Saturday, June 7, 2014

Enjoying Northwest Branch Park

The Northwest Branch Stream Valley is a great place to enjoy the outdoors, especially in the warmer months when large trees offer shade from stifling heat.  The park is a great place for a hike or jog.  I'm sure most Four Corners residents have visited the park at least once, since it is easy to get to from Route 29 at the Burnt Mills dam.  The recent flood and its subsequent damage drew attention to this area.  The parking lots behind the two WSSC buildings provide a great access point to the Rachel Carson Greenway and the other trails that run through the park, and there are signs and visitor information for hikers at this location.

While the area around the dam is a nice spot, its a bit "touristy" meaning it's where most people go to access the trails.  On nice weekends, the trails on the east side of the creek which connect to these parking lots are often crowded with everyone from experienced hikers to families with small kids.  It's great that all these people are out enjoying one of Montgomery County's natural gems, but when the trails are crowded, it takes away from the rustic feel of the park.  The Burnt Mills dam area is the most popular spot to enter the park, but it is only one of several places where the trails of Northwest Branch can be easily accessed.  There are access points in all of the neighborhoods lining the park which lead to much less crowded trails, even on prime weekends when the parking lot by the dam is full.  

Trees on the Woodmoor side of the creek near the Williamsburg Drive entrance.
Here are three of those alternate access points.  I will include relevant details such as trail connections and difficulty.  The trails I detail here are feeder trails into the main two trails, so the difficulty ranking only applies to the access trail and not the mainline trails which parallel the creek.

The mainline trail which runs on the east bank in the vicinity of Burnt Mills is the one that sees the most use because it directly connects to the parking lots by the dam.  The official name of this trail is the Rachel Carson Greenway Trail, and it runs along the entire east side of the creek from the Beltway bridge, through Burnt Mills, and on towards Glenmont.

The mainline trail on the west bank is well traveled north of Route 29 (Northwood side of the creek), but it is barely used on the south side of Route 29 (Woodmoor side).  This trail is officially called the Northwest Branch Trail, but the part south of Route 29 (along Woodmoor) is not recognized M-NCPPC due to treachery, so it lacks signage and trail markers.      

The trails along Northwest Branch in Burnt Mills.
Green= Rachel Carson Greewnay Trail.
Blue= Northwest Branch Trail.
Red= Unrecognized Northwest Branch Trail south of Route 29.

Neighborhood: Northwood
Trail Difficulty: Easy
Entry: The dead end of Lockridge Drive, enter between the guardrails.

If you live in Northwood/North Four Corners, you probably already know about this spot, but if you live in another neighborhood this might be news to you.  This access trail connects to the end of Lockridge Drive on the west side of the creek.  It is the best way to connect to the mainline trail which runs along the east side of the creek from Route 29 to Wheaton Regional Park.  This location is an officially recognized access point, so there is signage pointing out destinations along the mainline trail and their distanc.  This is an easy trail which can be used by almost anyone, and it has no steep grades or water crossings.  

Neighborhood: Woodmoor
Trail Difficulty: Moderate
Entry: Where Williamsburg Drive becomes Big Rock Road, enter the woods at the stub in the street next to the last house that faces Big Rock.    

This access point connects to the unrecognized section of the Northwest Branch Trail which runs along the Woodmoor side of the creek.  Since this trail is not maintained by M-NCPPC, there is no signage marking the entrance.  This access trail follows a tributary stream to the bottom of the hill, where it joins the mainline trail which parallels the stream to Route 29 and beyond.  Once at the bottom of the hill next to the creek, hikers can turn left to head north towards Route 29, or right to head south towards the Beltway.  Note that the mainline trail ends several hundred yards before reaching the Beltway bridge due to terrain changes, so there is no access to the Beltway bridge or points south from this side of the creek (unless you're up for climbing over some boulders and ascending 60 degree slopes).

The access trail from Big Rock to the creek is moderately difficult, with a long steady hill and a few fallen trees across the path.  The mainline trail ranges from easy to very difficult, with some grades being completely flat, and others being so steep that you have to use your hands to climb up (which is why the M-NCPPC does not recognize it as an official trail).  However, this trail offers the best views of the rapids and large boulders along the creek just south of Burnt Mills (which is, in my opinion, one the most scenic places in Montgomery County aside from Great Falls).

Devere Drive & Branch View Court

Neighborhood: Cresthaven 
Trail Difficulty: Moderate   
Entry: dead end of Devere Drive, enter to the left of the guardrail.  

This access trail is not in Four Corners, but it provides the closest trail connection to the Beltway bridge from a street.  To get to this location, turn onto Cresthaven Drive from New Hampshire Avenue, then take a right on Devere Drive and go to the end of the road.  It is located deep in the neighborhood, but entering the woods here is more direct than entering at Burnt Mills if you're trying to get to the Beltway bridge and points south.  This trail connects to the Rachel Carson Greenway Trail (east side of the creek, section south of Route 29).  I believe this access point is recognized by M-NCPPC, since it appears on their maps as well as Google Maps.  The trail descends a fairly steep slope to get to the mainline trail along the creek bed, but it is easily passable if you go slow (there are no fallen trees or large rocks in the way).  To get to the Beltway bridge, turn left at the base of this access trail and go south on the mainline trail (you'll hear the bridge before you see it).

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I hope this information is useful.  There are some other access points to Northwest Branch from Woodmoor and Northwood, but they lead to dead ends and impassable trails, or they involve crossing private property, so I left them out.  

Northwest Branch Park is a major asset to our community, and everyone should have an opportunity to enjoy it.       




  1. This is a great post! We just moved to Woodmoor last month and have visited the trail multiple times each week. It has the feel of a state park and we've seen some interesting wildlife (including several types of snakes). A friendly neighbor let's us use his backyard, but we will check out the Williamsburg entrance. Thanks!

  2. There is also an entrance to the Northwest Branch trail off Loxford Terrace--between 917 & 919 Loxford Terrace. This entrance is unmarked from Loxford and it looks like it is private property, but it is not. The subdivision plat clearly shows a pedestrian path between the two houses.