It’s 9 a.m. on a brisk, sunny Saturday in September, and already the traffic is building in Silver Spring. After I sit through several lights, I arrive in the heart of west Silver Spring, where I pull into a relatively deserted garage and park for free. After a few quick stretches, I release my bike from its rack, hop on, and pass through the street-level entrance of the garage. Immediately, I see what I’m looking for: a small but clearly marked sign that points me to the first leg of my journey.
The sign leads to the Georgetown Branch Interim Trail, which connects directly to the Capital Crescent Trail (CCT). This 11-mile path is part of an impressive 13,500-mile nationwide network of public trails borne out of now-defunct rail lines. This particular path has carved out an urban oasis linking Silver Spring to bustling downtown Bethesda and straight through to Georgetown in Washington, DC. Truly a unique combination, the trail blends recreation, nature, history, and access to our nation’s capital—all in one gently graded, crescent-shaped trail.
Riding over the crushed gravel that makes up the first third of the trail (the remaining two-thirds, from Bethesda to Georgetown, is paved), it’s hard to imagine that just 23 years ago, cargo trains filled with coal whistled along this very path. What easily could have languished as an abandoned and overgrown railroad track has instead become one of region’s finest and most utilized multi-use recreational rail-trails. But it didn’t happen without a battle.
“I can’t tell you how many people said it would decrease their property values and bring crime to the area,” says Ernie Brooks, former chair and longtime board member of the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, the grassroots advocacy group that spearheaded the effort to make the trail a reality. He chuckles when he recalls the ardent opposition that initially greeted the coalition’s proposal. Eventually, community residents relented, and contributions from Montgomery County and the National Park Service totaling $22 million allowed for the development and preservation of the trail. Twenty-one years after its creation, the trail has become a local treasure.
“Now, if you look at real-estate ads, one of the first things they’ll list is ‘proximity to the Capital Crescent Trail,’” Brooks says.
It’s no wonder. The CCT offers users the rare opportunity to commune with nature, glimpse historic landmarks, and enjoy the creature comforts of urban life all in the same outing. As I ride my bike along the trail this crisp fall day, I revel in a close encounter with a bushy-tailed deer, which stares at me for a moment before bounding off into the woods. Mere minutes before, I’d taken a detour off one of the trail’s many access points to sip a latte at an outdoor café in Bethesda before continuing toward Washington, DC. Midway through the trail, I pass under the impressive Dalecarlia Tunnel. Erected in 1919, this handsome Roman arch is lined with decorative bricks inside and out.
That trail users can still marvel at the Dalecarlia Tunnel and countless other historic landmarks, both along the CCT and other rail-trails nationwide, is a testament largely to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). This national advocacy group works with communities to preserve unused rail corridors by transforming them into recreational trails. Interestingly, the RTC was founded in 1986, the year that community activists launched the idea for the Capital Crescent Trail, which came to fruition in 1990.
Since the inception of the RTC, growth in rail-trails nationwide has exploded. “There were about 200 rail-trails scattered across the country before the founding of RTC,” says Jennifer Kaleba, the group’s spokesperson. Now, the nation boasts more than 1,400 open rail-trails. According to the RTC, it’s just the beginning. By 2020, the organization aims to expand the nationwide network so that 90 percent of Americans live within three miles of a trail system. It’s a lofty goal, but the burgeoning popularity of rail-trails in recent years makes it seem possible.