Since the head office of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is located in Washington, D.C., it's rather appropriate that the nearby Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park is the most heavily used of all Rails-Trails. With the incredible road traffic in the Washington, D.C. area, it's very refreshing that this beautiful 45-mile long route is available and used by many commuters daily. Since it's also a fantastic recreational facility, expect heavy traffic on this paved path, particularly right around the capital vicinity.
Designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a National Recreation Trail in 1987, the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park is owned and operated by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. One of the skinniest and longest parks in Virginia (100-feet wide, 45-miles long), the W&OD Railroad Regional Park (a.k.a. "The WAD") takes its name from the railroad that ran along this route from 1859 to1968. Also along this paved path is an equestrian trail (33-miles of crushed stone and dirt, between Vienna and Purcellville), providing a nice variety for the fat-tire biker and hiker, but take heed: it's primarily used for horseback riding.
For some outer-city limits riding, start just across the Potomac River, in Virginia (just off I-395 at Exit 6, in the Shirlington area of Arlington County, Virginia). You'll encounter incredible urban sprawl as you ride northwest, passing through the relatively new developments in Reston, Herndon, Sterling, and Ashburn. The bright yellow line that centers the paved path, along with the mile markers and signs, make this trail easy to follow. And although it's not a particularly challenging route, there are some hills (especially in the vicinity of Herndon and Sterling). There are also some busy roads to cross (such as Sterling Avenue), but you'll also find several overpasses that cut down on this problem.
If you have a fanatic shopper in your cycling group, then stop at Reston for its beautiful outdoor fountain, sidewalk cafes, and unique, upscale shops. At Ashburne, you'll also find a nice stopping place at Smiths Switch Station (with bike racks, washrooms, pop machines, and picnic tables).
As you continue riding northwest from Ashburn, you'll arrive next at Leesburg, one of the oldest towns in northern Virginia. This is where many important U.S. documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were stored during the War of 1812. Finally, you'll have escaped from D.C.'s sea of humanity, and will now be riding through the rural tranquility of Virginia's western Loudoun County. Here you'll find old farmhouses among rolling pastures with distant, but exquisite views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The WAD's other appeal is its proximity to several other paved paths in the D.C. area, like the Four Mile Run Trail, the Mount Vernon Trail, and the Custis Trail which connects to Arlington County's 17-mile "Arlington Triangle." An excellent bike map of these trails can be purchased from the Arlington Department of Public Works. Arlington County also provides trails to Arlington Cemetery and the Washington National Airport.
You can also cross the Potomac River and hook up with several trails within Washington, D.C. itself. For instance, the 14th Street Bridge leads to the Tidal Basin and Potomac Park Trails; the Memorial Bridge takes you to the Reflecting Pool and Mall Trails; and the Roosevelt Bridge hooks up with the Mall and Rock Creek Park Trails. The Key Bridge provides access to the Capital Crescent Trail (a paved rail-trail that runs between Georgetown and Silver Spring), and also to the C&O Canal Towpath (a gravel path that extends 185-miles into Cumberland, Maryland).
The C&O Canal Towpath offers cyclists a number of interesting loop rides. I'll mention two of the area's best. One 7-mile loop takes you northwest on the paved Capital Crescent T rail to the Chain Bridge (just past Fletcher's Boathouse), where it switches over to the parallel C&O Canal Towpath. Here the trail ventures southeast for the return trip to the Key Bridge area.
The other, longer route is the 75-mile "C&O and W&O Loop", which takes you northwest on the W&OD Trail to Leesburg, Virginia. Here you ride on the very busy Highway 15 for almost 4-miles until the Potomac River crossing at Whites Ferry (a toll ferry). Then you ride southeast back to Georgetown on the C&O Canal Towpath where you return to the W&OD Trail and complete this loop.
The Metropolitan Branch Trail is yet another Rail-trail that is now under development. This 7-mile paved path take cyclists from Silver Spring, Maryland directly into D.C.'s Union Station. From here a 2-mile spur at Fort Totten connects with the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which then leads to the 24-mile Stream Valley Trail System in suburban Maryland. These trails are alternatives to some of Washington, D.C.'s busiest roads, providing cyclists with safe, yet convenient city accesses.
These paved trails provide a great variety of recreational opportunities for both D.C. locals and visitors alike. They are, of course, popular with rollerbladers, walkers, j oggers, cyclists, and wheelchairs!
"The W&OD Trail Guide" (with 25 detailed map pages with symbols to indicate connecting trail systems, bike repair shops, etc.) is available for purchase from area bike shops and the Northern Virginia Regional Parks office.