Notes on Washington DC Trails:
Special Situations

Mary Shaw

Developing continuous motor-free multipurpose trails sometimes requires finding ways to get the trails through tight quarters or awkward places. Washington DC's extensive trail network has solved some of these problems. In order to provide examples for other trail-builders, this page describes four of Washington's solutions to special problems:

I took the photographs Easter weekend 1997 on two trails just south of Washington, in Arlington VA: the Custis Trail and the Mt Vernon Trail. The Custis Trail runs for about four and a half miles along I66 through a heavily built-up portion of Arlington. The Mt Vernon Trail runs for twenty miles along the Potomac River from near Roosevelt Island to Mt Vernon VA; although some of the riverfront is parkland, this trail must deal with Washington National Airport and some narrow areas of low-lying riverfront.

A note for any surfers who may stumble in here: I'm a bicyclist, located in Pittsburgh PA. I'm one of many supporters of a network of motor-free trails in the city and the region. My highest priority is connectivity of trail segments to yield through routes -- preferably all on trail, but using low-traffic roads where necessary.

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Coexisting with an Interstate Highway

The Custis trail runs on the corridor of I66 through Arlington VA. Sometimes it is at the same elevation as the highway. At other times it rises to the elevation of the road overpasses, evidently to provide connections with on-road bike routes. This trail is often in a concrete-and-asphalt trough with high-speed traffic. It's not very scenic, and it's incredibly hot in the summer. However, it does establish a through route free of traffic.

These two photos were taken from the same location, looking across the highway from the end of a pedestrian overpass (the overpass doesn't show -- chain-link fencing obscured the view). In both photos, you can see the trail at near road level in the distance, climbing to the level of the overpass. Several sections of the trail are constructed like this, with the trail perched on a bench created by a setback in the high retaining wall. A chain-link fence keeps trail users away from the highway. In the right-hand picture, a cyclist in a white shirt is above and slightly ahead of the car.
  Here is a telephoto detail of the right end of the right-hand picture above, taken from the same location. This view shows better the relation of trail, fence, and wall. Note the cyclist directly above the car. This view also shows the gradient of the trail as it rises from road level.

Establishing Access at Different Elevations

The Custis Trail regularly climbs from road level to overpass level and drops back down. The hills are short but brisk. These pictures show some of the short hills and the elevation changes involved.

Some of the climbs are on open hillsides, separated from the road by a fence. Others climb behind the sound barrier. In both of these photos, the trail passes under a road overpass 50-100 yards from the photographer. The left photo also shows an intersection with a neighborhood trail; the signpost is at the right edge of the photo. Note also the trail lighting.
  Some of the overpasses, including this one, are motor-free trail bridges. They're chain-link fenced, of course. The main trail is on top of the retaining wall, behind the dark fence.

Routing Trail throuth Riverfront Lowlands

Between Arlington Cemetary and Roosevelt Island, the Mt Vernon Trail is pinned between the George Washington Parkway and the Potomac River. As the photographs show, there isn't much room. The Potomac is tidal in this area, so water level variations are common.

For a few hundred yards, a boardwalk carries the trail over creeks and lowlands. Spur trails are also routed through here, requiring intersections and traffic control on the boardwalk.

Proximity to Commercial Airport

As far as we can tell, it's not possible to ride a bicycle to or from Pittsburgh International Airport -- the only public road connects only to a limited-access highway. We'd love to see a spur from the Montour Trail to the airport. One concern might be how to place the trail so it doesn't create a security problem. This doesn't seem to be a problem at Washington National, where a public park and boat ramp lie just off the end of the main runway. The Mt Vernon Trail goes through National Airport, winding among the access roads. As it reaches the north end of the airport, it turns across the airplane approach path to reach the river.

  Roy is sitting beside the bike trail. The orange objects just across the trail are the approach lights, and the gray posts also hold navigation aids. You can see the runway markings (the white stripes under the airplane.) The water between the approach lights and the end of the runway is a public waterway -- there's a public parking lot and boat ramp to the right of the picture, between the bike trail and the water.
  From the boat ramp, there's not much between you and the end of the runway. It's even more impressive when they're landing at this end, because the airplanes come in very low so they can touch down at the near end of the runway.

You are visiting FreeWheeling Easy in Western Pennsylvania, copyright 1998,1999,2000,2001 by Mary Shaw and Roy Weil. We encourage you to link to these pages or print copies for personal use. However, if you want to copy the material for any other use, you must ask us first. Other outdoor publications by the authors. Page updated 04/08/06 by Mary Shaw     Comments to maintainer.

As always we have made a serious effort to present accurate descriptions.  However we are human, trails change with time, and we occasionally receive incorrect information.  Therefore we can not be responsible for discrepancies between these descriptions and actual trail conditions.   Use common sense, judgment and be careful out there.