Hiking and Biking the Anacostia: Where to Go and How to Get There

Our River: The Anacostia

The Riverwalk Trail over the CSX bridge above Pennsylvania Avenue in Anacostia. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

The number of folks interested in hiking and biking the Anacostia keeps growing. As does the number of people asking me the best places to go and how to get there. So, I decided to dedicate this summer article to just those issues. Let’s look first at some of the most interesting places to hike close by, and then go farther afield. After that, let’s shift to biking trails. Remember, you can take your bike on Metro at no additional cost up to 7 a.m. and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., weekdays and any time on weekends.

Hiking the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail
The Riverwalk Trail runs along both sides of the river from the Frederick Douglass (South Capitol Street) Bridge to Benning Road, and now on the east side from there to the Bladensburg Park and Marina. The entire loop from the Douglass Bridge to Benning Road and back is about nine miles, and the roundtrip to Bladensburg adds another eight, but it can be broken into segments and hiked a section at a time.

  • Douglass Bridge to 11th Street Bridge Loop – about two and a half miles. This includes the stadium, Yards Park, and the Navy Yard on the Capitol Hill side, and some very open and wild areas along Poplar Point on the Anacostia side – a nice mix of open and developed, old and new. The views from both bridges are impressive and memorable, and crossing the 11th Street Bridge will give you an idea of how the new bridge project will spread parks, gardens, and entertainment spaces to the old bridge piers that you can walk out to now.
  • 11th Street Bridge to Pennsylvania Avenue Loop – about two miles. It includes boathouses along the west side and Anacostia Park, with the great pirate ship playground and picnic pavilion on the east side.
  • Pennsylvania Avenue to East Capitol Street Loop – about three and a half miles. The boathouses continue, and you pass by the edge of the Congressional Cemetery, some construction on the combined sewer project, and RFK Stadium parking on the Capitol Hill side (not the scenic route), but the views over the water are nice and the other side features the Aquatic Resources Education Center and a spectacular pedestrian bridge swinging over the CSX tracks which cross the river there.
  • East Capitol Street Bridge to Benning Road – about two miles. On the Anacostia side this is woods and fields that connect to the new extension to Bladensburg; on the east side it is RFK Stadium parking lots, but you can take a great detour and explore Kingman and Heritage islands.
  • Benning Road to Bladensburg – the new section, an eight-mile roundtrip. It has wild sections along the river, a swing through the neighborhood along Anacostia Avenue, a hike across the Kenilworth playing fields, a connection to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a 1,000-foot walkway out over the river and under Amtrak and New York Avenue, and a virtual wilderness all the way from there to Bladensburg Marina and (whew!) a public restroom.

Other Hikes to Try

  • The Marvin Gaye Trail along Watts Branch in Anacostia. This new trail starts near where Gaye grew up and spent time escaping his tough father by sitting along Watts Branch, composing songs. The trail starts a block from Capitol Heights Metro, Blue or Silver lines, and follows the stream through parks for about three miles to either the Riverwalk Trail or the Minnesota Avenue Metro, Orange Line. Along the way is a lot of interesting history – a nightclub where Gaye first performed, which is now a training center for green jobs; the site of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech; and the campus established by Helen Nanny Burroughs as a training center for young black women, among other things.
  • The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, with a series of trails and boardwalks open to the public and now connected to the Riverwalk.
  • The National Arboretum, filled with interesting walks and displays. Check out Fern Valley, Mount Hamilton (great views of the distant Capitol and monuments), and the Asia Garden.
  • The Northwest Branch from Adelphi Mill to the Beltway, a remarkable four-mile roundtrip through a deep valley next to a rushing stream and waterfalls, and not a building in sight. Park at the mill along Riggs Road and head upstream. You can even cross under the Beltway and continue on a rough trail not suitable for bikes.
  • Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, at the top of Sligo Creek, always a treat with interesting displays and miles of trails next door in Wheaton Regional Park. If you get tired of the flowers, you can walk through a back gate to enter the park.
  • Lake Artemesia near Greenbelt, a virtually unknown gem created by the need for sand and gravel for the Metro. Unfortunately, it is between two distant Green Line stations, College Park and Greenbelt, but you could walk from either. The lake is an oasis of calm with pavilions and waterbirds, but never many people.
  • Sandy Spring, source of the Anacostia. The best for last: the farthest origin of the river is in upper Montgomery County near the village named after the Sandy Spring. It was a Quaker settlement and a stopping point on the Underground Railroad. Very interesting museums to visit. But then follow signs to the Quaker Meeting House, park, and follow the trail through the fence and out into the fields. You will soon see a grove of small trees under which emerges the Sandy Spring. There are many miles of hikes in the surrounding parklands and protected areas.

Bike Trips
Much of what is described above for hikers is also accessible to bikers, plus a lot more.

  • Paint Branch Trail. There is essentially one extended trip on the Northeast Branch, a combination of the Paint Branch and the Northeast Trails, which meet at Lake Artemesia, described above. To get to the starting point, take the Metro Green Line to the Greenbelt Station (from Capitol Hill, you save a lot of time riding to Union Station and taking the Red Line to Fort Totten, then switching to Green). From Greenbelt Station, go out the west entrance and pedal north to within sight of the Beltway and then left or west on Edgewood Road to Route 1. Continue west on Cherry Hill Road, the first street south of the Beltway ramps, past the IKEA to the start of the Paint Branch Trail on the left at the bottom of the grade. The trail winds through an interesting landscape – a forest taken down by a tornado a few years ago – then enters the University of Maryland campus. Follow the signs to stay on the trail. Cross under Route 1 in a bike tunnel and follow the trail to Lake Artemesia, a nice rest stop. Continue on the Northeast Branch Trail to Bladensburg and home – about 21 miles total.

The Northwest Branch offers essentially two separate trails, which share only the southernmost three miles. But getting to the start of a ride is quite different.

  • Sligo Creek Trail. This is the longest trail ride in the watershed. It starts at Brookside Gardens, continues through Wheaton Regional Park, becomes the Sligo Creek Trail after a few blocks of residential neighborhoods, and joins the Northwest Branch near the West Hyattsville Metro Green Line station, three miles above Bladensburg – about 28 miles total to the 11th Street Bridge. Take the Metro Red Line to its end at Glenmont, take the east side elevator, and bike over to Glenallan Avenue, taking it south to the entrance to Brookside Gardens. Go through the gardens to the south end, where there is a gate allowing you to enter Wheaton Regional Park. Find your way through the park and exit to cross Arcola Avenue, continuing straight past a school on your right to the head of the Sligo Creek Trail. The trail is a pleasure of curves and bridges, and parts have few or no streets and not much traffic. Eventually it joins the Northwest Branch above West Hyattsville Metro, Green Line, which you can take home; or continue on the trail to Bladensburg and DC.
  • Northwest Branch Trail. Unlike the two trails described above, this one has no Metro stop near the far end to allow you to take a one-way ride home. But you can take the Green Line to West Hyattsville and pick up the Northwest Branch for a short roundtrip ride of 10 miles to the Beltway. Or ride back home an extra eight miles or so. The ride is through fields and woods to Adelphi Mill on Riggs Road, where it enters a deep wooded ravine with a rushing stream for the last two miles. See the hike described above for more detail on this very special trail section.

So, get out and explore, and really enjoy getting and staying fit while learning more about our river. It’s a win-win-win!

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River, and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.