Run Washington, DC

From paved paths to hiking trails to rails-to-trails conversions, Washington, DC offers hundreds of miles of running space and a place for every runner. Below are some of my favorites.

The National Mall – The pedestrian zone stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol makes for a beautiful run. There are several street crossings on this route, which are most safely done at established crosswalks. The Mall can become very crowded, especially on weekends and during high tourist season (March to September). Go early to have plenty of room for yourself, or expect to weave in and out of meandering tourists. Round-trip: 5 miles. Nearest Metro access: Federal Triangle, Smithsonian or Capital South.

Washington Monument

Running along the National Mall is a must for any runner visiting DC. Get your miles in while you sight-see!

Rock Creek Park – Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park is a gem of green space in our nation’s bustling capital. Cyclists and runners can explore the paved Rock Creek Trail, which runs adjacent to the Rock Creek Parkway. On weekends, the Rock Creek Parkway is closed to vehicular traffic at Beach Drive, just north of the National Zoo, and those on foot or bike can enjoy the wide lanes for several miles, all the way to the Maryland line. Within Rock Creek Park, there are 32 collective miles of unpaved trails (some are open to horses).

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M., Frieda, and I went for a long run on the Western Ridge Trail on a cool February morning. We started at Peirce Mill (parking at the Tilden Street parking lot) and made our way north to Beach Drive, where we hopped on the road and headed south back to the car. It was an 8.5 mile loop.

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail – Known to locals as the C&O, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail offers 184.5 miles of walking, running, or cycling on a crushed limestone path stretching from Georgetown in Washington, DC westward to Cumberland, Maryland. The trail is flat and passes through dozens of parks and historic sites, including Great Falls Park and Antietam National Battlefield. A large chunk of the John F. Kennedy 50 Mile Ultramarathon is run on the C&O Canal Trail, offering gorgeous vistas of small towns dotting the Potomac River. Nearest metro access: Rosslyn (cross the Key Bridge and hop on the trail in Georgetown at mile 0).

Running on the C&O Canal Trail during the JFK 50 mile run, mile marker 68.

Capital Crescent Trail – From Georgetown in Washington, DC to Silver Spring, Maryland, the Capital Crescent Trail is about 11 miles long. A rails-to-trails path, the Capital Crescent is nice paved alternative to the C&O Canal Trail, and runs parallel to it for several miles. It can get busy on weekends near Silver Spring. Connect with other trails in the area, including the Rock Creek Parkway to the north, and the Mount Vernon and Custis Trails to the south. Nearest metro access: Rosslyn (cross the Key Bridge, head down to Water Street, turn right and within about 1/4 of a mile, you will be on the trail).

Mount Vernon Trail – Stretching from Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, to the Key Bridge, the paved Mount Vernon Trail is 18 miles long, and takes runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, and walkers along the Potomac River through several parks, Old Town Alexandria, and around Reagan National Airport. The trail is marked at each mile and connects with other trails in the area, including the Four Mile Run Trail, the Memorial Bridge/Rock Creek Park Trail, the Key Bridge, the Custis Trail, and the unpaved Potomac Heritage Trail. Nearest Metro access: Reagan National Airport (mile 13), Rosslyn (mile 18).


One of the many breathtaking views of Washington, DC from the Mount Vernon Trail, mile marker 17.

Custis Trail  The 4-mile Custis Trail runs east-west in Arlington from the Key Bridge in Rosslyn to the west end of Ballston and parallels I-66. It can get busy during rush-hour periods, as many people use this trail to commute to Washington, DC. On the east end, it connects with the Mount Vernon Trail, and on the west end, runs into the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail. Nearest metro access: Rosslyn (west end, mile 4); Virginia Square or Ballston (mile 1.5).

Potomac Heritage Trail – The unpaved Potomac Heritage Trail might be best suited for hiking rather than running, at least for the first four miles of the 10-mile path. The trail parallels the west bank (Virginia side) of the Potomac River from the Key Bridge to the American Legion Bridge. The first section of the trail is quite rocky in sections, but offers beautiful views of Georgetown University on the opposite side. At mile 4, the trail crosses Chain Bridge, which runners can cross and pick up the C&O Trail on the other side. Nearest metro access: Rosslyn (head down the Mount Vernon Trail toward Roosevelt Island; pick up the Potomac Heritage Trail at the bottom of the ramp leading into the Roosevelt Island parking lot).

View from the Potomac Heritage Trail: Georgetown University sits atop a hill overlooking the Potomac River.

Washington and Old Dominion Trail – Usually referred to as simply the “W&OD”, the Washington and Old Dominion is a rails-to-trails conversion trail stretching 45 miles from the Shirlington neighborhood in Arlington west to Purcellville, Virginia. Marked every half mile, the trail is flat and serves as a commuter trail for many cyclists. The busiest section of the trail, in my experience, tends to be from the East Falls Church area (miles 5-6) to the Custis Trail exit, during rush hour. Once past the Herndon area(miles 20-22), the trail is quiet and peaceful. The W&OD is an excellent choice for a bike ride- just make sure to bring extra tubes and changing equipment along, as bike shops are hard to come by after Reston (I learned this the hard way). Nearest metro access: East Falls Church (mile 5.5); Vienna (mile 12; requires a 2-mile drive).

Four Mile Run Trail – The 6.2 mile long Four Mile Run Trail more or less parallels and, in several places, crosses the W&OD Trail. It tends to be less crowded and includes a few short but steep hills, great for building a little extra strength on the run. The trail follows the Four Mile Run stream and includes a large section in Glencarlyn Park, one of Arlington’s most beautiful green spaces. Four Mile Run links the W&OD Trail to the Mount Vernon Trail, taking trail users from Shirlington in south Arlington to Reagan National Airport. Four Mile Run is most easily accessed by car at Bluemont Junction Park, or by bike or on foot from one of the other trails connecting to it.

Hungry after all that running? Visit my restaurant guide for some of my favorite spots.

Give your running shoes a break and see some of Washington, DC’s famous sights.

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