The Road More Traveled
Units #11 & #13 / 412 - Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and George Washington Memorial Parkway
Well, I was naive. I have a feeling I'll be saying that a lot on this trip: as I traverse the country to places and situations new to me. And my visit to the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail was a nice reminder of that.
"Let's bike to Mount Vernon!" I told my boyfriend and brother-in-law.
Like Cheryl Strayed in her "Wild" chronicled hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I didn't exactly know what biking to Mount Vernon entailed, only that I'd seen it on a map and it looked fun!
So at high noon on a 90 degree day, we three departed the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, crossed the bridge into Virginia, and made our way onto an 18-mile route leading to the former home of George Washington.
When we reached this turn-around point, I was grateful for a moment to rest my muscles. However, climbing back onto the bike I was greeted with an acute pain in my butt cheeks--which had sat for two hours supported only by a thin pair of shorts.
With a chuckle, my brother-in-law (who came prepared with biking gloves, padded biking shorts, and snacks) tossed me a protein bar and we headed back.
Though the return ride was filled with an ever increasing pain each time I had to get on my bike, it was hard not to dismount every mile as we rode during the "golden hour" of photography, just before sunset. It seemed like every bend brought another spectacular view of the trail or its parallel beauty: the Potomac River.
I imagine it felt much like my friends who have done RAGBRAI: the 468 mile annual bike ride crossing Iowa from the Missouri to Mississippi River. Rewarding its riders with an equal amount of stunning views and sore bums.
Like RAGBRAI, the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail presents the opportunity for a lengthy ride. But at 1.5 times the length, the PHNST lasts 710 miles and includes portions of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington D.C., and Virginia.
Map of all the Passport Stamp locations. For a detailed trail map on the National Park Service site, click here.
That length also provides what my Itinerary Consultant Chris Calvert calls "one of (if not the) most ill-defined units in the National Park System." Stretching across so many states, it crosses at one point in Harpers Ferry National Historic Park where you can actually be in four national parks at once (Harpers, C&0 Canal, PHNST and Appalachian National Scenic Trail), as National Park Travelers Club Secretary Craig Bailey shared with me.
One of those multi-park places is on the Mount Vernon Trail, meaning that I was actually in two national parks at the same time!
That other park was the George Washington Memorial Parkway. So to resolve this, I made sure to quickly add the GW Parkway to my schedule of official visits:
Now, before I talk about this unit, I need to explain how much D.C. traffic sucks.
It's the worst in the country.
I know the three things any city dweller tells you their city has: 1. The worst crime 2. The worst weather, and 3. The worst traffic, but even my friends from Los Angeles say D.C. traffic is the pits.
It's so bad that when recently asked "When is Mikah the most mad?" my boyfriend said:
"In D.C. traffic."
Given all that, it shouldn't be a surprise that when one finds an enjoyable route in the area, they stick to it.
That's what the GW Parkway has been for me.
Having driven it more than 150 times over the past four years, on my way in/out of Washington D.C. to my suburban home, it's become more than just a bunch of pavement and road lines.
Even during rush hour--in which the parkway clogs up faster than a women's locker room shower--it is probably the most pleasant place to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Trees line the entire road, and come fall, leaves dance gracefully through the air until they land on your windshield for a split second.
It is this beauty that caused me to finally, on my official visit, stop at each "Scenic Overlook" for the first time.
When I got there, the tall trees wrapping this road in wonder turned out to block nearly any view from these overlooks, rendering them almost pointless, aside from spying on those enjoying the Potomac River.
However, if you're a weary traveler in need of a pause from DC traffic, pull into an overlook, Fort Marcy Park, or Turkey Run Park and wait it out.
The latter two are each an oasis where you can take a short hike around lush forests, pause for a picnic, or plan my ultimate recommendation for this park:
A GW Parkway drive to the northern most point of the Mount Vernon Trail, then a bike ride where you can breeze past any traffic that might suddenly appear...
5 Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and George Washington Memorial Parkway Highlights (You Can Do)
1. Watch the Planes Land at Gravelly Point Park
One of my favorite things in the DC-area; period, and right next to one of my favorite airports: DCA. This landing strip located just across the Potomac from the National Mall not only affords gorgeous views of the Capitol and monuments, but an incredibly close view to experience planes landing just above your head.
I prefer to bring earplugs to make the jet noise a little more bearable, but people of all ages can enjoy this opportunity to see airplane landing from an angle most flyers don't.
2. Watch Planes Take Off From National Airport
If you continue on the Mount Vernon Trail just south of DCA, you can view the other end of airport life.
Watching planes take off one-by-one with views of the U.S. Capitol and Air Force Joint Base Anascostia-Bolling in the background.
Easy E was jealous of the planes, so we let him fly with some of his friends on the trail.
3. Take a Meal Break in Picturesque Old Town Alexandria
Whether dining on the water or in one of the many restaurants on King Street, there are a plethora of options to rejuvenate your body. And if you aren't sure your spirit will make it, pop into nearby Historic Christ Church for a prayer break in one of their tiny, colonial era pews.
4. Go For a Run!
On her 50th birthday, my Human of National Parks for the PHNST went for her daily run. Whether completing an intense workout or a volleyball game with the family, the PHNST offers copious chances for recreation.
5. Take in the Views
The Mount Vernon Trail offers some of my favorite views of Washington D.C. because, though you're in the middle of a metro area with millions of people, the urbanity feels subdued surrounded by trees and rivers.
10 Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
(Plus a Bonus 2 -- these are the remaining units in DC proper)
-Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site
-Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
-Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac
-Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site
-Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site
-Rock Creek Park
-Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial
-The White House
-National Capital Parks
-World War 1 Memorial in Pershing Park
-Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument