DC / MD Area Training Routes

One of my favorite parts of running and biking is exploring new places, but there’s still something comforting and exhilarating about the familiarity of a regular, well-trodden route. Like being in the company of an old friend, we can let our minds relax and just enjoy being there.

As a follow-up to running a local 5K, I wanted to post some of my favorite local routes. The landscapes, climates, and infrastructures of the areas we call home have a huge influence on how and why we train and our experiences doing it. It’s fun to dream about far off mountains and incredibly scenic races, but we should all have an appreciation of and make the best of wherever we find ourselves at the moment. Need some ideas for routes around your area? Check out the local groups that make up our running and biking communities, and that create a lot of the infrastructure, opportunities, and support that make training and racing possible in the first place.

A large part of what’s below originally appeared in a blog post for Chopt a few months ago, when they were creating local destination salads and focusing on the local farms that make up their supply chain.

Rock Creek Trail (Run)

Almost every run I do starts or ends here. A tributary to Rock Creek actually runs behind my house, and I’m only a quarter of a mile from the trailhead. From there, I can go north to dirt trails around lakes, or head south all the way down to DC via a combination of asphalt bike path and dirt trail, all through a forested park.

The number of times I’ve used this trailhead must be approaching 4 figures. Turning down it is almost as much a part of my routine as brushing my teeth. And yes I brush my teeth! Flossing? Ok let’s move to the next picture.
My daily decision. Actually it’s almost always left. Left is the way to work.
This might look nice, but that bridge is a slippery death trap most of the winter.

Western Ridge Trail (Run)

When I’m training for ultras, I run this trail nearly every weekday to or from work after coming down the Rock Creek Trail to the MD / DC border. Being inside Washington, DC, yet being able to be out in the woods out of sight of any road or development is amazing. I even have my own little “grove of solitude” where I stop for a few minutes each time to relax and clear my mind.

I’m on this trail much more in the winter, and the still, crisp air makes it seem even more to me like I must be hundreds of miles away from the capital city of the US.
I enjoy the solitude this trail usually gives me, but if a puppy wants to join me to play in the creek, who am I to complain?
Not far from the trail are the Rock Creek capitol stones, remnants of the original US Capitol building that were removed during renovation about 60 years ago and just tossed into the woods.

Capital Crescent Trail (Run / Bike)

I have two main routes that I take for my commute: entirely through Rock Creek Park or switching over to the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda. I take this trail for both running and biking, and love the views it gives of the Potomac all the way down to the Washington Monument.

The trail gently slopes downward all the way from Bethesda, with most of the DC portion running right beside the Potomac River.
Almost every route I take to work gives me a brief glimpse of the Washington Monument. While I rarely actually go down to the National Mall, it’s awesome to get the daily reminder that I get to work in the nation’s capital.

Lake Bernard Frank (Run)

This is my favorite little loop when I need a short run that’s actually not a commute. It gives me actual dirt trail, with a few somewhat technical sections, and some great views of the lake. It’s also home to my main hill for Barkley training.

If only I were allowed to swim here (in much warmer conditions of course) maybe I wouldn’t hate swimming as much. It kills me being so close to places like this and not being able to get in the water.
That “trail” is all me. Thousands of repeats on this hill over the past two years, and really just during the four months leading up to Barkley in each of those years. Thousands.

Needwood Lake (Run)

This is another one of my go-to short runs: up to the northern end of the Rock Creek Trail, and then on actual dirt trails around the lake (or beyond). There are great boating activities here during the summer, and peaceful views across the lake during the winter.

Another lake I can’t swim in, but still beautiful.
Needwood is a bit bigger than Bernard Frank, and does have paddle boats and kayaks available during the summer.

Mar Lu Ridge (Run / Bike)

I have a love / hate relationship with Mar Lu Ridge. I’ve run up and down it hundreds of times, in miserable conditions, but I owe much of my success to this hill. This is where I did most of my Barkley training my first year, and where I’ve hosted the Mar Lu Marathon each of the following years (26 repeats for 26 miles and 13K ft of climbing… we doubled our number of entrants last year to 2!). It does offer some incredible views, and on a clear day I can pick out the Washington Monument 40 miles away. It also makes for a great hill for biking, with equally great views going down the other side.

As with most views, the picture doesn’t do it justice. You’ll just have to trust me when I say the Washington Monument is down there somewhere.
Looking north towards Harper’s Ferry, which is at that gap in the ridge way in the distance that the Potomac River cuts through.

Damascus Road (Bike)

This portion of highway 650 between Damascus and Sunshine is without a doubt my favorite stretch of road for biking. It’s close enough to where I live that I can get to it quickly, and it’s a perfectly smooth stretch of low-traffic open road through beautiful farmland.

Perfectly smooth road, low traffic, beautiful farmland, and some gently rolling hills.
It’s still a bit crazy to me that both this and downtown Washington, DC are just a short bike ride away.

Johnsville (Bike)

What started as amusement in going to a place called Johnsville has grown to become one of my favorite routes. The ride is a perfect distance for mid-season training, and it takes me on great roads through beautiful countryside. Maryland may not offer me much in the way of mountains, but it does give me great roads with low traffic and beautiful landscapes.

No caption necessary. The awesomeness of the sign speaks for itself.
Of course Johnsville has a rodeo! And I’ll just assume that the JW is for my first two initials.

Matthew Henson Trail (Run)

This is the only route on here that’s a complete out and back for me. I prefer one way or loops. This trail (asphalt path) is a great way for me to switch it up occasionally, though, and get off the main Rock Creek Trail for a nice 15+ mile run.

Matthew Henson starts right after crossing Rock Creek and splitting off of the main path.
Apparently hazards to watch out for include cars driving off of the road and through footbridges.
I don’t ever intentionally try for Strava CRs, or really even pay attention to Strava, but I’ve broken my own course record on this part of the route like 4 times. It’s not even very fast… someone else come run this trail!

Connecticut Avenue (Run)

I think this is the only place on my list that is running on an actual road. This is actually the shortest route for me to get home by foot, and takes me through some great sections of the city: through Dupont Circle and by my favorite Chopt location, and on up by the Zoo and Van Ness all the way into Maryland and just a couple of miles from my house.

Dupont Circle, right outside my usual metro stop… on those occasions when I actually take the metro.
I see you sneaky panda.

White’s Ferry (Bike)

White’s Ferry itself isn’t all that great, but it does amuse me a bit to go see the only method of transportation across the Potomac for 40 miles north of I-495. The route to White’s Ferry also takes me through some great roads through small towns and farmland, ending with a nice hill down to the ferry.

This is why American Legion Memorial Bridge traffic is so horrible, because the only other way across the river without going nearly to West Virginia is the General Jubal A Early ferry. I’m guessing that’s its name because it’s probably still the exact same boat the Confederate Army used to retreat back to Virginia.
Look at that nice wide, smooth shoulder, heading out into the countryside.

Beach Drive (Bike)

I bike Beach Drive as my commute half a dozen times per week. I want to love this one more, and it is an incredible route in the context of commuting to work in a metropolitan area for nearly 20 miles, but the DC portion of the road is laden with potholes, bumps, and drivers using the national park as a highway. They’re currently working on fixing the road, so hopefully in a year or two this one will be further up the list.

The road is basically a minefield. After twenty something years of delays they’re finally fixing it, but portions of it are closed in the process and it’ll probably take two years for them to fix.
Fortunately while Beach Drive is closed, bikes are detoured onto this nice, smooth, every bit as beautiful route that’s closed to cars during construction! It’s a bit longer for me, but well worth it at the moment.

Sugarloaf Mountain (Run)

I spent much more time biking around this one, or admiring it while I’m doing Mar Lu Ridge repeats, than actually being at it, but it offers some great trails not all that far away from where I live. It’s great for a run, or a family outing.

Sugarloaf gives some great views back towards my nemesis, Mar Lu Ridge. The power cut on the right is the one I run.
I’ll admit, I only smiled for the camera. It was triple digit heat that day and he was well past the point of being a light load. His smile? Probably genuine, and diabolical. 😉

Shenandoah (Run / Bike)

This one is a bit more of a destination for me. It’s not often that I can make it the couple of hours south to enjoy it, but when I do it offers incredible trails or incredible biking on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Some of my favorite races I’ve done, such as Hellgate 100K and The Wild Oak Trail 100, are also in this general area.

I’ve biked quite a few sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway. One day, if I get the time, I’d love to do the whole thing.
Pace can suffer a bit when you have to stop and admire gorgeous views every mile.
One of my more questionable parenting decisions was deciding we should take our son up Old Rag when we was one and a half. The hike can get a bit technical, with some good scrambling, and there was a lot “here you hold the baby while I squeeze up this crevice and then you can hand him back to me.” When he’s older, he can wonder what on earth we were thinking while also admiring the incredible things he got to see from an early age.

Honorable Mentions

These are places that I love but didn’t quite make the list, or that I just don’t get to do very often because they’re not conveniently located for me. If you have more suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

  • Potomac Heritage Trail
  • W&OD Trail
  • Catoctin Mountain (as long as I’m not getting detained by the police for accidentally stopping at the entrance to Camp David)
  • South Mountain (the AT runs along here, including the first part of JFK50)
  • C&O Canal (includes the middle section of JFK50)
  • Highway 28 from Darnestown to Rocky Point
  • Highway 94


You’ll notice there aren’t any swimming locations here, other than the lakes that I can’t swim in. Well, swimming consists of the same thing, nearly every single time. I have done open water swimming a few times at Greenbrier State Park, but it’s about an hour from my house.

Yay, over-chlorinated water that’s going to turn my skin white and destroy my hair! But wait, there’s even a line painted on the bottom that I can stare at?!
Ok, so during the summer I do have the option of this slightly less over-chlorinated outdoor pool. And its line is painted black instead of blue! I just try not to think about the number of kids in there and how they strangely never seem to need to go use the restroom.

14 thoughts on “DC / MD Area Training Routes

  • 2017-11-09 at 3:18 PM

    Great list! Do you run Valley Trail in addition to Western Ridge? There are some good spots for rocky hill repeats on the Annapolis Rock hike. Glover Archbold trail is also a nice easy trail run.

    • 2017-11-09 at 3:26 PM

      Thanks! I do run Valley Trail occasionally, but tend to mostly stick with Western Ridge. I’m normally in a bit of a rush to either get home or get to work, and the parts of Valley Trail that I’ve done I’ve found to be good bit more technical and slow-going (which I would love, if time weren’t an issue).

      • 2017-11-09 at 3:32 PM

        Yep, some good technical bits on Valley–the best of which are quasi closed-off with the construction (and some Park Police officers are more forgiving than others…). Digging the looks of that Lake Bernard Frank ‘trail’!

        • 2017-11-09 at 5:36 PM

          I didn’t realize they had closed things on that side of the creek, good to know! Most of my time avoiding police officers is during the winter once they start “managing” the deer population in Rock Creek. That mostly seems to be done in the MD section, though.

  • 2017-11-09 at 5:27 PM

    You need to check out the trail system at Seneca Creek State Park and Schafer Farms (and Muddy Branch Park) – you can string together a route of just about any distance — all less than 20 min away from Rockville. This is an amazing trail system.

    • 2017-11-09 at 5:34 PM

      Thanks, I’ve been by that area quite a bit, but never on the trails. I’ll have to check it out!

  • 2017-11-09 at 9:32 PM

    You should check out Northwest Branch/Rachel Carson in Silver Spring sometime, too (near Wheaton Regional). Fantastic trails.

    • 2017-11-09 at 10:37 PM

      Thanks I didn’t know about that one, and it looks like a great network that’s pretty close to me! Connects to Sligo Creek and goes down the Anacostia… new long commute route?

  • 2017-11-11 at 3:22 PM

    Beautiful trails I use to walk a lot but never ran I have a neice and a nephew who run marathons in coumbus ohio and also white planes new mexico. I really love your post and that was so cute about running from your little boy

    • 2017-11-12 at 10:53 PM

      Thank you, and hope you’re able to get out and keep enjoying the woods yourself

  • 2017-11-16 at 11:23 AM

    is swimming forbidden in the lakes there? why?

      • 2017-11-19 at 2:35 AM

        That’s a pity!

        I’ve noticed how it’s hard to find a lake to swim to around Brussels, Belgium for example (where I’m living now). At one place we’ve been told the lake was under the administration of a nearby hotel and they forbid swimming because they don’t want to organise lifeguards.

        No such issues in Romania where I’m from…you’re on your own there.

        • 2017-11-19 at 11:25 PM

          I’ve heard something about a harmful bacteria or algae that’s in the water, but I’m guessing they just don’t want the liability of people swimming there.


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