Winter Walks in the Watershed

Our River: The Anacostia
Photograph By
Bill Matuszeski

Pedestrian Overlook – 11th Street Local Bridge.

With the holidays behind us, it’s recovery time.  What better than to rejuvenate with a winter walk?  And what better place than right here in our Anacostia watershed, which abounds with trails and special areas to roam.  While you probably have your own favorite hikes, here are six places that work especially well for walking in the winter.  Some are near, some far; some are surrounded by the city, and others are quite remote.  Try them all, and add your own to the list! 

The Newest Section of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail 

The latest addition to the river trail system here in the City is quite attractive; it is on the east side of the Anacostia between the Skating Pavilion north of the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge and Benning Road.  The trail makes a dramatic sweeping curve up a bridge over the CSX rail yard (great for kids to see all the train cars), passes under the East Capitol Street bridge, through nice wooded areas and out into fields along the River.  It stops at Benning Road, where you can see the old power plant being dismantled.  You can also see construction for the next stage of the Trail, which will be done in spring of 2016 and will close the final gap from there to the Bladensburg Park and Marina, tying together nearly 70 miles of trails along the River and its major tributaries in Maryland.  You can return on the west side of the River to Pennsylvania Avenue if you wish, but a lot of that trail is through the RFK Stadium parking lots and not as interesting.  Better to park at the skating pavilion and do a round trip.

The New Local 11th Street Bridge 

If you haven’t walked this one yet, you are missing out!   When the freeway bridges were rebuilt, they added a local traffic bridge alongside that connects Anacostia and Capitol Hill.  Specifically, it runs from 11th and O SE, near the Navy Yard gate, to Martin Luther King Avenue.  It has wide sidewalks and slow traffic, but best of all there are two pedestrian overlooks that stretch out over the River on the south side.  Walk along and imagine what it will be like in a few years when the 11th Street Bridge Project extends the walkways downstream for hundreds of feet and fills the space with parks, cafes, community and youth gardens and even performance spaces.  But meanwhile enjoy the solitude and capture some of the first stirrings of revival at both ends of the bridge.  Latest is the news that “Busboys and Poets” will be opening a branch on MLK Avenue.

The Trail Along Watts Branch in Anacostia 

This one is a real urban adventure.  Watts Branch is the first of the DC tributaries of the Anacostia to be restored by the City, and they did a beautiful job of it. Park off East Capitol Street at 61st and Banks, NE, and enter Marvin Gaye Park, where the stream comes in from Prince Georges County.  There are walkways running along the stream and connecting a series of parks and playgrounds for twenty blocks, all the way to Minnesota Avenue and the Freeway.  You can continue under the train tracks and the Freeway and pick up the stream again in Kenilworth Park, but that is not the most interesting part.  The twenty-block segment above Minnesota Avenue weaves through a series of traditional neighborhoods of bungalows and “shotgun houses”, a southern term for a house so long and narrow you can fire a shot clear through it front to back.  Elvis was raised in one in Tupelo.   You will also pass the spectacular new Woodson High School and its playing fields.  If you start to get lost, just look for the stream and stay near it.   You won’t forget this walk, guaranteed!

Mount Hamilton, the Asia Gardens and Fern Valley in the National Arboretum  

There is so much to see and do walking in the National Arboretum that it is difficult to choose.   But there are some things that are actually better in the winter.  Mount Hamilton clearly falls into this category; it is the second highest point in DC after the roof of the Russian Embassy (which is basically not available these days).  The views of the City are spectacular, but at their best when the leaves have fallen.  The Capitol and the monuments are clearly visible.  A nice uphill walk (turn right at the R St gate and park in the first lot on the left about a quarter mile up the road).   Another special place is the Asian Gardens, where there are things in bloom all winter and lots of paths to roam.  Look for wintersweet, a fragrant tree filled with yellow blossoms this month, as well as camellias nearby (park near the top, where there are parallel spots).  Finally, children love Fern Valley, and the paths and bridges are especially attractive in the winter, when they can seem to be everywhere.  Remember, the Arboretum is currently closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

Northwest Branch Between the Adelphi Mill and the Beltway 

If you are looking for a classic stream valley surrounded by woods and hills, this is for you.  The valley here is broader and steeper than just about any part of the watershed, and the woods are thick and mature.  The stream is moving quickly and so you have the sound of the water and little else.  The best starting point is the Adelphi Mill, an old stone structure that has been restored and serves as a community center; if it is open it is worth a visit.  The trail from there north to the Beltway is two miles, with only one road crossing it (New Hampshire Avenue), so it is easy to feel deep in a valley and far away from it all.  The trail continues past the Beltway, but is impassible to bicycles and the footing is iffy.  Park at the Mill on Riggs Road north of University Blvd.

The Sandy Spring, Source of the Anacostia 

This is an expedition to a favorite spot of the purists, like Jim Foster, head of the Anacostia Watershed Society, and it is surrounded by history.   The town of Sandy Spring was settled in 1728 by Quakers; it served as an important station on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves and became an agricultural locale for freed slaves.  There is a large and interesting Sandy Spring Museum in the village, well worth a visit, as well as a Slave Museum open by appointment only.  To find the actual spring, turn left at the first light after the Museum as you are heading west on MD 108 on to Meetinghouse Road.  Park at the old Quaker Meeting House and cemetery and check out the huge trees, including an ash under which, it is said, the escaping slaves would gather.  Then walk down the road a quarter mile, around a yellow turnstile and ahead another quarter mile until the gravel path ends at a grove surrounded by a split rail fence.  Inside is the Sandy Spring.  The historic marker tells much about the early settlement of the area, but interestingly fails to mention that this is where the Anacostia begins.  The surrounding fields and woods are filled with trails and it is all a conservation area that is open daylight hours.  Make a day of it!  Then come home and tell your neighbors you have been to Our River’s birthplace.

Watts Branch
Northwest Branch of the Anacostia
The Sandy Spring – Source of the Anacostia
Fern Valley, National Arboretum
Asia Garden, National Arboretum

Let me know your own favorite winter walks in the Anacostia watershed. E-mail me at, and we will add to the list.

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