Where We Run: Northwest Branch Trail

Today's stop took us into the heart of eastern Montgomery County, not too far from the DC line. The aptly named Northwest Branch Trail follows the northwest branch of the Anacostia River, beginning as a bike path at the split of the Anacostia just south of Hyattsville in Prince George's County. The bike path follows the small river up through College Park, Langley Park and into Montgomery County, turning into a natural surface path just before the river reaches the Capital Beltway near Montgomery Blair High School.

From there, the trail runs north to US Route 29, and then continues on the other side up to Wheaton Regional Park (in fact, the Northwest Branch continues north still, and there is a portion of trail that runs near it between James H. Blake and Sherwood high schools that is part of the bigger Rachel Carson Greenway). This article focuses on the all-natural surfaces section between the northern end (Wheaton Regional Park) and US Route 29, at Burnt Mills. Parking is plentiful at both ends of the trail.

The west side

The trail just east of Kemp Mill Road.

The first part of the run focuses on the west bank of the river (there are paths on each side, connected by a bridge just east of Wheaton Regional Park and a small creek crossing at Burnt Mills). The trail is much easier to run on than the western side, and one can get going at a fairly decent clip if accustomed to running on soft, somewhat uneven surfaces. There are still enough rough patches, like the rock garden below, to make it a decently challenging trail run, even on the "easier" side of the river.

Unlike the trail on the east side of the river, there is almost no elevation change on the west side, save for one hill that detours around a section (above) lined with newly-planted saplings.

Just shy of three miles southeast of Wheaton Regional Park, the trail splits. The Northwest Branch trail continues another mile or so south to Burnt Mills, while the Chesapeake Bay Trail splits off west and runs uphill to Northwood High School. The intersection of the trails features part of the Gladiators' home cross country course, which hosts the annual MCPS Consortia Championships.

The Northwood cross country course crosses this bridge and then turns left, while the Northwest Branch Trail continues north to the right.

South of the turnoff for Northwood High School, the trail takes on a slightly different flavor, rising a few more feet above the Northwest Branch. Upon reaching Burnt Mills along US Route 29, the river is dammed, giving way to a small waterfall and surrounding shore that is among the most populated parts of the trail.

You'll need to make a small creek crossing - a perfect foreshadowing for what awaits on the eastern side of the river - to reach Burnt Mills.

The parking lot at Burnt Mills, with the waterfall and entrance to the trails on the eastern side of the river at the far left. You can also reach the rest of the Northwest Branch Trail to the south of Route 29 by crossing at the traffic light.

The east side

The first thing you will notice on the eastern side of the Northwest Branch is the calming view of the river at its widest point, just before it reaches the waterfall at Burnt Mills. For about a half mile, the path is flat and without interruption. Before long, however, you'll head up the first of multiple ridges along the eastern bank. If you don't feel comfortable running fairly technical trails or alongside fairly steep drops, avoid running along the eastern side of the river.

If you can't tell, to the left of the trail is about a 20-foot drop to the edge of the water below - and the trail is still going up!

What goes up, must come down! Be careful on the way down any of the ridges, and look out for roots and loose rocks.

Aside from the elevation changes and narrower trails, the trail on the eastern side also features new challenges, such as multiple creek crossings and various rock gardens. Due to the nature of the surfaces, it is best to wait at least two days after rain before running on the trails, as slippery, muddy trails can pose even more dangers. Make sure to mind every step when running on the eastern side of the river, especially through the various rock gardens.

At multiple points on the eastern side of the river, the trail runs straight through a rock outcrop like the one above. Mind your step, and slow down to a walk for a moment if need be!

As you travel further north and back toward Wheaton Regional Park, the trail begins to ease up in terms of difficulty, though it doesn't follow alongside the river like it does on the west side and isnt' nearly as wide. It also runs directly behind Springbrook High School on this side. Make sure you follow the blue markings on the trees as there are plenty of side paths that shoot off into the surrounding neighborhoods (this goes for all parts of the eastern side of the river).

Eventually, the trail reaches a bridge that crosses back over the Northwest Branch and onto the western bank, just under a half mile away from Wheaton Regional Park. An entire loop, beginning and ending at the far northern point on Plyers Mill Road (where parking is not hard to find) is somewhere between 8 and 8.5 miles.

Crossing back over the Northwest Branch onto the western bank.

All told, the Northwest Branch Trail - spanning from Wheaton to Hyattsville - offers plenty of choices for all kinds of running in a heavily suburbanized area. Those seeking soft surfaces and challenging terrain will find the northern section enjoyable, and can easily add on mileage on the dirt and paved trails in neighboring Wheaton Regional Park.

If you have a recommendation for a place to be featured in the coming weeks, let us know!

More Pictures from the Northwest Branch

As is the case with the NCR Trail, you'll never be too far from a history and/or geography lesson while on the Rachel Carson Greenway.

One of the trail's countless side paths that run uphill out of the river valley and into surrounding neighborhoods.

Old pipelines are not an uncommon sight on the western side of the river near Burnt Mills.

The river really begins to widen nearing the waterfall just before US Route 29.

Don't look down! The ridges on the eastern bank of the river can climb up to 30 feet (or higher) above the water below.

Follow the blue markings on the trees, as shown in the pictures above, and you'll navigate your way around the series of side trails that criss-cross the eastern bank of the river.

Both Springbrook and Northwood high schools can lay claim to their respective banks of the Northwest Branch. The stands for Springbrook's track can be seen from the trails on the eastern side, and a side trail connects to the neighborhood next to campus.