DC Area Trails (Northern Virginia and Maryland, too)

A few months ago, iRunFar readers stepped up and shared their thoughts on and pictures of both the JFK 50 […]

By on August 14, 2008 | Comments

A few months ago, iRunFar readers stepped up and shared their thoughts on and pictures of both the JFK 50 Mile run and DC area trails. (JFK 50 thoughts, JFK 50 photo contest, DC trail thoughts, DC trails photo contest) Thanks to all who contributed. I’m happy to report that the September 2008 issue of Running Times includes an article on the JFK 50 and a sidebar on DC area trails. (Pick up a copy while it’s still in stores.) As I originally drafted the DC area trails piece as the main article, I thought I’d share the whole article as a resource. I hope to add more in-depth profiles of DC area trails to iRunFar in the future. What follows is the DC trails article that Running Times previously published, in part.

Trail systems covered in the article include: Rock Creek National Park, the Glover Archibald/Battery Kemble system, the C&O Canal towpath, the Potomac Heritage Trail, Theodore Roosevelt Island, Greenbelt Park, Great Falls National Park/the Billy Goat Trail, and the National Mall.

Monumental Trail Running Around the Nation’s Capital
by Bryon Powell

The Nation’s Capital and its surroundings are home to an extensive network of trails ranging from flat and fast to challenging single track.

WUSes in Rock Creek Park

The crown jewel of DC’s trails is Rock Creek Park. Beginning as far south as the Kennedy Center paved biked paths run 5 or 6 miles north along Rock Creek providing excellent access to miles of single track that line the hillsides flanking the creek. North of paved path’s terminus the park widens and offers an even broader network of trails allowing for loops of many lengths. One popular trail, the Western Ridge Trail, provides over 3 miles of rolling trail tucked under the forest canopy. The Western Ridge Trail forms a loop with the Valley Trail on the creek’s east side, for those who want to enjoy an almost equal length of more technically challenging trail.

Although individually dwarfed by Rock Creek Park, northwestern DC is home to a large number of small parks containing many miles of great single track. The largest such park is Glover Archibald Park, which stretches 3 miles due north from Georgetown University. Trails through Battery Kemble and Melvin-Hazen Parks connect the Glover Archibald Trail to American University and the Cleveland Park neighborhood respectively. With so many small parks in and around DC, one’s enjoyment of local trails can be greatly enhanced by talking with local trail runners who are willing to share their insider trail knowledge.

The C&O Canal towpath is another boon to runners looking to get off the pavement and onto dirt. For much of its 185 miles, the towpath is tucked in a greenway running between the C&O Canal and the Potomac River. The paucity of road crossings, occasional access to water, and mile markers make this a popular destination for long runs and tempo work alike. A few foolhardy souls have even run the canal’s entire length in one go. Regardless of how far you want to run, the C&O offers a surprisingly quiet and secluded spot to log some miles.

Over on the Potomac’s west bank, you can find the Potomac Heritage Trail’s 10 miles of under utilized trail stretching from Teddy Roosevelt Island in the south up to Beltway. Although the Potomac Heritage Trail is often flanked on its west side by the George Washington Parkway, the Heritage Trail remains peaceful and the aptly named Parkway provides many convenient access points to the trail. The trail itself offers three distinct sections of terrain: south of Gulf Branch it is rocky, sandy river bottom; the next few miles are through upland forest; while the northern most miles of trail are flat and fast over the Potomac’s floodplain. One treasure found just off the PHT is Potomac Overlook Park. While Potomac Overlook may only offer 3 or 4 miles of trail, it is easy enough to run 8 miles without ever feeling like you’ve run the same trail twice.

Nestled within the Potomac River itself is Theodore Roosevelt Island. Despite the island’s tiny size, TRI’s 2.5 miles of trail and convenient location off the Mount Vernon Trail bike path make it a favorite of many DC area runners.

Tucked into the northwestern corner of the Capital Beltway, is Maryland’s Greenbelt Park. The aptly named Perimeter Trail is a 5-mile loop around the exterior of Greenbelt Park. Three other named trails add another 3.5 miles of trail and provide many additional options for loops. The highlight of the park is a winding boardwalk that makes up the southernmost portion of the Perimeter Trail.

Just outside the Beltway, both banks of the Potomac offer great trail running opportunities at Great Falls. In Virginia, Great Falls National Park’s River Trail allows for excellent views of the falls when one isn’t watching the rocks underfoot. From the River Trail one can explore additional trails within the park, head west along Difficult Run, or follow the Potomac River north on a separate section of the Potomac Heritage Trail. The Billy Goat Trail in Maryland offers it’s own view of the falls. The northernmost section of the Billy Goat Trail is very rocky and is the most popular among hikers; therefore, it is best avoided on days when hikers will be out en masse.

No article about DC-area trail running would be complete without mentioning the trail laden park that lays at the heart of the nation’s capital. While Yellowstone, the Tetons, and the Grand Canyon each have their charms, no other park in the nation has as many recognizable landmarks as the National Mall. During a lap of the Mall’s mix of paved and crushed stone paths, you will see the Capitol Building, the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and many of the Smithsonian museums just to name a few of the sights. If you are in town in the spring, you can easily incorporate the District’s famous cherry blossoms to into your run around the Mall.

* * * * *

If you have a question about the above named trails or any other DC area trails, please post it in the comments. Hopefully, I or another iRunFar reader can answer your question.

Also, if you have any DC area trails you’d like me to write about or would like me to prioritize expanding my report on any of the above named trails, please let me know.

Donald from California has posted great photo tours of Rock Creek Park, Glover Archibold Park, and the 10 mile section of the Potomac Heritage Trail closest to DC.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.