The George Washington Memorial Parkway, often called the GW Parkway by locals, meanders through parks on both sides of the road and is usually within close proximity to and sight of the Potomac River. The US Park Service maintains this and all parkways. Parkways are designed to be scenic meandering roads with light traffic. Despite finding a path through the most urban parts of Northern Virginia, the GW Parkway largely accomplishes these goals.
Top posted speed on the Parkway is 50 mph, and cruising speeds rarely exceed this limit. On the other hand, even during the worst of rush hour, speeds are rarely less than 45 mph. Those who are unfamiliar with traffic in the national Capitol region might not fully appreciate what an accomplishment this is.
To put these numbers in perspective, posted speeds on I-495 (the Beltway) are generally 55 mph. Traffic on the Beltway often exceeds 65 mph, but during rush hour, there are several points where the traffic slows to less than 25 mph. The Beltway is bumper to bumper madness squeezed between concrete sound-walls, while the GW Parkway is an easy cruise along the Potomac. Is it any wonder why I love the GW?
The GW Parkway winds along the banks of the Potomac River, starting near Great Falls in Mclean and then travels downriver all the way to Mt. Vernon, George Washington's Mansion. The parkway is an ideal drive for a tourist or visitor who would like to see some of the best views and sites the area has to offer.
A broad well-maintain bike and jogging trail runs the length of the GW Parkway, and is well used by residents and tourists alike.
Driving Down River
From the CIA Headquarters, downriver to the hieghts of Rosslyn, there are several overlooks that provide nice views of Georgetown in Washington DC. Picnicers will find parks and pull-overs where they can take a break from their drive along the Potomac.
After passing under the beautiful Francis Scott Key Bridge, the Parkway passes one of my favorite (and one of the area's least known) Presidential memorials---Teddy Roosevelt Island. This forested island on the Potomac takes visitors into another world, and as you walk the trails on the island it is easy to forget that you are in an urban environment. If you've never done so, walk the trails and discover T. Roosevelt's statue and memorial---a fitting tribute to a man who love the outdoors and who helped establish the national park system.
If you're travelling south, or downriver, you won't have access to the island at this point and you'll have to save that bit of fun for your return. But just minutes past the Key Bridge, you'll clear the woods of Teddy Roosevelt Island and Rosslyn's bluff and will get your first glimpse of the national Capitol in all it's glory.
At the Monuments
From the road you'll have views of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial across the Potomac in Washington DC. On the hill above you in Virginia, you'll have a glimpse of the Iwo Jima Memorial. There is a mish-mash of poorly marked connecting roads entering and leaving the Parkway as you approach Memorial Bridge at and around the Iwo Jima Memorial.
These connectors can be confusing to tourists, but locals zip on and off the Parkway to access DC or Arlington. Despite the potential for accidents with slower moving site-seers and quick moving commuters, there are few incidents here: a testament to the fine design of the Parkway.
Memorial Bridge marks the entrance to Arlington National Cemetary, a solemn and beautiful place where Presidents, soldiers and honored citizens of the United States have taken their final rest. Fittingly, Memorial Bridge connects Arlington House, Robert E. Lee's home in Virginia, with the Lincoln Memorial, symbolizing the bridge that connects North and South in union.
As one passes the Memorial Bridge the Jefferson Memorial with its famed Tidal Pools, becomes more visible. Past the Jefferson Memorial, the Parkway crosses Humpback Bridge onto Columbia Island, home to Lady Bird Johnson Memorial Grove. At this point, travellers downriver will have access to a pleasant picnic area which provides excellent views up to the Pentagon and the Air Force Memorial.
As the parkway leaves the island, it jogs away from the Pentagon and the hi-rise skyline of Crystal City toward Ronald Reagan National Airport. The airport's runaway nearly meets the road as the parkway gentle wends its way downriver. Here the parkway offers pleasant views of the Potomac and local air traffic landing at Reagan National. Just past the airport is the first of two marinas on the parkway.
Old Town Alexandria
After the marina, the Parkway slows to a traffic light and then for the next mile or so, makes its way through the streets of Old Town Alexandria. Old Town is a delight, with shops, boutiques and historical sites. Past Old Town the view opens up again with a sweeping view of the River toward National Harbor. The Belle Haven Country Club marks the approach to the Belle Haven Marina. This provides a great spot for a picnic as well as an opportunity to rent canoes, kayaks, rowboats and sailboats.
Past the marina is the Dyke Marsh, a wetlands filled with birds, fish and wildlife. Across the river Fort Washington, a relic of the War of 1812 watches the narrows of the Potomac. Fort Washington, once a military stronghold, now a pleasant park, is a destination in itself and is worth an afternoon. The Virginia side of the river has Fort Hunt, where moldering remnants of World War II stand silent watch over a peaceful park.
Mansion at Mount Vernon
After several scenic vistas at and around Stratford Landing and Arcturus, the Parkway at last comes to an end at George Washington's mansion at Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens is the oldest national historic preservation organization in the country. Mount Vernon is the most popular historic estate in America. The grounds are well-preserved as is the home itself.
The GW Parkway runs from Mt. Vernon to Mclean and Great Falls through the Alexandria and Arlington. At it's southern end it meets Old Mount Vernon Highway. Upriver, it is connected by the American Legion Bridge to a continuation in Maryland on the Clara Barton Parkway. The GW Parkway provides excellent views that are impressive to even a jaded commuter.
A commuter will find this is one of the best routes around the nation's Capitol.
As a result of this, or because of this, some of the priciest and most exclusive neighborhoods in Northern Virginia are found along the GW Parkway. Here's a sampling what's currently on the market in some of these neighborhoods along the Parkway.