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The Maryland State Parks projects demonstrates technical aspects of developing trails in a sensitive stream valley corridor and forested areas.

arrow This project was nominated for a Planning & Design Award as part of the 2010 National Trails Awards, announced at the 20th National Trails Symposium in Chatanooga, TN.


Design and construction of the Matthew Henson Trail, Montgomery County, MD


Download a map of the Matthew Henson Trail (pdf 1.5 mb)

The Matthew Henson Trail is a 4.2-mile regional hiker-biker trail within Matthew Henson State Park in Montgomery County, Maryland. The creation of this linear park and development of the trail was the result of successful cooperation between multiple state and local government agencies. The technical aspects of developing the trail in a sensitive stream valley corridor and forested areas presented many challenges that resulted in innovative design solutions.

Photo of trail bridge

Trail crosses a forested area as a wood bridge

This trail connects to over fourteen miles of the Rock Creek Hiker-Biker Trail that extends southward to the District of Columbia boundary, and provides an important east-west trail corridor across Montgomery County that will eventually link to approximately 23 miles of park trails in the Sligo Creek and Northwest Branch stream valley corridors.

The land for the park was originally purchased by the State of Maryland for a regional vehicular transportation corridor, known as the “Rockville Facility.” In 1989, after advocacy by citizens to preserve the sensitive stream valley corridor, state legislators worked with the Maryland State Highway Administration and ultimately designated an 83-acre portion of the land as a state park and a 117-acre portion of the land as a county park. The state land is owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the county land is owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission.

The entire park was named “Matthew Henson State Park” in honor of Matthew Henson, a Maryland native and African American explorer, who is believed to be the first man in Commander Robert Peary’s polar expedition to reach the North Pole in 1909. Through agreements between state and local agencies, the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission is responsible for the maintenance and management of the entire park and trail.

The planning process for the trail began in 2001. Numerous public meetings were held, and environmental studies were conducted during different seasons. The preliminary plan for the trail was approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board in 2003. The project was funded for design and construction through the Montgomery County Department of Transportation’s capital improvements program, but the project was managed by staff in the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission’s Montgomery County Department of Parks. During the design process the alignment was staked and field adjusted to balance trail design and engineering criteria with environmental disturbance, proximity to homes, and the trail user experience. The project was designed in two phases, and the entire trail was opened to the public in summer of 2009. The total cost of the project was $5.7 million.

Photo of trail bridge

Boardwalk section provides for accessibility as well as
resource protection

There were several unique features of this project, which were new to the Department of Parks. These features are outlined as follows:

Limits of Construction Disturbance – In order to minimize impact to the environment, fourteen staging areas were used along the corridor, which were carefully sited during design to service the necessary segments of the trail. “End-on” construction techniques were used to establish a stable work area in front of the equipment to minimize root impacts. Limits of disturbance were kept to narrow widths, and small, lower-impact construction equipment was used. A project ecologist was hired to evaluate any changes to the trail design during construction and approved the limits of work and construction methods. In addition, the Department of Parks Arborist inspected limits of disturbance and tree protection measures, and another contracting arborist supervised all of the tree removal work.

Boardwalks – Ten-foot wide timber boardwalks were installed in the most sensitive areas of the corridor, primarily to preserve high quality forest and to cross a wetland. The boardwalks were constructed with steel helical piles that do not require concrete footings. These piles were driven to an average depth of ten feet below grade to stable soil, although some of the piles were driven over twenty feet deep. The boardwalk reaches more than eight feet above grade in some locations, with as little as two feet of horizontal clearance to the existing forest vegetation, including trees, ferns and groundcovers on either side of the boardwalk.

Stream Restoration – Four separate stream restoration projects were undertaken as part of this project to correct damage from storm events. These projects were closely coordinated with the Maryland Department of the Environment. In addition, the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection undertook a major stream restoration project in the Turkey Branch during the same timeframe. The designs were carefully coordinated so that the timing of the stream restoration project preceded the trail construction. The work was coordinated to utilize the same construction access points and staging areas to minimize areas of disturbance. Work was also coordinated with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which was renovating a number of sewer lines in the corridor during the same period of time.

Pedestrian Bridges – Six prefabricated bridges were installed that were ten feet wide and from 30 to 60 feet in length. These pedestrian bridges were designed to allow vehicular access for maintenance and park police along the entire length of the trail.

Landscape Plantings – Over 1,500 native trees and shrubs were planted within the corridor. These plants were contract-grown by the Department of Parks’ Pope Farm Nursery and planted by the Department’s landscape crews. This was the first time a planting project of this scale was fully implemented by in-house staff.

Solar Powered Cellular Emergency Phones – Solar-powered phones were installed as security measures at four locations along the trail. The locations were coordinated with park police, and this was the first time solar technology was used for these devices within the park system.

Road Crossings – The trail crosses three major roads at grade. There was close coordination on the design and construction of the trail crossing and signal improvements with the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

Volunteer Clean-up Efforts – There have been multiple clean-up efforts within the park by volunteers, including high school groups, scout troops, a local university fraternity, and local environmental groups.

In summary, this project required long-term vision and the full cooperation of many agencies and individuals to come to fruition. The resulting trail is an immensely popular and scenic facility that will be enjoyed by county residents for many years to come.

For more information

Download a map of the Matthew Henson Trail (pdf 1.5 mb)

Montgomery Parks
9500 Brunett Avenue, Silver Spring, MD 20901
(301) 495-2595

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