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Best Natural Areas

Rachel Carson teaching children in Northwest Branch Stream Valley

Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park

Silver Spring, Maryland

700 acres (Best Natural Area accounts for 695 acres)

This spectacular, scenic, steep sided, stream valley was a favorite of both President Theodore Roosevelt and Rachel Carson. The Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park Best Natural Area comprises the entire stream valley park north of the border with Prince Georges County (near New Hampshire Avenue) and south of Randolph Road. The Best Natural Area covers an area of impressive distance with astonishingly minimal encroachment considering the urban nature of the surrounding area.

Natural Features
Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park is largely underlain by gneiss bedrock.  This bedrock often forms steep-sided valleys. The Piedmont Physiographic Province gives way to the Coastal Plain in this best natural area, as evident by where Northwest Branch cascades through a rocky, boulder strewn gorge just below present day Route 29, in an area that looks more like a mountainous West Virginia stream than suburban Silver Spring. Immediately below the cataracts, one will notice the hard consolidated nature of the Piedmont’s firm bedrock transitions to beach like unconsolidated sediments of the Atlantic coast. This transition area is called the Fall-Line, which is evident along much of the eastern seaboard along a line roughly paralleling Interstate I-95.

The steep slopes and uplands of this natural area are dominated by a diversity of large and mature trees including tuliptree, red oak, white oak, mockernut hickory, pignut hickory, and black gum.  A diverse understory and ground cover includes mountain laurel, American holly, fringetree, witchhazel wild sarsaparilla, wild hydrangea, wild yam, sweet cicely, and partridgeberry. Adding to the rich and unique diversity of this natural area is the presence of seven different species of rare, threatened, endangered and watchlist plants.  One particularly scenic and noteworthy area is a steep hillside on the north side of the Northwest Branch. This hillside, overlooking a pastoral section of the Northwest Branch is covered in mountain laurel. Look for the abundant showy white flowers of this shrub in late spring. Also look for the laurel’s diminutive ericaceous cousin trailing arbutus likely just underfoot.

The Northwest Branch Best Natural Area provides habitat for many birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.  Interesting species such as mink, long tailed weasel and beaver inhabit the stream valley. A keen eye might even spot a terrestrial wood turtle or box turtle. This park also provides part of a greenway corridor for wildlife that extends, largely unbroken, from the Patuxent River to near the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.- a distance over 20 miles. 

The Northwest Branch is stocked each spring with rainbow trout and offers good put-and- take trout fishing.  Largemouth and smallmouth bass and several species of sunfish have also been found; these species offer alternative fishing opportunities.

The former home of famed scientist, writer, and conservationist Rachel Carson, is footsteps away from the Northwest Branch Best Natural Area. The house was designed by her and constructed in 1956 with specific design element towards observing the very nature of the Northwest Branch Park. Carson loved to watch the birds that came to visit. Her favorite avian visitor was the veery, a member of the thrush family. She once told an interviewer that she was enchanted by the “haunting, mystical call” of the veery, which is found in bottomland woods including the Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park.  Like Rachel Carson, listen intently for the ethereal call of the Veery as you enjoy this Best Natural Area.

Things to Do
A natural surface trail runs along the entire length of this Best Natural Area and considerably beyond.  For much of this Best Natural Area, surface trails lie on both sides of the Northwest Branch.  At least 4 official public parking areas for trail users can be found along the way. Parking exists at the intersection of Kemp Mill Road and Glenallen, at Lamberton Drive and in Kemp Mill Estates Local Park, and on both sides of Colesville Road where the Northwest Branch crosses the road. - trail map

Above: Rachel Carson and friends in the Northwest Branch BNA, near her home in September 1962
(courtesy of LIFE photo archive-Jane T. Howard article, Alfred Eisenstaedt photographer- hosted by Google).

back to top - Last update: September 13, 2011