Our Wanderlust column clues you in on all the best hikes and parks in the greater D.C. area. This month, we zoom in on Theodore Roosevelt Island.
Theodore Roosevelt Island, located in the middle of the Potomac River, has held many names and a very complex history, as has most of the land in this region. Prior to colonization, the island belonged to the indigenous Nacotchtank and was called Anacostine Island. George Mason purchased the island in 1720 and, just like the majority of his land, turned it into a cotton and corn plantation. Enslaved peoples were forced to till the land of Theodore Roosevelt Island, then called Mason’s Island, for more than 100 years.
Later, during the Civil War, the island was used to train African American soldiers; it housed 1,200 formerly enslaved people under the authority of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The abandoned Mason plantation mansion was used as a union military hospital. After the Civil War, the island was used as a recreational spot with baseball diamonds and a running track. After that, it was a secret explosives test site and finally, it fell under the ownership of the Washington Gas Light Company, who let the island become overgrown with abandoned crops.
So, how did it become the abundantly verdant park it is now? In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps cleared most of the overgrown vegetation and fully demolished the remnants of the Mason mansion to make way for the Theodore Roosevelt memorial and the creation of a new National Park.
Understanding this complex history is important for how you experience this park as you trek the aptly named Swamp Trail, flanked by wild irises and cattails. We’ll walk you through the most scenic way to access this island, starting at The Kennedy Center and ending in Georgetown. This suggested path will take you from D.C. to Virginia to an island in the Potomac and back again, all within an easy 3-hour walk. We hope you take the opportunity to embark on this journey through history.
How Long and How Difficult?
This hike is not difficult. Walking the Swamp Trail, which is a partially dirt and partially boardwalk trail, takes roughly 45 minutes. If you add in a visit to the Theodore Roosevelt memorial it can take an hour. Getting to and from the island is what can lengthen your visit significantly. For my most recent visit, I started and ended at The Kennedy Center and walked a large loop that crossed over the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge toward Arlington on my way to the island and the Francis Scott Key Bridge toward Georgetown on my way back to D.C.
Theodore Roosevelt Island is on Nacotchtank land. It is located in the middle of the Potomac River just across from The Kennedy Center and Georgetown on the D.C. side of the river and from Arlington on the Virginia side. This makes for some pretty impressive views from the island when you find an opening from among the thick trees. It is interesting to note that Theodore Roosevelt Island is technically in Washington, D.C. — even though you have to walk across a bridge from Virginia to get there.
There are several ways to access the island. You can drive and park in the parking lot — though the lot does fill quickly on weekends. I recommend either taking a metro to the Rosslyn station, which is just an 11-minute walk from the island, or walking into Virginia from D.C. by crossing either the Key Bridge or the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. Both offer excellent views of the island and the monuments in D.C.
Who Should I Bring?
This hike is a great option for folks living in D.C. or Arlington. If you want to explore nature beyond Rock Creek Parkway, head to Theodore Roosevelt Island. Bring your family or friends when they visit from out of town. Also, this is a great spot to bring history buffs. You can bring your dog, but know that many people walk their dogs on this trail. If your dog is aggressive toward other dogs, maybe leave them at home or keep a tight leash. Bring a date or just yourself for a little sliver of nature in the midst of city living.
Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the center of the island. Incredible shoreline views of D.C. from the middle of the Potomac River. Great fishing locations at rock outcroppings around the island. Bold yellow wild irises and cattails abound. A bridge across the Potomac River with kayakers paddling by below. Wood ducks, mallard ducks and herons navigating the inner marshland of the island as well as the shore. The REACH’s art sculptures. Georgetown’s C&O canal boat tours and trail (if you want to extend your hike, take the C&O canal trail in the opposite direction of Georgetown). And of course, Georgetown’s waterfront walkway and seafood restaurants.
This trail is largely wheelchair accessible, though there are sections of the boardwalk through the marshy portions of the island that are uneven and in need of repair. The island is flat but there are some sections with subtle inclines that may be harder to navigate. There is a nicely paved pathway to the bridge that leads to the island, so accessing the island is easier than navigating it.
Best Path to Take?
The path I recommend starts at The Kennedy Center’s new outdoor arts space: The REACH. This is a great meeting point for anyone else who might join you on this trek as there are several sculptures to check out while you wait for your companions. Toward the back of The REACH at the farthest point from The Kennedy Center, you’ll see a walking ramp that leads up to a sidewalk alongside the on-ramp for I-66 which turns into the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. Follow the sidewalk toward the Potomac and walk across the bridge. Be mindful of any bikes who may zoom by you as you walk. As you approach the Virginia side of the bridge, you can look down over the guardrail to see a bird’s eye view of Theodore Roosevelt Island’s boardwalk path.
Continue following this sidewalk until you reach the parking lot area. You will see a national park sign, and just beyond it is the bridge to the island. Take the bridge and be sure to look around for any kayakers in the water below. Once you are on the island you can either turn left or right on the Swamp Trail, as it is a 1.5-mile loop. If you want to go directly to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, you will take a right and then a left shortly thereafter and follow the Woods Trail a third of a mile to the memorial. Here, you’ll find a towering statue of Theodore Roosevelt, two large fountains and four stone slabs with quotes from Theodore Roosevelt about nature, youth, manhood and the state. If you want to visit the site of the demolished Mason mansion, follow signs for the Upland Trail. If you choose to trek every trail on the island, you’ll walk approximately 2.5 miles total.
When you leave the island, turn right after you cross the island bridge to head toward the Key Bridge, which will bring you back into D.C. and straight into Georgetown. If you’re interested in doing some retail therapy or grabbing a bite to eat, I recommend staying on M Street for a portion of your walk back to The Kennedy Center. If you would rather skip the busy crowds, just after you cross the Key Bridge, turn to the right and head toward the Francis Scott Key Memorial, then follow a path down to the C&O Canal Towpath. You may even glimpse an old canal boat navigating down the channel carrying tourists in tow. When you get to Potomac Street, take a right and head to the Georgetown Waterfront. Follow the waterfront walking path until you get to the Thompson Boat House, where you’ll link up with a Rock Creek Park trail that leads back to The Kennedy Center.
And there you have it. A three-hour walk through national monuments, historic sites, a national park, two memorials and several waterfront scenes from D.C. to Virginia to D.C. to Virginia and back to D.C.
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