My two favorite trails – the Northwest Branch and the Sligo Creek — became connected last month. Although the connecting paths are somewhat modest and urban, the end result is an amazing network of trails which criss-cross through some really great streams here in southeastern Montgomery County.
The connection was formed when the last segment of the Northwood Chesapeake Bay Trail was blazed in the woods which shoulder University Boulevard in Wheaton, just south east of where that large road meets Arcola Avenue, in a small area known as Breewood Park.
To be honest, I never would have found it on my own since signs haven’t been posted at the connection points. Instead I had to have the woman who organized the project, Jennifer Chambers, meet me and show me the way to the path where it meets Sligo Creek Parkway. Hopefully, Jennifer says, the new signs alerting hikers to the connection will arrive soon.
To find it yourself in the meantime, you can drive north on Sligo Creek and park just below where the parkway meets University. (As you head north, you’ll see a playground on your left and one of those heart health outdoor workout areas on your right.) The trail is blazed with red rectangles.
Most of the time you walk this trail you are behind the Breewood neighborhood and see and hear traffic from University Boulevard. At several points you cross over dead end roads and eventually you come out at the cross walk over University Boulevard. From there, you make your way up some concrete steps at the busy corner, and then across a somewhat empty lot to find the sign which lets you know you are entering the existing Northwood Chesapeake Bay Trail (NCBT).
Chambers has been working for more than a year with a dedicated team of volunteers and county employees to complete this last section of the NCBT, although some readers might recall she also worked hard to supervise her students as they worked on the other, more northern part of the trail in 2010 behind Northwood High School.
What makes this trail significant is not its current appearance, but rather its function.
“I look at it as connecting green spaces in an area that is highly populated,” Chambers explains. “You don’t get to put trails in urban areas that often.”
The trails that Chambers and her fellow volunteers have blazed are very modern in design; they are not paved or lined with mulch or gravel. This is intentional and part of the permanent design. Instead of laying down such materials, the trail’s existence relies upon carefully calculated sloping of clay and dirt at precisely graded angles to avoid erosion and minimize forest disturbance. Although the trails now are muddy and a bit soft, the footsteps of people will eventually make them compact and hard – a design feature Chambers says she decided to use after consulting with other trail managers who work for the county and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
Most of the work completed by volunteers in November involved removing invasive exotic vines and grading the dirt to ensure that the trail would not cause erosion in the nearby streambeds.
In the next two years, Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be doing even more to slow erosion in the area as a part of a new permit process in the county. Chambers and her group worked closely with DEP when establishing the trail and securing the permits needed for work. For DEP the trail’s inception was fortuitous; the sections of the Sligo stream valley which sit below the Breewood neighborhood have been particularly hard hit by flooding and erosion which the county would like to ameliorate.
“The banks of the streams there are almost vertical right now,” says Doug Marshall, a watershed planner at DEP. DEP’s goal will be to restore the banks to a more natural flow and slow the water down and spread it out, employing an intricate system of low impact design ideas, including pervious pavement, drain systems and rain gardens at the site.
Marshall notes that sediment and excessive nutrients are some of the leading pollution problems throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed right now, and a primary source of that sediment is stream channel erosion like that in the Sligo near the Breewood tributary. “Breewood is kind of a microcosm of what needs to be happen to the whole Chesapeake Bay,” he says.
Photos by Julie Wiatt