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Trail Towns: Washington, DC

Going off the beaten path in our nation’s capital provides miles of scenic trails and solitude.

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Washington, DC isn’t exactly known as a trail running destination. Every year, millions of tourists flock to the National Mall to crowd museums, gaze at the monuments, and Instagram cherry blossoms. The city is known to most runners as home to the Marine Corps Marathon, one of the nation’s premier road races that hosts around 30,000 participants each October. Although this may seem a world away from the coveted solitude of proper mountain towns, less than a 5K away from the White House lie miles of unexpected dirt trails winding through quiet woods and wetlands.

“There is a surprising number and variety of trails that are easily accessible in the DC area, and many local runners don’t even know that they exist,” says Tom Foreman, a local ultrarunner, CNN correspondent, and author of My Year of Running Dangerously. 

At nearly 1,800 acres, Rock Creek Park is more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park, and only receives a fraction of its visitors. In 1890, it became America’s third officially-designated national park, where President Teddy Roosevelt was later known to take his advisors on hikes, scrambling over rocks and through creeks just for the adrenaline rush.  

Today, the heavily forested park contains a network of 32 miles of hilly, smooth dirt horse trails and technical singletrack uncommon in big cities. Tunnels of mountain laurel line steep, sloping ridgelines that provide a quiet playground away from the city’s nearly 700,000 residents. Beavers and otters have even been spotted in the creek on occasion, and much of the park’s major paved thoroughfare, Beach Drive, is closed to cars – allowing for cyclists to whizz by weekend joggers. For runners seeking sweet seclusion, singletrack, and some vert, a 10-mile loop on the Western Ridge and Valley Trails is a must-run route with 1,000 feet of gain.

RELATED: Tourism by Trail: Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

One of the things about the variety of trails is you can be an absolute beginner to the sport, and there are many trails around here that can give you that first taste without beating you up,” says Foreman. “Then there are others where you can branch off and get into really challenging connections of hills and rocks and roots.”   

Another local treasure is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, a 184.5-mile dirt and gravel trail that begins in historic Georgetown, follows the Potomac River, and reaches its terminus in Cumberland, Maryland. Just off the towpath are short riverside trails that meander past turtles, deer, snakes, and herons, especially during the swampy summer. 

DC is defined by its sprawling metropolitan area, known to locals as “the DMV,” which stretches into Central Maryland and Northern Virginia. Home to National Park Service administered parks like Great Falls, Prince William Forest, and Manassas National Battlefield, the DC suburbs provide runners with over 100 miles of dirt or gravel trails within a 45-minute drive of downtown. 

For runners looking to get way out there, the Appalachian Trail is only an hour’s drive from town. The nearest access point to the storied trail passes through historic Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, a scenic town where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers converge. In fact, that close-to-DC segment of the AT owns a special piece of trail running history, as it plays host to the nation’s oldest continuously running ultramarathon, the JFK 50 Miler

With mild winters and a tolerable summer heat bookended by spring cherry blossoms and perfect fall foliage, DC is a year-round trail running destination that’s been long overlooked. “I can’t imagine how many miles of trails we must have available out here,” says Foreman. “It’s extraordinary.” 

Plan Your Visit

Sights / The collection of world-class museums and monuments that line the National Mall are obvious must-sees for runners new to town. Left off of most tourist maps, however, is Teddy Roosevelt Island, an 88.5-acre living monument to one of our most adventurous presidents. 

Hydration / There’s more to DC’s bar scene than political cocktail parties on Capitol Hill. Shaw’s Dacha Beer Garden and El Rey are mainstays for post-run beers or margaritas, and the district is home to nearly two dozen breweries or distilleries, including women-owned Republic Restoratives.

Carbs / If you look past the stuffy K Street steakhouses, DC’s food scene has been booming in recent years. One of the most popular places for locals and tourists alike is Call Your Mother, a local self-described “Jew-ish” deli chain serving bagels that rival those of New York. Coffee fiends will be more than satisfied with DC’s own Compass Coffee, as well as Philly-based La Colombe to get a pre-run boost. 

Trails

  1. Western Ridge / Stretching north to south in DC’s Rock Creek Park, this collection of wide horse trails meanders around 5 miles through the park’s western hills and across a few shallow streams. 
  2. Valley / Around 5.5 miles long, this less crowded and more technical of Rock Creek’s trails winds down the east side of the park. Look out for roots and rocks while barrelling down steep slopes. 
  3. Bull Run – Occoquan / Twisting and turning for 17 miles along muddy Bull Run, this isolated singletrack path is the longest natural surface trail in Northern Virginia, rolling up steep hills and across several streams. 
  4. Riverbend – Great Falls Loop / A perfectly rugged 7.7-mile loop along the Virginia side of the Potomac River from Riverbend Park to Great Falls Park provides views of one of the east coast’s most spectacular waterfalls.
  5. C&O Canal Towpath / Long and flat, the 184.5-mile towpath follows the historic canal, built in 1828. The dirt, gravel, and stone trail has multiple overlooks, parking lots, and facilities along its most popular segment, a 13-mile stretch from Georgetown to Great Falls Tavern. 

RELATED: Land Acknowledgements And How We Relate To The Trails We Run

Races

The JFK 50 Miler / A fast point-to-point race which begins in tiny Boonsboro, Maryland, and tracks a particularly rocky segment of the Appalachian Trail before hitting a flat stretch on the C&O Canal towpath. Following the Potomac River for around 26 miles on the canal, the legendary race then winds for a few miles on country roads leading to its finish line in Williamsport, MD. 

Stone Mill 50 Mile / Less crowded than JFK and just a stone’s throw down the road each November, the Stone Mill 50 traverses the woods along Seneca Creek in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Kyle Tharp is a DC-based ultramarathoner and political writer, currently training for his first 100-mile race. Follow him on Twitter