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Special Places to Visit Upstream along Our River

We all love our river here close to home, but some very special places upstream have vistas and histories you don’t want to miss. Here are four to the north in Maryland, starting with the closest and taking you to the place that has been designated the very source of the Anacostia. Obviously, there are many sources and they are all along the river, but one has been designated as the farthest upstream and it has played a real part in our nation’s history.

  1. Lake Artemesia

Starting with the closest of the places, Lake Artemesia is a beautiful water surrounded by paths and natural landscapes and served by two tributaries, Indian Creek and Paint Branch, which form the Northeast Branch just below it. The lake is named after the daughter of a couple who, beginning in the 19th century, used the land and ponds to raise and package fish. It is a great place to escape to. It is difficult to believe you are inside the Beltway!

It is not completely wild. One side of the property is bordered by the railroad and Metro. But the only way to cross that barrier and enter College Park is to take a low tunnel for bikes and walkers at the south end of the property.

Map of the lake and activities along the shoreline at Artemesia.

The current lake was formed in the mid-1970s, when the sands, soils and rocks were needed for Metro construction. The deal was to convert the site to a large lake and a natural recreation area. Today we have a 38-acre lake with 2.4 miles of loop trails as well as superb picnic spots, changing rooms and restrooms. The number of visitors varies from few to many, depending on the day and the time, but the walking, biking and fishing are ongoing. It is a great place for youngsters to learn to fish, but a tidal angling permit is required for those 16 years or over. Prince George’s Audubon hosts bird walks the first and third Thursdays of each month.

The trails to and from Lake Artemesia offer a range of options. You can bike up the Northeast Branch Trail from Bladensburg. You can walk from the Metro station. Or you can park north of the park and take a short walk to the northern trails around the lake both ways. However you come and go, you will come back!

  1. A Trail for Hiking or Biking

The next two places are connected to each other along the same trail but they will almost surely be separate visits. The first is a beautiful and quiet trail for hiking or biking. It is the most northerly part of the Northwest Branch still inside the Beltway. Three things make it special. First, the section begins at the Adelphi Mill Historic Site, a beautiful piece of stream-side architecture that now serves as a community meeting place and has a first-class playground for youngsters. Second, since the trail at the Beltway becomes impassable for bicycles, it is never crowded. And third, as the stream valley moves north it narrows with taller and taller trees, so that all signs of civilization disappear until you hear Beltway traffic high above you. At that point you turn around and return along the stream. If you are walking, you have the option of continuing under the Beltway and entering the next special place (see below), but it is quite a walk to what draws us there.

The best route to the Northwest Branch at Adelphi Mill is to bicycle up from Bladensburg. Watch out for the left turn up to the roadway after you cross the stream; if you miss it you are on Northeast Branch. By car, take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to the Beltway and west to New Hampshire Avenue, the first exit after I-95 leaves. Left on New Hampshire Avenue and left again at Adelphi Road right away, then right on Riggs Road to parking at Adelphi Mill.

  1. The Fall Line

Next is the fall line, where the Northwest Branch tumbles over eroded rocks and enters the coastal plain. Two old mills sit right above the fall line, one on each side of Columbia Road. Bring good boots and a walking stick for your exploration. The next half mile or so downstream will be a series of rocks and waterfalls squeezed into a narrow gorge that is barely passable.

It is a spectacular place, worth exploring! Teddy Roosevelt used to ride by with his mother, on horse7back, and considered it second only to Great Falls in the region. Although the scale is about 1/20 that of the Potomac fall line, you are much closer to the crashing water here and feel about to fall in. There is much to explore here, and once it begins to level out, hiking options open up, including a trail over the wooded hills and back to the parking lot if the rock climbing is too much.

The Northwest Branch tackles the fall line above the Beltway.

The best way to reach this spectacular fall line is to take the Beltway west to University Boulevard, then north to take a right at the first major intersection, onto US 29 (Colesville Road) and the Columbia Pike. After about half a mile the road will begin to head downhill to cross the branch. Pull into parking behind the old mill on the right side and follow the signs to walk to the fall line a short way downstream.

  1. Sandy Spring

The last special place has the most interesting history of all. Sandy Spring is a small town in Montgomery County that is named for the farthest place where the river emerges from the ground. This is a pleasant little area at the edge of a woods with the gurgling of the spring surrounded by a stone marker and a few flowering plants. The stream moves into the woods and grows as it heads south.

A century and a half ago, this was a critical point in the Underground Railroad to help escaped slaves reach safe areas. The Quakers were associated with the railroad, so it is not a coincidence that a Quaker meeting house stands along the road, not far from where the river springs from the ground. Quakers provided facilities to sleep, eat, clean clothes and plan safe routes to the north.

Today, the whole area is a beautiful mix of forests and farmlands rented from the government. As public land it is open to all. If you have a vehicle you must leave it at the Quaker meeting house or the gate at the field that starts down the street. The walk to the spring is about a quarter-mile from the gate along a dirt road; where the road turns right look left to the edge of the first woods to find a fenced area within which the Anacostia springs forth among trees and flowers.

The most distant emerging of the Anacostia River, the Northwest Branch, appears at Sandy Spring.

To get to Sandy Spring may seem complicated, but it is a pleasant trip. Take the Beltway west to Route 650, New Hampshire Avenue north. Follow this interesting road all the way to Sandy Spring Road (108) west (an intersection with a light). Sandy Spring comes up fast; look for a left turn to the Quaker meeting house and follow that to the field entrance.

Bill Matuszeski is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River and the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program. He also serves on the board of the Friends of the National Arboretum and on the citizen advisory committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.

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