There is a certain camaraderie on county recreational trails that is hard to find in other places.
Maybe it's something about the natural setting that inspires people to say hello or give a nod, or perhaps it's that they share the experience of traveling the same paths.
Those who frequent the trails also share a secret: Many of the routes remain undiscovered by the populations that surround them.
More than 35 miles of county-operated trails run along stream valleys and old railroad tracks, and miles more wind through local parks.
The trails offer something that is increasingly hard to find in the region: peace and quiet in remarkable settings only a few miles from many of the county's bustling neighborhoods.
The network of trails in the county, including some watched over by municipalities or private groups, can take people through community parks, gorges, diverse neighborhoods and plenty of green space that is home to eagles, great blue herons, beavers, turtles, ducks, deer and other creatures.
For that reason, the trails attract bird-watchers and nature lovers. Some trails also are a draw for fishermen, horseback riders and dog walkers, in addition to people who use them for exercise. Some attract people looking for a way to commute that is quiet and non-polluting.
Cerne Diggs found the trail that runs around Lake Artemesia in College Park only after a friend -- whose church used the location for a meditation session -- introduced her to it in November. Since she started using the two-mile loop around the lake for running and walking, Diggs has lost 37 pounds and has reconnected with nature.
"I like the setting a lot. It's nice to watch how things change as the seasons pass by," said Diggs, 38. "I've been amused by the geese. It's been fun watching the baby geese grow. Now, some more just hatched. They're multiplying."
Diggs is one of many regular exercisers and commuters who use the trail around the lake. It is part of the 26-mile Anacostia Tributary Trail System.
The presence of paths removed from oncoming traffic has made it easier and more pleasant for avid bikers, in-line skaters, walkers, joggers and others to pursue their hobbies. They remember life before the trails.
"The quality of life in our community increased tremendously when bike paths opened," said Stephen Shaff, a cyclist who regularly rides from his Mount Rainier home on the Northwest Branch trail -- a popular path that runs from Route 1 at Colmar Manor Community Park to New Hampshire Avenue close to Metzerott Road -- and around the lake in a 12-mile loop.
Shaff, 45, said he has been riding his bike more than half his life. He rode on the streets before 1992, when the path was created in conjunction with the construction of the College Park Metro station.
"Before the trails started, I would bike on roads, but it was basically impossible," he said. The trails, he said, are "a good way to get exercise in a natural setting versus a gym."
Cyclist Bill Kelly, who said he has been biking for six decades, finds that the trails offer a solace that he cannot find on the roads. "The trail system is a very pleasant place to be. It is 10 degrees cooler along the creeks, and, to me, it's much more pleasant to ride on a shaded trail than on an open roadway," he said.
Now 64, Kelly remembers riding his bike from New Hampshire Avenue in the District all the way to Greenbelt on the streets as a child. Against his mother's wishes, he and some friends would take their bikes and explore the area via roads, because there was no organized trail system.
The College Park resident continued to bike on and off roads as an adult and formed the College Park Area Bicycle Coalition (www.cpabc.org) in 1988 to unite local bikers and encourage the creation of more trails.
Since then, many smooth trail-to-trail connections have been paved, and regional bike enthusiasts and other advocates for multiuse transportation systems continue to work for more such links.
"When I ride the trails now, I enjoy it. I feel like a kid," Kelly said, even though he never rode on trails as a child. "It's kept me healthy and physically fit. A lot of people don't even know these trails exist."
The Trail Systems
There has been a steady increase in the county's network of trails. In the past 13 years, 11 miles of trails have been added, said Fred Shaffer, a senior planner who works with hiker and biker trails for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
The Anacostia Tributary Trails System is the primary system that connects paved trails in the county, although there are numerous smaller trails in neighborhood parks. The system consists of seven trails that wind along small stream valleys that feed the Anacostia River. The trails run through woods, fields and wetlands. The southernmost point of the trail system is Colmar Manor Community Park, and from there the trails go northeast and northwest. In addition to Lake Artemesia, the trails also pass cultural, recreational and historic sites, including College Park Aviation Museum, Adelphi Mill, Greenbelt Park and Wheaton Regional Park.
One of the seven branches of the system is part of the American Discovery Trail, which runs shore-to-shore across the United States. Named after their geographic location or adjacent waterways, the other branches are Sligo Creek, Northwest Branch, Northeast Branch, Indian Creek, Anacostia River and Paint Branch trails.
Separate from the Anacostia Tributary Trails System is the Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis Recreational Trail, 5.6 miles along the path of the WB&A Railroad, which operated until 1935. The trail runs from Route 450 in Glenn Dale and follows the original Main Line rail alignment northeast to Racetrack Road in Bowie. The trail is eventually to expand across the Patuxent River into Anne Arundel County and also will link with the American Discovery Trail.
The City of Bowie also has a trail system. At Bowie's White Marsh Park are two miles of moderately hilly paved trails that pass streams, forest glades and picnic areas. You can enter the park at Routes 3 and 450. Bowie's Department of Parks and Recreation Web site includes a map of the trail; go to www.cityofbowie.org.
The Henson Creek trail is a six-mile trail system in southern Prince George's that extends from Temple Hill Road to Oxon Hill Road. It is used by hikers, bikers and equestrians. A map of the trail is at www.ohbike.org/henson_creek_trail_map.pdf.
Another paved trail is the mile-long Oxon Cove Trail, which goes from Oxon Hill Farm to D.C Village.
There are also woodland trails designed for hiking, biking, nature walking and/or horseback riding in such local parks as Fort Washington, Piscataway, Patuxent River, Watkins Regional, and Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary.
Going Off the Trails
Even with all the opportunities to pursue recreational activities on established trails, some county biking enthusiasts still opt for roads.
Jim Hudnall, who lives less than a mile from the Henson Creek Trail, enjoys riding the trail and seeing other people use it. But the avid bicyclist, who is an active member of local bike clubs such as the Oxon Hill Bicycle and Trail Club (www.ohbike.org), likes to encourage people to go beyond the trails. The idyllic rural roads of Southern Maryland are just as beautiful as the trail systems, he said.
On a recent Sunday morning, he went on an informal group ride led by the Oxon Hill club that took a dozen riders on a 50-mile journey through the town of Eagle Harbor on the Patuxent River and through the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary. Hudnall, 62, called the scenic ride, which passed a single traffic light, just a few stop signs and almost no cars, "an experience that we could never have had on a trail."
Experienced cyclists such as Hudnall like to help people with less experience gain confidence on the rural roads.
"We are trying to encourage people to come out and ride more. It's good exercise and a good way to see all the countryside we have in Prince George's County. We don't like to see people limit themselves to the trail. They get tired of it and want to get out and go places," he said.
Road routes for cyclists exist in other parts of the county, too. The Greenbelt Bicycle Coalition persuaded Greenbelt in the mid-1990s to add bicycle lanes on three city streets (Ivy Lane, Crescent Road and Cherrywood Lane) that led to the Metro station. Now, a cross-city bicycle route connects the east, central historic and west side of Greenbelt. The route is well marked and goes from Cherrywood Lane at Beltway Plaza shopping center on the west side to Hanover Parkway and Goodluck Road on the east side.
Local bike clubs often lead road rides for those who want to go off the trails. One such weekly event is the Potomac Pedalers' (www.bikepptc.org/) Wednesday evening ride. Members of the club guide different levels of riders on routes through the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and Old Town Bowie. The ride begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Ivy Lane Office Complex in Greenbelt, at Ivy Lane and Kenilworth Avenue.
Regardless of Hudnall's preference for road biking, it's fine with him if people decide just to venture out in the spirit of fun and physical fitness.
"Biking is just a really fun way to spend time with friends, see a part of the county, get exercise and stay healthy and fit all at once," he said. "It's energizing."
The county has had a trails plan since 1975. To receive a free copy of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission's trail maps, which include the Anacostia Tributary Trails System and the WB&A Trail, call 301-699-2407, or find it online at www.pgparks.com. Click on Parks & Trails.