There was a point in the early 2000s when I was living in Arlington and I spent my weekend mornings going on long walks or hikes. A few of these were out to Great Falls National Park (mostly on the Virginia side), although most of the time I would hop on the Metro and take the yellow or blue lines to a point at or near the National Mall (Gallery Place, Smithsonian, or Arlington Cemetery were my stations of choice) and would walk back to my apartment building. In order to get there, I would walk across one of the bridges and then down the Mount Vernon trail to where it would connect back to Crystal City.
The Mount Vernon Trail is one of the more popular walking, jogging, and biking paths in the D.C. area and runs from the parking lot and entrance of Mount Vernon in Alexandria at its southernmost point to the Key Bridge and Theodore Roosevelt Island at its northernmost point. Since I was living there at the time, I loved getting out on that trail and enjoying the views, and in early 2002, I decided that I was going to walk the entire thing.
Now, I didn’t have the time or the stamina to do an entire through-hike of the 18-mile trail, so from the end of January until March, I hiked it in five stages, and went as far as to print out a map of the parkway that I marked as I finished each stage (you can see it at the top of this post). That, along with with the official National Parks System map and a stack of photographs, sat among my random stuff for years. I think that my original intent was to write a blog post about it on my old website, Inane Crap, but a look through my archives says I never did. So, perhaps this is a much-overdue post?
I’m going to do this the way I used to do those posts, which is by commenting on the pictures that I decide to include. Consider it me taking you along on a journey or something cheesy like that.
So, we’re starting with the official National Parks Service Map, and while you can tell that also marked it because it was the actual, official map. The Mount Vernon Trail does not have a specific visitor center like, say, any of the national parks or the memorials and monuments around the National Mall, but there are bins along the trail that are stocked with maps and if you are there on the right day, you can pick one up.
I love how even though I grabbed this map in 2002, the photographs are clearly from the early 1980s. I mean, the parkway barely changed between the early Eighties and the time I did my walk/hike, so there was really no need to release a new version, but even so, it made me feel like I was taking some weird step back in time. This was created back in 1973, and even though it’s been in constant use and maintenance since then, I still felt like I was doing something that people used to do. I never rocked the shorts and tube socks that the guy on the cover did, though.
So this is the northern terminus of the trail, which is the Key Bridge that connects the Arlington neighborhood of Rosslyn to Georgetown. This was one of three sections that I did one way via the Metro–since I was literally living above the Crystal City Metro station, I took the train up to Rosslyn and then walked back to Crystal City. My history with Rosslyn and its Metro station goes all the way back to the late 1980s when my parents took us to Washington, D.C. for the very first time and we stayed at the Key Bridge Marriott. I don’t remember much else from the trip except that we went to the American history museum and saw the “Superman: Many Lives, Many Worlds” exhibit and I am pretty sure we ate almost every meal at whatever fast food restaurant was in Rosslyn (either McDonald’s or Burger King). Anyway, this is where the parkway actually “ends” if you’re going by mile marker, since mile 1 is by Mount Vernon, but I lived in Arlington, so for me it was the beginning.
I guess I should note that these photos were all taken with an Olympus Trip 35mm camera, which was an automatic camera that I got sometime in high school and had been my main instrument for recording the moments and memories of my life from that point onward. I think I gave it away years ago (after switching to purely digital photography–if you could call the pictures I take on my phone photography), but it was a nice little camera that recorded a trip to Europe, my last couple of years of high school, all of college, and at least a few other random road trips. I didn’t do much editing to the photos I’m posting in here except for cropping out edges, so the wonky exposure is genuine.
As for what’s in the photos, you’ve got the Navy-Marine Memorial and the view of the Washington Monument from Lady Bird Johnson Park. It was January, so everything was kind of dead at the time, but I have to say that I’m still a little envious of my friends who still live in and around D.C. and have Metro access so they can run or walk around or near these monuments and memorials. I’m not one to tout all things inspirational, but I definitely felt that way whenever I was around there.
Crystal City was in the news in the last year or so because it’s where Amazon is going to dump its second headquarters. Amanda and I lived there from 2000 until we moved away in 2004 (although she lived there beginning in 1999), and the sign for the connector trail was one that I passed by just about the most during this whole trip. But I also liked to just walk or jog down to Gravelly Point, which is one of the coolest places on the GW Parkway and the Mount Vernon Trail. It’s hard to spot in the picture here, but Gravelly Point park is near the end of the runway of National Airport, and I used to head down there just to watch the planes take off or land. Taking off, which was what is captured in this picture, was loud and often distant because after 9/11, planes had to do full-throttle takeoffs. However, if you had the chance to head to the park when the planes were landing, you were in for a real treat because they came in pretty low and while you couldn’t literally touch them, it certainly felt that way.
I included the other picture because it has the sign that directs you to Alexandria in one direction and Crystal City in another. I have this weird thing for road signs, but also because Crystal City really did feel like home at the time. But it does mark where I would return from the first leg and then head to the second leg.
Seriously. Roooooaaad siiiigns! And I have this 30-year-old road signs sticker game that I have been trying to completely fill for years and at this point, I need to fill in many of the brown parks and recreation signs. I’m even considering driving all the way up to Arlington just to see those signs in person so I can add the stickers to the book. Because I don’t sail and have no practical interest for visiting the Washington Sailing Marina.
This leg took me from my apartment in Crystal City to the King Street Metro in Alexandria. At one point, the trail takes you right through Old Town Alexandria and if you stay on Washington Street, you’ll pick the trail up again after you cross the bridge over the Beltway. Old Town was another frequent stop for the two of us when we were living in the area–in fact, we would go to The Majestic Cafe for breakfast or brunch on weekends and they had insanely good food.
So this is more of the familiar, and the King Street Metro would be station that would end one leg and start another, which was the most “new” or “unknown” to me.
I think that once I discovered how far south this trail went, I was very curious as to what the parkway was like south of the Beltway. Washington Avenue in Alexandria returns to being the George Washington Memorial Parkway once you cross I-495 and this is what that particular highway looked like in 2002. I’m actually surprised by how few cars are on the road at that point. I’m also struck by the contrast between the bustle of Alexandria and the Beltway and the marsh that is just south of the highway.
I concluded the next leg at the stone bridge that crosses Alexandria Avenue, and stopped to take a picture of the parkway from the bridge. If you travel south from Old Town along U.S. Route 1, you get a highway full of shopping centers, car dealerships, and other elements that feed suburbia. But make a left off of Route 1 in the area near Mount Vernon and eventually you get to the neighborhoods that are tucked away and bookended by this parkway. Now, it’s been twenty years, but the one thing I remember that it was incredibly quiet. The trail in Arlington and north of Old Town was always crowded, but on the Saturday mornings that I did this leg and the leg south of it, I barely saw anyone else.
I should note that the last three legs of this trip were done by car–in fact, you can see my old green Honda Civic in the parking lot picture–because there’s no more Metro access for the parkway once you get south of Old Town Alexandria. So what I did was drive all the way down to one of the designated parking areas and either walk north to where I finished the previous leg or headed south on a new leg.
Fort Hunt Park, which is only a mile or two above Mount Vernon, was a side trip at one point in March because Amanda and I were looking for some place to walk around and were hoping for something akin to a hike, but it really was more like a large park. At any rate, I did get to get that picture of the trail and the road as it went under the park bridge.
I eventually did make it to Mount Vernon but never visited–I didn’t have any cash on me that day–and the whole thing felt oddly triumphant. And scanning these maps and pictures has reminded me of that sense of accomplishment (even if it’s probably nothing compared to people I know who have run actual marathons) as well as what I liked about that particular trip, which was a sense of being able to explore. Charlottesville and its surroundings have journeys to take and I hope that maybe this is the year I do more of that.