Mount Vernon Trail

Since tomorrow is July 4th, a ride which paid homage to the Founding Fathers seemed appropriate.  I chose the Mount Vernon Trail, an 18-mile mixed-use path that starts at George Washington’s home and follows the Potomac River to Rosslyn.  Since I live 30 miles to the south, I don’t ride this area very often.  Last year, I managed to pedal two miles of the trail with my (then) 13 year old son before his handle bar loosened at the stem.  With the bike barely rideable, we beat a hasty retreat to the truck and called it a day.  Today, I intended to ride the entire length of the trail.

I parked in a small lot near Mount Vernon and set off to the north.  The path is separated by a dashed yellow line, encouraging people to treat it like a roadway.  For the most part, they do.  Each lane is wide enough to accommodate two pedestrians walking side by side, or one cyclist.  And there were plenty of both on the trail today.

The path winds its way along the river, with many twists and turns along small hills and the occasional boardwalk over a marsh.  In the southern portion, the trail offers glimpses of the Potomac, where I noted fisherman along the bank and sail boats in the river.  There may have been more things to see, but I spent a fair amount of my time navigating the scores of walkers, joggers, and cyclists of all abilities, plus stopping/slowing for several road crossings.


One has to have the right attitude on a trail such as this and I struggled mightily to keep my perspective positive.  “This is not a road ride.  This is not a road ride,” was my mantra.  I may have been better off taking Old Ironsides.  It doesn’t want to go fast like the Trek and is more maneuverable. Still, there were plenty of lycra-clad roadies zooming along, some of which with a rather callous disregard for other trail users.

Old Town Alexandria

After eight miles, I came to the Capital Beltway and was forced onto the streets of Old Town Alexandria.  Had I not studied a map of the trail beforehand, I doubt I would have found my way back to it on the other side of town.  The trail is well sign posted, except for this most critical section.  It looked like there was some recent construction near the Beltway, so perhaps that explains the lack of signage.

Alexandria City Hall, decked out for the holiday

Locals, watching planes land and take off

On the north end of town, I briefly fumbled about, looking for the trail.  In short order, I was on my way again and heading toward Crystal City (site of the Crystal City Ride!).  I passed by Ronald Reagan National Airport and reflected on the irony of the name – it was Mr. Reagan who summarily fired the nation’s air traffic controllers when they went on an illegal strike in 1981.  At the northern end of the airport is Gravelly Point, which affords an outstanding view of the runway.  Locals gather to watch planes land and take off.

What the locals are looking at

A bit up the trail brought me to the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River and the view captured at the top of this post.  I zipped by the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, although I couldn’t see either from the trail.  There was a rather large and unexpected monument to people lost at sea, which I had never heard of.

Navy - Merchant Marine Memorial

There weren’t many trees at this point, which afforded fantastic views across the river.  I had to be very careful not to stare too long as the traffic was at its thickest at this point.  At times, I felt like I was in my rush hour commute.  Long lines of cyclists would back up behind a jogger/pedestrian/whomever, waiting for an opportunity to pass.

“This is not a road ride.  This is not a road ride.”

Waterfront, north of Alexandria

Given the large numbers of people in an urban environment, it probably isn’t surprising to learn that I saw an incredible variety of people, including a bagpiper, a roller blader in a bikini, a man in full cycling road gear riding a folding bike, and bunches and bunches of people (including cyclists, to my horror) riding with earphones on.  In addition to the tiny “iPod” earphones, I saw people wearing large ear-muff Bose headphones while riding their bikes.  I saw a man riding with no hands so he could type a text message.  I saw two or three people talking on their cell phones while they pedaled.  Amazing.

The view just north of the Arlington Memorial Bridge

Just a bit up the trail was the end of the line, so to speak.  The trail quickly gave out and I suddenly found myself at the intersection of Lee Highway and North Lynn Street.  Somewhere nearby was the trailhead for the W&OD Trail, which runs 48 miles to Leesburg.  I didn’t see a sign for it, which I thought was a bit unfortunate for anyone actually wanting to make that connection.  I did see a sign for the C&O Trail, which would take me to the other side of the river and up to Pittsburgh, if I so desired.  That was a bit far for me today, so I turned around and headed back.

The trail at Rosslyn

On my way back, I stopped at a pedestrian bridge to Roosevelt Island and enjoyed a Clif Bar as I watched kayakers in the river.  I also read a historical marker (see below) which explained that John Smith, whom we discussed during last week’s visit to Ft. Story, ventured up this way in 1608.  The guy got around.

Rest stop over the Potomac with Roosevelt Island on the right and the National Cathedral in the background

14 miles after my break at the decidedly relaxed pace of 12 mph and I was back at my car.  I’m glad I made the trip north to sample this trail, but I doubt I will be back soon.  There’s lot of things to see, but now that I’ve seen them it will be even more difficult for me to put up with the throngs of people on the trail.

Historical Marker Segment!

Today’s edition proudly displays three markers, the first of which details the travels of John Smith in 1608.  He made it considerably farther up river than this location, looking for gold.  He eventually brought back plenty of Fool’s Gold, but none of the good stuff.

Our next marker is located at the edge of the frontier in 1674 – modern-day Crystal City.  It was established in pursuit of the rather quaint notion that English settlers and Native Americans might coexist.  Bacon’s Rebellion was the first rebellion in the Colonies and resulted in Jamestown being put to the torch.  The rebellion lost momentum when Mr. Bacon died of dysentery.  Governor Berkeley was recalled back to England.

The final marker can be found in the parking lot near Mount Vernon where I started my journey.  While it explains how the Washington Family came into possession of some of this land.  More interesting to me was the notion that there was a second family, the Brents, who received a rather large portion as well.  The Brents founded the small town of Brentsville in Prince William County just down the road from my house.  Otherwise, they are largely unheard of – a remarkable contrast from the Washingtons.  Just goes to show you what winning a revolution and getting elected President of your new country can do for your notoriety.


9 thoughts on “Mount Vernon Trail

  1. It’s an old saying, be careful what you wish for. We all want good cycle tracks but the trouble is that as soon as you get one, it ends up just like a road – with far too much traffic on it. What I want is quiet roads with good surfacing right onto the edges and with no drains on the carriageway. I can’t see a downside to that. Happy July 4th.

    • Washington DC is generally regarded as having a good cycling infrastructure, yet the entire system is built on the premise that cyclists will continue to be an extreme minority. If we ever got over 10% of the commuters on a bike, I don’t know how the system would handle it.

  2. I love your photos. I should take more when I ride.

    Your pics remind me of home. Cycling Mecca is great, but I’m getting sick and tired of being away from the fam and my home base.

    Love that boardwalk.

    • Thanks, Fizz. I didn’t realize that you were from around here – or perhaps the pics just happen to look like somewhere else?

      The boardwalks were a little nerveracking, to be honest. They rattle when you ride on them and I was wondering when the errant splinter would find its way into my tire. Also, they were a little slippery in the morning dew. Just another good reason to take it slow on the Mount Vernon Trail!

  3. Nice pics and historical details. You’re tempting me to start taking pictures of historical markers myself. I’m glad you restrained yourself on the crowded paths. I ride on a multi-use path on my daily commute and there are many cyclists who treat it like a bike freeway or velodrome. I’m pretty sure some of them refuse to slow down for fear of reducing their average speed.

    • Thank you very much. The white markers I often photograph are a feature of the landscape in Virginia. They are virtually everywhere, and I eventually felt that any proper description of my rides would need to include them. Since these signs are generally posted on busy roadways, they go unread by the masses and I feel I can often them a small measure of publicity. I’m a history buff and I find them to be interesting and humorous – if you ponder the ironies of some of their stories!

  4. I did the southern portion of this trail this past weekend and it wasn’t too crowded, probably because it’s still early spring. It’s a nice, relaxing ride, but not the right trail if you want to go fast because of all the twists and fellow bikers/joggers/walkers/rollerbladers/dogs/kids etc. Do you know of any nice, scenic trails not too far from D.C? I’m always looking for new trails to try!

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