Just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., Arlington offers a myriad of outdoor activities and historic attractions for an easy—and socially distant—getaway.
Summer may look different this year, as communities slowly reopen in the wake of coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders. But summer is by no means canceled. About 70 percent of Americans still plan to travel this year, and this summer, the top priorities for many vacationers will be outdoor fun and fitness; more than half say being active is among their top lifestyle priorities for the next several months (likely because Americans’ physical activity plummeted by about a third after the COVID-19 outbreak.)
Many still don’t want to use public transit, like railroads or planes, to get to their final destination, meaning travelers are looking for getaways that aren’t too far from home. And for East Coast vacationers looking for a nearby destination filled with plenty of opportunities to be active, Arlington County, Va. is a top choice. The fact that it’s right next door to D.C.—it’s only a bike ride away, across the Potomac River via Key Bridge—means it could get overlooked as a vacation destination, under normal circumstances.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. The U.S. Travel Association president and CEO Roger Dow predicts an uptick in regional travel to destinations offering “parks, beaches [and] outdoor facilities.”
“When we asked people what they would feel safest doing, 50 percent, the highest number, said outdoor recreational activities,” Dow said.
And Arlington, which has been repeatedly rated the fittest place in the country, ticks all the boxes that travelers are looking for this summer.
“Pretty much anywhere you go in our neighborhoods, you see people of all ages out walking, running or biking—it’s really a way of life,” said Emily Cassell, director of Arlington Convention and Visitors Service (StayArlington).
The county offers an extensive system of cycling trails and bike lanes (BikeArlington is an essential resource for discovering or mapping individual cycling routes), and several options offer cyclists the flexibility to do all or only part of the route. Cassell likes starting the 16-mile Arlington Loop in Rosslyn and riding along the Potomac River for views of Teddy Roosevelt Island. Arlington’s patchwork of parks, rated among the nation’s best, comprise 11 percent of the county’s land and offer 49 miles of paved trails that remain open to socially distanced joggers, walkers and cyclists.
Visitors can also head to outdoor historic sights, like Arlington National Cemetery and the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, or walk from the Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima) to the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and more. For a peaceful respite, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove offers memorable views of the National Mall from the Potomac waterfront.
Regional travelers gearing up for a summer road trip to Arlington can plan an itinerary around the outdoor pursuits of their choice, with help from physically fit locals like Robin Ghariani, an aviation systems engineer with a two-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. Ghariani has been an athlete since her days on the high school track team, but moving to Arlington several years ago has made it “so much easier” to stay fit, she said. “If you want to be active, you literally just step outside.”
Ghariani is among the 99 percent of Arlington residents who can walk to a park in 10 minutes or less; her family’s home sits across the street from one, and it’s also only a few blocks from her favorite place to run, the Mount Vernon Trail, which offers multiple entry points. Ghariani likes to exit the trail at Crystal City for food and live music in the summer (visitors can grab carryout from a local restaurant and eat outdoors at Courtyard Green) or follow it down to George Washington’s historic Mount Vernon estate.
Closer to home, the trail leads to Gravelly Point, where Ghariani got engaged, and where her family loves to watch planes taking off from Washington National Airport. Lately, whenever the trail has felt too crowded, she’s been running in the Aurora Highlands instead, where “it’s really easy to zigzag and avoid people,” she said.
“You can easily create a DIY workout with all the open space and hills in the area. Running on streets or in parks gives you more opportunity to change up your course if you see oncoming people too,” Ghariani added.
Architect David Van Duzer, a 27-year resident of Arlington, credits his dog—a briard, an energetic breed of sheepdog—for keeping him and his wife fit during the pandemic.
“She goes on two-mile walks with us every day,” Van Duzer said.
In recent weeks, they’ve scouted out less-used locations, like Freedom Park in Rosslyn. The spacious grounds of the Marine Corps War Memorial are ideal for dog-walking, he said, and the Air Force Memorial offers Pentagon and D.C. views along with interesting architecture. For immersion in nature, they head to Theodore Roosevelt Island, where the family has “seen snakes, deer and all kinds of river life and birds,” Van Duzer said.
The pandemic has led other locals to rediscover the benefits of living in a walkable city with immediate access to nature. Scott Parker, who owns several small businesses along the Ballston and Rosslyn corridor, including the boxing gym Bash Boxing, was accustomed to a varied fitness routine of boxing sessions, cycling classes and high-intensity cross-training before the crisis. But now, he appreciates the simple pleasure of walking. Recently, he walked through the Potomac Overlook Regional Park, taking in views along the George Washington Parkway and Potomac River.
“It’s easy to get one friend and keep space between you on a walk, and I’ve done a lot more of that, rather than [the] group fitness I would do normally,” Parker said.
Even though life has changed in Arlington, locals are moving forward—with community and the outdoors in mind. Van Duzer is advocating for a new dog park in Rosslyn, and continuing his work with the neighborhood’s Urban Design Committee. Cyclists will still be able to stop for a local brew in Shirlington, where the outdoor beer garden at New District Brewing Company has opened with new safety measures in place, such as limited seating and strict cleaning protocols. And Cassell is eager to take advantage of patio dining options and rooftop bars around the county as the weather warms.
“Summer and fall are especially fun in Arlington’s neighborhoods,” she said.
And that may never change. While Ghariani plans to continue social distancing this summer, she’ll be doing so while picnicking with friends and sipping wine with her neighborhood wine group.
“I expect a lot of people in Arlington are reverting back to simplicity: Just hanging outside with neighbors and friends all summer,” she said. “From what I can see, people are ready to venture out—safely.”
Parker, for one, is hoping to reopen his boxing gym in a safe way by July, and his confidence in the county hasn’t wavered.
“I feel optimistic [about] Arlington moving forward,” he said. “Once we get through this, the city will remain a great place to do business as it has been.”