Updated: Nov 30, 2019
Having spent the last ten years in Washington, DC and now having just moved with my family to Croatia, I’d like to share a few of the adventures that turned DC from the nation’s capital to my home. It’s not the adventures themselves that made the District home, but it was the community I found in the process.
This Is not an exhaustive list or in any particular order and most of these activities can be low cost and/or free. If you’re a long time DC resident, you might know many of thse, but there might be one or two that you don’t.
YMCA Triathlon Club (Y-Tri) and Organized Sports Clubs: Why it took me eight years in DC before I joined a triathlon team, I’ll never know. But if you are new to the area, looking to meet new and awesome like-minded people, hoping to chat about anything other than work, want to get in or stay in shape, or just want to a group to train with, I super duper highly recommend joining a sports team – there are a million. My girlfriend, now wife, and I joined the YMCA’s triathlon team, Y-Tri, in 2017 and are sooo thankful. It has been so much more than a triathlon club and we will count many of its members as lifelong friends, something hard to find in a city as transient as the District.
Rock Creek Park – Running Trails and Beach Drive on the Weekends: Rock Creek Park is an oasis for animals and people yearning for substantial green space. Situated roughly in the center of the District, the park is crisscrossed with running and hiking trails, bikeable roads, a creek (please don’t swim!), green spaces, and picnic areas. The major street running through the park, Beach Drive, is closed to vehicle traffic on the weekends making it a perfect place to ride your bike, have a skate, take a walk, or anything else of that sort.
Shenandoah National Park: Though a bit of drive, Shenandoah is a wonderful spot for more involved adventures. With hikes such as Old Rag and White Oak Canyon, among many others, you’ll want to make Shenandoah a regular weekend/holiday stop. Skyline Drive will take you through the park and is great for cycling - it’s not hard to find 100+ miles of quality pavement for cycling with some challenging elevation gains and fun downhills. There are numerous hiking trails and Skyline is dotted with rest stations, camping areas, and viewing points that you can use for jumping off points. Got a holiday weekend or a random day off during the week, Shenandoah is your spot.
The C & O Canal: Nearly as accessible as Rock Creek Park, the C & O Canal is great for non-paved biking, running, walking, and hiking. Stretching about 185 miles from Cumberland, MD to DC, you can bike the entire length and find designated camping areas every 10-15 miles or so. You can also park at one of the many locks and run a section or have a hike on a connecting trail such as Billy Goat. If you’re more the car-camping type, there are lots of places where the camping area isn’t far from a parking lot and you can also rent a Lock House (think cabins) that have been refurbished. A great weekend idea would be biking 70 miles up the canal to the camping area near Antietam creek, visiting Harpers Ferry along the way (at mile 60-ish) and heading back on Sunday. Anyone that’s not up for the biking could also drive to the same campground. A little closer to DC, you could also bike about 2-3 miles to Fletchers Cove and rent a canoe or have a picnic. So many adventures can start and end with the C & O.
Capital Crescent Trail: This is a great paved trail that starts at the west end of K St. in Georgetown and ends in Bethesda, with a nice outdoor pool adjacent to the trail as you get closer to the end. I want to say it’s about 5-7 miles long with a steady 2-3% incline headed toward Bethesda. Capital Crescent is pretty heavily trafficked with recreational cyclists, bike-commuters, walkers, runners, and strollers, but is still super fun. It was better when Capital Crescent connected with the Rock Creek Park trail in Bethesda, but construction on the purple Metro line broke the connection. It may be restored someday. Regardless, it’s a nice ride and great for a Saturday or Sunday morning. The speed limit is 15 mph, which is a good pace going uphill, but you’ll easily surpass it on the downhill portion if you’re not paying attention. This might end up being part of your daily or weekly routine.
Mt Vernon Bike Trail: The Mount Vernon trail stretches 17 miles along the Potomac River on the Virginia side, connecting DC with the home of George Washington. It’s paved and not in horrible condition, but don’t expect to break any speed records if you’re training for something – I’d recommend it more for recreational rides. It’s also great for running and walking. You might do this a couple of times if you live in DC for ten years like me.
W & OD Bike Trail: While I only rode the 50-ish mile length of this paved trail once, it was a great time. It’s in good condition and relatively flat with a gradual and increasing incline as you get close to the end in Purcellville, VA, if I remember correctly. One of the best parts is the attractions available just off the trail: 1) a number of good breweries, 2) one of the area’s only triathlon-focused bike shops and 3) a number of coffee shops, particularly at the end in Purcellville. This could easily be on your calendar somewhat regularly.
Great Allegheny Passage (GAP): If this list were in rank order of awesomeness, the GAP would be first, but the logistics might make it drop down a few spots. The GAP will always hold a special place in my heart and is one of the more challenging activities I’ve voluntarily gotten myself into. It’s on this trail that I’d like to think I earned my stripes bike touring, i.e., camping off of a bicycle. Quick story: it was early April 2016 and I had heard about the GAP trail through Facebook and had been following its page for some time. I daydreamed of making the trek from the starting point in Pittsburgh through Cumberland, where I would link up with the C & O and finish in DC, something like a 345 mile journey. When long weekend plans fell through, I made the leap and booked an Amtrak ride up to Pittsburgh and brought my bike. That ill-fated attempt was highlighted by my standing under a pavilion somewhere near Connellsville, PA in the pouring rain without proper gear and ended with my locking my bike to a bathroom handicap railing in Cumberland and taking a train back. I would return to the trail in August 2017 and successfully complete the journey in 3 days, having learned many important lessons – mainly, bring rain gear and don’t wear any weight on your back except for easy access essentials. This blog piece will get super long if I get into all of the gritty details, but ask me on our next trip and I’ll be happy to regale you.
Anacostia Bike Trail: I only rode on the Anacostia trail a handful of times because I lived on the other side of the city, but the times I did ride on it, I had a fantastic time. It is a well maintained multipurpose paved trail that is growing as sections are completed and linked. I recommend exploring this side of the city and witnessing efforts that are taking place to restore the ecology of the river and wetlands. You should hit this trail way more frequently than I did.
Weeknight Camping at Greenbelt State Park: Definitely one of the more poorly thought out adventures of my time in DC. But much like many other of my misadventures, bearing down and pushing through helped me survive this one, barely. I do not recommend repeating on a weekday. So, my friend David recommended we go camping in Greenbelt State Park, just outside the DC Beltway. I took the metro out to Greenbelt with my bike and all of my gear, including work clothes for the next day. David and I had a great time camping and hamming it up, but then the next morning came. There was a bathroom and shower, which was nice, but the ride to my office in downtown DC was a nightmare. I had figured, incorrectly, that I’d be able to navigate my way along the Anacostia trail system back to DC. Unfortunately, that next morning, I couldn’t find the correct path and ended up biking along New York Avenue with large trucks barreling past me on my left and a debris littered shoulder to my right. By the time I got to work, I was sweaty, dirty, and exhausted. Luckily, I was able to retreat to my office with a cup of coffee and have a good laugh. Never again! But you should try it once!
Garrett County Gran Fondo: The Garrett County Gran Fondo might be one of the single most difficult athletic activities I’ve undertaken, and I didn’t even do the hardest option available. It is an adventure and exploration into how hard you can push your pedals while going up an unforgiving hill. It was also one of the most beautiful and satisfying rides I’ve had. The ride offers a few killer options, each one challenging in its own right. The unbelievable Diabolical Double demands 16,500 feet of climbing over 126.2 grueling miles – good luck. The variant I rode, the Savage Century, covers 105.9 miles and climbs about 12,500 feet. It was brutal but doable and made for great training as every other ride after this has seemed like a piece of cake. Next is the Masochistic Metric. It is not to be taken lightly, climbing 8,000 feet over 64.8 miles – great training for any half distance triathlons you have coming up. There are a couple others that make for tough rides – this adventure is a must if you’re into biking.
Back Roads Century: The DC riding club Potomac Peddlers offers a much more sane century ride geared towards a wider audience, the Back Roads Century. It is super fun and takes place around Shepherdstown, WV. I rode this in 2015, I think, and it was one of my first long rides. It’s a great way to increase your distance in a well-supported environment. I highly recommend it.
Swimming Pools: There is no shortage of public pools in DC and there is likely one in your neighborhood or within a short bike ride. Wilson Pool in Tenleytown was easily our favorite owing to the 50 meter lanes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday and clean water. We also liked Dunbar, Marie Reed, the YMCA pool, and in the summer, Banneker and the outdoor pool in Bethesda off the Capital Crescent bike trail.
Local Races: There are a number of local racing circuits that host a ton of events in the area – each offers a chance to connect with fellow racers (the heart of our Open World Racing ethos), explore beautiful natural areas in the region, and stay healthy. The trail focused
Backyard Burn series offered by EX2 Adventures is super fun, and I bet their adventure races and duathlons are too, but I didn’t get a chance to try those. Kinetic Multisports is a wonderful and down to Earth triathlon company putting on amazing triathlons in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Charlottesville Multisports is another good race company, though I only participated in one of their events, the Monticelloman 70.3 triathlon. It was my first half-distance triathlon and was crazy hard given how unprepared I was – I was having IT band issues and so didn’t run for like three months leading up to the race. You can imagine how that went.
Ragnar Trail Race WV: Most people have heard of Ragnar, a running relay race that usually covers a long distance with runners rotating several times. Well, Ragnar took this concept and applied to trail racing to come up with an awesome formula, only, the runners that aren’t running get to chill in a camp rather than follow in a van making it way more fun. So, in 2018, I recruited 7 friends to race Ragnar Trail WV with me and it was amazing. We each ran three loops, green – 3.5 miles, yellow – 4.6 miles, and red – 6.5 miles over a 24 hour-ish period. Word is that there is a new 17 mile black loop, so that’s cool. We set up camp, got rained on and a mild case of food poisoning, and clomped through the mud and had a blast. A bunch of us stayed past when the camp closed down and built a huge bonfire
Rock Climbing: My rock climbing career was cut short by our adoption of a very needy but lovable mutt, decision to launch Open World Racing, and concerted effort to get better at triathlons. I regret nothing other than that there are not more days in the week to do all of the amazing things that you have access to living in DC. If you’re into climbing, there is a great gym in Crystal City (with locations elsewhere in MD) which is easily accessible by bike and metro, a slightly less accessible but storied gym in Alexandria, and rumors of another climbing gym coming to DC proper – we’ll see. But better than gym climbing, for some, are the outdoor routes in nearby Great Falls, on the Maryland and Virginia sides. I’d recommend getting there early. If you have more time, you have to head out about 3 hours to Seneca Rocks in Pendleton County, WV. The U.S. Army’s famous 10th Mountain Division trained here in preparation for mountain warfare in Itally during WW II. I’d recommend you head there with a couple of experienced climbers, but if you’re flying solo, you could hire a guide.
I’m going to end it here with a few honorable mentions – things I did only once or twice, intended to do, or thought it might be nice to do if I had more time.
Joining a riding club like Potomac Peddlers Exercising with the November Project Running the Marine Corps or Rock N Roll Marathons Running more frequently with the crew at Pacers Trying an Ultra like the JFK 50-miler Attending more Mappy Hour sessions or other awesome talks available around town Volunteering with the C and O Canal Trust Visiting Blackwater Falls State Park in WV