Few pleasures are as accessible, and good for you, as flying downhill on a bicycle. It’s accessible because bikes can be had for less than $100, or rented through Capital Bikeshare for $8 a day. It’s good for you because, chances are, you had to huff up that hill before you sped down it. We tested three popular trails to see how much fun two wheels can be.
Capital Crescent Trail
Where it goes: Georgetown to Silver Spring
Road conditions: From Georgetown to Bethesda, this trail is a glorious, sun-dappled stretch of pavement. North of Bethesda, it’s made up of gravel paths and regular streets; there are plans to pave it.
The scenery: This 11-mile trail affords spectacular views of the Potomac River and rich people’s backyards.
Who you’ll share the road with: Cyclists on expensive bikes.
Fitness level required: Southbound riders need only to be heavier than air — it’s a gentle coast downhill almost the entire way. The return trip requires significantly more stamina.
Pit stop opps: There are no public restrooms on the trail, but you can hop off and find some at Fletcher’s Boathouse. There are a few water fountains along the way, and there’s a bike pump and repair stand just south of the downtown Bethesda trailhead.
Metropolitan Branch Trail
Where it goes: Silver Spring to Union Station
Road conditions: The stretch between Silver Spring and Fort Totten is largely imaginary: This interim part of the trail is mostly ordinary roads shared with cars. (Construction to finish this portion could begin as early as 2017.) South of Fort Totten, the trail becomes a paved, car-free pathway alongside Metro and railroad tracks.
The scenery: This 8-mile trail offers a look at many facets of District life. We saw soap box derbies in the hills of Takoma Park, Catholic University students moving out of their dorms and barbecues outside of public housing.
Who you’ll share the road with: Cars (at times) and fellow cyclists.
Fitness level required: It depends. Going south, it’s downhill, sometimes steeply so. If you’re planning to head north, we recommended that you have some truly powerful thighs.
Pit stop opps: There are no water fountains or restrooms, but it’s easy to find cafes along this urban route. There are also air pumps and bike repair stations at R Street and M Street NE.
Mount Vernon Trail
Where it goes: Theodore Roosevelt Island to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate
Road conditions: This 18-mile trail is car-free, except for a short stretch where cyclists are shunted onto regular streets in Old Town Alexandria.
The scenery: Panoramic views of the monuments, wetlands and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Who you’ll share the road with: Bikers, joggers, dog walkers and families with slow-moving kids.
Fitness level required: Couch potatoes rejoice! This trail is largely flat, though there is a nasty hill right before you get to George Washington’s former home.
Pit stop opps: Since it’s maintained by the National Park Service, the Mount Vernon Trail is dotted with public restrooms, water fountains and picnic tables.
Read more about biking in D.C.: