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URBAN PATHS AND SCENIC TRAILS: DC’S BEST RUNNING SPOTS

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Meghan Bartlett

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DC is rife with runners. There’s no denying that.

Whether it’s 5am or 9pm, you’ll see runners down the Mall, around the monuments, or along the Tidal Basin enjoying DC’s smooth roads and views of the shimmering Potomac. And sure, monuments are great, but DC also offers many unnoticed, gorgeous trail runs and paths along the waterfront.

No matter if you’re visiting DC or you call it home, this list will you take you through the ins and outs of the city, and provide you with a roadmap for the best ways to explore our nation’s capital.

The strip of greenery in the heart of the city is where running meets iconic DC. The roads run from the Capitol Building, with Smithsonian museums and other attractions lining the paths all the way down to the open fields surrounding the Washington Monument. Wide walkways run down both sides of the Mall, offering a choice of paved or gravel paths. How far do you want to run today? A loop from the Capitol to the Washington Monument—under four miles—can easily be extended to the Lincoln Memorial or the Jefferson Monument. Thousands of runners jog these trails daily, and the fewer number of traffic lights make this ideal for fast, non-stop runs. Plug in the tunes and lace ‘em up tight to fly through your own DC montage!

Rock Creek Park sprawls nearly 2,000 acres of land with over 32 miles of paved and dirt trails, offering the most diverse set of running routes to match your running needs. Rock Creek Park Trail, one of the most popular paths, offers just under 10 miles of paved track running the length of the park. Most days, you’ll need to watch for bikes and cars, but on the weekends, the course closes to traffic. It’s a runner’s dream. If you’re a little more outdoorsy, try the Western Ridge Trail, which offers about five miles of trail running through woods and along the river without too much elevation — just watch out for horses! Okay, okay, but if you’re a true nature buff, hit the Valley Trail, about 5.6 miles of dirt running through narrow, winding, and climbing paths. All those trails seem like a lot to handle? Use this map so you don’t get turned around.

A fun run that takes you past the homes of ambassadors from all over the world, Embassy Row offers a different flavor of the city from the iconic monuments. Kick off at Dupont Circle and run up Massachusetts Ave. As you cover a gradual hill, you’ll run under flags from countries all over — see if you can name all (or any…) of them! At the top of the hill is the National Cathedral. There and back, the route is about 5.5 miles.

While the C&O Canal Towpath runs through Georgetown, don’t miss out on simply running the downtown area itself. Jog past row houses, run Georgetown’s campus, and for an amazing HIIT workout, sprint up and down the Exorcist Steps! You could easily spend an hour running around Georgetown and still wouldn’t cover the whole thing. Plus, when you’re done with your workout, you can refuel at the largest sweetgreen ever — talk about a perfect day!

The National Arboretum is a small island of green in the city. Just a couple of miles from the Capitol, the arboretum is great if you’re looking for some nature without leaving the district. The grounds are open from 8am to 5pm daily and admission is free. The Arboretum is most easily accessed by car, and entrances are located on New York Ave. and R St. Nature-lover? Make sure to check out the ‘What’s Blooming’ page on the website so you know what to look for on your run!

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Runners will eventually be able to travel along this route for a solid 28 miles, but for now, we’re working with about 17 miles of paved path. Once you get your feet moving, you’ll make your way over the Anacostia Trail Bridge, near the Washington Channel, and past wooded forests. Just be aware, the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail is not known for muscle-burning hills, but depending on the day, a flat, easy run might be just what you’re looking for.

Go the distance on the Mount Vernon Trail, it stretches 18 miles from Theodore Roosevelt Island to George Washington’s Estate at Mount Vernon. The paved path follows the Potomac and passes sites such as the Pentagon, Crystal City, and Alexandria, ending in Virginia. The long, flat route is accessible by metro and passes close by several metro stations, making it easy to join the trail or leave off at various points along the way. Rosslyn, Arlington Cemetery, Reagan National Airport, and Braddock Rd. are convenient. And for you runners who laugh in the face of 18 miles, other popular trails branch off the Mount Vernon Trail, including Potomac Heritage and the Four Mile Run.

If you’re looking to build your fast twitch muscles, try the stairs at Meridian Hill Park. The multitude of steps will get your legs burning and heart pumping in no time, and the beautiful scenery might ease the pain a little. If you’re done with the steps, try the top section, where the flat and square-shaped surface makes for a convenient track.

Ready for a challenge? Like the Mount Vernon Trail, the Potomac Heritage Trail begins at Theodore Roosevelt Island. But this route stretches 10 miles towards the American Legion Bridge. Doesn’t sound too bad? Here comes the tricky part: this trail winds through woods, hills, and rocky slopes that you’ll need to climb or hike in some spots — so bring your Clif Bars. Out and back, the route is nearly 20 miles of nature close to DC, but with all the challenges of an outback run.

This trail run follows the Potomac for 184.5 miles to Maryland — you can literally run as far as your legs will take you. The route is wide and flat, with mile markings to track your distance. Start in Georgetown at the Rock Creek Parkway and follow the canal. You can opt for the dirt path to take it easy on your joints, or the Capital Crescent Trail, a paved bike path. No matter how far you go, just remember that there’s a journey back!

Hains Point is on East Potomac Park (a manmade island in DC) and has a four-mile running route. The downside (or lack thereof): it’s completely flat. The upside: there are no cars allowed there on weekends, which makes for a totally uninterrupted running route within the city. Say goodbye to stoplights and speeding cars that don’t slow down, and say hello to nothing but the open road.

Part of Rock Creek Park, running on Beach Drive is what running city dwellers dream of. Much like Hains Point, it’s closed to motorists on weekends, which is ideal for those wanting to be surrounded by nature, but enjoy paved paths. Be sure to wave to fellow runners, bikers, roller bladers and walkers, as this route gets fairly busy Saturday and Sunday.

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Stay up to date on what’s happening in Washington DC’s health and fitness scene.

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