Better Signs Needed Now For Anacostia Tributary Trail System!
Montgomery County should make sure its next planning director joins multi-jurisdictional effort

The black asphalt of the Sligo Creek Trail terminates at the Northwest Branch Trail on the Anacostia  Tributary Trail System. A small brown directional post with arrows and white lettering points to each trail.

I can’t count the number of times people on the Anacostia Tributary Trail System (ATTS) have stopped me to ask for directions. Cyclists, joggers, walkers, photographers, birders and all kinds of other folks tell me they have no idea how to get back to where they started, or how to reach their intended destinations.

A stranded runner a month ago was in a particular jam: Jogging along a part of the trail system in Riverdale, he asked me how to get to the “Rachel Carson Park with the waterfall” on Columbia Pike/Colesville Road.

“There is a bunch of stuff in Montgomery County with Carson’s name on it,” I told him, “and I think you’re describing the Burnt Mills West Special Park. How to get there from here? Whew! The signs aren’t going to be good enough for you to follow and there are way too many turns for me to describe the route.”

He was without his phone, without water, and out of luck.

A bicycle rests horizontally, front tire pointing left, against the post below a sign displaying the words "Anacostia River Trail". The middle of the sign contains a watery image, with a pair of silhouette birds standing on each side of the water looking back at each other. The sign is located at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, one of many great destinations along the Anacostia Tributary Trail System.
Big, bold signs like this one at Bladensburg Waterfront Park are a baby step in the right direction. Photo by Chris Lancette.

I suggested he turn back to where he started and try again on another day.

He was exasperated, but he heeded my advice.

I totally understood his frustration. I spent my first few years here getting lost while traversing all the paved and unpaved trails starting on the Sligo Creek Trail. I ventured through Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and the District of Columbia.

As a transplant from Georgia, I found the signs — and lack thereof — bewildering. 

The mostly meager signs that currently exist throughout the three jurisdictions are disjointed and confusing at best. Even after nearly 15 years of exploring paved and natural ATTS trails by bike and by foot, I’m dismayed by the lack of a cohesive, unifying, intelligent sign system.

A small, square odometer mounted on to my bike's handlebars display 10,000 miles -- a milestone I was proud to hit a while back. The moment occurred right by the College Park Airport.
I passed the 10,000-mile mark on my current bike a while back — and the majority of those miles have started on the Anacostia Tributary Trail System.

I never understood why this situation existed – until I spotted a letter from the Friends of Sligo Creek (FOSC) this week to the Montgomery County Council. It turns out that Prince George’s County and the District have long been willing to join forces to make life better for everyone who uses the trails.

But not Montgomery County.

“Having received assurances from both Prince George’s County and District representatives that they would be happy to meet and work on this, Friends of Sligo Creek and other representatives of the Anacostia Watershed Community Advisory Committee met with Montgomery Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and staff on August 24th, 2015,” FOSC wrote in its Dec. 13, 2022 letter. “Mr. Anderson refused to have the Montgomery Parks participate in developing an Anacostia trail strategy, saying that he preferred that the Montgomery County trails reflect exclusively their ownership by Montgomery Parks.”

Since the Council has fired the entire planning board and begun replacing all members including the chairperson, there’s a great opportunity for the county to break free of such myopic, territorial thinking.

Now is the time for Montgomery County to join forces with its counterparts in PG County and the District.

Now is the time to envision and create a fantastic, comprehensive signage system that effortlessly guides people to and through the absolute gift that is the Anacostia Tributary Trail System. It was, after all, that same kind of civic leadership and regional cooperation that launched the creation of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission nearly a century ago. 

Trail system users and people who don’t presently use it but who would like to start doing so have little awareness of the extraordinary connectivity the ATTS presents. With the exception of other veteran long-distance ATTS bicyclists like myself, most people are astonished to learn about the enormous breadth of the trail system. They have little idea of the scope of the amazing places that are in the system, or that they can sometimes venture a few miles more to connect to other huge trails such as the Rock Creek Trail and the Mount Vernon Trail.

Wildlife encounters are one of the most moving experiences trail users have on the trail system. This shot by Won-ok Kim is one of my all-time favorites. It shows a raccoon high up in a tree, looking down at the photographer. It's legs are spread out over a branch and it's just sort of hanging out, as relaxed as could be.
Wildlife encounters are one of the most moving experiences trail users have on the trail system. This photo by Won-ok Kim is one of my all-time favorites.

Even many active users remain in fairly finite, provincial areas of the system and hesitate to venture beyond it because they have no idea what’s ahead. Some of the issues here relate to cultural factors but better signs could still make the trail system more inviting to more diverse groups of people.

Residents of the entire greater District of Columbia/Maryland/Virginia region would benefit from a comprehensive, universal sign system that spans every inch of it. Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and the District must work together to create unified signage for all resident trail system users and all who come here from other places to use the system.

These benefits would include but not be limited to:

  • Increased environmental awareness – helping people understand that the trail system and the land it’s on are all part of the Anacostia Watershed, as the FOSC letter points out. Everything we do while living and working in the area affects our own health and that of everything in the natural world that lives here.
  • Increased use of the trail system (both in numbers of people and time spent) for recreation, physical exercise, mental relaxation, education, and hosts of nature-based activities ranging from birding to volunteer cleanups
  • Increased confidence among trail users that they will be able to explore and navigate the full span of the trail system with no fear of getting lost
  • Increased safety on the trail by making it easier for users to get the help they need dealing with anything from a flat bike tire to an accident – being better able to direct people to find and help them, and for them to get off the trail system to the nearest major road so that they can be found
The new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge with its three sets of giant white arches on each side of the bridge always make for a great photo opp as it crosses the Anacostia River.
The new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge is always a spectacular site from the Anacostia Trail in the District of Columbia. Photo by Chris Lancette.

What a unified system of signs could look like:

A unified plan with the cooperation of all relevant government entities and bodies could accomplish enormous good for trail system users by incorporating concepts including but not limited to the following ideas.

  • Universal logo and style for all signs throughout the ATTS. Current signs range from simple, wood post mile markers placed on the ground to metal signs placed on tall posts. A few spots contain large maps, which are helpful as general orientations – but not for the purpose of providing quick info for trail users on a run or ride. Some parts of the trail have some painted lines at various turns but that can also be confusing unless users really know the area. Some Anacostia Tributary Trail System websites do apply colors to various parts of the trails but multiple shades of the same colors make them hard to differentiate on a computer screen, and the actual trail markings certainly don’t use colors enough. Most of the signs are just mile markers. Some signs do point and list destinations but those signs, especially the ones in the District, often entice people off the trails and onto streets, where the location indicators seem to suddenly stop – meaning there’s no carryover from the trail signs to the destinations mentioned.
The National Capitol Columns at the National Arboretum make for a stunning vista at all hours of the day. These columns were originally sited in the East Portico of the Capitol Building in 1828. The Arboretum website notes that The stately permanence of the Corinthian columns and careful siting on a natural knoll in the Ellipse Meadow makes them seem as if they have been there for a very long time.
The National Capitol Columns at the National Arboretum make for a stunning vista at all hours of the day — if only you could find them by using better signs along the trails. Photo by Chris Lancette.

As one example, it is extraordinarily difficult to follow the trail system signs pointing from the Anacostia River Trail to the U.S. National Arboretum. The trail signs don’t indicate that you will get dumped onto a dangerous road (with no more trails or bike lanes) and that few if any additional signs will guide you the rest of the way there. While any number of designs could work, signs should be large enough to make it clear where users are at that second, how many miles they’ve come on that part of the trail, how many miles remain to reach a multitude of destinations, and a geographic image/map of where they are in the context of the greater trail system.

If people could start to better visualize where they are in relationship to the areas of Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and the District, that would go a long way toward helping people truly learn the areas. The sign system might also include distinct color codes so that each branch/part of the trail system has its own color. For example, green for the Sligo Creek Trail, blue for the Northwest Branch trail, etc. Think of the Metro system as an example. Think of the way mountain bike trails in the woods are often blazed with specific colors for specific trails. People just knowing that they are on the right trail and haven’t accidentally veered off is hugely important.

This photo of Brookside Gardens in late fall shows an array of trees with orange, red and green leaves reflecting in a pond.
Brookside Gardens is one of the most breathtaking sites you can find using the Anacostia Tributary Trail System — but signs along the trails don’t reveal that fact. Photo by Won-ok Kim.
  • Increased number of signs. The poor and disjointed signs currently existing are only part of the problem. ATTS needs many more signs to be placed throughout the system. Some parts of the system, particularly in the District, at least place signs close enough together that users feel somewhat confident that they’re at least going in the right direction. Those signs are the exception rather than the rule. There are a lot of turns that are easy to miss.
  • Increased destination promotion. Both the counties and the District are missing out on huge opportunities to promote a wide variety of trailside destinations and destinations within relatively short distances of the trails by not, in effect, advertising what’s around. To name just a few examples … The average cyclist who comes from another part of the trail system to the Sligo Creek Trail has little idea that the massive Wheaton Regional Park is just three-tenths of a mile off the end of the trail (or that it connects to the majestic Brookside Gardens) – and even the signs on the Sligo Creek Trail that allegedly guide people to the park are confusing. One metal sign at the corner of Ventura Avenue points to the park, except that it doesn’t. It points up the block to a dead end. A similar sign on the trail is placed crookedly and confuses people every day.

Conversely, a person entering the trail system on the Sligo Creek Trail has no idea that you could reach downtown Takoma Park, Lake Artemesia in College Park, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in the District, Bladensburg Waterfront Park, and even Nationals Park. Imagine how incredible it would be if trail users could see all of those things at the various entrances to the trail system, and all along the way – and the distances from the spots they’re standing to those places. Signs should absolutely include distances to the relevant Metro stations, too.

The late-morning sun rises above a few treetops and Lake Artemesia. Trees at the left and center of the photo are alive with green leaves, while a tree on the right is barren.
The distance from the start of the Sligo Creek Trail in Wheaton (Silver Spring), Maryland to Lake Artemesia in College Park is about 14 miles — but you can make a whole bunch of wrong turns along the way, and spend a long time learning the route, because of the lack of a comprehensive sign system. Photo by Chris Lancette.

While it would be challenging to list a mass ton of destinations on every sign, there’s no reason that a core group of top locations couldn’t be included, with other, more simple directional signs pointing to secondary locations along the way. All signs should include the distance to the next part of the trail. For example, the distance from the Sligo Creek Trail to the start of the Northwest Branch Trail.

Partnership potential:

The destination concepts could also create opportunities for partnerships between government, private sector and nonprofit organizations.

What if arts organizations, for one example, placed color or theme-coded pieces of art along the corresponding color parts of the trail? The art itself would be worthy of a visit and photo opp, and really help people remember where they are/were.

What if environmental organizations and Friends groups worked together to install engaging environmental education pieces along the way?

What if private companies, or groups of private companies, paid to put up some simple directional signs pointing to areas where there are clusters of places to eat? What if the Washington Nationals, for example, paid to do something on the part of the Anacostia River Trail that leads to the bridge that takes you over the river and to the stadium?

The potential for partnerships is endless, limited only by imagination.

Tremendous need for a corresponding website and phone app:

A comprehensive system of physical signs would make an enormous impact on trail usage as described. What is also desperately needed is a corresponding, interactive website that pulls it all together. The very few websites out there run by non-local trail groups and trail sites do an insufficient job of mapping the trails and providing easy-to-understand guidance — and many focus on just one trail – and it’s not usually the ATTS trails that are featured. Ditto for phone apps.

The government entities involved could jointly fund, with participation from their own tourism-focused departments and entities — and with the nonprofit and private sectors — the creation and maintenance of a fantastic site that would make it incredibly easy for people to get a mental picture of the trail system, pick out destinations, and plan activities. Then they could use the app while out on the trail.

It would be even more awesome if all of the art and educational installations and other key signs contained QR codes that prompted people to stop and learn even more about the surrounding environment.

Red-winged Blackbird - Male
Red-winged Blackbirds frequently flock to the bushes next to the University Boulevard Retention Ponds that help slow stormwater runoff into Sligo Creek. The ponds sit below the Kemp Mill Shopping Center.

Picture a group of children reaching a QR-code next to a basic sign placed near a bush that’s home to red-winged blackbirds. They press a button and suddenly learn to recognize the captivating sound the birds make, and they listen to some informational nuggets about the birds. Imagine another stop along a creek that’s the site of frequent pollution caused by stormwater runoff: Kids and adults alike absorb the sign, click on the QR code, and get treated to a host of positive steps they can take to attack the problem.

I have been blown away by parks in other places that use that kind of tool – giving me the chance to stand in a spot and listen to an interpretation of what I’m seeing.

Cultural inclusion:

While I have a more diverse background and language skills than the average white guy, I can only speak of how I see the system from my perspectives as a white male, outdoor enthusiast, nature lover, cyclist and communications and marketing professional. Any effort to develop the kind of vision I share here absolutely has to include perspectives from more diverse points of view.

Sadly, the Washington D.C. region as a whole, including the nation’s capital itself, is remarkably unwelcoming to residents and visitors who don’t speak English (or even those who do). The problems on the ATTS mirror similar problems throughout the District and the DMV. As it relates to this specific idea of improving signage throughout ARTTS, perspectives other than mine as a must – but something as simple as putting multilingual welcome signs at the key entry points of the trail system could be a start at making the system more inviting to diverse communities.

Good timing is critical to success in life, and the opening at the Montgomery County Planning Board chair is one we must seize.

“We ask that you appoint someone who will be willing to work with partners in creating a promotional strategy for the regional Anacostia trail system, as well as other important cross-jurisdictional efforts,” FOSC wrote in its letter to the Council. “Rivers and creeks know no human boundaries.”

A black and white publicity photo of the great Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson’s epic “Silent Spring” launched the modern-day environmental movement.

Developing a truly comprehensive, cross-jurisdictional sign system for the Anacostia Tributary Trail System would lead to more people spending more time outside loving it.

Silver Spring’s Rachel Carson herself launched the modern environmental movement by understanding the relationship between people and the lands they love.

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

Do you want to advocate for comprehensive signage on the trail system? Contact your member of the Montgomery County Council today, or write them all. Volunteer with the Friends of Sligo Creek and get involved with its advocacy committee. Write supporting comments to this article here, and follow EyeOnSligoCreek on the web and our social media.

A blue-bodied dragonfly rests on a huge green lilypad at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, another great destination along the Anacostia Tributary Trail System.
A dragonfly hovers on a lilypad at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Photo by Won-ok Kim.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Absolutely fascinating reading from someone who walks these trails and knows them well. Thanks for enlightening the rest of us as to the jewels around us.

  2. This is wonderful! As a Prince George’s County resident and a trail user, I would love to see some of these changes implemented!

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