Washington, D.C., Area Hikes
Roaming the Mall and Capitol Hill on foot serves as a wonderful introduction to hiking in the nation's capitaland to the city's heritage and treasures.
Head for Mall area. Park near trailheadSmithsonian Metro station entrance within Mall (near Independence Avenue and 12th Street SW). Arrive early on crowded warm-weather weekends and holidays, beware local parking regulations. Or use Metro: Smithsonian station is on Orange, Blue Lines; Metrobuses operate on nearby streets. Contact Metro, (202) 637-7000 or www.wmata.com.
Each Fourth of July, half a million folks crowd onto Washington's Mall for a special birthday celebration. Between one Fourth and the next, they and others frequent the Mall's museums, monuments, and memorials and gather to play, picnic, stroll, jog, bike, relax, protest, march, and sightsee. The Mall, in effect, serves as the nation's front yard, town square, commons, pulpit, soapbox, park, and memorial garden. It's also a great hiking venue where one can take self-propelled voyages of discovery and rediscovery. And it's small enough to cover on foot, but big enough for a person to get some serious exerciseand avoid the crowds.
This 8.6-mile, clockwise loop ranges fully across the Mall. It also goes further, and encompasses other areas and aspects of the city. It's planned as a daytime hike, though, so it stays outdoors (except for a peek at the biggest Lincoln). Detour if you want to, but do maintain a good pace between stops, be careful crossing streets, and use the paths and sidewalks. Many people take "the Mall" to mean the 2.2-mile stretch between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. Officially, though, the Mallor National Mallis only the part east of 14th Street, and the memorial is in West Potomac Park. But worry not. The entire area is under National Park Service jurisdiction.
To get started from the Smithsonian Metro station on the Mall, head south (in direction of Independence Avenue) for about 20 yards. Turn right onto a broad paved path alongside Jefferson Drive. Follow the path across 14th and 15th Streets NW, and then turn left to take the 15th Street sidewalk to the corner of Independence Avenue. There, swing right and west onto a paved path that parallels the avenue and passes the open-air Sylvan Theater.
At 17th Street, cross at the traffic light. Look or jog left to see the hike's first war-related memorial, on a traffic island. Erected in 1912, it depicts American Revolution naval hero (and later Russian admiral) John Paul Jones ("I have not yet begun to fight"), but supplies visitors with no written details.
Continue on the paved path leading to the National World War II Memorial, which was dedicated on Memorial Day in 2004 amid ongoing public debate about its design and location. Take a side trip through the 7.4-acre memorial to see what you think and feel.
Continuing westward on the main path, detour to the left to visit a half-hidden circular marble bandstand, built in 1931as a memorial to the District residents who served and died in World War I. Then return to the main path (actually a service road) and resume going west. After passing some yellow-topped bollards, continue on a paved path to a four-way intersection. There, turn left and tour the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Dedicated in 1995, it depicts a squad of soldiers on patrol in Korea. Made of stainless steel, the grim figures are reflected in a polished black granite wall on which hundreds of faces are faintly etched.
Return to the intersection, head for the nearby Lincoln Memorial, and climb the 56 steps (Lincoln died at age 56). Enter the great chamber to face the seated marble figure that's four and a half times life size. Notice Lincoln's fingers, bent to form "A" and "L" in sign language (Lincoln supported education for the deaf; sculptor Daniel French had a deaf son). An inscription above Lincoln's head celebrates his having saved the Union, but ignores his role in ending slavery. As the writer later explained, the memorialopened in 1922was meant to help heal the North/South rift, so it was best to "avoid the rubbing of old sores." But architect Henry Bacon had the chamber walls inscribed with the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural address, which make clear Lincoln's views.
Before leaving, look eastward along the Mall from the top of the steps. Note the National World War II Memorial beyond the Reflecting Pool. See if you think it compromises the view. Then descend the steps, swing left, and head for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
After passing an information kiosk, stop near a flagpole to see a three-guys-with-guns sculpture. Then take the paved path along the base of a sunken black granite wall carrying the names of the Vietnam War dead and missing. When dedicated in 1982, this remarkable memorial designed by Maya Lin consisted solely of the engraved wall. As she later wrote, "I did not want to civilize war by glorifying it or by forgetting the sacrifices involved." But her design provoked controversy. That led to Three Servicemen being added near the flagpole in 1984. Another representational addition, the Vietnam Women's Memorial, which depicts three nurses aiding a fallen soldier, was finished in 1993. To see it, turn right at the far end of the wall and then right again at the next junction.
From there, retrace your steps to the last junction and walk straight (east) on a paved path through Constitution Gardens. At a small lake, swing left and follow the paved waterside path to an elevated plaza. Cross it, staying left, and swing left onto a diagonal paved path leading to 17th Street. Circle the nearby boarded-up stone house. An 1835 canal lock house, it's both the Mall's oldest building and a reminder that a canal once ran along what are now Constitution Avenue and 17th Street. The canal was paved over in the 1870s, but the area west of 17th was a mosquito-infested marsh until the 1920s.
Cross 17th and follow the avenue's sidewalk eastward, notingon a rise off to your rightthe sublimely abstract Washington Monument. When finished in 1884, the shaft topped out at about 555.5 feet. It's still the city's tallest masonry structure. But it's sinking at a rate of 5.64 inches a century and will disappear by the year 118,900. Sometime between now and then, the current perimeter security fence will probably be removed and once again visitors will be able to freely circle and approach the edifice (which is currently reachable only by a narrow passageway from 15th Street).
Continue along the avenue and past the now-blocked-off parking lot for the monument. On nearing 15th Street, swing right on a diagonal paved path leading to that street at its junction with a cross street. There, cross 15th Street and follow the cross street to 14th Street. Cross, and then head east along Madison Drive for five blocks, past the American history and natural history museums. Then turn left to walk through a butterfly garden that's colorful in the spring and summer, even without butterflies.
On reaching Constitution Avenue, turn right to cross 9th Street. Then turn right to circle through the 6-acre National Sculpture Garden. Opened in 1999, it's part of the nearby National Gallery of Art (the Mall's only non-Smithsonian museum). It features serious and whimsical modern sculptures set around what doubles as a summer fountain and winter ice skating rink, next to a cozy year-round indoor cafe.
From there, cross Constitution and walk north along 9th Street. At Pennsylvania Avenue, turn right onto the avenue. On that corner, next to the National Archives, note the memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt that the president himself had requested; it's desk-sized, unlike the huge 1997 FDR memorial at the Tidal Basin. Proceed along the avenue, cross to the other side at 6th Street, and then continue along the avenue to the Embassy of Canada. Walk up the steps, stand in the small rotunda, sing, and listen to the acoustic effects incorporated into the striking 1989 building. Roam the open courtyard, with its hanging garden and Bill Reid's beguiling bronze sculpture, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii. Then cross a brick driveway to enter John Marshall Park. Cross to the far side to check on a playful 1988 chess game between two men seated on a low wall. Head uphill through the park, past a statue of Marshall (the country's fourth chief justice) and across two streets to view a thin and austere Lincoln, at the hike's halfway point. Carved by Lot Flannery, who had known his subject, the 1868 granite statue was funded by citizen donations as the first public monument to Lincoln.
Turn right to head east on D Street. Pause to inspect Guns into Plowshares, an arresting 1997 sculpture by Esther and Michael Augsburger. Continue for four blocks. Then cross and turn right along New Jersey Avenue. At the next corner, turn left onto Louisiana Avenue and then left again into the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism during World War II.
Opened in 2001, the memorial, or Mahnmal, recognizes the unjust wartime internment of over 120,000 Japanese-Americans. It's the only memorial I know that's an apology, as affirmed by Ronald Reagan's inscribed words: "Here we admit a wrong." It also honors the Japanese-Americans who served in the armed forces. Designed by Davis Buckley, several powerful symbols: a sculpture of two cranes ensnared in barbed wire, a reflecting pool resembling a Zen garden, and a remarkable bell that, when sounded, emits a low and vibrant tone.
Leaving the memorial, turn left, walk to the corner of D Street, and cross Louisiana Avenue. Then take a paved path on the right to head south past a pool and a fountain. This is Union Station Plaza, atop a huge government garage. Continue walking through the lovely parklike area toward the Capitol. At Constitution Avenue, turn left and follow the avenue eastward.
At the corner of 2nd Street NE, take a look at the Sewall-Belmont House and its historical plaques. Since 1929, it's been the Women's National Party headquarters. In 1814, it was the only private building torched by the British invadersafter snipers in the house annoyed the British general by shooting his horse.
After crossing 2nd Street and Maryland Avenue to stay on Constitution, you'll be in a Capitol Hill area of tree-lined streets and well-kept row houses. Proceed for about five blocks and then swing right onto Massachusetts Avenue and follow it to 11th Street. Then turn right, walk one short block to East Capitol Street, and turn left to enter Lincoln Park.
Follow a paved path to Emancipation, a bronze monument paid for by emancipated blacks but designed by whites that depicts a magisterial Lincoln standing next to a crouching African-American man. At the 1876 dedication, the keynote speaker, abolitionist and local resident Frederick Douglass, chided sculptor Thomas Ball for the croucher's subservient posture.
Continue along the path to see the Mary McLeod Bethune Monument and what difference a century can make. Created by Robert Berks in 1974, almost two decades after Bethune's death, the twice-life-size monument shows the educator, civil-rights leader, and National Council of Negro Women founder handing a young boy and girl a rolled document. Composed the year she died and as inscribed on the pedestal, it's her 68-word "Legacy": "I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you also a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow man. I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people." When the Bethune monument was finished, Emancipation was turned to face it.
Walk back through the park and then head west for ten blocks on boulevard-like East Capitol Street. As the Capitol looms ever-larger ahead, you'll pass the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court building. On reaching 1st Street, cross and then pause to note that you can no longer go straight ahead to the Capitol or get to the vista-rich west terrace on the far side of the building (as included in my original description of this hike). The way to the building itself is now temporarily blocked by ongoing construction of a large underground visitor center (the largest addition since Lincoln pushed completion of the remodeled Capitol in the 1860s). And, alas, in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, the west terrace remains off-limits, perhaps permanently.
Proceed south along 1st Street SW, turn right onto Independence Avenue, and then turn right again to get onto a paved path that curves downhill and to the right, past the base of the west terrace.
Continuing, turn right at a fork next to a stumpy tower (a Capitol ventilation shaft) to reach a roofless brick structure half-hidden in a small grove. It was designed as a summer retreat for members of Congress by Frederick Law Olmsted when he landscaped the Capitol grounds in the 1870s. Peer through the locked-since-9/11 gates to get a sense of the retreat's charm.
Then return to the fork next to the tower. There, turn right and follow a curving path (Olmsted didn't like straight lines) to 1st Street NW. Crossing it, note the oddly named Peace Monument, erected in honor of the Union seamen who died in Civil War. Head for the nearby reflecting pool, and then turn left onto a promenade between the pool and a huge memorial to Ulysses S. Grant. Finished in 1922, the memorial depicts soldiers caught up in the frenzy of war, as well as a brooding Grant on horseback. It's realistic, but doesn't glorify war. Note the fallen trooper. The face is that of sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady, who labored on the memorial for over 21 years and died just before it was dedicated. This memorial is the most tersely labeled one I know. It bears just one word: GRANT.
Return to 1st Street and proceed southward, passing an 1887 statue of President James Garfield and then the US Botanic Garden's renovated and dazzling conservatory. At Independence Avenue, cross to explore a small garden packed with assorted and labeled plants set around a large fountain.
Recross Independence, turn left, and head west, past the conservatory and the site of the future National Garden. Turn right onto 3rd Street, cross Maryland Avenue, and turn left onto Jefferson Drive, across from the soon-to-open National Museum of the American Indian.
Continue westward on Jefferson, past the Air and Space Museum and across 7th Street. Abreast of the doughnut-like Hirshhorn Museum, swing right to wander through its sunken and well-filled sculpture garden. Emerging on the inner Mall, follow a broad gravel path west to the trailhead. Along the way, you'll pass the Smithsonian Castle and more Smithsonian museums, as well as a working antique carousel.
For more information about the Mall area, contact National Capital Parks, (202) 619-7222 or www.nps.gov/nacc.
During or after the hike, explore the buildings along the route. If you don't mind crowds, repeat the hike during the Mall's annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival or Fourth of July festivitiesand allow yourself extra time.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication