If it isn't raining when Joe Baremore heads out the door at 7:30 a.m., he'll leave his car in the driveway, strap on his bicycle helmet and pedal down his Silver Spring driveway to begin his workday commute into Washington.
Within minutes, he's cruising along the gravelly Georgetown Branch Interim Trail through Silver Spring, heading toward the paved section of the Capital Crescent Trail that runs from Bethesda to Georgetown.
Pedaling steadily, Baremore is quickly in the midst of a different kind of traffic: those who regularly ride the county's bikeways and trails to get to work. On a recent morning, he counted a half-dozen cyclists traveling in front of him while several passed by in the opposite direction.
"It really was a solid stream of bikes, commuters with backpacks on their backs," said Baremore, a 41-year-old information technology consultant. "It was really neat."
Although popular with riders such as Baremore, the county's network of off-road trails and roadway bike paths attracts more than just commuting cyclists.
Some of the more popular routes, such as the 11-mile Capital Crescent Trail and the 18.6-mile Rock Creek Trail, attract walkers, joggers and roller skaters as well as all types of cyclists.
Montgomery County has about 45 miles of paths and trails in its parks and 95 miles of shared-use bike paths, bike lanes and shared roadway bike routes. Maintaining the park trails is the responsibility of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission; the county Department of Public Works is responsible for the bikeways.
A count of users on various trails conducted by the commission in 2000 found that walkers often outnumber those who are using some form of wheels.
The Capital Crescent Trail is by far the most popular trail, with an average of 500 or so users per hour on weekends, said Gail Tait-Nouri, bikeway coordinator for the Department of Public Works. The trail has become so popular that local officials are discussing ways of dealing with the congestion, including widening the trail or creating a lane solely for pedestrian use.
"We've got high, high usage, particularly on that trail," she said. "We've never had such a high usage problem before. It's not something we can easily address."
New signs have been installed "to try to give safety rules of the trail so people understand there are some rules of etiquette," she said. "We have so many nice, wonderful trails that we do get people from all over, so signage is the only way."
The trail has been growing in popularity since its first section, from Georgetown to Bethesda, was dedicated in late 1996. Built along the former Georgetown Branch rail line, the trail was a cooperative effort between the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (a national nonprofit advocacy group), the county and the National Park Service.
Ginny Daly of Potomac, an avid trail activist and 11-year board member of the conservancy, is quite fond of the Capital Crescent Trail, which she cycles several times a week.
"The trails have made a huge difference in connecting America's communities, and the Capital Crescent Trail is one of the premier trails in the country that rides along the Potomac River. Nothing is prettier than that," said Daly, 58. "It's fabulous."
Richard Aiken and Pam Toole of Bethesda began using the Capital Crescent Trail the day it opened. Aiken, 45, would regularly cruise the trail on Rollerblades but gave up in recent years because "it's too crowded."
The couple recently decided to try out the trail again on a Sunday evening last month when the crowds had gone home. Toole, 42, strapped their two children, Charlotte, 5, and James, 19 months, into a newly purchased small trailer that was attached to her bike.
"I hope to be able to use [the trail] more now that I have this contraption," she said.
Several of the county's popular hard-surface trails, such as the Rock Creek Trail and the 10.6-mile Sligo Creek Parkway Trail, were built more than 50 years ago and follow stream valleys. The Rock Creek Trail runs from the District line north to Rock Creek Regional Park, which is north of Rockville and west of Olney.
Lyn Coleman, trail planning supervisor for the county Department of Park and Planning, which is part of M-NCPPC, noted that environmental regulations would probably prohibit the construction today of some of the oldest trails.
"One of the things we are blessed with in this county is that the forefathers of these agencies protected the stream valleys," she said.
Although most existing trails are widely used, planning the construction of trails or expansion of existing routes often generates some opposition, usually from adjacent homeowners and environmental groups who worry about the effect of cutting down trees to make room for hard-surface trails.
That's why local planning officials are in favor of including paths and trails in a community's master plan, as was done in Clarksburg, Coleman said. As a condition of approval, developers must include trails in their designs for the community.
"We're creating Sligo and Rock Creek [trails] for them, creating Capital Crescent for them," she said. "So in 10 years, we won't have to fight the fight."
The Department of Park and Planning is also in charge of a 70-mile network of natural-surface trails that are "wildly popular," Coleman said.
The department has begun promoting the use of the natural trails as a way to stay fit and learn about the environment. As part of this effort, county officials recently dedicated the first Heart Smart Trail at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton Regional Park. The mile-long trail is marked every one-tenth of a mile; visitors can maintain a walking log in brochures available at the gardens.
Other promotional efforts include marking trails with directional signs and the creation of a Web site where people can check out trail routes.
"Signage is a big deal because you don't want to be out on a natural surface trail and get lost," Coleman said.
For more information and maps of county bikeways and trails, visit www.montgomerytrails.org.