Monday, May 17, 2010

A Quick Natural Getaway in Silver Spring: The Northwest Branch Trails

Everyone is familiar with Sligo Creek Park, which, though it contains miles of trails for jogging and biking, doesn't really remove one from the bustle of traffic or the neighborhoods that surround it. However, just another mile or so up Route 29 along the Northwest Branch Stream are some other, lesser-known trails that offer an excellent opportunity to escape the suburban landscape without leaving the (nebulous) borders of Silver Spring.

While the existence of these trails is old news to the many nearby residents who regularly take advantage of them, I imagine there must be a fair amount of Silver Springers who have driven by the trails' entrances countless times without being aware of their presence.

The best way to access the trails, which run both north towards Wheaton and south into PG County, is via the parking lot at the Burnt Mills Dam where Colesville Rd. becomes Columbia Pike (roughly across from the the Trader Joe's).

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The trails can be reached from the parking lot at the Burnt Mills Dam along Rt. 29.

One good option for a hike is a 5.5 mile loop that starts at the aforementioned parking lot and heads north along the eastern side of the stream and returns along the opposite bank. After just a few minutes on the trail, you leave the noise of Columbia Pike behind and enter a wooded area with few overt traces of civilization. This hiking-only trail is part of the Rachel Carson Greenway Trail, which when ultimately completed will stretch from Adelphi in PG County all the way to the Patuxent River.

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Looking down at the Northwest Branch from the hiking trail.

Along the trail it is surprisingly quiet, with only the occasional distant traffic sounds reminding you of your presence in the middle of a major suburb. During a recent hike on a sunny weekend, I came across very few other people on this trail. The people that I did see were mostly on the path that runs along the opposite side of the stream. Though not particularly challenging, there are some changes in elevation along this first stretch. There are even portions of the trail on which horseback riding is permitted, though on that particular day I didn't see any equestrian activity.

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The Northwest Branch Stream

Just before the hiking trail reaches Brookside Gardens, it crosses the stream and intersects the Northwest Branch Trail on the opposite bank. You can follow this trail back to the parking lot where you started your hike. This trail is much flatter and wider, and though not paved, there are stretches that appear to have been covered with gravel at some point. You'll probably encounter more joggers and dog-walkers on this side than you would along the hiking path across the stream. A small highlight along the trail is this Star Trek-like rock formation.



While they may not be on par with the Billy Goat Trail, the trails along the NW Branch offer a quick natural getaway just minutes away from downtown Silver Spring. If you haven't already, I'd recommend checking them out sometime on a pleasant weekend.





13 comments:

Springvale Roader said...

I defeated my first Gorn on the Northwest Branch Trail.

Good article, Sligo. That trail is a hidden gem among the hustle & bustle of Silver Spring.

whatsupwheaton said...

Ha, we were going to post something similar this week as we did a 20 miler down the Sligo bike trail and then up the Northwest trail.
Alas we went too far to where the trail dead ended just shy of 495 and had to come back South to Piney Branch and then take the street over to Sligo. Nice pair of trails. Good pics.

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of thoughts
1, Why can't MoCo do something with the vacant buildings at Burnt Mill. Would be a great place for a visitors' center/cafe.
2, Would also be great if there was a realistic way for hikers to cross Route 29, ideally via an underpass.

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those masses of Silver Springers who rode by that dam ten zillion times since I moved here in 2001 and never gave it a second thought! Just three weeks ago I took a 5 mile hike back there and couldn't believe that I'd been missing out on such an incredible natural resource. It's beautiful back there...and like you said, just a few minutes into the trail and you can completely escape the urban surroundings. It feels like you are way out in the country forest.

Terry in Silver Spring said...

You see kayakers ride over the edge of that dam. It looks like a great time. The other side of Colesville is a whole different world. That run is called the Colesville Crusher and is a +5 rapids.

WheatonCalling said...

I love to hike, so I can't believe I haven't checked this out yet. Thanks for posting this info!

Chuck said...

If you want a good work out in that stretch of trail, take the higher trail and then look for the animal trails. With the stream downhill and houses above, there is no real chance of getting lost. Once in the thick of the woods so to speak you will be forced to descend and ascend the numerous stream valleys that cut their way to NW Branch. You'll be glad to return on the stream-side trail. This is also where you have a better chance of seeing wildlife.

Anonymous said...

Watch out for the beavers along this trail. They've been encroaching on the surrounding neighborhoods and over the past few years lots of small animals have gone missing. You can see extensive evidence of the beavers all along this stream valley. They've been cutting down trees without permits and building dams without going through environmental review. My impression is that the MoCo Planning Board has established a laissez faire approach to the NW Branch beavers.

Anonymous said...

It's not a long trail (about a mile) but the Long Branch trail between Piney Branch and Carroll Ave is also a nice bit of scenery along the creek.

Hugo said...

As others have said, this is a great series of trails right in the area. Great hiking in either direction, we are frequent users.

C. P. Zilliacus said...

No mention of the massive (and, in my opinion) attractive steel arch bridge that carries the Capital Beltway (I-495) over the Northwest Branch gorge.

From the Beltway itself, most motorists are not aware that they are crossing such a large structure, but looking at it from below gives a rather different view.

Elton in Dundalk said...

I grew up in Woodmoor, a bedroom community that overlooks the Northwest Branch (of the Anacostia River)on the south side of Colesville Road in the 1940s and '50s. This post brought back some excellent memories.

There was a great swimming hole about a quarter mile down the trail that had huge boulders on either side of the stream. Kids used to dive off the rocks into the stream. This was tricky, because if you didn't push off hard enough you could bash your head on the rocks below! I knew a couple of kids who ended up that way.

We called that area "Camp Wilson," although I don't know why.

Thanks for the memories, Sligo!

Ingrid Regina Sullivan said...

On your recommendation, I took the wife and tyke on this trail yesterday. We had a great time -- thanks for pointing it out!