000.

CAMPING: The park has 174 wooded campsites and is open year-round. The bathroom facilities, including hot showers, are good by campground standards. The fee is $13 per day. Make reservations at 800-365-CAMP or reservations.nps.gov/index.cfm.

Other area campgrounds reachable by mass transit include: Cabin John Regional Park (seven campsites about two miles west of the Grosvenor station) and Parklawn Campsite (about two miles east of the Twinbrook station), both on the Red Line. Info for both: 301-495-2525, www.mc-mncppc.org/permits/facility/camp_policy.htm; Robert Watkins Regional Park, with 34 campsites about six miles from the Addison Road station on the Blue Line (301-218-6800, www.pgparks.com/places/parks.html); Prince William Forest Park,with 100 campsites and backcountry camping about four miles from the Amtrak/VRE station in Quantico (703-221-7181, www.nps.gov/prwi/index.htm).

INFO: Greenbelt National Park, 301-344-3944, www.nps.gov/gree/index.htm.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company