Last week I decided to start a series of blogs about various places to ride that involve more trails and fewer roads because some of my readers have expressed concerns about the traffic on the roads. As long as you have the right equipment, it isn't that much trouble to drive bikes to a remoter location and make a day trip by bike. For example, my favorite way to see the monuments in Washington DC is by bike, even though the Mall can be crowded with too many pedestrians. But most of the fun is in getting there. With Independence Day right around the corner, it seems fitting to talk about bike-riding in the DC area. I know it will be too hot for cycling next Wednesday, and the Mall will be too crowded anyway, but it is something to keep in mind for future visits. We've ridden there in March for the Kite Festival, April for the Cherry Blossoms, and other times of year. My husband and I have frequently taken the Capital Crescent Trail, once we diverted off of it through Rock Creek Park, and once we connected to it from the C&O Canal Towpath. Another time, we started at the National Harbor and rode through Old Town Alexandria to DC, which was lovely, but a longer drive and a good long ride too. Once we took the Anacostia Tributary Trail so we could get to RFK to see our daughter finish a half-marathon. Each way has its beauties, but the Capital Crescent Trail is our favorite.
The first time we rode to DC, we started on the C&O Canal just inside the Beltway, not far from Great Falls and rode south/east. But that is about an hour drive from Elkridge. So we got out the map and started looking for alternatives, which is how we found the Capital Crescent trail. We usually park in Silver Spring near the northern end of the trail (at least as far as it goes now - there are plans to continue it to Colesville Road). We park right on the road (Brookville Road: see website). It's only about a half-hour drive from Elkridge. One thing to notice is that most of the downhill is on the WAY to DC, and so you have to do some huffing and puffing on the way back when you are tired from your long day. But on the other hand, the grade is mostly 2% or less, so it isn't very grueling all in all, and once you get to Bethesda on the way home, you get relief for a while with nice flats or slight downhills.
Parking at Silver Spring works out well because we've never had trouble finding street-side parking, and then we get to enjoy the entire trail. From Silver Spring to Bethesda, the trail is a smooth crushed stone. The rest of the way, it is nicely paved. It is about 10 or 11 miles from where we park in Silver Spring to Georgetown, where the trail pretty much ends (see website). There are various parking areas along the way, so you can lop off some of the ride as befitting your stamina. It is a good family ride, but if you have small children, you might want to start in Bethesda, both to shorten the ride and avoid one major busy road crossing. If your small children are riding under their own power, be sure to teach them to keep to the right side of the path. From Georgetown, there are safe ways to get to the Mall area, but there is at least one other busy road crossing, and there is some side-walk riding along major roads, which might make you nervous if your children are wobbly on their bikes. Be warned, when we do this entire trail and ride around the Washington Monument (so not even all the way to the Capitol Building) we end up riding 26 or 27 miles. So yes, it's a long day.
The best way to find your way from Georgetown to the Mall is to study Google Maps on "Bicyling" mode. Remember that is always available to you if you have internet access, and if you don't have internet, how are you reading this blog? I'm lucky because my husband has a GPS device built into his head. I'm pretty good at reading a map, but he has it stored right in his brain! If you don't have a GPS-brain, but have a "smart phone," there are various helpful apps to use along your way. I have an Android and I have Google Maps right on it. I love it! It has all the features as on my computer, including a traffic and a bicycling layer. In addition, it shows where I am, if I enable GPS. I have also used it for navigating on trails, but it doesn't always give the directions I want. It does suck up a lot of battery. Sometimes on day trips like our DC rides, because I like to use either Endomondo or Garmin Fit to track my trip, and even my heart-rate, my phone is quite depleted by the end. So make sure your phone is well-charged, and keep the display off most of the time. You don't want to get stranded! My husband has an iPhone, and despite his GPS brain, he downloaded a Maps App, and there are various bicycling maps he has added to it, including the Columbia Trail map. Some of them show where you are, some of them don't. How did we ever manage without cell phones before? We had to lug maps around, ask for help, borrow telephones, or even hope we have pocket change for a pay phone! Dark ages. Technology can be a good thing, except if work calls you in the middle of your excursion. I got a work-call on a boat to Alcatraz once, but that is a topic for another post ("The Elkridgean Cyclist Takes San Francisco"). Maybe being disconnected wasn't all that bad!
Anyway, to give a few hints, you follow the trail markers to Georgetown and come to a place where you are dumped on a road that goes near the river, and last time we rode there, the trail was under construction. Maybe it is finished by now! Once there, you come to a place along the water where bikes are not allowed, so you either have to bypass the area, which is short, or walk your bike along the area where there are a few outdoor cafes and shops. Then you end up merging onto the Rock Creek Park Trail and can follow those markers until almost to the Mall. Then eventually you cut across a road near the Lincoln Memorial and head onto the Mall.
At Georgetown, you also have an option to get on the C&O Canal Towpath. It rides a little higher in Georgetown, and is pretty neat scenery, but a steep hill down to the water to get back on the other trail. As for the C&O Canal Towpath trail, I think I should do a separate blog post on that, or a series, as you can take that all the way to Pittsburgh now! One of these days I will see the whole thing.
If you take the Rock Creek Park Trail from Silver Spring instead of the Capital Crescent, there are a few things you should know. One is that it is a little hillier than the Crescent. Another is that, while most of the roads in the park are closed on weekends, which makes it really pleasant riding, there are some confusing points along the way and you really have to be careful following the route. We took this when we went to "The Rally to Restore Sanity" one beautiful Fall day, and it was lovely, and quiet. Of course then we got to the insanity of the Sanity Rally, and were ready to go back home again! It took us about 30 or 45 minutes to cut through the rally on 7th Street, we got separated, our cell phones couldn't send texts, and I was very unhappy for a short while. All in all, it was a really nice day despite all that.
As for the Anacostia Tributary Trail, there are some other notes. This trail goes through some areas in the DC metropolitan area that are of dubious reputation. We had no trouble there and everyone seemed pleasant, but just be aware of this. This trail has a lot of branches. We chose the North-west branch. The drive to the trail head that we picked was shorter than the one we use for the Crescent, being just inside the beltway off Oakview Drive, where we found a school or church, and parked there for the day. (See this link.) Note that if you park where we did, you will have a steep unpaved trail to ride down to the trail by the river, and a STEEPER ride back up. At least it SEEMED steeper. I don't know how grades of roads can change while we are only gone for a few hours, but I could swear it was steeper. We walked up it. We were tired, having ridden about 30 miles that day. I don't know for sure how far because it was one of those times when my phone ran out of juice before we got back to the car.
This trail was really pretty at the beginning. It was early spring (St. Patrick's Day in fact) and we had a really beautiful day for our ride. As I mentioned above, we were actually trying to get to RFK, though you can get to the Mall from the trail as well. As always when riding on trails, bring a buddy. I like seeing different parts of the city, and this trail takes you through some housing project areas, and other residential areas of low to moderate to high income. There are some city roads to traverse but we didn't find the traffic bad on a Saturday. There are some hills on these roads. We did go through a traffic circle at New York Avenue, which can be busy, and came to the area of Mount Olivet Cemetery. I was interested in going by the cemetery because my great-great-grandparents are buried there. I got a great view of it when we tried to cut through the Arboretum. This is when we learned that YOU CANNOT CUT THROUGH THE ARBORETUM! But it is very pretty and worth a visit. There is a pretty big hill in the Arboretum overlooking the cemetery (it isn't called MOUNT Olivet for nothing!) We climbed that hill for nothing, but it was worth it because I saw how close we were to the cemetery. (I was grumpy with my husband though because his GPS-brain led us astray for once.) We stopped at the cemetery on the way home but could not find the graves. The lady there was very helpful but my great-great-grandfather's grave is not marked and I didn't have the right information about my great-great-grandmother memorized, so hers might or might not be marked. I hope to get them marked and then pay my respects proper-like some day.
When we found we could not cut through the Arboretum, we were then off the marked bike-route and we ended up going on a very busy road to get to where we wanted to go. But while were were on the marked route, there were signs that point to the Capitol area. I haven't followed them all the way there from this route so I can't tell you if they get you there safely. We looked out at the Capitol from a distance near Mount Olivet, but didn't go there.
Check this link out, which is a 30 mile ride that joins both the Crescent and the Anacostia trails! I haven't tried it, but I think I'd like to!
The last route I'd like to talk about is the ride from the National Harbor. There is a trail that goes by the water, OVER the beltway, ACROSS the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on a great wide pathway that has a safe barrier from the cars, and down into Alexandria. This was such a neat way to go. The drive to the National Harbor was close to an hour, so I don't know how often we'll use this route, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. It is incredibly satisfying to be riding freely across the Woodrow Wilson and see the back-up of cars on the highway. Old Town Alexandria is charming, and though you have to do some street riding before you get to the Mount Vernon Trail, and there is some car traffic, it was not unpleasant. With wobbly children, again, it might not be the best, and you should probably start from a parking area actually IN Alexandria.
We followed the Mount Vernon trail in the direction of DC, but someday we will ride to Mount Vernon itself. On this trip, we did not go all the way to the monuments. We decided to visit a little park and loop through that instead. We could have (just as easily) ridden over to the Jefferson Memorial, but we chose not too. I can't figure out the name of the park, but it is on a little peninsula, almost an island, with the Potomac River on one side and the Washington Channel on the other. On the other side of the channel is the McNair Airforce base and you can see some fine houses over there - very charming! The East Potomac Golf Course is in this park. We rode about 26 miles this day, so it is quite a distance. 30 miles is about my limit, as long as it isn't too hilly. This ride was not very hilly, but there are some overpasses to climb up, and a few moderate hills, nothing terribly grueling, even by my standards. Probably the biggest hill is getting up to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. If you don't want to cross over the river into DC, you can stay in Virginia and ride along the river on various pathways. There are lots of picnic areas and scenic views. You do ride along the George Washington Parkway (on a trail) for part of the route, so the road noise can be high, and you go past an airport which can be loud. But hey, it is the city!
If you don't think your family can manage any of these routes, then there are plenty of bike-rental facilities near the Mall itself. My niece and I rented bikes one time and had a great time pedaling leisurely between the monuments. I can't remember where we got the bikes, but it was conveniently close to the Subway.
Right now I have West Virginia on the brain, because last weekend I traveled to the West Virginia State Folk Festival where we had a little family reunion. So next time I might write about riding in the bottom lands in the Alleghenies, and climbing my first mountain. But we have also been riding on a rail trail north of Baltimore a lot, which would be more fitting for this blog. We'll see what my mood is when the time comes. In the mean-time, stay cool, and stay safe!