Washington's walkable bridges

By Ann Cameron Siegal
Friday, September 10, 2010; WE21

They take us over rivers and ravines. They get us from here to there. They arch and they lift, hum and whine. And for the most part we don't notice anything about them except how long the traffic backup is to get onto them.

The cure for this lamentable Bridge Oversight Syndrome is right under your nose -- your feet! Yes, doing a bridge walk will provide exercise and, just as important, perspective: As a pedestrian you'll be seeing sights hard to savor from a car window.

You'll have a new vantage from which to enjoy the changing seasons and ponder dramatic buildings and sculpture -- the waterfront houses in Alexandria's Old Town, the Kennedy Center as it stands sentinel on the edge of the Potomac, the statues on Memorial Bridge up close and personal. Contemplate activities possible on the waterways below -- fishing, a river cruise or, dare we suggest it, kayaking! It's all there, just beyond the railings.

Be forewarned, though: An urban bridge trek is a treat for the eyes, not the ears. These are busy, functional pieces of architecture essential to holding our area together, so they harbor all the traffic sounds -- and vibrations -- inherent in that big job.

But don't let that stop you. Slip on good walking shoes, pack water and binoculars, and exercise your more primitive mode of transportation.


Arlington Memorial Bridge

Type: Arch bridge with central bascule, or drawbridge (not used)

Length: Less than half a mile (2,128 feet)

Connecting: Connects Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial

Access: Sidewalks connect at both ends; the Mount Vernon Trail leads to it.

Parking: Paid parking at Arlington National Cemetery Visitor Center. On the D.C. side, there's limited free parking along Ohio Drive SW and free parking in East Potomac Park.

Memorial Bridge has long played a key role in local rallies, major funeral processions and huge marathon races. The bonds of history are strong here, including the visual and symbolic connection between Lincoln's monument and Robert E. Lee's hillside memorial, Arlington House. The bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was intended as a memorial that would join the North and South.

Fifteen-foot-wide sidewalks on either side of the bridge make the trek very inviting. You'll also get close-up views of the "Arts of War" gilded bronze statues by Leo Friedlander -- "Valor" and "Sacrifice" -- at the northeastern entrance to the bridge.

Chain Bridge

Type: Steel-girder bridge sitting on stone piers from the 1870s

Length: Two-tenths of a mile (1,056 feet)

Connecting: Runs from Canal Road NW on the Washington side to Arlington.

Access: From the C&O Canal towpath at Mile 4 on the D.C. side, and from North Glebe Road and North 41st Street in Arlington

Parking: A small free parking lot, accessible via inbound Clara Barton Parkway, is north of the bridge on the D.C. side. There is also a small lot at North Glebe Road and North 41st Street.

In 1797, the first bridge across the Potomac was built here because of the narrowness of the river. It was actually the third bridge that gave Chain Bridge its name: It was suspended by wrought-iron chains.

Today's bridge -- the eighth one -- sits on top of piers but retains the earlier name.

Chain Bridge is one of the best vantage points for nature watching. Bring your binoculars and telephoto lenses as the upstream-side walkway makes it easy to spot shore birds, waterfowl and fishermen along the rocky shores, just south of Little Falls. The Arlington cliffs rise steeply from the water. A wide ramp leads to narrow unpaved nature trails and the C&O Canal towpath below. Or continue on to the Capital Crescent Trail along Clara Barton Parkway.

Francis Scott Key Bridge

Type: Eight-span concrete open-spandrel arch bridge

Length: One-third of a mile (1,635 feet)

Connecting: Links Georgetown and Rosslyn

Access: City sidewalks connect at both ends.

Parking: In Georgetown there is (very) limited street parking; using Metro, about 0.4 miles from the bridge, is best on the Rosslyn side.

Take in panoramic views of George-

town's waterfront or observe the lively kayaking culture that frequents Jack's Boathouse while walking across the bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Contemplate the contrasting architecture of Georgetown University, from its Romanesque spires to the modern tower of Lauinger Library. Time it right and you might catch an aerial view of a C&O canal boat as it passes below, piloted by costumed helmsmen and pulled by two mules.

Although there are walkways on both sides of the bridge, they are narrow, so heavy weekend usage requires cyclists, walkers, joggers and stroller-pushing parents all to use caution. But, hey, the round-trip trek will make you feel a wee bit less guilty when heading to or from Georgetown Cupcake.

George Mason Memorial Bridge

Type: Fifteen-span steel continuous-girder bridge

Length: Under half a mile (2,265 feet)

Connecting: Takes Interstate 395 across the Potomac, linking 14th Street and the Southwest Freeway in the District to Shirley Memorial Highway in Arlington

Access: The George Washington Parkway bike path connects, as does Ohio Drive SW at the Jefferson Memorial.

Parking: You can park for free in the Daingerfield Island lot just north of Reagan National Airport, then walk a mile on the Mount Vernon Trail to the bridge. In the District, the Smithsonian Metro stop is about a mile away, or use free parking in East Potomac Park's lots, less than half a mile from the bridge.

The 14th Street Bridge is actually five separate bridges: three for autos, two for rail. The walkable part is on the upstream side of the southbound span, called the George Mason Bridge (the other spans are the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge, the Rochambeau Bridge, Charles R. Fenwick Bridge and the Long Bridge). Wide river and shoreline views are worth pausing for. Notice huge pine cones in the treetops as you approach the D.C. side.

Once you've crossed into the city, it's a pleasant 1.8-mile walk around the Tidal Basin. Keep this route in mind when cherry blossom time rolls around again. It sure beats trying to park nearby.

Theodore Roosevelt Bridge

Type: Thirteen-span steel continuous-girder bridge

Length: Over half a mile (2,916 feet)

Connecting: Links Arlington and Foggy Bottom

Access: Upstream walkway of the bridge goes from the south end of the Theodore Roosevelt Island parking lot to the Kennedy Center plaza. Also, on the Virginia side, from the downstream end of Key Bridge, a footbridge goes over the George Washington Parkway and leads down to the north end of the Roosevelt Island parking lot.

Parking: There's free two-hour parking in the Roosevelt Island lot, which is accessible from the parkway heading north. In the District, the Foggy Bottom Metro stop is about a half-mile from the bridge; also, there's limited two-hour metered parking on streets around the Kennedy Center.

This noisy, traffic-laden bridge, which carries I-66 and Route 50 between Virginia and the District, is a paradoxical memorial to a conservationist. You would never notice it while driving, but the bridge offers great views of the natural beauty of Theodore Roosevelt Island's tidal marsh below. And it's hard to find closer views of the Kennedy Center and the vibrant warm-weather boat scene heading to and from the Georgetown waterfront.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge

Type: Bascule, or draw, bridge

Length: 1.1 miles (about 5,808 feet)

Connecting: Carries 12 lanes of I-95/I-495 traffic across the Potomac between Alexandria and Oxon Hill

Access: From South Washington and Church streets in Alexandria, or from National Harbor in Oxon Hill

Parking: On the Alexandria side, there is free parking on South Washington and Church streets. On the Maryland side, there are paid parking garages at National Harbor and a waterfront parking lot.

A bridge expert once said the old Wilson Bridge "doesn't even deserve the term 'ugly.' " That was then. Today's higher, sleeker bridge offers the newest Potomac River pedestrian crossing, which opened in June 2009, with some unexpected features. A 12-foot-wide walkway on the upstream side gives cyclists, joggers and pedestrians room to maneuver around one another. Three bump-outs on the bridge -- each with telescopes and historical signs and two with benches -- offer broad views of Alexandria's waterfront and distant D.C. monuments.

At the Virginia end, a barrier between traffic and the walkway tones down the noise considerably as you cross above St. Mary's cemetery and Jones Point Park.

On the Maryland side, the well-landscaped overpass offers sculptured seat boulders and interpretive signs about Prince George's County communities. (An additional 1 1/2 miles of paths wind through Potomac River Park and around Smoot Bay.)


Duke Ellington and William Howard Taft Bridges

Type: Three-span reinforced-concrete arch bridge (Ellington), seven-span unreinforced-concrete arch bridge (Taft)

Length: Two-tenths of a mile (1,056 feet, Ellington), three-tenths of a mile (1,584 feet, Taft)

Connecting: The bridges carry Calvert Street and Connecticut Avenue NW, respectively, over Rock Creek Park.

Access: City sidewalks lead directly to these bridges.

Parking: Metered street parking

These two short bridges are perpendicular to each other and only three-tenths of a mile apart. Both offer panoramic views over Rock Creek Park. The Ellington Bridge was named for Washington's homegrown composer and jazz bandleader; the Taft, for our 27th president.

In the midst of the city, you can enjoy the summer sea of greenery below or, in fall, what a commenter on an online hiking forum called "a river of flame."

Even though Ellington's safety railing extends over your head, there are several bump-outs on either side where you can poke a camera lens between the stanchions to get panoramic photos.

The Taft Bridge is recognizable by its concrete lion statues and eagle-topped lampposts and provides unobstructed views over the treetops. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Francis Case Memorial Bridge

Type: Seventeen-span steel continuous-girder bridge

Length: About one-third of a mile (1,578 feet)

Connecting: Carries I-395 across Washington Channel; feeds into Southwest Freeway

Access: East Potomac Park (next to the tennis bubble or across from the National Park Service headquarters parking lot) or from L'Enfant Plaza

Parking: Free parking along Ohio Drive SW near the tennis center. The L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop is about a half-mile away.

When driving along this part of the Southwest Freeway, your views are of rusty railings. By foot, though, the view over the Washington Channel and the enticements at each end are far more enjoyable.

From above East Potomac Park, watch joggers and cyclists finishing the three-mile loop around Hains Point, or notice how high tides often cover the waterside sidewalk there. Get an early start to head across the river for a bird's-eye view of bustling morning preparations at the Maine Avenue fish market. Whiffs of the day's offerings often rise up to meet your nose. Fantasize about living aboard a boat at the Gangplank Marina. Take a break at Benjamin Banneker Park's fountain before strolling to L'Enfant Plaza or along Maine Avenue. (The bridge is named for the South Dakota senator (1951-62), who was a proponent of more self-rule for the District.)

Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge

Type: Steel-girder bridge with a swing-span over the navigation channel

Length: Just under one-third of a mile (1,564 feet)

Connecting: Links Washington south of the Capitol with Anacostia

Access: From Nationals Park on the west side and from Anacostia Park, near Poplar Point, on the east

Parking: There are paid parking spots near Nationals Park. There's free parking in Anacostia Park, just north of the bridge, on Anacostia Drive SE.

Named for the abolitionist, this bridge (sometimes referred to as the South Capitol Street bridge) is where South Capitol crosses the Anacostia River and links the ballpark and Buzzard Point with Anacostia. Architectural lighting and decorative railings were part of an extensive 2008 bridge renovation.

The upstream side walkway offers panoramic views of the Washington Navy Yard. The area between the ballpark and the river is in transition and is slated to eventually become a riverfront park.

Siegal is a freelance writer.

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