6 Great Escapes Up Along Our River

Our River: The Anacostia

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Northwest Branch – Fall Line Trail. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

As we all begin to emerge from our COVAD-19 isolation, we need to have places to go for quiet, for nature, for natural beauty.  We are fortunate to have a number of very special places along the Anacostia River where we can get away, alone or with a few others. Some may be known to you, but others may be upstream places you never knew existed.  At least one of the six I identify below was something my wife and I discovered just last month.

Some of these upstream places can be reached from our neighborhoods by bicycle.  Others are best reached by driving to a starting point and walking or biking from there.  Still others are convenient to Metro either with or without a bicycle.  They are all upstream of Bladensburg Marina and Riverfront Park, so boat access is not an option.  If you are not familiar with the layout above Bladensburg, it is quite simple:  about a half mile north, the Northeast and Northwest Branches come together to form the River.  The Northeast Branch is widened a half mile north where Paint Branch and Indian Creek enter, then wanders into its origins in Greenbelt Regional Park.  Similarly, the Northwest Branch is widened two miles north where Sligo Creek enters.  There are other creeks and branches, but these are the five major parts of the watershed.  The Northwest Branch comes from the farthest source in the basin – Sandy Spring in northern Montgomery County.  Let’s start with the Northeast Branch and identify two “great escapes”.

Great Escape #1 – A Trip to the Farm Belt
The Metro Green Line terminates at Greenbelt Station right inside the Beltway.  But a half mile walk or bike ride to the other side is like a thousand mile trip to the farmlands of mid-America.  There are endless acres of agriculture crops and lands that flow from I-95 across US 1, MD 201 (your best entry point), and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.   There are many miles of peaceful paved and dirt roads to calm the soul.  And there are also many small streams that feed into the Anacostia Northeast Branch, including Indian Creek, Beaverdam Creek and Beck Branch.

Great Escape #2 – The Surprise Lake
If you are coming south from near the Beltway on Paint Branch Trail or Indian Creek Trail, you will find that they come together at a remarkable place—Lake Artemesia.  The lake started as a small excavation area, but the demands of Metro construction caused it to be deepened and widened and ultimately surrounded by a beautiful park with benches, wonderful birds and other wildlife and even a picnic pavilion.  On one side run the Metro and railroad tracks, but the rest is surrounded by nature.  If you arrive coming south on the Paint Branch Trail, you have just gone through the University of Maryland campus and a residential area, then take a tunnel under the railroad and out the other side–what a surprise!

Lake Artemesia. Photo:  Bill Matuszeski

Great Escape #3 – The Start of It All
The remaining four areas are part of the streams of the Northwest Branch, starting at the beginning of the River in the town of Sandy Spring in northern Montgomery County.  You will have to drive there; it is too far to walk and there no bike trails to speak of.  Once there, everything is very walkable.  The best route is to take I-95 north from the Beltway to MD 198 west, Sandy Spring Road.  Stay on MD 198 until it goes into MD 650, New Hampshire Avenue where you go right.  At Ashton, go left on MD 108; after passing a large school, start looking on the left for Meetinghouse Road and signs for the Quaker Meetinghouse, which was part of the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves (as was Our River).  Continue to the end of the road and park.  Walk through the fence and into the fields (public lands) along the dirt road; when the road curves right look left in the corner of the woods for a fenced off area, which is the spring where the Anacostia River begins!  Enjoy your surroundings near and far; last time I visited there were crocuses in bloom where the waters came up from below.

Great Escape #4 – The Gardens Among Us
The Sligo Creek Trail takes us well beyond the Beltway, ending just two blocks short of Wheaton Regional Park, on the north side of which is the beautiful Brookside Botanical Garden.  An easy way to get there for hiking or biking is to take the Metro red line to its terminus at Glenmont and take Glenallan Avenue (behind the station) to the garden entrance.  The gardens are quite beautiful and there are seldom many other folks around.  The greenhouse is worth a visit to see a number of unusual plants.  You can go from the gardens directly into the park, which has a merry-go-round, a train you can ride through the woods, and other rides as well as extensive playgrounds.  A nice trip for the whole family! (Check before you go to see if some of these facilities are closed due to Covid precaustions.)

Great Escape #5 – Deep in the Woods
The Northwest Branch Trail has a number of segments.  Perhaps the most beautiful stretch for glorious hiking and biking begins at the Adelphi Mill Historic Site, where the trail crosses Riggs Road (MD 212).  It continues for about two miles to the Capitol Beltway, passing through a deep wooded valley where hardly a building can be seen and the only sound is the water rushing over rocks.  There are many places to stop and rest and check out the stream.   The trail below the mill is also interesting and passes through a number of neighborhoods.  There is a convenient West Hyattsville Green/Yellow Line Metro Station right next to the trail below where the Sligo Creek Trail splits off.  Above the Beltway the Trail is open for walkers but impassible for cyclists.

Great Escape #6 – Wild Wilderness on the Fall Line
If you do continue on foot under the Beltway on Northwest Branch, you are in for a thrill.  The water is rushing over rocks and fallen trees like nothing you have ever encountered.  This is a two-mile stretch that makes it impossible for you to believe you are in a metropolitan area and not in some distant wilderness.  For the best access to hike this segment where the stream crosses the Eastern Fall Line, take the University Boulevard Beltway exit and immediately turn right on Columbia Pike/ Colesville Road (US 29); after about half a mile there is a bridge crossing the Northwest Branch and two mills, one on each side.  The site is called Burnt Mills and the mill and parking area on the right is what you want  (called the East Mill).  From there begins the tumult of rocks and waterfalls and nearly impassible pathways that go on and on.  Eventually things calm down a bit and a reasonably walkable trail appears from time to time.  It is two miles downstream to the Beltway overpass and the beginning of the bike trail.   For a calming experience after this, return to the parking area and drive over to the other mill.  There is a large constructed dam and a trail along the stream, which compared to what you have seen below seems like a peaceful canal.

Let me know what you find and what surprised you!  (bmat@primary.net)

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 Friends of the National Arboretum and on Citizen Advisory Committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.