About this Itinerary
The history of the Capital Crescent Trail—named for its shape and location near DC—is closely tied to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy itself: many of RTC’s original staff and board members contributed directly to early efforts to build the trail, which follows the abandoned corridor of the Georgetown Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The Capital Crescent Trail (CCT) probably gets more traffic now than it ever did as a rail line, albeit of the bipedal and two-wheeled variety. It’s easily biked in a couple of hours at a slow pace and links to other area trails to make nice loop routes, including the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park towpath and the Rock Creek Park Trail.
Fly into Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, and ride the Metro to any number of hotels in the District or in neighboring Virginia or Maryland. The River Inn in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of DC is about a half mile from the start of the CCT. The boutique hotel features studio-size and one-bedroom apartment suites with kitchens and living space. They also provide bikes free of charge for rides up to two hours. A little farther away but still within bikingdistance to the trail, check out the Swann House B&B, in a grand brick mansion in the historical Dupont Circle neighborhood.
You can rent bikes at Big Wheel Bikes in Georgetown, right next to the C&O Canal at 33rd and M streets, or at Thompson Boat Center (no overnight rentals and first-come, first-served only), also in Georgetown near the start of the C&O Canal and the CCT. They also rent boats, if you want a paddle after your ride.
Depending on where you stay, you can access the trail by Metro from Silver Spring or Bethesda stations (Red Line) at the trail’s northeastern end. (You can take your bike on Metro during off-peak hours only; check Metro’s website for guidelines on bringing bikes on board.) This trail description, however, begins from the Georgetown end and heads north, which is the best direction because you can then zip mostly downhill along the Rock Creek Park Trail (or Beach Drive) back to Georgetown. There’s another Metro option, the Orange Line to Foggy Bottom, which requires road riding a half-mile or so to the trailhead in Georgetown.
Begin your ride at Georgetown Waterfront Park, a beautifully redeveloped urban strip of green along the northeast bank of the Potomac River. If you want to check out the interpretive signs along the waterfront path, you must dismount and walk your bike through. Alternatively, you can ride your bike along the adjacent K Street/Water Street (underneath the raised Whitehurst Freeway). On hot summer days, the park has just the spot for cooling down: a large spray fountain that’s popular with both big and little people. You can also walk a labyrinth at the west end any time of year.
Just past the waterfront park, the trail goes under the Key Bridge then through a short tunnel under a historical feature of the old Alexandria Canal. Opened in 1843, this aqueduct provided passage for canal boats to and from the Potomac River and the canal. At one time the aqueduct was filled to a depth of seven feet of water. During the Civil War, the aqueduct was drained and converted to a double-track wagon road. In 1886, it was replaced by a steel bridge on the same abutments, carrying vehicles and pedestrians until the Key Bridge replaced it in 1924.
Continue up the trail, sandwiched between the river on your left and the C&O Canal towpath trail on your right. Just the other side of the towpath is the remains of the canal, which still contains water through this lower section and sees its share of paddlers.
You’ll see mile markers along the trail at 0.5-mile intervals, which are numbered from the Silver Spring (north) end. For a list of points of interest and historical details at the mile markers, as well as the location of trail amenities, visit the Coalition for the CCT online. The trail is suitable for road bikes and paved for about seven miles to Bethesda, while the remaining four miles are hard-packed stone.
Not far from the trail’s start, you’ll reach Fletcher’s Cove Boat House, which has nice restrooms and a drinking fountain. (They also rent bikes for the day as well as boats.) You can also buy snacks and drinks here during summer, and you can cross over to the C&O Canal to look at the white-painted brick Abner Cloud house. Built in 1801, it’s one of the oldest existing structures along the canal. It was used as a family home and storage for grain and flour.
Continuing along the CCT, the trail crosses above the C&O Canal on a steel trestle at Arizona Avenue. The bridge was actually cobbled together from two older railway bridges, using parts from a third. The current bridge has undergone a few necessary upgrades, but its salvaged parts were likely recycled from bridges built shortly after the Civil War. A little farther along is Chain Bridge, visible through the trees and crossing the Potomac. The bridge was built in 1936, though the crossing has been used since 1797, when the first bridge was built here to replace a ferry that linked Virginia and Maryland. After the original bridge was destroyed by floods, its 1808 replacement used chains anchored to stone abutments to suspend the roadway (hence the name). Damage to that and subsequent bridges, made with wood and eventually steel, gave us the current crossing, high above the river.
A short distance farther past Chain Bridge, the CCT turns north at the DC–Maryland line, going past the Washington Aqueduct and the Dalecarlia Reservoir. The original stone boundary marker used to mark out DC is at mile 6.7 inside a small fence just east of the trail.
You’ll head up and over the Dalecarlia bridge, which was finished in 1996 and includes a component of a former bridge that took the Georgetown Branch rail line over the Cabin John trolley line, a popular route from Georgetown to the old Glen Echo amusement park. Stop for a rest and to refill your water bottle. An interpretive panel describes a little more about the area and has a large map board of the trail.
Just after the aqueduct, the trail passes through a long tunnel under MacArthur Avenue. The tunnel is lighted but still quite dark. The B&O Railroad built the tunnel entirely out of brick—the walls seep water—completing it in 1910. That same year the Georgetown Branch rail line first came into service exclusively for shipping mostly coal and building materials among Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Georgetown. Trains stopped running in 1985, and a year later, the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail formed to promote the corridor’s transformation into a hiker-biker trail.
Next, the trail passes through Little Falls Stream Valley Park then crosses Massachusetts Avenue (at grade, so use caution) through a forested corridor. A bridge carries you safely over River Road. After a few more at-grade crossings, you arrive in downtown Bethesda, where the trail makes a dogleg across Bethesda and Woodmont avenues.
Bethesda is a great place to stop for a meal, snack, or drink or to check out the trendy shops. There’s also a Barnes & Noble right at the intersection next to the trail. You’ll find plenty of bike racks along Woodmont if you want to get off to explore or eat. Your options are many and include Mon Ami Gabi (serving French-inspired meals), Bethesda Bagels (excellent bagels and sandwiches plus all-day breakfast), Sweetgreen (for salad lovers who prefer their greens local and organic), Jaleo (outstanding Spanish tapas and great wine list), as well as American bar and grill staples, ethic options (Indian and Asian cuisine), a mussel bar, and countless other eateries all within a short distance of the trail.
In Bethesda, the CCT continues through an 855-foot-long tunnel under the Apex building and Wisconsin Avenue. From here, the surface changes to crushed gravel. When you emerge from the tunnel the signs will announce “Georgetown Branch Trail,” which is really part of the CCT. Plans for this interim trail have been in the works for years, including eventual paving and linking all the way to Silver Spring Metro Station.
The gravel route continues another three miles to end at Stewart Avenue in Lynttonsville. On the way, you’ll have a few more road crossings and pass through the golf course at Columbia Country Club. When you reach Jones Mill Road, you can carry on to the end (under a mile) and then turn around to return via the CCT.
Alternatively, carry on to just over the trestle spanning Rock Creek Park; look for the gravel path taking off to the right and follow it down to the park (Terrace Drive, then right on Freyman Drive to the park). Take the Rock Creek Park Trail south back into DC (about 11 miles, the same distance you would travel if returning via the CCT). On weekends, much of Beach Drive through the park is closed to motor vehicles, making for an awesome stretch of cruising all the way down the hill back to the city. On the way, you will pass the National Zoo , where you can stop for a stroll or an ice cream; there’s no admission charge. Bike racks are available up the hill across from the Mane Grill café.
If you do this route on a weekday and want to avoid traffic, just stay on the Rock Creek Trail instead of taking off down Beach Drive. Rock Creek Trail takes a pretty windy route, and includes several side paths; in places, it’s hard to tell which is the main route, so bring a map or stop to ask any one of the scads of trail users you will meet along the way for directions. They will be more than happy to help guide you. The road is less windy but you will be sharing it with a lot of other weekend fun-seekers on foot, rolling on inline skates, and on bike.
Whichever route you take, at least carry on the CCT/Georgetown Branch across Jones Mill Road another several hundred yards to the rehabilitated railroad bridge, which is suspended 70 feet above the park. Observation decks provide nice photo ops.
If you didn’t get a chance to try some of the other trails in the area yet, you can do so today; both the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park towpath and the Rock Creek Park Trail are great options.
Georgetown is also a worthwhile excursion; you can explore the area around the waterfront, which includes dozens of shops and restaurants. Up the steep hill from K Street, you will find a major shopping and restaurant district. There are too many places to name here, but visit Georgetown online for a list of attractions, eateries, shops and events.
Likewise, the nearby Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle areas (including a historic district that’s part of the National Park Service) have their own unique vibe and venues. And of course, the rest of DC, including the National Mall and attractions in neighboring Virginia and Maryland will be enough to keep you busy for months.