As summer approaches, it is time to start thinking about all those special places to walk along the Anacostia and its tributaries, especially this year when we long to get out and away. Here is a set of six of my favorite hikes, some well travelled but others you may not know about. Let’s start at the top of the watershed and come downstream to more familiar territory.
Starting at the very top where the River bubbles forth out of a spring in the middle of a field, let’s take a walk to the place that gave its name to the village of Sandy Spring in Montgomery County. Sandy Spring is generally recognized as the farthest source of the Anacostia. And it is an attractive spot, out in the middle of a field but not very far from the edge of the woods on public land rented to farmers. The spring itself is surrounded by a low fence and bubbles up through the rocks, then finds its way south through the woods, growing into the Northwest Branch.
In addition to this attractive scene, there is an interesting piece of history here. To reach the spring, you drive past the Quaker Meeting House that served as a stop along the Underground Railroad for enslaved people escaping from the south, and using the Anacostia as part of their route. You feel surrounded by history and nature. There are many trails to walk in the area around the spring, so even though getting there is not more than a half mile or so, you can continue to explore.
Directions: Take the Beltway to I-95 north towards Baltimore. Take Exit 33 after a few miles and follow MD 198 west (left) to MD 650 north (right) to MD 108 west (left) at Ashton to Sandy Spring (this all happens fast and is not far). In town, turn left on Meeting House Road, pass the Quaker meeting house, park near the gate at the end of the road and walk through the gate into the field, following the dirt track and looking for the low fence and spring on the left.
This is the starting point for a spectacular walk along the Northwest Branch where it crosses the fall line in a series of falls over huge rocksand cliffs. It starts a mile and a half north of the Beltway and most of the falls are in the first part. The three-mile round trip allows you to avoid the rough trail along the falls coming back by staying on the Northwest Branch Trail which returns you to the same parking lot as the Fall Line Trail. Make sure you have excellent traction on your feet as you scramble over the rocks!
Directions: Take the Beltway west past the I-95 interchange and exit at MD 193 north onto University Boulevard, then quickly another right onto MD 29 North, Columbia Pike. After a mile or so you will start down a long grade that has the mill on the left, and parking and trails on the right.
This is a smoother trail suitable for bicycles, in contrast to the one above, to which it connects. It passes along a much calmer Northwest Branch, but is still located in a beautiful wooded valley with many plant attractions. It is about a seven-mile round trip walk from the Adelphi Mill to Beltway, where it meets the Northwest Branch Trail segment from Burnt Mill, but the last half mile is not paved. The Beltway high overhead where the two segments meet is impressive. If you bring children, there is a great playground back by the parking at the Mill.
Directions: Exit the Beltway at New Hampshire Avenue, the first exit west after the I-95 interchange. Go south to the first major intersection, turning left on Adelphi Road then right on Riggs Road; the Mill and parking are on the right in about a mile and a half.
Shifting over to the Northeast Branch, there is a very special place hidden on the other side of the tracks from College Park. It is slowly becoming known to folks as a place to go to walk around the ponds and get away from the world. It is located right above where the Branch splits into Paint Branch which heads northwest into the University campus, and Indian Creek, which advances north into the lake area and spreads out as Indian Creek Stream Valley Park. Bicycles are welcome throughout the area of lakes and parklands.
Directions: Auto access and parking is best from Greenbelt Road, staying east of the railroad and Metro tracks and driving south to the Park areas. Via Metro, exit at the College Park Station, then walk or bike northwest towards College Park. At US 1,
Go right for 100 feet, cross the bridge and go right again onto Paint Branch Trail, passing under the Metro and entering the Park.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Across the River from the National Arboretum is another spectacular place to spend time with nature – the National Park Service’s Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. This is the best time of year to see it in its glory – with the acres of lotus in bloom and many other flowers and plants providing contrast with their colors and shapes. There are so many places to wander among the flowers, and then the wooden walkways out over the marshes and all the wildlife that resides there. Not to be missed! And accessible either by car or by taking the hiker/biker trail along the River to the entry path just south of the New York Avenue bridge.
Pope Branch Park
Continuing down-river, Pope Branch Park is a very special place hidden away so well in the residential neighborhoods above Pennsylvania Avenue that it is unusual to run into a single other human, and quite normal to be greeted by deer, owls and all their friends. Pope Branch is a partly restored stream that crosses under Minnesota Avenue and the Freeway and enters the Anacostia. Upstream is a deep woods with a wandering trail that begins off of M Place, SE, right above Minnesota Avenue. The trail rises up to street level in a few places, but then draws you on to take another dip down into paradise. It must be seen and experienced. And it is best to get lost.
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.