LGW Leaders Share Their Top-Three Places to Experience Nature in the Region
January 21, 2021
LGW Leaders Share Their Top-Three Places to Experience Nature in the Region
In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, finding ways to tame anxiety and stress can be a challenge. Fortunately, our region has an abundance of outdoor escapes and hidden gems close by that can help you recharge and protect your mental wellness. We spoke with five LGW leaders who shared their top three places in the region to experience nature and why these locations resonate most for them.
Angie Fox (’03), CEO, Foxgloves
Prior to launching Foxgloves and being semi-retired, I was the founding CEO of the Crystal City Improvement District, where I spent 11 years transforming the infamous “Concrete Canyon,” as it was called by my first boss, when I moved here from Georgia to work for Verizon.
I didn’t think Crystal City was a “Concrete Canyon” when I first flew in, it had an airport you could walk to, and I thought that was pretty cool. But what did I know, right? I certainly didn’t think that a few years later I would be in charge of transforming the place. In Crystal City, we were trying to bring soul and create a place that people wanted to be.
I am a big adventure-traveler. I do yoga and hiking all over the world – 85 countries to date. Right now, with people being confined, I recommend getting outside at least once a day in your neighborhood, even if just walking by yourself. It helps re-wire your brain a little bit. If you are with someone, there is the added benefit of bonding and connecting. I am big on walking with my son, who is 17. When I was in LGW in 2003, I was pregnant with him from the Opening Retreat on. I had him two weeks after the Closing Retreat!
Now my son is going to graduate high school in June, and we bond while walking. When you are walking with someone you are looking straight ahead instead of staring at each other, and that makes it somehow easier to talk (especially to teenagers). It is amazing how much we have learned about each other and how close we have become just spending time walking together. So now, as CEO of Foxgloves, I work with CEOs who are transitioning their business or company – and we walk while we work. It is amazing how much that can change your mindset and perspective when you hike just ten minutes out.
Here are some of my favorite spots to be outdoors:
- The Potomac Heritage Trail – Turkey Run
The Potomac Heritage Trail starts at Roosevelt Island. One of my favorite sections is Turkey Run. It is not as rocky as the Billy Goat Trail but it is a nice area on the Northern Virginia side and I highly recommend it. That is one of my son’s favorites. It is typically less crowded, and you can wander through these beautiful paths.
- The Washington Metro Area Cycling/Trail Network
I love the cycling network around here. The trails are outstanding whether you are running, biking or hiking. I love the Mount Vernon trail and one of my favorite things to do is to cycle down into National Harbor over the Wilson Bridge. That’s a really nice ride. You will see a lot of people walking. It is fun to cycle in and have guacamole and a margarita at Rosa Mexicana. If you are feeling the effects, it will be gone by the time you get back across the bridge. I also use the trails for distance running, especially during the pandemic. I am a big fan of Pacers Running. They have these running shoes called On’s – they are a Swiss company, and they make the best shoes. I run all over the trail network. It is just about getting out there and going. I am always discovering new green spaces and extensions of the trails. I found a beautiful section in Del Rey recently that I had no idea was there. There is a lot to discover and experience.
- Buck Hollow Trail
My favorite trail is a little further out. It is out past Sperryville, VA. Everyone knows about Old Rag and Little Devil Stairs, but my favorite is called Buck Hollow Trail. Before you get into the Shenandoahs there is a little cut-out to the left where cars park. It is a fantastic loop, including one of the steepest climbs in the Shenandoahs. It’s tough but quick (and stair-stepped). I have spotted bears in trees. Once you get to the top of it you are on Shenandoah Drive. I have taken so many people out there and it is absolutely beautiful. There are waterfalls and a beautiful ridge section. It is incredible to do. That is probably our area’s very favorite hike for me.
Scott Kratz (’21), Director, 11th St. Bridge Park
The larger physical, social, economic, and cultural benefits of parks and civic spaces are well-documented. They are key for exercise, relaxation, and mental health and we are seeing these benefits during the pandemic as people are flocking to parks. Parks are critical to relieving the anxiety of isolation and also bringing people together who might not otherwise cross paths.
We are social creatures, so to be within physical proximity of other humans is so critical to our wellbeing. There is a great Icelandic proverb: “man’s greatest joy is man.” We want to be with other people. The outdoor spaces allow us to do that in a safe, physically distanced way. There are several studies that show that the health of older people is directly linked to the quality and quantity of outdoor spaces. As we are developing the 11th St. Bridge Park one of our key goals is to improve the public health of our nearby residents who have some of the most challenging health statistics in the city, and the country actually.
- Anacostia Park
My first is Anacostia Park which is a 300+ acre park that lines the banks of the Anacostia River. It is only a few blocks away from where I live, and my wife and I talk all the time about how fortunate we are to live in such close proximity to this amazing jewel that has been hiding in plain sight. Anacostia Park is run by the National Parks Service and it is connected by the Anacostia River Trail that goes 7+ miles, all the way up to Bladensburg. It is one of the nicest, if not the nicest, bike and pedestrian path in the DMV. It takes you by Kenilworth Aquatic Center and connects to the Northeast Branch Trail. I go out there three times a week and go visit a friend who lives on the other side of the river. We meet down there and there is a really awesome pirate playground, with a huge pirate ship. It transports you back to being a little kid. Especially in the mornings as you see the sunrise over the bow of this pirate ship that kids can play in. The park is lined with exercise equipment so parents can get some physical activity.
Anacostia Park also has the nation’s only roller-skating rink in a National Park. If you go further up Naylor Drive beyond Pennsylvania Avenue you can find the rink. In the time pre-Covid (and we will have it post-Covid) you could go check out roller skates for free. On the weekends they have some amazing DJs. I get out there and I feel like a gangly teenager again. You have people out there doing crazy moves in capes with the DJ playing soul music, Chuck Brown, and other Go-Go acts blasting. It’s amazing.
Lastly, you have the Anacostia River. The river has been a forgotten resource for way too long. People are discovering its joy. You see the crew folks rowing before the crack of dawn. There is something about water that reduces one’s cortisol level, increases serotonin, and in this time of such toxic stress that we are living in, the water immediately puts you at peace with the world. I like to go out there in the morning, as the sun is coming up when the surface of the water is like a mirror. It sets the tone for the rest of the day. I feel like the ambassador for Anacostia Park (laughs). One of the reasons I am so excited about it is because the 11th St. Bridge Project will be right there in a couple of years.
- Fort Dupont
Two is Fort Dupont. Also, east of the River, Fort Dupont is another National Park Service asset and it connects the larger circle forts that date back to the Civil War. During the Lincoln administration, the military found the highest points in the District that protect the Capitol. There are no real signs of a fort anymore, but these have become a sort of emerald necklace that connects these beautiful hiking trails. I understand that Fort Dupont boasts the only mountain biking trail within a National Park Service property in the country. It is relaxing just thinking about it. You see deer, wild turkeys, opossums, racoons, just 25 blocks from the Capitol. All of this wildlife demonstrates the resiliency of nature and immediately transports you from the hurly-burly, noisy urban environment into a bucolic, pastoral space. You can do the entire circle fort trail on a mountain bike. I sometimes bike over there from my house in Barracks Row and go back and forth on that trail three or more times. It clears my head and revitalizes. It is like going to church.
- The National Arboretum
Third is the National Arboretum. Our LGW Class of 2021 is going on a big hike next Saturday! It is a 400-acre jewel that also sits on the banks of the Anacostia River. It has the Capitol columns that rest right in the center. These are sandstone columns that were taken out of the US Capitol building. Instead of getting rid of them, they put these on this tall promontory, that looks out over beautiful fields cut with trails.
And there are so many jewels within the park. There is a dogwood forest that showers in white and pink petals in the spring. There is another promontory that sits on the top of the Anacostia River. Sometimes on Sundays my wife and I will bring a thermos of coffee and the paper and enjoy the afternoon. There are nesting Bald Eagles that have been in the Arboretum for the last several years. When you are walking in the nation’s capital and you have a Bald Eagle flying over your head, not just on your currency, it is special. There is one particular spot in the Arboretum where I am taking our LGW class on Saturday that is my favorite. They won’t get the full experience until the spring, but there is a grove of Cottonwood Trees. They have flat-paned leaves that rustle in a certain way when the wind comes through them. Sometimes we don’t realize the toxicity of noise we exist in, things like the pinging of an email or a loud truck coming by. Sometimes I will just stand there for 10 minutes and listen to the wind coming through and it is stunning. It reminds we of a western creek somewhere in Montana or Wyoming. Those are my top three!
Danielle Reyes (’13), Executive Director, Crimsonbridge Foundation
- Rock Creek Park
My top place is Rock Creek Park. There are 1,754 acres of Rock Creek Park in DC alone and more than that in Maryland. It is an important watershed and its tributaries connect to the Potomac River and the greater Chesapeake Bay watershed. I talk to a lot of people who only see the bike trail and the commuters on it and know the areas bordering downtown neighborhoods, but they haven’t veered up a little bit. I always tell people, no matter where you go in Rock Creek Park you will have cell phone reception. It’s not like 15 years ago where you might not be able to use your phone. It’s not the Outback, you can’t get lost! So, go for it. Drive 10 minutes further north than you have before and explore a new trail or some history.
On weekends and holidays, Beach Drive is always closed, north of Blagden Avenue into MD. However, right now, during the pandemic, this stretch of Beach Drive is closed to motor traffic all week. That is significant, because if you are uncomfortable on the trails, or in the woods, you have the entire road to rollerblade, skate, walk, bike, or push a stroller and you still have the canopy and feeling that you are in the woods. Many trails and parts of Beach Drive run along Rock Creek itself and it is beautiful. Though it’s not safe to swim or wade in, there are efforts to make that a reality again in the future! So that is definitely my number 1, it is such a total gem and oasis in the city.
- Rachel Carson Conservation Park
Number two would be in Maryland: the Rachel Carson Conservation Park. It is the best-kept secret. I hiked through there for four hours and only ran into one person (during the pandemic). I saw a Kingfisher and all sorts of fun wildlife. But here is the other fun thing about it: next door to the parking lot, about an eighth of a mile around the corner is Elderpine Brewing and Blending Co. which has a significant outdoor area. Another two-miles down the road is Brookville Beer Farm, which also offers very well-spaced outdoor seating. There are many in this area. You can drive 40-minutes up into Montgomery County, take a great day-hike or stroll in the Rachel Carson Conservation Park and then finish off in these perfectly designed socially-distant brew farms/brewpubs. You look out over an acre and there are picnic tables, lighting, or you can call in your order and pick it up to go!
- Nanjemoy Creek
My next one, which is a close third, is Nanjemoy Creek. What I love about it is the area surrounding it is owned and protected by the Nature Conservancy. They have beautiful ramps for loading in your boat, canoe, or kayak, and the birdlife and wildlife there is fantastic. You’ve got Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons, and turkeys. We see them every time we are there. There are also deer, fox, turtles, and other critters around. Nanjemoy Creek is also where we go to get Catfish. It is hard to drop a line there and not get a bite. We always come home with a lot of Catfish. We have gone there and not had another boat pass us for half of the day. I like to canoe out, you don’t have to go far. You can even canoe out for five or ten minutes and spend the whole day fishing in little nooks. It is very nice, very peaceful.
I grew up with a deep appreciation for being outdoors. My father’s family is from Puerto Rico and we have a really nice family farm out there which is totally different from where I grew up in Westchester County, NY. But even in NY, I was so lucky to be in the Hudson Valley and have access to fishing, hiking and trails on a daily basis. I could walk to the pond at six years old by myself. We took nightly walks as a family in the woods. My neighbor was the head of the reptiles and amphibians department for the Bronx Zoo. His garage and entire backyard were a reptile and amphibian exhibit in itself! So, I was very lucky in that I was able to be around and develop an appreciation for farm animals, exotic animals, and local wildlife. Stories about the encroachment upon those spaces and habitats really resonated with me as a young child and still do. Today, I spend much of my volunteer energy working with local environmental organizations on conservation and education to preserve our green and natural spaces, protect wildlife, and fight climate change.
Gina Toppin (’20), Deputy Director, DC Parks and Recreation
- Oxon Run Park
The first park I want to mention is Oxon Run Park. It is the largest park in our inventory. It is in Ward 8. There are great treasures east of the river that are often overlooked. It is anchored by the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center which is a premiere, state of the art tennis and learning center. If you take a trail to the northeast you will find some of the parks older amenities that have been there for some time: a basketball court, softball fields, an outdoor pool and pavilions, pedestrian bridges and playground. There is a small trail through a tree canopy and even an amphitheater there.
Often times, people use this space during lunchtime. Our “Friends Of” partnering organizations use that for outdoor learning space and the neighborhood children of course use it. We have also worked with the Department of Transportation to create a pop-up arboretum and there are future plans for a stream restoration by the Department of Energy and Environment. If you are going around east of the stream, you will encounter more open space and the natural wonder of the park. We have partnered with DC Urban Greens to create an urban farm there that has been very well utilized during the pandemic and it has always been very popular. It is called The Well and it is often a gathering space and an educational site. It is a food distribution site as well, where local farmers gather, grow and distribute food. In the future, an outdoor gym will be installed in that space so people can enjoy the great outdoors while working out. The planning began before Covid, but it is so fitting that we are doing it now while people are afraid to return to gyms. There is also an old-growth grove of Cherry Trees.
- The Marvin Gaye Trail
My second favorite is the Marvin Gaye Trail. It is along the Watts Branch, which is DC’s largest tributary. The trail goes from the Watts Branch to Kenilworth. No matter where you start, you will always be in that healing space, hence the Marvin Gaye trail. At the border of DC and Maryland you will find our recreation center there. Which is an ode to Marvin Gaye and his music. There is an athletic facility and basketball court, and the playground features music and instruments and can be an outdoor performance space. When you walk down past Woodson High School, just under a mile away, you get more of the park space that can be used. There is a green stream valley that includes what we call Ladybird Johnson Meadow which was environmentally revitalized by the Green Summer Job Corps. We are always happy to partner with organizations. As a matter of fact, one of the departments in my purview is an environmental department that includes programming for urban gardening and geocaching and a host of other things.
There is a farm at Kelly Miller that is a solution to building viable communities with economic opportunities, healthier lifestyles and equitable food options. Also there is Lederer garden where the community and children can learn about urban gardening. Greenhouse education, crop-production and other programs and camp enhancements we have there each year. It has a rich history in the neighborhood that stretches all the way from the Maryland border to the Anacostia River. That is another hidden gem that we have.
- Pope Branch Trail and Pope Branch Park
Lastly, I would mention Pope Branch Trail and Pope Branch Park. They are connected by a subterranean river, and like most of our treasured parks, they make their way to the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. The Pope Branch Trail is an unmarked trailhead. Until you get to walking through it, you don’t know what you’re going to experience. It is our first unpaved trail. We worked with the Student Conservation Association to create a natural trail that works with the environment. We wanted to conserve the environment as much as possible while making sure the trail could be utilized by the community.
When you get through the trail, you are transported by the surroundings. You don’t hear traffic, you hear birds and the natural surroundings. In the summertime, we have had musical sessions with local artists The Pope Branch Jams. They play in the park and work harmoniously with their musical instruments. People want to be outside more than ever now.
The surrounding areas are always begging for revitalization. We work with the Department of Energy and Environment to restore areas where we can and maintain them.
One of the great things about the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) is we have so much variety in our offerings across the District. We have wonderful staff, who are passionate about serving the community, particularly, the small but mighty environmental team. When I am updated on our efforts, I like to see them for myself. DPR is where the fun happens!
Patrick Wojahn (’14), Mayor, College Park, MD
- Lake Artemesia
Lake Artemesia is our biggest hidden gem in College Park. It is a beautiful lake with a 1.5-mile trail that circles around it. It is one of the most heavily used trails in the DC metro area. It is a popular place for birders, and I love to go running, walking and bicycling around it. Over the course of the pandemic, I have been getting together with a small group of runners. We do an 8-mile run starting with Artemesia, going up the Paint Branch Trail.
- Paint Branch Trail
My second is the Paint Branch Trail and starts at Artemesia and goes to Cherry Hill Road. It is nice and shaded and there is beautiful scenery and views of Paint Branch Creek which is part of the Anacostia. It connects different parts of College Park and is a very useful commuter trail and that goes through the University of Maryland campus.
- College Park Trolley Trail
My third is the Trolley Trail which connects the University of Maryland campus and downtown College Park. There is a bike lane along Rhode Island Avenue extending north of the trail that seamlessly connects to the Paint Branch Trail.
One thing I want to make a pitch for is our Parkruns. College Park was one of the first places to do these in the region. Parkruns are part of a global phenomenon. During pre-Covid times they would meet every Saturday at 5 o’clock. They are volunteer-run, and very community-oriented. One of the great things about it is the community aspect. You see the same people there every week. People run or walk, and they bring babies in strollers and dogs.
The park runs are free to participate in and very accessible. It takes place on the stretch of the Paint Branch Trail. Since we can’t get together in large groups, people are doing virtual park runs. They run a 5K, or whatever they are comfortable with, and they do it individually or in small groups, they report their times out and post pictures on social media. It is not competitive at all. The runs are encouraging people to get out and get healthy. During these times where it is easy to be inside all the time, it is so good for your mental and physical health to go outside.
There you have it. Pick a spot, explore, recharge and let us know what you discover!