- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Clickety, click. Fast-turning wheels run lickety-split across a trestle some 70 feet above Rock Creek, hurtling toward Georgetown in a blur of motion.

From 1910 until 1985, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O;) trains crossed this trestle, hauling coal and building supplies from the main line to Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Georgetown. Today, derailleurs make the clicking sound, and the rolling stock on this popular rail trail consists of bicycles, inline skates, wheelchairs and baby carriages.

It’s one of 1,225 trails running on some 12,650 miles of old rail routes nationwide.

“When the railroads started abandoning routes, it made sense to people to use the railroad tracks for trails,” says Keith Laughlin, president of the Washington-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization founded in 1986 that aims to create a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines.

“People always walked along the railroad tracks. The track beds made excellent trails in proximity to places where millions of people live.”

Probably the first rail trail was the Illinois Prairie Path near Chicago, which opened to recreational users in the 1960s, according to Mr. Laughlin.

In addition to providing healthful recreation to more than 100 million people, rail trails also help maintain the integrity of the rail system in case the nation decides to take to training again.

“They’re a mechanism to keep corridors intact for future rail use,” Mr. Laughlin explains. “Of course, we want interim trail use, and if the trains come back, we’d want to have trails beside them.”

Although the Washington area didn’t have the first rail trail on the block, we are clearly no slouches. Three of the 10 most popular trails are right in our back yard, including the most-used trail in the system: Virginia’s Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD;) Trail, which hosts 3 million persons each year.

Close behind, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, are the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail and the North Central Railroad Trail, with a million customers each per year.

Here’s a rundown — or a bike down — on the trails near Washington, plus some information about trails farther from home.

This 11-mile trail cuts a crescent-shaped swath through woods, neighborhoods and towns, starting at the Georgetown waterfront and ending in Silver Spring, where the branch line met the main line.

It’s paved from Georgetown to Bethesda and consists of crushed stone from downtown Bethesda to its current end about two miles west of the Silver Spring Metro station.

When completed, the trail will lead into downtown Silver Spring. For now, there is a connector route along city streets.

Hop aboard the old Georgetown Branch of the B&O; near its terminus — on K Street NW, where trains brought coal and supplies to the factories along the once-industrial Georgetown waterfront.

Follow K Street under Key Bridge and past the ruins of the Alexandria Aqueduct Arch, which once carried barges from the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O;) Canal across the Potomac, to the sign that reads “Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Capital Crescent Trail.”

Just as the railroads supplanted the canals as transportation, the Capital Crescent provides a paved alternative to the more rough-and-tumble, gravel-and-dirt C&O; Canal towpath, which it parallels for the first few miles, running side by side at Fletcher’s Boathouse, 2.8 miles from Georgetown. (Refreshments, restrooms and bike rentals are available at Fletcher’s.)

Between Fletcher’s and Canal Road sits the Abner Cloud House, built in 1802 and the oldest surviving structure along the canal. Cloud was a miller, and the house served both as a residence and for storing grain and flour.

About half a mile past Fletcher’s, the Arizona Avenue trestle carries the trail over the canal and Canal Road and the trail starts curving east — and slightly uphill — toward Bethesda.

The current bridge was recycled from two earlier bridges and went into service in 1910, when the Georgetown Branch went into business.

Half a mile up the Potomac past Chain Bridge, as you cross the District Line into Maryland, look to your left for a stone boundary marker enclosed within a low fence. This is one of 10 boundary stones that defined the boundaries of the District of Columbia.

Just past the boundary stone, look left again at the place once slated for a rail bridge across the Potomac. The B&O; wanted a bridge here to connect its main line to destinations in Virginia and points south, but scrapped the idea when the rival Pennsylvania Railroad gave the B&O; the right to use the bridge at 14th Street.

Pedal ahead, through the Dalecarlia Tunnel, which carries the trail under MacArthur Boulevard. Completed in 1910, the tunnel sports decorative brick facing at both ends.

As you emerge from the tunnel, look right for a view of the Dalecarlia Reservoir, a key link in Washington’s water supply.

The trail continues beside burbling Little Falls, a stream heading toward the Potomac, and passes the site of Loughborough Mill. Nathan Loughborough built a flour mill here in 1830, grinding the wheat the arrived in Georgetown on canal barges. When the Loughboroughs, who were Southern sympathizers, fled south during the Civil War, Yankees reportedly destroyed the mill.

After crossing River Road on a bridge and biking through the back yards of Bethesda, you’ll spill out onto Bethesda Avenue, in the heart of downtown Bethesda, where restaurant choices abound.

If you want to end your trip here, a Metro station is two blocks away, on Wisconsin Avenue. If you want to push on, take a tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue and follow the trail — which is now packed gravel — through pleasant, wooded back yards and the Columbia Country Club and across a restored railroad trestle some 70 feet above Rock Creek.

The trestle was closed when the trains stopped running, and rebuilt at the urging of the Capital Crescent Trail Coalition, opening to bicycle and pedestrian traffic in 2003.

Once over the trestle, you have the option of connecting with the Rock Creek Park Trail, which will take you south to the District or north to Lake Needwood Regional Park, near Rockville.

The Georgetown Branch Trail goes on for about a mile, to the point where the branch train met the main line, about two miles west of the Silver Spring Metro station. The off-road trail ends here, but signs direct you through city streets into downtown Silver Spring.

This 45-mile paved path begins next to a shopping complex — Shirlington — and winds through old and new suburban neighborhoods and into the countryside, through old summer resort towns such as Hamilton and Paeonian Springs, and ends at the old W&OD; railroad station at Purcellville, Va.

It follows a right of way where trains ran from 1860 — when the first train chugged from Alexandria to Leesburg — until 1968, with a six-year hiatus after the railroad was badly damaged during the Civil War.

Its golden age came after the turn of the last century, when it became the Washington & Old Dominion and provided thrice-daily service from Alexandria to Falls Church, Leesburg and Purcellville, with interim stops at such hamlets as Dunn Loring and Paeonian Springs.

Passenger service ended in 1951, and freight service terminated in 1968. Twenty years later, the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park opened for recreational use.

You can hop aboard at Shirlington: Take the Shirlington exit from I-395, bear to the right heading north and continue to the second stoplight, turning left on South Four Mile Run Drive. The trail begins on your right, next to the road.

Or you can access the trail by another rail system, Metro, on which bikes are allowed except during rush hours (7 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays). Convenient Metro stations are East Falls Church, where the station is adjacent to the trail, and Dunn Loring, where a 0.7-mile ride down a sidewalk along Gallows Road leads to the trail.

To avoid making a long round trip, you might want to park one car at a Metro station and ferry another to the end of the line at Purcellville, where parking is available.

From its Shirlington beginning, the trail follows Four Mile Run up the fall line, climbing almost imperceptibly from the Tidewater to the Piedmont as the stream courses downhill alongside.

Stop for a moment at the observation deck for Sparrow Swamp and watch turtles sunning themselves on the rocks and red-winged blackbirds flitting through the reeds, then continue through leafy Bluemont Park, where a big red caboose stands near the site of Bluemont Junction, where the main line met another line from Rosslyn. On weekend afternoons, a volunteer rail buff gives tours and recounts train lore.

Just across Wilson Boulevard, the Bon Air Rose Garden, at its peak in mid-June, provides a fragrant and colorful respite.

Continuing past the East Falls Church Metro station and into the city of Falls Church, the trail heads through a wooded area where wild Turk’s-cap lilies are known to burst into bloom in July.

Approaching Vienna, the trail passes the spot where a brief skirmish between Union and Confederate troops took place on June 17, 1861, the first time during the Civil War when troops were brought into battle by train. Flatbed cars carried some 200 Union soldiers into the area to scout for Confederate troops. South Carolina cavalry forces fired on the train, and a brief skirmish ensued. The Union soldiers reportedly had to walk home, as the frightened engineer put the train in full reverse and left without them.

At Maple Avenue, there’s an opportunity to exit for food or supplies. Caveat: Cyclists have been known to linger too long in the Vienna Inn.

Back on the trail, push on to the Freeman Store, an emporium that dates from 1859 and now sells penny candy and craft items on weekends. During the Civil War, the building was occupied by troops from both sides as the village, with its strategically important railroad, changed hands frequently.

Just up the trail stands a red caboose that Vienna acquired after Virginia repealed a law requiring cabooses on trains, and the old Vienna railroad station, which now houses a model railroad exhibit.

After crossing a pre-Civil War stone arch bridge over Piney Branch, the trail continues through fields crisscrossed by small streams and passes through Reston.

At Old Reston Avenue, stop to rest beside the duck ponds that date back to the 1890s, when Dr. Carl Wiehle laid out a planned community here.

Chug on to the Herndon train station, where you can buy trail guides and watch videos about railroad history, and continue through Sterling. President James Buchanan took the train here to his summer White House in 1859. (Buchanan was one of four presidents to use the railroad: Ulysses S. Grant took the train to a fair in Leesburg; William McKinley journeyed to Dunn Loring to review troops, and Grover Cleveland used the train for a fishing trip to Leesburg.)

Goose Creek, where Cleveland probably fished, is crossed by the highest bridge on the line, the Goose Creek trestle. The bridge has been rebuilt many times, but the stone piers are pre-Civil War. Leesburg, 34 miles from the starting point in Shirlington, offers restaurants, motels, bed-and-breakfast accommodations, and a historic district filled with antique shops.

If you want to make a loop, you can leave the trail in Leesburg and head for Whites Ferry (originally White’s Ferry, named for owner E.V. White), which will take you to the C&O; Canal towpath. To connect, you have to take a short but rather unpleasant ride on the shoulder of U.S. 15. A nicer way to do this is to spend the night at the luxurious Norris House Inn (800/644-1806, www.norrishouse.com), whose kindly innkeepers will deliver you and your bike to Whites Ferry after a sumptuous breakfast.

Past Leesburg, the trail leaves the suburbs behind and passes through a pre-Civil War stone arch at Clarkes Gap, the highest point on the trail, and soon reaches Paeonian Springs, a lovely old town that’s home to the American Workhorse Museum.

The defunct railroad station in Hamilton, an old Quaker hamlet, once welcomed Washingtonians who disembarked here for summer vacations in the town’s boarding houses.

At the state Route 7 bypass, the trail seems to end, but actually it turns left, crosses the bypass, and leads into Purcellville, where it ends at the old railroad station, now an end-of-the-trail visitors’ center. The town offers antique shops and restaurants, and there are B&B; accommodations nearby. Try Montrose Farm B&B; (540/751-0815, www.montrosefarm.com) or Creek Crossing Farm (540/338-7550).

The area’s newest rail trail opened in November 2000, and despite its rather grandiose name runs only 5.6 miles between Bowie and Glenn Dale in Prince George’s County.

It follows a segment of the line that ran from 1908 to 1935, carrying passengers from Washington to then-rural communities such as Glenn Dale and Bowie in state-of-the-art electric trains capable of speeds of 70 mph. During racing season, special trains carried fans to Bowie Race Track.

Plans are in the works to continue the trail across the Patuxent River to Odenton, where the old rail line connected to the South Shore Line, which ran between Baltimore and Annapolis.

For now, this trail — which shares the road with cars in places — makes a pleasant 11.2-mile round trip through suburban back yards and parkland and past horse farms. It’s also an equestrian trail, so watch for horses and evidence of horses.

The trail begins near the intersection of Maryland Route 450 and Route 704. To get to the trail parking lot, take Route 450 to Glenn Dale Road and turn left, past the old Glenn Dale Hospital site to the trail and parking lot.

The Baltimore & Annapolis Trail follows the route of the North Shore Line, which started in the late 1800s and ran roughly along the north shore of the Severn River between Maryland’s capital and its largest city.

The 13.3-mile trail doesn’t reach all the way to Baltimore — it stops at Glen Burnie, on Dorsey Road just east of state Route 3 (parking available).

You can take Baltimore Light Rail, which runs along the old Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad tracks, from Glen Burnie into Baltimore City. Bicycles are permitted except before and after Orioles games. Or you can start your ride in Glen Burnie and head for Annapolis, with its myriad restaurants and watering holes.

The 10-foot-wide, paved path traverses a variety of landscapes — suburban shopping malls, small cities, back yards and wildlife habitats. Highlights include the Earleigh Heights General Store (mile 6.3), circa 1890, which now houses an information center and restrooms, and the restored Severna Park railroad station (mile 9.0), where you can see a picture of the last train to run on this line, in 1950.

The off-road trail ends after crossing under U.S. 50, but you can continue on a marked side-of-the-road path along Boulter’s Way to a parking lot at the intersection with Route 450.

To ride into Annapolis, ride on the paved shoulder of Route 450, which leads across the Severn River into downtown Annapolis. If you haven’t planted a car at the Boulter’s Way parking lot, you’ll have to ride back to Glen Burnie, a 26.6-mile round trip.

If you want an even longer ride, a connector trail at Glen Burnie leads to a 10.6-mile trail around the perimeter of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

To deliver his address on the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln traveled on the North Central Railroad; after his assassination, his body went west along the same tracks.

Union soldiers were transported on this line, which was built in 1838 and linked Washington and Baltimore with Harrisburg and upstate New York.

When railroad use declined, the line faced hard times. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes delivered the death blow, washing out bridges. In 1984, the tracks were removed and replaced by a crushed-stone hiker-biker trail from Ashland, Md., to the Pennsylvania state line.

In 1999, the trail was extended from the border — the Mason-Dixon line — to downtown York, Pa. The trail runs a total of 41 miles, about equally divided between the two states. In Pennsylvania, the trail runs beside — not in place of — the old track.

The southern terminus of the trail is in Ashland, in Baltimore County, and parking is available. From the Baltimore Beltway, take Interstate 83 North to Shawan Road (exit 20). Go east one mile and turn right on York Road and left on Ashland Road. Continue about half a mile to the parking lot.

As you head north of the trail, traffic thins and you ride along Gunpowder Falls and Little Falls, which are not cascades but fast-running streams.

The Monkton railroad station, circa 1898, (mile 6.8) now houses a small museum, with restrooms available, and the nearby Monkton General Store sells sandwiches and drinks. Farther north, Victorian homes with rocking chairs on front porches line the trail — a reminder of the days when people gathered to watch the trains go by.

After you pass Freeland (mile 20.2), which has a trailside cafe, the trail climbs a slight hill, past farmhouses and through woods to the marker for the border drawn by astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon in the 1760s to resolve a property dispute between two of America’s first families, the Calverts and the Penns.

Past this line, the trail becomes the York County Heritage Trail. It continues climbing to New Freedom, the highest point on the trail, then gradually descends toward York.

At Hanover Junction, 10.5 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, you can stop at the station where Lincoln changed trains to get to Gettysburg on Nov. 18, 1863. The station has a small museum and restrooms.

At 15.2 miles past the Maryland state line, the trail enters the Howard Tunnel, a brick-lined, 370-foot tunnel that opened in 1838. It is reputed to be the oldest in the United States. It was rehabilitated in 2003.

The trail ends in York, at the Visitor Center near the intersection of Pershing Avenue and Philadelphia Street. Nearby hostelries include The Yorktowne Hotel, 48 East Market St., 717/848-1111, and Friendship House Bed & Breakfast, 728 E. Philadelphia St., 717/843-8299.

For information about trails farther afield go to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s trail Web site at www.traillink.com. Click on the state you’re interested in and you’ll get a list of trails. Click on the trail you want and you’ll get some information and be directed to the trail Web site, if any.

Happy rail trails!

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