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Beat the Heat: 5 Shady Bike Routes in the DMV

Beat the Heat: 5 Shady Bike Routes in the DMV

by: Dru Ryan
Wednesday, July 12, 2017 - 8:41am
Beat the Heat: 5 Shady Bike Routes in the Washington DC area

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And we thought the winter was bad!

Cyclists in the mid-Atlantic part of the United States are used to hibernating for the winter. The recent heat wave pushed many cyclists indoors for part of the summer too! Painful!

Then there are the workarounds. Some ride very early in the morning, leaving the house at 4 or 5 AM. Others ride at night, taking advantage of the lighter traffic and temps and lastly the aforementioned -- those who do not ride at all.

Then, you have the badasses … those who adhere to the Rules. If you’ve never heard of them, I proudly submit to #3 -- “Guide the uninitiated.” and introduce Rule #9: “If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period.”

Being a summer badass should not leave you with heat stroke. Direct sunlight increases hydration needs and overall fatigue in general. The best antidote for riding in hot weather? Shade. Cyclists crave the tree covered routes that form a canopy of protection from the sun. Here are five ‘shady’ routes in the DMV. Click on the route links for an interactive route map. Now you can be a badass too!


1. Rock Creek Park and the National Arboretum

Distance from DuPont Circle and Back: 15-25 miles

Terrain: Half road and trail, periods of heavy traffic in Rock Creek park mirror rush hour. Very few cars can be found in the Arboretum and the posted speed limit is quite low.

Hilliness: Flat to moderate. The Arboretum has a couple worthwhile ascents as does Rock Creek Park.

Rock Creek Park and the National Arboretum are both heavily shaded due to the abundance of trees (duh). There’s no ‘best’ way to traverse Rock Creek. My advice is to jump in and just ride. Then ask someone or use Google Maps to point you toward an exit point. It’s more fun that way.

The National Arboretum isn’t a trail by any means, but there are some nice hills and a couple picturesque views you won’t find anywhere else in the city. Go for the hills or the views, or the botany.


2. Capital Crescent Trail back through Rock Creek Park

Distance from DuPont Circle and Back: 25-30 miles

Terrain: Mostly trail (Rock Creek Park is closed off to traffic on weekends and holidays) Hilliness: Moderate. Nothing long or steep.

The Capital Crescent Trail connects Georgetown by ‘the stairs’ to Bethesda. A modified railroad track (the Rails to Trails Conservancy does superb advocacy on such projects), trees cover both sides. A quick right in Bethesda puts you onto the Georgetown Branch trail (not shown on map) which connects to Rock Creek Park (discussed above). The route crosses the C&O canal towpath (the cover picture of this piece). For those seeking a multi-day adventure, a ride from DC to Pittsburgh includes 180 miles on the towpath and another 184 miles on a rail to trail, the Great Alleghany Passage.


3. Mount Vernon Trail

Distance from DuPont Circle and Back: 30-45 miles

Terrain: Mostly trail. Amount of road depends on starting point

Hilliness: A decent climb approaching Mount Vernon, not much else.

The Mount Vernon trail has a number of entry points. Accessible from DC, Maryland or Virginia trails, you will see families, tourists and recreational cyclists on this route. There are a couple of blind curves that must be taken with care – do ride defensively. For best results: Start in National Harbor, cross the Wilson Bridge (there’s a bike lane) and head toward Mount Vernon.


4. Georgetown to Potomac to Bethesda to DC via Rock Creek

Distance from DuPont Circle and Back: 40-50 miles

Terrain: Mostly road with light traffic. Traffic is typically aware of cyclists. Just be respectful.

Hilliness: As hilly as you can get in the DC area.

You will see many folks on two wheels on this route. Once out of Georgetown, traffic thins out and a few decent hills await. Old Anger’s Inn, the Great Falls Visitor Center and the rolling hills on Piney Meetinghouse Road (and the return) are hilly highlights of the route.


5. Maryland Nature Preserve

Distance from DuPont Circle and Back: 30-50 miles (shortcuts are possible)

Terrain: Road. Best in the early mornings

Hilliness: Elevation creeps up on you. No noteworthy hills, but a quick look over your shoulder reveals you’ve been climbing for a while.

Plenty of farmland can be found just 12-15 miles from DC. Getting to Laurel from DC can be a chore. For the road-wary cyclists, the Metro (green line) to College Park or Greenbelt is your best bet. Once there, you’ll encounter well maintained shoulders and open spaces, devoid of traffic lights. The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center is a worthwhile trip. You don’t even have to get off the bike to enjoy it.



In the DMV, we only get about 7 months of great riding weather. Don’t let the heat take away from your joy. But do prepare for the ride. Wearing a light colored jersey, taking breaks when needed and hydrating excessively will get you there and back. Bicycling magazine offers more tips for hot weather riding.

There’s one rule, #4 HTFU – “Harden the F—K, Up” that I don’t endorse. Yes, your body can typically handle what’s thrown at it. No, the ‘how much can your body take’ test should not be administered daily. I’ve seen this rule lead to bliss and also ambulance rides – once in quick succession. Listen to your body. And at the very least, find some shade.

Editor's note: this post was originally published Aug 2016.

About the Author

Dru Ryan is a daily bike commuter, indoor cycling coach (EquinoxCrunch, Mint DC) and road cyclist who averages 200 miles a week. Follow Dru on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook or visit his website