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Our River, The Anacostia

There are many places along the Anacostia that are easy to overlook but are very special if you decide to explore them. Here I suggest five places with a wide range of experiences among them.  Let’s start downriver and work our way to the top through visits to these very special places.

Pope Branch
Our first stop is along Pope Branch in southeast Anacostia.   This is a stream in a deep valley that requires us to climb to the top to cross streets where the stream tunnels underneath, but that adds to the adventure of finding your way, and emphasizes that when walking along the stream it is so deep and remote that it seems impossible to be in the midst of a large city.  I have never seen another walker along Pope Branch, and I have been welcomed a number of times by deer and owls who like being there and are happy to see you.

Pope Branch Park, southeast Anacostia above Pennsylvania Ave.

A good place to start finding your way is to park your car on M Place, SE, which is on the north side of the park, not to be confused with M Street, SE on the south side.  The easiest place to find your way down to the stream is half a block upstream from Branch Avenue, which is the first intersection on M Place upstream of Minnesota Ave.  The walk is short but filled with a sense of wilderness and surprises.

Watt Branch – Marvin Gaye Center
Watts Branch in northeast DC is a place that celebrates singer Marvin Gaye who grew up along the stream there.  He would escape from his family and come sit by the stream to compose his music.  Today the trail and playgrounds are named for him, as well as the new modernistic music, education and performance center at the top of the stream as it arrives in DC along Pennsylvania Avenue.  It feels as though Marvin Gaye is still there.

Marvin Gaye Center along Watt’s Branch

In contrast to Pope Branch, Watts Branch comes across as a very urban stream, with paved pathways and cars crossing at bridges with sidewalks all along the way.  It is a pleasant mix, with natural areas, adjacent fields, pleasant residential streets, apartment complexes and even small commercial areas along the way.  It starts where the stream enters from Maryland, with the new Marvin Gaye Center to welcome it.

It is a fun trip for all ages and families to take part in.

Then, below the 295 Freeway and commercial avenues, Watt’s Branch changes once again, this time to a natural format.  It makes its way with natural cover alongside the playing fields of Kenilworth Park until it reaches and discharges into the Anacostia.

Lake Artemesia
The third special place is one you are most likely to have found already on your own; if not, you must seek out Lake Artemesia, located on the other side of the elevated railroad and Metro tracks from College Park, Maryland.   It has a history of being used by early owners to raise plants and fish to sell.  When the Metro was being built up this way in the 70’s, there was the need for sand, soil and rocks.  So the land was excavated to produce these and the remainder turned into a park with the 30-acre lake, 2.4 miles of loop trails plus picnic spots, changing rooms and restrooms.

Lake Artemesia, inside the Beltway near College Park, Maryland

You can reach the lake by subway, auto or bicycle.  You can walk, bike or taxi from the Metro Station on the College Park side, following signs to the lake along streets and on paths through the woods.  You can bike from Bladensburg on the Northeast Branch Trail, which ends at the south end of the Lake.  If you drive, the lake is about half an hour (30 miles) from Capitol Hill.

Northwest Branch
Our fourth special place to visit is just outside the Beltway in Prince Georges County.  The fall line requires the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia to tumble over rocks and fallen trees to reach the coastal plain.  All streams and rivers in our area must do this, but this one is especially dramatic.  Teddy Roosevelt would bring his mother by on horseback each year in springtime to observe it.  It is impressive any time of the year.

The best route to get there is to take University Blvd. north from the Beltway, then go right at the first major intersection on US 29, Columbia Pike and Colesville Road. After about a half mile the road will start down a long hill and you will see at the bottom the crossing of the Northwest Branch with two historic buildings, one on each side of the road. Exit right and park in back before reaching the shopping center ramp.

The most impressive parts of the stream’s passage over the fall line begin along the parking area.  They continue through a series of falls and pools for the next mile or so. It is a very impressive performance by the Northwest Branch of what all our streams go through to enter the coastal plain, and it is there for you 24 hours a day.  There is the ability of children to get close to the water here.  Depending on age and experience, they should be watched and instructed on how to deal with wet rocks and other dangers they may not anticipate.

The Birthplace of the Anacostia
The fifth and final place to visit is a remarkable combination of nature, beauty, and human history.  It is the birthplace of the River, a spring in open fields and woods working together, and the sight of human bravery and celebration.  This has been identified as the farthest place from the discharge of the Anacostia River where water emerges to form a stream.

The human history of the area is remarkable and appropriate.  A Quaker meeting house was built early on a half mile from the water source. They wanted to help escaped slaves with their health and new homes after escaping the south. They learned that the escaped slaves would use shallow water to cover their tracks and the trees alongside to hide; they used rivers like the Anacostia, which had both.

So Sandy Spring took its name from the farthest source of the Anacostia River that started there in a sandy spring and it supported the Quakers as they helped the escaping slaves.  To get there takes some time but is a pretty attractive trip.  Take the Beltway west to Route 650, New Hampshire Avenue north for about a half hour to Route 108 Sandy Spring Road, left at a stoplight. Sandy Spring is the next village and comes up rather quickly.  Look for a sign on the left for the Quaker Meeting House and take that road to either the parking lot at the Meeting House or the end of the road to a place to park that does not block the gate for those with a key to enter.

I think you will be delighted with any of these trips, and I would love to know what you think.  So email your reactions to me at bmatsedc@gmail.com.

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