Experience D.C.’s iconic waterways by bike on some of the city’s best trails.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, it seemed to my child-self that I was forever being driven over water. Nestled in the V between the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, with Rock Creek meandering nine miles through city limits, D.C. is a river town. Thirteen major bridges grant access to the city, and — with parents who commuted to Northwest and extended family in Maryland — it felt as though I was constantly crossing water, often extremely slowly.
The Potomac is the second largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay and the historic demarcation between the Union and the Confederacy. Its shores are the ancestral homeland of the Nacotchtank, its waters a source of food and transportation for centuries or more. Yet this great body of water was not a place I spent time or even got close to. I remember D.C.’s rivers as polluted-but-picturesque obstacles, best viewed from above, a backdrop to monuments and cherry blossoms.
Since the Clean Water Act of 1972, much has been done to re-connect D.C. with its waterways: to clean them up and make them more accessible, to reinvigorate waterfronts, to engender a sense of fondness and responsibility that might yield continued protection for these vital ecosystems for years to come.
Recreation in particular is a key tool for connecting people to rivers in a meaningful way.
“It’s harder for polluters to get away with doing bad things to the river when more and more people are using and enjoying it,” says Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks.
And one of the best ways to see large swaths of waterfronts up close and to access waterfront activities in a low-impact way is biking.
Kalli Krumpos, capital trails coalition manager at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), says cycling changed her experience of D.C.
“Biking helped the D.C. region feel like home,” says Krumpos, who relocated to the city from Illinois in 2008. “You’re traveling a little more slowly, so you’re able to take things in. You’re able to enjoy what’s around you because you’re kind of a part of it.”
In her role with WABA, Krumpos works with the Capital Trails Coalition, a collaboration between more than 75 organizations from across the region to build out a network of multi-use trails — planned to be nearly 1,000 miles long, with many of those miles along D.C.’s storied waterways.
As the weather gets warmer, consider planning a bike adventure to take advantage of some of the city’s many waterfront trails. With help from WABA, we put together a few ideas for rides and destinations to get you enjoying river views, catching a cool breeze off the water, trying out some on-water activities and even stopping to learn about the ecology and history of D.C.’s great waterways.
Dipping a Toe In
These shorter rides on more straightforward routes — with ample opportunities to get off your bike and explore — are perfect for cyclists who might be building confidence or riding with kids.
Explore Kingman + Heritage Islands. Created in the early 1900s from material dredged from the Anacostia River, these man-made islands are home to more than 100 species of wildlife and a range of ecosystems, including wildflower meadows, vernal pools and swamp forests. Access the islands via the Anacostia River Trail (ART) to bike the islands’ unpaved path and boardwalk, stopping to check out interpretive signs along the way. kingmanisland.com // @doee_dc
Ride to Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens. A hidden oasis in the city, Kenilworth is the only National Park Service site dedicated to aquatic plants. And you don’t want to miss it in July when the lotuses and water lilies are in peak bloom. To get there, take the ART (currently a 12-mile network of paved trails with more planned). Start at RFK stadium (accessible by car and Metro) for a 15-mile round trip, or opt for a shorter ride by starting and ending further north along the ART. 1550 Anacostia Ave. NE, DC; nps.gov/keaq // @kenilworthnps
Enjoy scenic views, on-water activities and river breezes on these medium-distance routes that connect with other trails if you’re itching to tack on more miles.
Circumnavigate Lake Artemesia. From the ART, follow the Northeast Branch Trail north to Lake Artemesia in Prince George’s County. This 38-acre lake and natural area boasts a fishing pier, gazebos and bi-monthly bird walks hosted by the Prince George’s Audubon Society. Keep an eye out for waterfowl, including ibises. Make it a loop by taking the Rhode Island Avenue Trolley Trail south (following the route of the trolley that ran between Laurel, Maryland, and D.C. in the early 1900s) to the Northwest Branch Trail. Depending on where you begin on the ART, expect about 20 miles of biking. Berwyn Road + 55th Avenue in Berwyn Heights, MD; pgparks.com
Stop for a paddle along the Capital Crescent Trail. The Capital Crescent Trail (CCT) follows the Potomac before turning north along the Little Falls Branch to Bethesda (about 25 miles out and back). Though the CCT is largely asphalt, the first half runs parallel to the C&O Canal Towpath if you’re interested in riding on gravel. This trail boasts river views, a tree-screen from the bustle of the city and access to several boathouses, including Fletcher’s Cove, in operation since the 1850s. Rent a canoe, kayak, rowboat or a stand-up paddleboard to experience the Potomac and C&O Canal from the water. 4940 Canal Rd. NW, DC; boatingindc.com/fletchers-boathouse // @boatingindc
Mapping Your Route
When planning a new adventure, take care to map out your route carefully before you get on your bike. Visit the WABA website for recommended local wayfinding resources, drop by their office to pick up a paper map or get in touch to discuss your proposed route. Once you have a sense of where you want to go and the general route you’d like to take, click through your route on Google Street View (enhanced by Rails to Trails Conservancy data and cyclist feedback) to get a more precise sense of what to expect. waba.org/resources/maps-and-documents
In search of a spot to take a dip? Ready to wade into routes beyond D.C.’s extensive trail network? Here are a few ideas for water-bound adventures. They’ll make for a ride that’s either fun and refreshing or ambitious and challenging — but almost certainly memorable.
Bike to the Beach
For a hefty day with an enormous pay-off, head to D.C.’s closest beach, Sandy Point State Park. From the city, Sandy Point is about 45 miles one way. So unless you’re planning to stay the night, be sure to start early to beat the heat, maximize sunlight and build in time for breaks. dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands
Zip over to one of D.C.’s spray parks or outdoor pools. Further west, NOVA Parks has five waterpark locations, as close to the city as Alexandria and Arlington and as far out as Centreville.
Spray parks: dpr.dc.gov/sprayparks
Outdoor pools: dpr.dc.gov/outdoorpools
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