Hidden in Plain Sight: Locals Talk D.C.’s “Secret” Trails
November 1, 2021 @ 12:00pm
Writer, professor and avid D.C. runner Kyoko Mori often touches on the concept of being “apart from, but also a part of” a city in her writing. In one moment, residents are separated from the city, alone in their apartments. In another, they’re part of society, visiting a restaurant or event — or hiking one of D.C.’s beautiful trails.
“Everywhere we go I find these trails I didn’t even know existed,” Inner Loop Co-founder Rachel Coonce says. “To me, having nature and quietude and being able to get away without having to drive is very recharging.”
Coonce loves to take advantage of the different trails around her place for biking and hiking. She rides the Metropolitan Trail to get to work, and the Anacostia River Trail to get home.
We all know many of the more famous trails in the city: the C&O Canal Trail, the Rock Creek Trail, the Capital Crescent Trail — but smaller trails branch out from the bigger ones, in a giant web with continuous possibilities.
For Shelby Hall, one of District Running Collective’s captains, Kingman Island is a favorite lesser-known trail. Hall loves running by water, so she discovered the island by crossing the Benning Road bridge. Smaller bridges connect Kingman Island (also known as Burnham Barrier) and Heritage Island, giving runners and hikers a few different places to explore.
“So much is hidden back there,” Hall says. “I didn’t know about it before last year’s District 19.”
District 19 is a 19K and 5K race hosted by the District Running Collective to honor those affected by police violence and the pandemic. The race starts in Kenilworth, then winds through the District on the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, crossing over into Eastern D.C. It gives runners a chance to get to know District trails while considering the area’s past, present and future. Hall is all about bringing people together, which is especially helpful in a city full of transient residents.
“As a woman, I find it my mission to make sure the new women show up,” Hall says. “I want to make sure they want to come back again.”
Hall has inspired women of all ages — from helping her eight and 10-year-old nieces train for smaller races, to landing a role with the NBA as one of the first women of color in her field.
“It’s hard to break barriers,” she says. “ I want to make it easier for the people behind me.”
For women in a city, there’s this added pressure when reclaiming wild spaces, let alone any space. The women I interviewed described themselves as cautious, but unafraid. They each had their own safety techniques: sharing their location with friends, only running when the sun is out, and even filming their bike rides. Ultimately, they did not let their worries define them. There’s too much life to live.
“Control the controllables,” Hall says.
To Anne Hyman, president of Potomac Pedalers, D.C. feels safer than any other city she’s lived in. Even when in the middle of the park, alone on the trail, there is still knowledge that civilization is close by. To Hyman, there isn’t a sense of misogyny in this area. She loves to ride on the gravel of the C&O Canal Trail, as well as run down the Capital Crescent Trail, especially as she’s been training for the Ironman in Sacramento, California.
“D.C. just has an energy I can absorb on important training days,” Hyman says. “Every time I’m in D.C. riding or running, I find something that connects me to the context of where we are.”
After winding down trails through the city and the National Mall, her most recent training run ended looking over the Covid memorial near the Washington Monument, putting in perspective just how part of the city she truly is.
Running and biking in a group allows for this shared experience in a time that can still feel separate.
“I love the camaraderie on the trails,” Hyman says. “The trails around D.C. are my retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Everyone is out there enjoying their experience.”
For Monica Morin, a Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) instructor, the threat to this sense of community is simple: cars. When she first got a job near Georgetown, it didn’t include parking, which led her to pick up biking and eventually donate her car. Now she works with WABA and Friends of the Mt. Vernon Trail to conserve different trails and advocate for safer routes for biking and hiking around D.C.
“When I used to live on the Custis Trail, I would ride it three or four times a day, so I really got to know my neighbors,” Morin says. “They become your community. A lot of people are nostalgic for college because all of your friends live nearby and it’s walkable. When you’re not in a car, you can recreate that community.”
Morin’s favorite trail is the W&OD. Her secret to the route is taking her bike on the metro, getting off at Reston, and then riding the trail back into D.C. Even better, along the way, there are great restaurants and breweries you can stop over to visit.
“There’s nothing better than being on a two-hour bike ride, just enjoying the Arlington Loop or the W&OD,” she adds.
As for her favorite lesser-known trails, Morin lives in the Palisades and says the hiking is fantastic.
Whether you’re alone or with a group, D.C. trails have so much to offer. Get away from noise pollution on a hike in the depths of Rock Creek Park, or bike along the waterfront near the Wharf or the Kennedy Center. Enjoy the history and context D.C. provides to its residents.
“On a daily basis you need to connect with nature, even if you love city life,” Coonce says. “It’s grounding for humans.”
Off The Beaten Path
Want to get outdoors without bumping into a ton of people? Check out our list of top off-the-beaten-path trails in the DMV. From Navy Yard to Bethesda, these tucked-away spots offer the chance to relax, recharge and reconnect.
Anacostia Riverwalk Trail
Serving beautiful river views, this trail runs through Navy Yard and up both sides of the Anacostia. Along Anacostia Riverfront in SE, DC; capitolriverfront.org/go/anacostia-riverwalk-trail
Battery Kemble Trail
This trail houses Civil War history: As you hike, you’ll be able to see old parapet and gun positions. 3035 Chain Bridge Rd. NW, DC; nps.gov/places/battery-kemble.htm
C&O Canal Trail
Clocking in at 184.5 miles, the C&O Canal Trail can be used for bike camping at many of the campsites housed along the trail. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath in NW, DC; nps.gov/choh/index.htm
Capital Crescent Trail
Built on the former B&O railroad, this trail stretches from Georgetown to Bethesda and is a mixture of pavement and gravel. 3500 Water St. NW, DC; cctrail.org
Glover Archbold Trail
This trail is perfect for a last-minute trip. It’s easily accessible by public transportation at both trail ends, giving you a convenient little getaway. Van Ness St. and 44th Place in NW, DC;
Kingman and Heritage Islands
Bordered by the Anacostia and Kingman Lake, this island hosts beautiful trails and fascinating wildlife. 575 Oklahoma Ave. NW, DC; kingmanisland.com
Melvin C Hazen Trail
In the Cleveland Park area, this trail is Rock Creek Park at its finest: woods, water and wildlife.
Melvin C Hazen Park in NW, DC; hikingproject.com/trail/7063400/melvin-c-hazen-trail
Metropolitan Branch Trail
Perfect for commuting and enjoyment alike, this trail runs from Silver Spring to Union Station.
7726 Fenton St. Silver Spring, MD; traillink.com/trail/metropolitan-branch-trail/
Mt. Vernon Trail
At about 18 miles, this trail connects Theodore Roosevelt Island and George Washington’s Estate in Mt. Vernon. US 29 and George Washington Memorial Pkwy. Arlington, VA;
Palisades Trolley Trail
This lesser-known two-mile trail used to connect an amusement park with Georgetown.
Sherier Place in NW, DC; runwashington.com/2019/03/27/the-palisades-trolley-trail/
Soapstone Valley Trail
You’ll cross the creek several times on this trail, offering the perfect sights and sounds — as long as you’ve got the right shoes. 2900 Audubon Terrace in NW, DC; hikingproject.com/trail/7014271/soapstone-valley-foot-trail
This sprawling trail runs from Shirlington, Virginia, to Purcellville, Virginia, and passes many restaurants and breweries, making for a day full of exercise and good food and drink.
Washington and Old Dominion Trail in Arlington, VA; wodfriends.org
Wesley Height Trail
This trail connects to the Battery Kemble Trail in one of D.C.’s many “choose your own adventure” trail offerings. Edmunds and 44th Streets in NW, DC
A baby trail between the Trader Joe’s and Dumbarton Oaks, Whitehaven Trail connects you to whichever part of the city you’re in the mood for. Whitehaven Street in NW, DC
District Running Collective: 733 11th St. NE, DC; districtrunningcollective.com // @districtrunningcollective
Friends of the Mt. Vernon Trail: mountvernontrail.org //
Potomac Pedalers: 21030-G Frederick Rd. #333, Germantown, MD; potomacpedalers.org // @potomacpedalers
Washington Area Bicyclist Association: 2599 Ontario Rd. NW, DC; waba.org // @wabadc
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