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Detour Notice: As of September 2017, the Capital Crescent Trail east of downtown Bethesda was closed due to the construction of the Purple Line light-rail system. It is estimated that the reopening of the CCT from Bethesda to Silver Spring as a paved trail adjacent to the Purple Line will happen in 2025 or 2026. An on-road detour has been designated around the closure; a map of the route is available on the website for the Purple Line project.
Note: The detour involves busy Jones Bridge Road, which doesn’t have a shoulder or a marked bike lane. Trail users can find lower-stress alternatives to the official detour on the Washington Area Bicyclist Association website.
Forming an emerald arc around the northern and western borders of the District of Columbia, the Capital Crescent Trail, also known as the Georgetown Branch Trail, connects Washington to its Maryland suburbs. The pathway is so lushly wooded that, at times, you might forget that the thrum of the nation’s capital lies just over the trees. But a glance over your shoulder while traveling along the Potomac River provides a nice view of the Washington Monument and a reminder of the city’s closeness.
D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood is where 7 miles of paved trail begin, just a few blocks from the prestigious John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the infamous Watergate complex. It quickly heads into leafy surroundings on its way north to Maryland and the popular dining and shopping area of Bethesda. From there, it will eventually continue as a paved trail adjacent to the Purple Line light-rail system, going another 4 miles into downtown Silver Spring with a future connection to the Metropolitan Branch Trail.
The trail offers a near-perfect blend of community connector and recreational asset. Its first few miles are nestled within a national historical park, tucked between the Potomac River and the scenic C&O Canal. The canal’s towpath closely parallels the Capital Crescent Trail for a few miles before eventually continuing northwest on a winding journey of nearly 185 miles to Cumberland, Maryland. Both trails are part of the developing 800-mile Capital Trails Coalition network, a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy TrailNation project that aims to connect the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region by multiuse trail.
A meeting point for the two trails at Fletcher’s Cove—which has been in operation since the 1850s—is a favorite spot of locals. An adjacent stone house overlooking the trail is the oldest structure on the canal, and a rental shop offers canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and even hydro bikes for a water’s-eye view of the landscape. Note that there’s an almost continuous slight uphill grade from Fletcher’s Cove continuing north to downtown Bethesda.
Like anything in Washington, the trail has a rich and colorful history. It traces the route of the former Georgetown Branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which opened in 1910. The line hauled freight for 75 years, including the coal that provided electricity for Georgetown’s streetcars and powered the steam plant that warmed federal buildings like the White House. Limestone for the construction of the Lincoln Memorial was also ferried on the tracks.
Some of the trail’s best features are nods to its railroad past. Near the D.C.–Maryland border, the trail goes through the Dalecarlia Tunnel. The 340-foot-long brick structure is especially welcome as a cool respite on hot summer days. Be sure to look for the unusual person-size cutouts in the tunnel’s sides, used if a pedestrian needed to get out of the way of a passing train.
The trail is also part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Great American Rail-Trail, which spans the United States be-tween Washington, D.C., and Washington State.
Parking in Washington, D.C.: Fletcher’s Cove (4940 Canal Road NW). Parking is accessible only from northbound Canal Road NW or Reservoir Road NW. Note that traffic on Canal Road NW is one-way inbound during morning rush hour and one-way outbound during evening rush hour. The trail properly begins 3 miles east in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., but this is the first opportunity for free trailside parking.
Parking in Bethesda: Little Falls Park (Little Falls Pkwy & Arlington Road) and Bethesda Elm Street Garage (4841 Bethesda Ave), which is paid parking. The trail is one block east of this Montgomery County–managed garage.
To start in Bethesda, take the Capital Beltway to the MD Route 355 (Wisconsin Ave.) exit and head south toward Bethesda. In downtown Bethesda, turn right onto Bethesda Ave. The trail crosses Bethesda Ave. at Woodmont Ave., just one block west of Wisconsin Ave.
To begin in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., go south on Wisconsin Ave. to its end under the Whitehurst Freeway and turn right onto Water Street. The trail begins at the end of Water Street. Street parking is usually available along Water Street on weekends.
To access the on-road bike route that connects downtown Silver Spring to the Georgetown Branch, from the Capital Beltway (Interstate 495), take the Georgia Ave. exit south toward Silver Spring. After 1.5 miles, turn right on Colesville Road in downtown Silver Spring toward the Metro station. At the first light, turn right onto Second Ave. The Georgetown Branch Trail starts at this intersection.
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