Trail Running: Washington, DC

Destination Dirt logoWelcome to the first article in iRunFar’s new series, Destination Dirt. In the series, we’ll be alternately highlighting urban trails and “destination” trail running locations, such as national parks. We intend for the articles to be introductions to a city’s trails or the opportunities that await the trail runner in a splendid locale. Destination Dirt articles may include sample runs, trail system profiles, local trail running clubs, trails races, and other local trail running resources. It’s our hope that knowledgeable readers will leave additional insight in comments. Where relevant, we’ll update the article with reader suggested resources. Before we begin, we’d like to thank Salomon for providing support for Destination Dirt.

Trail Running in Washington, DC
We figured it would be fitting to kick off the series with the American capital – Washington, DC. Not only is Washington home to the US government, it’s also the setting for some great trails and a vibrant trail running community.

To kick things off, here’s a work-in-progress trail access map for the the DC-area. Let us know what you think of the concept!


View iRunFar DC beta in a larger map

Washington, DC
Trail purists who live in The District’s northwestern quadrant have great trail running options. For instance, there’s a great trail network in the central and northern sections of Rock Creek Park (park map with trails; Runner’s World article on RCP). Just south of the Massachusetts Avenue bridge in Rock Creek Park, trail runners can reach another set of trails by heading west through Dumbarton Oaks Park and Whitehaven Park to Glover-Archbold Park within which trails extend to the north and south. Head north through Glover-Archbold Park and another westward turn across a small dam will have you on your way to Battery Kemble Park with access to the C&O Canal Towpath (see below). All of these parks and trails are visible on the Rock Creek Park map.

Valley Trail Rock Creek Park

Trail running on the Valley Trail in Rock Creek Park. Photo by Bobby Gill.

Two of the city’s most popular running locations, the National Mall at the heart of downtown and the C&O Canal Towpath (map and guide) that runs north along the Potomac River from Georgetown, contain miles of non-technical trail. In fact, much of the trail is so non-technical that there are likely many DC folks who are trail runners without even knowing it! Even though it’s crowded, running on the Mall is a must during cherry blossom season, which usually spans late March through early April. For great blossoms with smaller crowds, wind your way through the National Arboretum’s limited trails (map) while the azaleas are blooming in April and May.

Arlington, Virginia
The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail sits on the western side of the Potomac River, just across from Washington, DC. Beginning from the south at Theodore Roosevelt Island, the PHT is continuous for 10 miles to the north until it reaches the Capital Beltway (I-495) at the American Legion Bridge. Two side trail systems worth are exploring are Teddy Roosevelt Island and Potomac Overlook Park (trail map), which branches off the Potomac Heritage Trail at Donaldson Run. There’s even a guide to the Potomac Heritage Trail, which extends (with some gaps) 350 miles from Arlington north to Seaward, Pennsylvania.

Potomac Overlook Park Trail Runs

Racers doing battle at the Potomac Overlook Trail Runs.

Additional Local Trail Systems

There are many other running trails to be found within the greater DC metropolitan region, including:

Weekend day trips can easily have you on the trails of Shenandoah National Park (map), Catoctin Mountain Park (map), and the Massanutten Mountains.  These are just some of many mountain trail locations found in the Blue Ridge Mountains found to the west of the metro region.

Potomac Gorge - Billy Goat Trail

A view of the Potomac Gorge from the very rocky Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls National Park. Photo by Lucia Olivera.

Trail Resources

Trail Races
Here’s a sampling of the many great trail races found around Washington, DC. For a more complete list of area trail running races, do take a look at the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club’s trail event calendar.

  • Virginia Happy Trails Running Club events – As mentioned above, the VHTRC hosts the women-only Women’s Half Marathon in September, the Bull Run Run 50 mile in April, and the Massanutten Mountain Trails (MMT) 100 mile run in May.
  • EX2 Adventures – EX2 Adventures puts on nearly a dozen trail running events, including some with multiple distance options. There is a four-race Backyard Burn series in both the spring and fall. Each Backyard Burn event features a 5 and 10 mile race. For more adventurous trail runners, EX2 offers the Bushwacker Running Adventure Race, a 10-mile-ish race that has no “course,” only the requirement that runners stay within a park’s boundaries en route to three checkpoints.
  • The North Face Endurance Challenge: DC – Held over the course of a June weekend, The North Face’s running festival now features eight races. There’s a kids race, 5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon, marathon relay, 50k, and 50 mile, so you’re bound to find a distance to your liking.
  • The Beast Series – Further south in Virginia, David Horton and Eco-X Sports combined their race schedules to form the six-race ultramarathon (50k-100 miles) Beast Series, which includes the highly competitive Mountain Masochist Trail Run. For those looking for something a bit shorter (but no less challenging), try the half marathon option at Eco-X’s Terrapin Mountain.
  • Montgomery County Cross Country Series – If cross country races are more your thing. The Montgomery County Road Runners puts on a series of eight cross country races between April and December. You can run the races singly or compete in the series by joining the club and finishing four or more races.

Call for Input and Questions
We’d love for folks who have trail run in the DC metro area to share their favorite local trails and trail running resources. We’d especially love to know the particulars of your favorite routes as well as any great trail systems that we did not include.

For those of you knew to trail running in DC or who may be visiting the town, please share any questions you have and we’ll try to find an answer for you.

There are 22 comments

    1. Bryon Powell

      Michael, Salomon is sponsoring these posts in the form of financial support for iRunFar. I've long had the basic idea for the series and pitched it to them after learning of the company's desire to provide trail runners with more information regarding trail access and resources. Without the support of Salomon and a few other companies, I would not have the means to support my modest lifestyle while I publish iRunFar.

      Please know that I will only partner with companies that I believe in.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Sean, The Bull Run-Occoquan trail is great. Do you guys run out of Bull Run Park? Hemlock Overlook? Fountain head? Thanks for pointing out your MeetUp group – I'll add it to the resource list.

      For readers, a number of EX2 Adventure's Backyard Burn races are held on or around this trail. It's an ideal place to run in April when the bluebells cover the rivers' and streams' flood plains!

      1. Sean

        We run all of those trailheads. There is another trailhead between Bull Run Park and Hemlock at Rt.28. We also do Manassas battlefield. I agree about the bluebells. Makes for some beautiful scenery.

  1. Run Junkie

    In the late 80's, early 90's, I lived about a half mile from Rock Creek Park (Van Ness-UDC) and can certainly say there's a lot of great running to be had right there in the District. And you can't be the heat training from May – Sept…

    1. Bryon Powell

      Run Junkie, I had no idea you did time in DC. I will not miss the DC summers! Just last week, I was recounting how sauna-like my final big training runs would always be for Western States. That said, Rock Creek Park is a great place to run. I loved making it a loop with Glover-Archbold and Battery Kemble.

  2. EricG

    Great write up Bryon! I have run on the Patomic Heritage Trail and in Great Falls several times including last years TNF 50M. I enjoyed the various terrain options and some amazing views along the river. I have never run Rock Creek but I did have my first sip of beer there at a family picnic when I was 5:)

    1. Bryon Powell

      Eric, the Potomac Heritage Trail was a late addition to my DC trail running knowledge, but it quickly became a favorite. I did most of my long runs for the 2009 Marathon des Sables on it. It was great being able to run more than 15 miles out and back on trails with only a 3 mile road stretch to access it.

      Get back and hit the upper stretch of Rock Creek Park when you get the chance.

  3. Mark Zimmermann

    Fine DC area trail reviews, Bryon — tnx!

    You might want to add the Anacostic Tributary Trail System — see http://www.dnr.state.md.us/greenways/anacostia_tr… and http://bikewashington.org/trails/branches/index.h… and http://www.pgparks.com/Your_Parks/Trails.htm and http://www.pgparks.com/Assets/Parks+$!26+Recreati… etc. — some great running opportunities there, including loops up and down Sligo Creek, Northwest Branch, Northeast Branch, Indian Creek, Paint Branch, etc. near UM.

    And my old Google Map experiment could be helpful: http://zhurnaly.com/maps/DC_Metro_Area_Trails_GPS… — it's coordinates of various mileposts along various DC area trails. See also http://zhurnaly.com/cgi-bin/wiki/Paint_Branch_Tra… and http://zhurnaly.com/cgi-bin/wiki/Northeast_Branch… and http://zhurnaly.com/cgi-bin/wiki/Rock_Creek_Trail… and http://zhurnaly.com/cgi-bin/wiki/Rock_Creek_Trail… and http://zhurnaly.com/cgi-bin/wiki/Rock_Creek_Trail… …

    Tnx again, Bryon! – ^z

    1. Mark Zimmermann

      Oh, further info re the above — most are paved bikepath-like "trails" but there's a nice natural-surface stretch between Wheaton Regional Park and a bit inside the Beltway down Northwest Branch Trail — see http://www.montgomeryparks.org/PPSD/ParkTrails/tr… and map it links to, http://www.montgomeryparks.org/PPSD/ParkTrails/tr… …

      And I forgot to recommend the Cabin John Stream Valley Trail, mostly natural-surface and quite nice (except when it's overgrown by weeds) — http://www.montgomeryparks.org/PPSD/ParkTrails/tr… — excellent view along the way of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, among other sights!

      I suspect that http://www.montgomeryparks.org/PPSD/ParkTrails/tr… will offer other trail possibilities, Bryan … haven't checked out most of them …

      tnx again for posting reviews/commentary about trails — are you going to do the Catoctin Trail, the Massanutten "Ring", the Appalachian Trail (!), etc.?

  4. Patrick

    Thanks for the resource, the map is helpful for someone new like me. I mostly run Billy Goat C starting at Carderock. Coming from way north coast California I am mostly used to straight up or straight down. I like how it's a little more rolling hills here.

    Thanks for the resource

  5. Jenny Handy

    I've ran a few of the EX2Adventure races in the Backyard Burn series. They are great races. Athletic Equations also puts on an 8hr trail race at Lake Anna State Park and a 12 and 24 hr trail race in Prince William Forest Park. Those are a ton of fun! Thanks for putting this guide on here.

  6. Mark

    I currently live in the Seattle area and love running all the trails, and major climbs, out here in the Pacific NW. My employer wants to transfer us to Reston. We've not lived in the DC area for 12 years; if we move back, can anyone tell me what the trail running's like in NOVA? Is there a good trail network along the river, and/or in the Ashburn/Sterling area?

  7. Steve Mang

    A little north of DC, a few minutes away from Baltimore-Washington airport (BWI), you can find some great trails at Patapsco Valley State Park and the smaller Rockburn Branch Park across the street.

    Rockburn Branch hosts the relatively new Mid-Maryland Ultra 50k race in February; since it's a small park, you do five 10k loops. Patapsco is much bigger; in the lower area of the park alone, I've done 25 mile runs without repeating a trail. There are lots of rocks and roots in both parks; Patapsco is in a river valley so it's hillier.

    Free parking for both is along Landing Road, while on the other side of the river you can park for free at the park-and-ride at the end of I-195 and drop into Patapsco's trail network.

  8. dashintothe80s

    Jon us on September 26th at the Dash into the 80s new 10K trail/road race, located in Clifton, VA. St. Andrew's School is hosting it's 8th annual 5K & 1-mile Fun Run but this year they are adding the 10k trail course. The 5k is a USATF certified single loop course with rolling hill course though a quiet, beautiful neighborhood. Our NEW totally awesome 10k starts and finishes with the 5k but takes you off road and onto the beautiful and rad Bull Run/Occoquan Trail! Complete over 3 miles on the rugged single track trail passing beautiful scenery and the flowing river! Participants will have to maneuver around and over rocks and roots and up some hills! You're totally up for the challenge!! So many awesome prizes/raffle items!! Totally awesome T-Shirts will be included on a first come basis for all 3 events! Check out our registration page at

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