Peaceful Summer Walks Along Its Streams

Our River: The Anacostia

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View across our river through wildflowers on East Bank Trail. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

Summer is the time for all of us to discover and enjoy quiet walks along our Anacostia and its streams. Some of these can be hidden places, while others are right along the river but provide relaxation and time with nature. Starting at the confluence with the Potomac and working upstream, I suggest five such special places for walks and short hikes inside DC, and another three upstream in Maryland that you might not know about but would be worth the drive to a starting point.

Walk the East Bank Trail from the 11th Street Bridge downstream to the Frederick Douglass Bridge. You can return the way you came or cross the Douglass Bridge and return via the Navy Yard in a three-mile loop. What is special about the East Bank Trail is the preponderance of natural plants and flowers all along the way from the walkway to the water. In places, you want to stop and take a picture of the mix of colors down to the water and the wildness, compared to all the development on the other side of the river. It inspires peace and appreciation of nature. A road alongside the walkway doesn’t carry much traffic and is easily ignored.

For complete isolation except for a wide range of wildlife, hike Pope Branch, a deep stream valley that is hard to believe is in the midst of Anacostia. You are completely surrounded by nature the moment you enter, and you simply follow the stream up the valley, taking paths when they occasionally appear. I have been welcomed upon entry by owls, by deer and by very noisy frogs! You simply follow the stream for a few blocks until it emerges and crosses Massachusetts Avenue to join Fort DuPont Park, where well-marked and well-used trails emerge. The best starting point for this amazing wilderness experience in a deep valley with no sign of the surrounding neighborhoods is to drop down a wooded slope east of Minnesota Avenue at M Place SE, where the guardrail curving around from the avenue comes to a quick end at the street signs. If this appears too difficult, walk up M Place one block more to enter easier on the other side of Branch Avenue. You can return to your entrance by following Pope Branch back and not entering the tunnel under Minnesota Avenue, or by walking through the neighborhood.

Phyllis Nelson, volunteer for Friends of Anacostia Park. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

A very different walk begins at the Anacostia Skating Pavilion, a short distance north of Pennsylvania Avenue, before the road along the river ends in a large parking lot. From there, the walk north along the river has some peaceful amenities. First is a nice Anacostia River Museum next to the pavilion with displays that attract all ages. From there, the River Walk continues over the railroad on a magnificent curving bicycle and pedestrian bridge with great views all around, then enters a wooded walk before passing under the East Capitol Street bridge and emerging in the pleasant River Terrace neighborhood park. A short walk on Benning Road Bridge over the river takes us to our next suggested walk.

Walk the trails of Kingman and Heritage Islands. These lie between Benning Road and the RFK Stadium and have been designated for conversion to all-native plantings so we can see how the riverside and adjacent areas once looked. The projects to achieve the removal of non-natives and replacement with native species are receiving a great deal of expert analysis and neighborhood involvement. You can observe areas where the invasive plants have yet to be removed, areas where they have been removed but not replaced and areas where the newly planted native species are presented to the public. Once completed, the newly planted islands will provide a unique sense of the native landscape in the middle of a large metropolitan area.

The final suggested place for walks within the city is the Kenilworth Aquatic Garden in Anacostia. This Park Service display area is along the river near the northern DC boundary with Maryland but has broad land and water areas, fabulous trails and spectacular plantings. It is worth becoming familiar with this place for the variety of water-based plant species and the extensive marsh areas. It has remarkably few visitors on weekdays and therefore is a fine place to escape to. If you are interested in being there for events, this is your month! The 2022 Lotus and Water Lily Festival, all during July, includes yoga and tai chi, art classes, wildlife presentations, a 5K walk, music and dance and bilingual tours. Weekend themes are:

July 9-10: Art and Harmony
July 16-17: Healthy Park, Healthy People
July 23-24: Nature and Environment
July 30-31: Music and Community

Turning to the suburbs, there are three special areas for walks upstream that you should be aware of. First is spectacular Lake Artemesia that feeds the Northeast Branch and has been developed as a massive recreation area for hikers, skaters, fishers and boaters. A walk around it is about a three-mile hike with beautiful trees and natural plants and flowers and many views. It is easy to get to Lake Artemesia by bike, Metro or car. For bikers, the Northeast Branch Trail splits off from the Northwest above Bladensburg and continues for several miles, curving around the historic College Park Airport and splitting into Paint Branch and Indian Creek at the south end of the lake. The Metro drops you at College Park Station, where you head north and enter wooded parkland after crossing Paint Branch Parkway and follow the trail and signs to a tunnel under the rail and Metro lines and enter the lake property. If driving, take MD 193, Greenbelt Road, from the east and exit to the right before the railroad bridge rises before you. Turn left under the bridge and follow signs to the parking area north of the lake. You will not regret taking the trouble to find this very special place.

Lotus in bloom in Kenilworth Aquatic Garden. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

For a wilder and more remote experience, perhaps the most spectacular of the streams going over the fall line to enter the coastal plain is the Northwest Branch. For about a mile the waters pass over exposed rocks and waterfalls and all manner of other natural obstacles. It is a thrill to look at and a challenge for anyone willing to enter the surging waters. There are all levels of falling water so you can pick places that most appeal to your esthetics and sense of bravery. The trails are magnificent but not safe for bicycles, which can be parked in the lots where you enter. The best entry point is at Burnt Mills on US 29, the Columbia Pike; easiest approach is to go west on the Beltway past the split with I-95, going north, and take Exit 29, MD 193 north. At the first major intersection take a right turn onto US 29, Columbia Pike. After less than a mile on Columbia Pike you will level out on a bridge over the Northwest Branch. Pull into the parking areas on the right surrounding an old mill and start your adventure. After the falls, the trail next to the stream joins the trail system to other tributaries downstream and the main stem of the Anacostia. It passes under the Beltway after a mile and widens out to accommodate bicycles along the stream.

The final suggested place for a quiet walk and time to enjoy the landscape is as far away as you can go and still be in our river’s watershed. This is near the village of Sandy Spring in Montgomery County, where the water emerges from a spring that begins the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River by being the farthest point in the entire watershed. It is located in a beautiful rural area with important historical significance. On the road you come down to find the spring is a Quaker Meeting House, which served as a key point on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves. By walking through the Anacostia River streams, they could not be tracked. The Quakers were there to help them find their new homes and relatives. Today you park in the Quaker Meetinghouse lot and walk a dirt road to a gate blocking vehicles but open to walkers. Entering the open fields gives a remarkable feeling of peace, and knowing the history adds to this. After a quarter-mile or so the dirt road turns right, but you go straight and immediately come upon the fenced area which protects the spring that begins our river. There are miles of additional hikes to be taken in the open fields, with paths and dirt tracks, and much history and nature to soak up. Enjoy! And plan to return here and other places to get your walks along our river.

Note: In last month’s article on the restoration of streams in the National Arboretum, two photo captions were erroneously reversed. The restored Springhouse Run is the photo of a wide stream valley with a beaver pond along its way. The unrestored Hickey Run is the photo of the narrow and deep cut with concrete blocks holding the water in an essentially topless sewer line.

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 the Friends of the National Arboretum and on citizen advisory committees for Chesapeake Bay and the Anacostia River.