Cycling the Trails of the Anacostia

Our River: The Anacostia

New trail bridge in Anacostia Park. Photo Credit:

Summertime!  And time to get out and oil up that bicycle for some wonderful rides along the Anacostia River and its feeder streams.  All along the main stem of the River and nearly all its tributaries, we have been blessed by generations of thoughtful city, county and federal officials who preserved the banks in parks and natural areas, and built trails for hikers and bikers.

The trails are nearly all paved and generally level, so perfect for cycling at a leisurely pace.  Some are along roadways, some deep in the forests, and all have lots of bridges and banks and curves as well as benches and picnic tables at regular intervals.

Down along our parts of the River in DC, we have the Riverwalk on both sides from the South Capitol Street bridge to Benning Road, with a few spots still a bit rough, but improvements underway.  And above the Bladensburg Marina and Park in Maryland there are many miles of trails suitable for biking.  But a lot of us don’t use those trails right now because there is a gap of about three miles along the River between Benning Road and the marina.  That is about to change, with a connecting trail currently under construction along the east bank and through the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.  It is promised to be open by next spring.

But there is no need to wait!  The secret to accessing those upper trails is Metro.  You can take your bike on Metro at no extra charge from 10 to 4 on weekdays and all day weekends; just use the elevators and the ends of the cars, where there is more space to handle bicycles.

Many of the trails described below end at the Bladensburg Marina and will tie in with the new trail connection into the District.  But for now, you have some perfectly viable options to get home.  By bike, head south on Bladensburg Road a few blocks and then cut over west on any of a number of quiet residential streets to the Catholic U Red Line Station.  From there you can head home via Metro or take the new Metropolitan Branch Trail to Union Station and bike back home from there.  Alternatively, a little less than two miles above Bladensburg Park on the West Branch lies West Hyattsville Metro on the Green Line, which serves the Navy Yard area and neighborhoods east of the River.

Now, as for the Trails themselves and what they offer:

Sligo Creek Trail

This one is the Gold Standard, whether you are looking for length, number of bridge crossings or beautiful gardens.  Starting at the end of the Red Line in Glenmont, it is a good 15 miles to Bladensburg.  From the Metro, follow surface roads to Brookside Gardens, a horticultural masterpiece in Montgomery County with display gardens and greenhouses to wander.  Head through the Gardens to the back entry gate to Wheaton Regional Park and bike to the other side.  After a couple blocks of residential neighborhoods and a school you reach the beginning of the Trail, which follows a rolling and twisting course through the woods along a stream.  After a couple miles you pick up the Sligo Creek Parkway, which comes alongside occasionally; but generally you have a clear and quiet trail along the stream in the forest with occasional playgrounds and recreational centers all the way to the intersection with the Northwest Branch Trail a few hundred yards above West Hyattsville Metro.

Northwest Branch Trail

If you want to feel on your own and isolated from the world, this trail is for you.  The advantage is that it has the deepest valley and the thickest forest of any of the trails.  The disadvantage is that there is no Metro access to the top, so it must be done as a round trip.  But the top end is at the Beltway and only seven miles from Bladensburg.  The lower end looks a lot like the Sligo Creek Trail, but after passing by the Adelphi Mill, and a beautiful old restored structure that serves as a community center, you head upstream into a deep wooded canyon with hillsides of forests tumbling into a rushing stream, and without a building in sight.  The spell is broken near the end of the trail where the noises of the approaching Beltway on a bridge high overhead overcome the sounds of falling water.  Just turn around and enjoy it again!

Paint Branch Trail

This trail can’t be beat for variety over a short distance.  It is only three miles from the top to its confluence with the Northeast Branch Trail; but in combo with the latter, it is nearly seven miles to the Bladensburg Marina.  Add to that a rather long ride of a mile and a half from the closest Metro Station (Greenbelt) on Lackawanna Street and Cherry Hill Road to the trailhead near the Beltway.  Once on the trail, you pass a natural area laid low by a cyclone that hit a few years ago and a portion of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, before entering along the University of Maryland campus.   The trail meets the Northeast Branch Trail at Lake Artemesia, a man-made lagoon with parks and gazebos scattered around.

Northeast Branch Trail

From Lake Artemesia it is only a little over 3 ½  miles to Bladensburg Marina, but there is lots to see, starting with the Lake itself.  The trail passes by the historic College Park Airport and Museum, well worth a stop.  It follows the stream through a series of community parks and recreation areas serving a large Latino population, and joins the Northwest Branch a mile or so above the Marina.

The Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC)

While this is not an area served by trails, it is a vast rural landscape in the Anacostia watershed with many roads suitable for biking.  To get there, take Metro to Greenbelt Station on the Green Line, and cross the Beltway to Greenbelt, a 1930’s Federal experiment in compact community living that retains much of its design and charm in this era of seeking sustainability.  There are a number of options to bike through Greenbelt and then into the BARC countryside.  At the end of your explorations, bike back to the Greenbelt Metro and head home.

Many more bike trails are in the planning stages.  One will come out New York Avenue to the Arboretum and connect with a new bridge to be built for hikers and bikers over the Anacostia, for the first time connecting the Arboretum and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.  It will tie into the trail now under construction to connect Benning Road to Bladensburg.  Others will connect the Anacostia trails to Bowie and Annapolis and eventually all the way to Maine!

But don’t wait for all that!  Get on your bike, get out and explore Our River’s watershed!  Those trails are just waiting for you.

Bikers on an Anacostia Trail. Photo

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River.  He is the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, current Chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River

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