After a long holiday with big meals and lots of lounging about, it is good to get out on a clear winter’s day and take a walk. One place you might not consider is along the Anacostia River and its many feeder streams. But you would be missing out.
There are few other places in the Chesapeake watershed where you can find dozens of miles of trails through parks along streams and a river, and almost nowhere else you can take the Metro to any number of starting points and walk or bicycle home. As difficult as it is to choose among the options, here are six of my favorite walks.
1. The newest section of the Anacostia Riverwalk
The latest addition to the river trail system in the District of Columbia is only a couple of miles long but is quite attractive. Located on the east side of the Anacostia between the Skating Pavilion north of the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge and Benning Road, the trail makes a dramatic sweeping curve up a bridge over the CSX rail yard — a great opportunity for children to see the train cars — then passes under the East Capitol Street Bridge, through nice wooded areas and out into fields along the river. It stops at Benning Road, where you can see the site of an old power plant that was dismantled just last year. You can also see construction for the next stage of the trail, which will be completed in 2016 and will close the final gap, tying together nearly 70 miles of trails along the river and its major tributaries in Maryland. You can return on the west side of the river and visit two islands that the city runs as environmental education sites, crossing back to the east side via the East Capitol Street Bridge. Park at the skating pavilion and do a round trip, or walk south from the Minnesota Avenue Metro station and return from the Stadium-Armory Metro station.
2. The new local 11th Street Bridge
If you haven’t walked this one yet, you are missing out! When the freeway bridges were rebuilt, they added a local traffic bridge that connects Anacostia and Capitol Hill. It runs from 11th Street and O Street, SE, near the Navy Yard gate, to Martin Luther King Avenue. It has wide sidewalks and slow traffic, but best of all there are two pedestrian overlooks that stretch out over the river on the south side. Walk along and imagine what it will be like in a few years when the 11th Street Bridge Project extends the walkways downstream for hundreds of feet and fills the space with parks, cafes, community and youth gardens, and even performance spaces. Meanwhile, enjoy the solitude and capture some of the first stirrings of revival at both ends of the bridge and the spectacular views of the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Best of all, go at sunset.
3. The trail along Watts Branch in Anacostia
This one is a real urban adventure. Watts Branch is the first of the DC tributaries of the Anacostia to be restored by the city, and they did a beautiful job. Park off East Capitol Street at 61st and Banks Street, NE, or take the Metro to the Capital Heights Station, and enter Marvin Gaye Park, where the stream comes in from Prince Georges County. As a boy, Gaye often sat there and created songs that led him to become the first of the Motown singers with an eye for nature. There are walkways running along the stream and connecting a series of parks and playgrounds for 20 blocks, all the way to Minnesota Avenue and the freeway. Halfway is an old nightclub where Gaye first performed in public; it is now a training center for green jobs.
You can continue under the train tracks and the freeway and pick up the stream again in Kenilworth Park, but that is not the most interesting part. The 20-block segment above Minnesota Avenue weaves through a series of traditional neighborhoods of bungalows and “shotgun houses,” a Southern term for a house so long and narrow that you could fire a shot clear through it from front to back. Elvis was raised in one in Tupelo. You will also pass the spectacular new Woodson High School and its playing fields. If you start to get lost, just look for the stream and stay near it. You won’t forget this walk, guaranteed.
4. Mount Hamilton, the Asian Gardens and Fern Valley in the National Arboretum
There is so much to see and do at the National Arboretum that it is difficult to choose a path. But some things are actually better in the winter. Mount Hamilton clearly falls into this category; it is the second highest point in DC after the roof of the Russian Embassy (which is hardly available these days). The views of the city are spectacular, but at their best when the leaves have fallen. The Capitol and the monuments are clearly visible. It’s a nice uphill walk. Enter at the R Street gate and turn right. Park in the first lot on the left, about a quarter mile up the road. Another special place is the Asian Gardens, where things are in bloom all winter with lots of paths to roam. Look for wintersweet, a fragrant tree filled with yellow blossoms in midwinter, as well as camellias. Children love Fern Valley, and the paths and bridges are especially attractive in the winter, when they can seem to be everywhere. And you might just find an early flower popping up. Maps are available at the arboretum.
5. Northwest Branch between Adelphi Mill and the Beltway
If you are looking for a classic stream valley surrounded by woods and hills, this is for you. The valley here is broader and steeper than just about any part of the watershed, and the woods are thick and mature. The stream is moving quickly, providing you with the sound of the water and little else. The best starting point is Adelphi Mill, an old stone structure that has been restored and serves as a community center. If it is open, it is worth a visit. The Beltway is 2 miles north on the trail, with only one road, New Hampshire Avenue, crossing it, so it is easy to feel deep in a valley and far away from it all. The trail continues past the Beltway, but is impassible to bicycles and the footing is iffy. Park at the mill on Riggs Road north of University Boulevard.
6. The Sandy Spring, source of the Anacostia
This is an expedition to a favorite spot surrounded by history. The town of Sandy Spring, settled in 1728 by Quakers, served as an important station on the Underground Railroad for people escaping slavery and became an agricultural locale for those who won freedom. The large Sandy Spring Museum in the village is well worth a visit. So is the Slave Museum, which is open by appointment only.
To find the actual spring, turn south at the first light west of the museum on MD Route 108. Park at the old Quaker Meeting House and cemetery. Check out the huge trees, including an ash under which, it is said, escaping slaves would gather. Then walk down the road a quarter mile, around a yellow turnstile and ahead another quarter mile until the gravel path ends at a grove surrounded by a split rail fence. Inside is the Sandy Spring. The historic marker tells much about the early settlement of the area, but interestingly fails to mention that this is where the Anacostia begins. The surrounding fields and woods are filled with trails, and it is all a conservation area open during daylight hours. Make a day of it, then come home and tell your neighbors you have been to the birthplace of the Anacostia River.
Bill Matuszeski is the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, DC vice-chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River. He was recently appointed by Mayor Muriel Bowser to the Chesapeake Bay Program Citizens Advisory Committee.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Hill Rag and East of the River, monthly neighborhood publications of Capital Community News, which can be found at capitalcommunitynews.com.
The Anacostia: ‘Washington’s Other River’
Often known as “Washington’s Other River” and long looked down upon by people throughout the region as a trash- and pollution-filled sewer, the Anacostia is recovering and being rediscovered as a regional natural resource. The portion of the watershed in the District of Columbia was even described recently by the National Park Service as a “signature urban park.”
The river has an interesting history. It is tidal for 9 miles from the Potomac to Bladensburg, which is just over the Maryland line from DC, and in the 17th and 18th centuries was a major tobacco port. As DC developed as a city, the U.S. Navy took up residence along the river. During the War of 1812, the British avoided the Potomac River forts by landing troops on the Patuxent River, coming overland to Bladensburg and then down along the Anacostia to take the city.
The river silted in from the tobacco fields and other erosion, and began a long period of decline. But both the Maryland and federal governments had the foresight to establish parklands along the length of the tidal river as well as many miles upstream on its tributaries.
Today, the recovery of the river is moving at a rapid pace. Development on both sides of the river in DC has been stimulated by the new baseball and soccer stadiums on its banks, as well as the emergence of low– and high-rise neighborhoods. The 11th Street Bridge Project will tie the Capitol Hill and Anacostia neighborhoods together with a broad expanse of open space, entertainment centers and events. The last 3-mile link in the trail system, to be completed in 2016, will tie upstream and downstream together as never before.
Yet, only 17 percent of the watershed is in DC; much of the trail system and the streams feeding the river are in Maryland’s Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Progress has been made on trash control and water quality improvements in these areas; most of the remaining pollution is tied to stormwater runoff. The same will be true in DC, once the stormwater storage tunnels are complete in 2017 and can begin to handle the impact of runoff into the combined sewer system. What remains will be a reservoir of toxics on the bottom of the river, an issue that will require a comprehensive effort to cap or remove them.
Meanwhile, people are discovering the river and its trails. On a weekday afternoon in the stretch below Bladensburg, the water is filled with the sculls of students learning to row and compete for ribbons. On weekends, the trails are filled with families on bike trips. The date for completing the cleanup is 2024, when the Anacostia is to be open for swimming and fishing. Ten years ago, no one would have believed it. Today, the sense is that it just might happen.