I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Biking to Mount Vernon

On the Trail-hit the road

I had the day off last Friday and it was an amazing, glorious summer day in which it was possible to be outside, unlike the 100F+ degree days that had kept us cowering indoors the past few weeks. So I decided to go on a long bike ride. The DC area has a plethora of great bike trails (see also, Capital Crescent, C&O Canal, W&OD, Custis, etc.), but I have always been partial to the Mt. Vernon Trail, which runs 18 miles roughly alongside the George Washington Parkway next to the Potomac river from a little north of Teddy Roosevelt Island in Rosslyn (Arlington, Va) to Washington's estate, Mount Vernon. I have ridden along the trail many times, but this was the first time I went all the way to Mount Vernon. I'm hooked!

First of all, the trail is awesome. It is paved, so perfect for biking, and except where it goes through Old Town Alexandria is completely separate from the road and therefore very safe (be sure to share the trail with runners, walkers, and inline skaters). In Old Town, the bike trail runs along low-speed limit streets with good visibility.

Trail Junction-tunnel
There are a few tricky points where the trail seems to disappear. The Park Service Map sort of shows them, but when you're on the ground it can be tough to figure out. The first is when the trail enters Alexandria. You run paralell to some railroad tracks and then it seems to peter out. Stay on the street closest to the river, Union Street, for a couple of miles (look for the bike stencils painted on the road). At the end of Union Street, the trail seems to dead end at a playground. There is a tunnel to your right--head through the tunnel and the signs on the other side direct you to the left along another street. The photo is of the other side of the tunnel--coming back, this is the only hard part because you have to spot the tunnel going off to your right.

Trail Junction-apartment complex embankment Eventually, the street you're riding on is closed to cars but continues as a trail under an underpass and then it really seems to end in an apartment parking complex. To your right is a paved inclined embankment (see photo at right). Bike up the ramp. At the top a huge medallion is embedded in the sidewalk (you can't miss it) and it points to the left for the Mt. Vernon trail.

On the trail-swamp ecosystem These small annoyances aside, the trail is phenomenal. It goes through several little ecosystems like the swamp on the left and the marsh at the top of the post. There are several rest areas with bathrooms, many drinking fountains, and dozens of benches and grassy areas to pull over for a rest and to enjoy the scenery.

I pick up the trail from the 14th Street bridge (entrance to the protected bike/pedestrian crossing is near the Jefferson Memorial) in the District, but if you're looking for a shorter ride, bikes are allowed on Metro subject to a few rules--not during rush hour on the weekdays (7-10 am and 4-7 pm) and only in the front and back doors, not the middle door with one bike allowed per door. No extra fare is required. Take the Yellow/Blue line to Braddock Road (a little shorter ride down to the trail) or King Street (a little more scenic, but also more crowded) and ride downhill toward the river until you pick up the trail or Union Street, respectively. From there it's about 10 miles to Mount Vernon.

I am a slow rider; from my door (in the middle of DC) to Mount Vernon took me about two and a half hours. You do not have to be a fitness nut to ride the trail, but you do need to be in reasonable shape. If this is the first exercise you're getting in a couple of years, I can't guarantee you'll make it or that you'll be happy if you do. There are gentle rolling hills and--I'm not going to lie to you--the last mile is almost entirely uphill. The estate is called Mount Vernon, after all. Mile Marker 0 is at Mt. Vernon, so the mile markers count you down and cheer you on as you head toward your goal. Riding back to Alexandria, on the other hand, is practically a coast!

Mt. Vernon

There are plenty of bike racks at Mount Vernon, though when I arrived a Bike'n'Roll tour was obviously on the premises because the rack was full! It must have been a special event because a Mount Vernon tour is not on their website. I have done their Mall tour and highly recommend the company. They also rent bikes and have a location in Old Town.

Admission to Mount Vernon is $15. They have added a visitor's center with a short film in the past few years. I recommend the film, if only to sit in a cool darkened room for a bit and see Pat Sajak in colonial costume.

Chilling on Mt. Vernon's Back PorchThe house (pictured above) is really only a small part of the Mount Vernon complex. Actually, it is referred to as "The Mansion" but is quite modest by today's standards. The objects and decorations inside are interesting, but after seeing it once I've not waited in the long line again to return. The real draw of the mansion is the one experience you *must* have while visiting: sitting on the back porch overlooking the Potomac. It is a gorgeous, relaxing, timeless experience with great views. No need to wait in line to go through the house for this; just walk around to the back.

Pier The grounds are extensive and well-kept under the "Living History" philosophy. In addition to the Upper Garden's butterfly-attracting flowers, it is still a nominally working farm with fruit trees and a vegetable garden and a few livestock. Allegedly, costumed interpreters work the farming area of the grounds, but I've never managed to catch them even though I have been to Mount Vernon many times. There is a little climb through the forest (the sign estimates 10 minutes) with signage about local plants and wildlife, as well as a nice pier (left) ending in a gazebo from which boat rides depart. I've never taken the boat ride, but you can walk onto the pier without a ticket.

George Washington's Tomb Be sure to pay your respects at Washington's tomb, set up in the location he specified in his will. Washington died with no children--it is suspected that smallpox rendered him sterile--and the estate is run by the Mount Vernon Ladies. In a sense, it is fitting that he had no children because that way all Americans sort of get to "own" him without anyone having a larger claim. The Mount Vernon Ladies definitely take a proprietary interest. During one of my visits there was a Mount Vernon Lady acting as an interpreter at the tomb. I asked her if George and Martha had any children (and thought it odd I didn't already know). She replied that "The General and Mrs. Washington did not have any children." Although nobody owns Washington's legacy, apparently the hoi polloi ought not be too familiar!

A Welcome Sight in Old Town The ride back down to Alexandria is a breeze and goes by fairly quickly. Back in Old Town, I kept my eyes out for this welcome sight and stopped for an ice cream lunch (never mind it was 6:00 in the afternoon).

I had such a fun day, though I confess I was pretty beat by the time I finished my ride. I bought an annual pass to Mount Vernon ($25--only $10 more than one time admission) so I'll have to make it back eventually! Just give me a little more time to recover...

All photos are here.