Trail Running: Washington, DC

Destination Dirt: Washington, DC provides DC metropolitan trail running resources for new and experienced trail runners alike.

By on March 22, 2010 | Comments

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 an April 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.

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.