DC’s Dirty Dozen, Part 1: MTB Trails on the Maryland Side

When I received notice of being transferred to Washington, D.C., I thought my life was over. Well, at least my mountain biking life was over, and what is life without great singletrack? Having spent the previous years in the Rockies, this was something akin to being forced out of the land of milk and honey to wander in the wilderness for a few years; and I hadn’t even had the pleasure of tasting any forbidden fruit in the first place! Other than a lack of singletrack, there are only three things I have never been able to adapt to: traffic, heat, and humidity, and I knew DC had all three in abundance. Ouch!

Yet being stuck in what I thought would be the worst possible location was not going to keep me from seeking out what singletrack I could find and riding whenever possible. I had also spent time in North Dakota and found some great riding there, so maybe I could stomach DC as well.  As for the three big uglies (traffic, heat, and humidity), I found them to be far less insurmountable than originally anticipated. Rush hour traffic is DC is bad but outside non-rush hour periods, getting to a trailhead is usually no problem. The heat and humidity were indeed oppressive, but I learned the very dense forests (something I wasn’t used to out west where trails are largely exposed most of the time) can be somewhat cooling. A slight schedule adjustment to riding in the early morning or late evening is all it took to bring the ride into an acceptable temperature band, even for a cold-weather guy like me.

In the end, I found not only a great quantity of reasonably accessible mountain biking, but also much of it high quality and worth repeated visits; enough to keep me entertained for my entire stay. So, for those who think one of our most densely packed metropolitan areas, lacking in any renowned mountain bike culture, is no more than a mountain bike purgatory, I offer DC’s Dirty Dozen. No, that’s not a nickname for a Super PAC or some congressional committee, but rather a collection of worthy rides easily accessible from the dreaded beltway. In part one, we’ll cover six worthy rides on the Maryland side of the nation’s capitol.

Typically sweet singletrack in Rosaryville State Park (Singletracks photo by jtorlando25)

Rosaryville State Park

This was definitely one of the more pleasant surprises in the area. As I approached Rosaryville State Park for the first time, crammed in between a collection of suburban neighborhoods and Andrews Air Force Base, I had no expectations and had really gone there just because I hadn’t ridden it before and was looking for something new. Not only was the newness welcome, so was most of the trail. If you ride both the inner and outer loops, you can get in about 10 miles of quality, flowy singletrack with a few log features thrown in for good measure. What’s particularly welcome is the sensation of being isolated in most of the park, despite being in the middle of a huge suburban complex.

Do the Cabin John Shuffle: Cross the highway, lift your bike over the guard rail, and drop back down to the creek (Singletracks photo by JeffHoward)

Cabin John Trail

While this one doesn’t have the quality of singletrack or the sense of isolation you get at Rosaryville, it does have one important thing going for it: location. This one lies right off the beltway and is one of the easiest trails for a DC dweller to reach for a quick ride. Most of the trail parallels a low stream, so it is susceptible to rains and there are tons of exposed roots. If you’re going to log some miles, you’ll also have some very busy street crossings. It’s not epic, but it is so accessible it needs to be on any DC rider’s menu.

Schaeffer Farms has good variety as well as side-by-side options for riders of different abilities (Singletracks photo by jtorlando25)

Schaeffer Farms

This ride sits at #54 in the Singletracks trail rankings and it’s easy to see why. Somehow, someone managed to construct a pleasant stacked loop trail network with a good deal of variety and something for all levels of riders, right in the middle of modern suburbia. The place does get crowded and you can’t ride it while wet or drying out (which is much of the time, especially early spring), but when it’s good, it’s very good and will hold your attention for a worthwhile ride.

Gambrill State Park will develop your line-selection abilities (Singletracks photo by EHz)

Distance-wise, the next few are a bit of a haul from DC, but well worth the effort.

Gambrill State Park and the Frederick Watershed

This is your destination if you like technical rides. Gambrill State Park has a collection of loops for a variety of skill sets, but it tends toward the rocky. These are not the nice, colorful, rounded, easily rolled rocks I cut my teeth on out west, but rather dark grey, sharp, jagged, odd angled, pinch-flat rock gardens that will make you concentrate on line selection, even when riding a full-suspension 29er. If Gambrill alone doesn’t do it for you, ride the Blue Trail into the Frederick Watershed (preferably with a local who is familiar with the territory) to find the truly gnarly goods. This is where the guys with the 8” travel downhill/freeride bikes go to get their jollies. The unofficial trails zigzag everywhere and it’s easy to get lost, so bring plenty of food, water, and a spirit to explore—or go with a local.

Race day at Greenbrier State Park (SIngletracks photo by ositoking)

Greenbrier State Park

Irony here: I wouldn’t have found this great trail if I wasn’t under the misconception that there are no great trails in the DC area. Here’s what happened: Having left the land of 3,000 vertical foot climbs, uber-technical rock fests, and never-ending descents, I was desperate for a challenge, but where to find challenge in the relatively flat Potomac River basin? I know . . . I’ll start racing! That would provide a new kind of challenge, especially for an aerobically challenged slug like myself.

So I signed up for a race that happened to be taking place on the main loop at Greenbrier State Park. The loop did have two rather demanding extended climbs, one with some techy spots along the way. So, as I expected, I watched most of my class ride right on by me–until the rock-strewn climb. As the fittest riders dismounted to push or carry their bikes through the minefield, I stayed in the saddle and powered right on by. Of course, most of them caught me again on the next long, and much smoother climb, but I reeled in a few on the final, rocky descent. In the end, I finished middle of the pack which thrilled me given my inherent lack of aerobic capacity and my less-than-rigorous training regimen. More importantly, however, I found another great ride not far from the beltway!

One of the more challenging man-made features at Patapsco State State Park

Patapsco Valley State Park

To be honest, by the time you get to Patapsco, you’re almost into Baltimore and there are closer rides to the beltway. However, this is a great ride: it lies right off the freeway and it’s a pretty quick jaunt to get there, again if you’re not trying to do it during rush hour. Even more popular than Schaeffer Farms, this one sits all the way up at #15 among the most popular rides on Singletracks. The drawback is that part of the area borders a busy freeway and there is a paved road that bisects the park, so you never get that sense of escaping the urban landscape. What’s great about Patapsco is the tremendous variety of trail available there. You can find super-smooth, flowy singletrack, rooty or chunky sections, narrow, almost treacherous tread hugging angled paths with exposure over the creek, long, gradual climbs, or short bursts that go straight up and down the drainages. This is a place that rewards repeated visits as you learn to construct the loop or loops that suit your fancy.

Stay tuned for the other half of the big, bad beltway: the Virginia side.

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