George Washington Memorial Parkway - Virginia Scenic Drives

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The George Washington Memorial Parkway preserves the natural scenery along the Potomac River. It connects the historic sites from Mount Vernon, where Washington lived, past the nation's capital, which he founded, and to the Great Falls of the Potomac.

Developed as a memorial to George Washington, the Parkway may be used on any day to travel to exciting historical, natural, and recreational areas. These places are all linked by this planned and landscaped road, the first section of which was completed in 1932 to commemorate the bicentennial of George Washington's birth.

If history is your interest, a day's survey of the Parkway's historical features may begin at the entrance to Mount Vernon. As you travel north on your way to Great Falls Park and the Patowmack Canal you can reflect upon Fort Washington and Fort Hunt, which silently guard the river approach to Washington. An early start would allow time for a short tour of historic Alexandria, founded in 1749, hometown of George Washington.

Continuing north, high above the Potomac River, is Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee, now surrounded by Arlington National Cemetery. As you pass Memorial Bridge, Theodore Roosevelt Island is on your right. The island is rich in history, from the Algonquian Indians to its present existence as a Presidential memorial. Beyond the island are scenic overlooks that provide an opportunity to view the river and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Maryland.

Just past the overlooks, a short stop at Fort Marcy will allow time to explore one of the defenses of Washington. The intended dream of a circular scenic highway encompassing both sides of the Potomac was never fulfilled. At I-495 the Virginia portion ends; the Maryland side is a short segment named in honor of Clara Barton.

A day trip along the Parkway is incomplete without a visit to Great Falls Park. From GWMP follow I-495 south to historic Georgetown Pike, a Virginia scenic byway and the route to Great Falls Park, which includes a spectacular view of the falls, Mather Gorge, and the ruins of Washington's dream, the Patowmack Canal. The parkway provides a pleasant day from Mount Vernon to Great Falls, passing through the same lands George Washington frequently traveled by horse.

The historic sites of the Parkway are enhanced by the beauty of the Virginia countryside, which the Parkway preserves. All along the way azalea and dogwood bloom. The banks of the Potomac are covered with willows, elders, and birches, and in the fall the glory of the red maples, oaks, sumacs, and hickories sets the hillsides ablaze in splendid color. It is not unusual to see whitetail deer, raccoon, wild turkey, opossum, or an elusive red fox. These animals are kept company by the vast bird population which resides in the Parkway woodlands.

Notable for its bird habitats is Dyke Marsh, a 240-acre wetland adjacent to the Parkway near Alexandria. Theodore Roosevelt Island, 88 acres of fascinating natural environment, serves as a memorial to our 26th President. For those seeking greater adventure, a rough hiking trail parallels the Potomac from Roosevelt Island to Fairfax County's Dranesville Park, upriver. At Great Falls Park the visitor can hike, climb, fish, or enjoy a leisurely amble through the thick upland deciduous forest at this premier natural setting. The park brings the scenes of man's historic presence into harmony with the steady beat of the melody of nature.

Considered a commuter route by many local residents, the George Washington Memorial Parkway offers the traveler much more than convenience. It is a route to scenic, historic, and recreational settings offering respite from the urban pressures of metropolitan Washington. It also protects the Potomac River shoreline and watershed. The Parkway links a group of parks that provide a variety of experiences to more than nine million people each year.

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
Arlington House is the nation's memorial to Robert E. Lee. It is linked to the Lincoln Memorial by Memorial Bridge, symbolizing the reunion of North and South. From boyhood Robert E. Lee was a frequent visitor to Arlington. Its owner, George Washington Parke Custis, was the step-grandson of President George Washington. The house was built 1802-18.

In 1831, Robert E. Lee married Mary Custis, the Custis' only surviving child. For thirty years Arlington was their home while he pursued a career in the United States Army. His career ended here in 1861 when he resigned his Army commission to help defend his native state, Virginia. During the Civil War Federal troops occupied the house. In 1864, Arlington National Cemetery was established on a portion of the Arlington estate. Today, the 26-room house is being restored to its 1860-61 condition with original and period furnishings.

The house, two outbuildings, bookstore, museum, and restored grounds are free to the public. For information call (703) 557-0613.

Clara Barton National Historic Site
The Clara Barton National Historic Site was the headquarters of the American Red Cross and the home of its founder, 1897-1904. This unusual 41-room building is furnished with original and period artifacts providing fascinating insights into the character of Clara Barton and the American Red Cross, which she founded and guided through its earliest years.

Visitors can see the large storage closets in which relief supplies were stockpiled, the cozy headquarters offices with their primitive typewriters and roll-top desks, and the numerous guest rooms.

For information call (301) 492-6245.

Glen Echo Park
Glen Echo began in 1891 as a National Chautauqua Assembly, a center "to promote liberal and practical education, especially among the masses of the people; to teach the sciences, arts, languages, and literature; to prepare its patrons for their several pursuits and professions in life; and to fit them for the duties which devolve upon them as members of society." By 1900, Glen Echo had become an amusement park that served the Washington area until 1967. In 1971, the National Park Service assumed responsibility and Glen Echo is now an arts and cultural center. It serves both the surrounding communities and visitors from across the country. Its four sessions of classes are taught year-round by well-known artists and professionals. Demonstrations, workshops, and festivals on Sundays during the warm months are part of the Chautauqua Summer Season, one of the largest cultural programs in the Washington, D.C., area. The antique hand-carved and hand-painted Dentzel Carousel, saved by community effort, operates on summer weekends. The Gallery offers monthly exhibitions of Glen Echo's artists.

For Glen Echo Gallery hours and for more information, call (301) 492-6229.

Great Falls Park
Flowing from the piedmont area, near the Nation's capital, the Potomac River builds up force as it falls over a steep, jagged rock wall, and flows through a narrow gorge. This dramatic scenery makes the 800-acre Great Falls Park in Virginia a popular site with local residents and tourists. The area was a trading place for Indians and early colonists, and it is still a gathering place today. History buffs and geology enthusiasts find plenty to interest them in the ruins of George Washington's Patowmack Canal and in the story that the rocks tell along the Mather Gorge. The park is open daily, except December 25, offering opportunities for hiking, climbing, fishing, and picnicking. It is a U.S. Fee Area. For more information on Great Falls Park, click here.

Theodore Roosevelt Island
Theodore Roosevelt Island is managed as a natural area in a living tribute to the energetic President who frequently sought recreation in the solitude of the forest. Three major biological communities—marsh, swamp, and upland forest—provide a refuge for a variety of native plants and animals. A memorial is located in the northern center of the island, which includes a 17-foot bronze statue of the Nation's 26th President and four 21-foot granite tablets inscribed with Roosevelt's philosophy of citizenship. Visitors today may retreat here from the pressures of urban life to gain a renewal of spirit and deeper appreciation of man's relationship to his environment. Park is open 8 a.m. until dark.

For further information call (703) 285-2600.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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