Riding the Great Washington Loop

This weekend I did a ride that’s been tempting me since we first moved from Arlington into the District three years ago: The Great Washington Loop. Starting from Georgetown, the loop takes you up the Capital Crescent Trail into Montgomery County and then circles the District via the Georgetown Branch Trail in Bethesda, Sligo Creek trail in Silver Spring, the Northern Branch Trail near Brentwood, and finally the Metropolital Branch Trail back into the District. Clocking in at more than 30 miles. It is an epic ride, to be sure.

The good

These trails are some of the best maintained, least-congested bike infrastructure in the area. When there’s pavement it’s smooth if not fresh, usually wide enough to ride abreast with room to adjust if someone tries to pass, and not overcrowded. Unlike the Rock Creek Park Trails there’s typically room to pass walkers and runners without slamming on your breaks, and there’s almost always space for them to run or walk off the pavement if necessary.

No steel plates were encountered during the duration of the ride.

About 90% of the ride is on some kind of trail if not always paved. The on-street segments are for the most part easy (though, see The bad for a big caveat) and where you’re required to cross large highways you are given a crosswalk and flashing lights to help cars see and stop for you.

The Georgetown Branch Trail remains unpaved, for the most part it’s not a problem but you can’t ride it with pizza cutter tires and watch out for erosion. The bridge crossing over rock creek and the old railroad bridge you cross right before joining the road are breathtaking views.

The meh

Inconsistent signage across the various trails was a bit difficult. For example, the Georgetown Branch does not simply connect to Sligo Creek Trail (at least not obviously). After the separated trail ends, the signage for Georgetown Branch takes you on back streets and eventually through the middle of downtown Silver Spring. The best way to connect to Sligo Creek is to break with the signed trail and either ride with traffic on Colesville Rd. for a few miles or take back roads occasionally crossing 16th St. Georgia Ave, and riding briefly on Colesville Rd. The closest trailhead we could find was off Colesville Rd. and Sligo Creek Parkway just past Dale Dr.

In short, this is not a loop like Minneapolis’s “Grand Rounds” but the trail connections are manageable and, for the most part, don’t get in the way of enjoying the ride.

The bad

Signage, or lack thereof, made the ride most difficult. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that the turn-by-turn guidance on Bike Washington is sorely out of date and difficult to read on a phone. It should really be replaced by a really clear Strava route or a mobile-friendly layout. But it also needs to be updated as we missed every trail connection after the CCT–Georgetown Branch linkup in Bethesda.

This isn’t a knock on Bike Washington. They’re a volunteer organization and keeping that page up to date is probably a low priority given all the other priorities for bike advocacy in this region. If you’re going to attempt this trail, I recommend combining their directions with a Strava route or riding with someone who has done it before.

The worst of our mixups came at the end of the ride. Sligo Creek Trail takes you pretty far east into Prince George’s County without going very far south back toward the District. Around the West Hyattsville Metro station Sligo Creek Trail becomes the Northwest Branch Trail (the directions say to watch for a “basketball court”, there are at least four of them before the split). The part of the directions for getting from that trail to the Metro Branch tell you the “trail will end” and to take an “unpaved street” around a building to connect to 37th St. Either the trails were less developed when the directions were last updated or we were simply enjoying the ride too much.

Comparing the route we ended up taking with the directions from Bike Washington we probably went a few miles off course and ended up riding Rhode Island Ave. into the District and joined Metro Branch at 4th and S NE. We could have joined earlier, but by the time we realized we had gone off route we were too tired to “figure it out” and stuck with what we knew.

Recommendations and our route

The normal route has you take Metro Branch down to the mall and loop back to start off of the trails around the mall and the river. We were at 34.5 of 30 miles when we got to Union Station. Our Strava Map is below. If you follow it, I’d encourage remixing it a bit to avoid riding on Rhode island at all. I’d espcially recommend turning off Rhode Isand Ave. at Monroe St. NE into Brookland to meet up with the Metro Branch trail in Brookland. I suspect Taking Queen’s Chapel Road off the Northwest Branch trail and following Michgan Ave. Down to Catholic University is also a better option.

For folks who want a longer ride, the Northwest Branch Trail is outstanding, low traffic, and might loop around to meet the Anacostia River Walk trail. I’m not sure, but it’s worth exploring.

All told we rode 34.5 miles, three of which was each of us getting to the trail from our homes. If I were to do it again, I’d probably start at Union Station and run the loop in reverse. Attempting to figure out how to connect into the Northwest Branch trail at the beginning when I’m feeling more adventurous, instead of at mile 27, would probably make the rest of the ride more enjoyable.

Here’s the full map: