Washington is a city known for its protest marches, patriotic parades and trudging tourists. In June, its pedestrian qualities were recognized in a report from Smart Growth America that deemed the region the most walkable in the country. Human, an iPhone app that quantifies how users move, ranks D.C. as the top walking city in the world. Since everyone loves walking around the District so much, we figured we’d try it literally. We set out to circumnavigate the city, hewing as closely as possible to the borders without ending up as road kill. The biggest obstacle? The Anacostia River. So we devised a 40-mile route that starts at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and ends a mile away — as the crow flies — at Costco.
Read more of our special report on exploring D.C.’s border:
Already we’ve got company: a massive flock of Canada geese traipsing around the Kenilworth water lilies, which have been blooming here since the 1880s. Despite their name, the birds are non-migratory and live here year-round. They think they own the place, and they’re not afraid to honk at us interlopers.
We spy our first boundary stone in the front yard at 919 Eastern Ave. Read lots more about the boundary stones.
As we approach Dix Street, a guy asks us for directions … for where to buy weed. Can’t help him. We do, however, pick up a box of peaches from the guy selling produce out of his truck nearby.
The intersection of Eastern and Southern avenues is the only corner of the D.C. diamond where the roads form a perfect right angle. It’s geometrically very satisfying.
We now understand the name Capitol Heights. It feels like we’re mountain climbing. We catch our breath checking out the carved figurines outside of 5608 Southern Ave. SE, a residence that doubles as an African art gallery.
The open gate to the Jewish Chesed Shel Emes cemetery (near the intersection of Southern Avenue and E Street) is inviting, and so is the helpful gravedigger standing there. “This is the Hebrew Free Burial Society,” he explains, as he points out the different sections around him. “People on that side got money, people on this side don’t. If you stick around, we’ll put someone in the ground today.” We pass.
A fire-breathing dragon painted on the ground at the Benning Park Recreation Center leads us to what appears to be a “Game of Thrones”-themed playground, complete with a giant castle and a see-saw large enough to accommodate the entire Stark family.
At the intersection of Southern and Massachusetts avenues, we spy a giant blue tower, plopped in the middle of a row of houses. Is it a spaceship? Maybe.
We cut up Branch Avenue into the neighborhood, right past Mayor Vincent Gray’s house. Nice digs! Wonder if he ever shops at the nearby Da What’s Happening Connection. The store on Naylor Road promises prepaid phones, go-go CDs and oils.
Just past the Southern Avenue Metro, we find a winner in our saddest piece of debris contest. It’s an ancient bike with a faded “Happy Birthday” streamer tied to the handlebars. The front tire is missing. Yet, it’s still chained by the side of the road, like some loving owner will come pick it up any minute.
At the end of Southern Avenue, we head north on South Capitol Street. A man driving by toots his horn, hollers a greeting and starts playing “Party in the USA.” We thank him and Miley Cyrus for the accompaniment as we head into the Bellevue neighborhood.
Lots of folks have flashed us smiles, but none of those compare with the grins we get from a pair of Mormon missionaries near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues.
A security guard waves us onto the St. Elizabeths East campus, where we break at the green tables of the Gateway Pavilion, a community center that hosts markets, festivals and other events. The infamous psychiatric hospital is separate from the rest of the campus, which is being redeveloped for business, residential and educational tenants.
The Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge has separated paths on either side of the car traffic, but it’s still terrifying to feel the panels beneath us bounce, and see the murky waters of the Anacostia down below. Guy biking while carrying a 12-pack of beer, we salute you.
Turning away from Nationals Park, we step over a low metal barrier and arrive in the crazy industrial landscape of Buzzard Point. There are heaps of sand and broken chunks of concrete, odd-looking machinery and lots of trucks that only seem to move in reverse.
Amid the wasteland of Buzzard Point, we stumble upon the Earth Conservation Corps’ Matthew Henson Conservation Center, and meet Daryl Wallace, who runs the place at 2000 Half St. He waves us in to meet his birds of prey. On the roof, we’re introduced to Sky, a red-tailed hawk, and Mr. Hoots, a gorgeous Eurasian eagle-owl. They seem gentle enough, until Wallace points out the hacked-up duck carcass that’s their next meal. “They’re predators,” he reminds us.
We join up with the interim Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, which takes us to the Southwest Waterfront. Hello, Titanic Memorial! The 13-foot granite figure with outstretched arms honors the men who gave their lives so women and children could survive the 1912 boat disaster.
Impressive monuments stare at us from every direction as we pass the Tidal Basin. We make a point to stop at the District of Columbia War Memorial, the only structure on the Mall dedicated exclusively to D.C. The domed temple, which honors 499 Washingtonians who perished in World War I, was originally paid for by local residents; now the National Park Service maintains it.
We backtrack through Thompson Boat Center to reach Tide Lock. There’s a Mile 0 marker there that signifies the official start of the 184.5-mile C&O Canal. From this scenic point, boats used to be able to glide onto the Washington Branch Canal. Hence the name of that famous nearby building, the Watergate.
Our favorite site in Georgetown Waterfront Park is the swirling green and tan circle of concrete. A kid is slowly making his way along the path into the center of the labyrinth. It’s one of 130 projects the TKF Foundation’s “Open Spaces Sacred Places” program has scattered across the D.C.-Baltimore-Annapolis region.
We follow the parade of cyclists onto the Capital Crescent Trail, which was an operating railroad until 1985. Since 1996, it’s been this paved, shaded path, which allows us to skirt the D.C. coastline. (The border between here and Virginia is technically on the other side of the river, so it’s the closest we can get without walking on water.)
At Fletcher’s Boathouse (4940 Canal Road), we’re intrigued by the metal green ball that’s the size of a park bench. “It floated down the river one time in a flood,” explains assistant manager Dan Ward. “Our assumption is it’s an old mine casing that was used as a buoy upstream.” It’s been around at least 30 years, which is how long Ward has been here, too. (Ward’s other title? “Old man,” he jokes.) That’s nothing in the lifespan of the boathouse, which dates from the 1850s.
A path leads off the trail near Manning Place, ending in a clearing with a bunch of plastic chairs sitting in a circle. It’s littered with crushed beer cans — perhaps the remnants of some really chill Satanic rites?
Dalecarlia Reservoir. The signs and fences all around this place make one thing really clear: “No trespassing.” Guess they don’t want anyone contaminating the drinking water supply.
On 49th Street in Spring Valley, we encounter residents running around waving swords. This would be terrifying if the warriors weren’t little girls and the weapons weren’t made of cardboard.
We reach Fort Bayard, a major letdown. The rear-line fort was rarely manned, never saw action and was abandoned right after the Civil War. Even the sign is depressing: “No visible evidence remains of Fort Bayard, which stood at the top of this hill.”
We’d never before noticed the boulder and plaque on Chevy Chase Circle. It honors Colonel Joseph Belt (1680-1761), patentee of “Cheivy Chace.” (A patent, in this sense, is a type of land grant.) Nearby, we spot the most Cheivy Chace piece of litter ever: an Italian leather change purse with fringe for flair.
In desperate need of a bathroom, we take advantage of an open house just off Western Avenue. Realtor Tim Healy places cups of lemonade in our hands as he extols the virtues of this brick Colonial. It’s from 1949, and has a few signs of the time, including several panels of mysterious electric switches and a quarter bath (i.e. just a toilet, probably meant for a maid).
Because it’s a weekend, Beach Drive is closed to cars, but it’s still busy with bikes. We opt instead to get through Rock Creek Park using the Valley Trail, a popular route for dogs (and their owners).
D.C.’s northernmost tip is so chill there’s actually a basketball hoop in the street.
How do we know we’re in the People’s Republic of Takoma Park? There are three guitarists strumming along the street next to the farmers market. One stand boasts four different kinds of kale — curly, Red Russian, White Russian and Siberian.
There isn’t much foot traffic in the neighborhood of North Michigan Park. Maybe everyone is inside the Northeastern Presbyterian Church, which beckons with this clever message: “CH??CH — What’s Missing?”
The low-slung building at 3801 Eastern Ave. has a sign identifying it as Washington Bridge Unit. This is the local headquarters for the American Bridge Association, a group formed in 1932 by African-Americans who’d been excluded from whites-only bridge events. Despite the notice saying “New Members Welcome” and “Classes Available,” a game today doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
We consider what Joshua Barney did to get Commodore Joshua Barney Drive named after him: 200 years ago, he led 500 sailors and Marines at the Battle of Bladensburg. They lost after four hours of hand-to-hand combat, and Barney got a bullet lodged in his thigh. He died from complications related to the wound.
Costco. The store is closed, so there are no free samples waiting for us at the finish line. Just lots of shopping carts. And is that the sound of geese we hear?
What we counted
9 BBQ smokers
7 potted cacti
2 houses with Christmas lights
13 “Beware of dog” signs
2 pairs of shoes hanging over wires
55 places of worship
19 liquor stores
4 sirens (plus one car alarm)
2 tandem bikes
2 amazing vanity plates (MSTHANG and 4GIVEME)
The entire 40-mile route around D.C. would be tough to pull off in a single day. Full disclosure: We didn’t. But circumnavigating Manhattan — a 32-mile hike — is so doable that it’s an annual event. The Shorewalkers holds “The Great Saunter” the first Saturday in May. (May 2, 2015, will be the 30th anniversary of what the group touts as “the longest urban walk in the United States.”) Or you can try it out solo using the interactive map on shorewalkers.org for guidance.