Comments on Improving the Mount Vernon Trail and the George Washington Memorial Parkway

The George Washington Memorial Parkway, despite its name, includes many other facilities besides the roadway. This component of the National Park System is a hodgepodge of disparate things that were thrown together years ago. One of these facilities is the Mount Vernon Trail. Plans are underway to rebuild the Parkway and Trail. Parkway construction upriver from Washington has already begun. The Park Service is taking comments from the public as part of the project’s required environmental assessment (EA). I took the opportunity to provide some. (I subsequently made one more comment that I neglected to save.) A few comments relate to the roadway, most discuss opportunities to improve the trail.

As the comments show, I am not a big fan of the GWMP administration. It’s nothing personal. Like the rest of the National Park System, the GWMP is grossly underfunded and has been for at least a couple of decades. Cutting taxes has its consequences. The problem which I will discuss in a future post go well beyond funding.


I am a 39 year resident of Northern Virginia and a 33 year resident of Mount Vernon. I have logged tens of thousands of miles on the Mount Vernon Trail on my bike. Years ago I also used the trail for running. Before retiring in 2017., I commuted by bike year round from roughly mile 5 to DC and Rosslyn. I am a long time member of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association and the Adventure Cycling Association.

The trail is subject to flooding in the Dyke Marsh area, about 1 mile south of Alexandria. In the area immediately north of the long wooden bridge, the depth of the water already approaches one foot (it came over the top of my hiking boots while I was riding through it on the way to work one morning). You may want to refer to the re-routing of the trail north of Slaters Lane about 25 years ago. Any trail improvements must include raising the trail. At today’s water levels, a few inches is insufficient in Dyke Marsh and many other areas. Future water levels will surely be higher and the trail redesign should take this into account. In addition to the Dyke Marsh area the trail should be raised wherever the trail is in close proximity to the river as it is in spots south of Fort Hunt Park,  in the Daingerfield Island area, on the northbound approach to the Memorial Bridge, and between the Memorial and TR bridges.

The trail needs proper drainage. Especially in the area north of Northdown Road. The trail in this area is subject to stretches of black ice in winter. In the short term this area would benefit from signage that warns users of icy conditions on the trail. (The current signage only refers to bridges.)

The trail needs to be level, except where curves in the trail require otherwise.  In many places the trail is canted toward the river, presumably to provide drainage. The slant in the trail causes inexperienced riders to veer off the trail and is particularly hard on runners’ knees.

The 2020 NPS report on the trail did not properly consider trail use during non-daylight hours. There are numerous areas where southbound nighttime riders are blinded by the headlights of northbound vehicles on the Parkway including along the pinch spot near the auxiliary runway at DCA, at the oxbow at Daingerfield Island, and at the southern most point of the Four Mile Run bridge. I have nearly hit other trail users because of this and have witnessed collisions. This is a BIG problem for commuters. In the short term, inexpensive remedies such as snow fences or other barriers such as bushes should be installed.

The trail surface needs to be treated in winter. Just like the Parkway. Trail users can’t safely commute on ice and snow anymore than drivers can.

Light use of the trail in Fairfax County is not a reason to delay the renovation of the trail. Light use is a consequence of neglected maintenance and the shoddy condition of the trail. 

The trail is part of several long distance bicycle touring routes.There is no viable alternative to the Mount Vernon Trail for north-south bicycle tourists in the DC area. Bike tourists (and others) have complained to me that the condition of the trail is so bad that they asked me for alternatives. One southbound tourist I talked with was even considering riding south on US1 in Fairfax County.The extensive damage to the trail south of the Beltway constitutes an unsafe condition for park visitors and needs immediate attention. I have advised Adventure Cycling of the trail conditions so they may warn their members.

Most of the bridges on the trail are made of wood. Other surfaces need to be considered. A particular shortcoming is the fact that the wooden bridges cannot support emergency vehicles or maintenance vehicles such as those used to plow snow or spread surface treatments in winter. To avoid damage to a wooden bridge. I once guided an ambulance carrying a crash victim in reverse about 1/4 mile up the trail to Northdown Road. At a minimum the Park Service should establish access points for emergency responders so that this doesn’t happen.

The trail now functions (if it didn’t already in the past) as a fifth lane of the GW Parkway and should be maintained, operated, and funded as such in the future. When the Parkway incurs damage that is dangerous to motorists, the damage is repaired and removed promptly. This hasn’t been the case with the trail for many years. Contracts for trail storm damage remediation should be in place year round. For example, there is extensive trail damage between Alexandria Ave and Tulane Drive. A massive root ball and  tree trunk have obstructed the trail since late 2020 (or earlier). The damage worsened after a January 2022 storm. obstructing the trail. One half of the trail is obstructed. (Would you allow a lane on the Parkway to be in this condition for this long? Bridge 19 was damaged by a fallen tree in January 2022. It is missing a section of railing and two other sections of railing were damaged. The Park Service should at least install some yellow safety tape to alert trail users of the hazard.) And there is extensive washboard from root heaves and potholes from one end of the trail to the other. 

Over a decade ago the Park Service considered building a bypass at Gravelly Point. For visitor safety, the bypass obviously is needed and should be built as part of this project. The airplane viewing area is one of the busiest parts of the trail and a permanent restroom facility is needed here. Porta potties are inconsistent with the aesthetics of the GWMP. 

Much of the routine maintenance of the trail is now performed by volunteers, many of whom are affiliated with The Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail. For all their hard work, the Friends provide only one full time equivalent worker each year to trail maintenance. The Park Service doesn’t even fund their equipment. This is not nearly enough. Much of the work they do used to be performed by park employees and landscape contractors. Unlike DC, we have no Trail Rangers on this side of the river. In the short term the Park Service should amend its landscape contracts to require edging of the trail. (The contractors currently do this on the loop road in Fort Hunt Park.)

Recent re-striping of the Parkway between Tulane Drive and Morningside Lane runs along the right side of the roadway. In the area leading up to Morningside, this section of the road floods on a regular basis. In winter this often turns into thick ice. The striping should be moved to the left lane (as it is at Alexandria Avenue) for safety.

Turning north onto the Parkway at Morningside Lane is inherently dangerous. Absent installing a traffic light, I recommend eliminating this turn.

The situation at Belle Haven Road and Belle View Boulevard cries out for much more than some paint, stop signs, and flexposts. Unless legislation specifically prohibits them, traffic lights should be installed. Absent that, traffic circles of the type used on nearby Oxon Hill Road south of the outlet mall should be considered. 

At-grade crossings for bicyclists and pedestrians are not likely to succeed. Build a bike/ped overpass that connects to the trail. Even an at-grade crossing should have a paved connection to the trail. And flashing lights that are passively activated such as at the northbound Parkway approach to the Memorial Bridge should be included in the design.

The entrances to the trail at Daingerfield Island and Belle Haven Marina merit stop signs for motorists. Trail users’ safety should take precedence over motorists’ convenience. (I was hit by a car on the trail at Porto Vecchio condominium a few years ago. After I presented testimony at a city meeting, the city changed the signage and traffic light sequence.) 

Oxbows such as the one at the old Bridge 12 location near Fort Hunt Park are inherently dangerous. The similar trail configuration at Bridge 1 should be removed as part of the rebuilt trail. I crashed there and my injuries resulted in a visit to the Mount Vernon Hospital emergency room. My bicycle was ruined. This bridge and the approach from Mount Vernon replaced an even more dangerous original design. Clearly, half measures are not enough to ensure public safety. Another oxbow exists at Daingerfield Island. This one does not involve a bridge but I have witnessed far too many crashes and near misses as south-bound bicyclists come downhill into a sharp curve. A simple solution is to make the approaches gradual. This would also bypass the area of flooding immediately south of the oxbow.

In general, changes to the road and trail that improve visitor safety are in the public interest and should be given precedence over aesthetics. 

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this project. Feel free to contact me for clarification of any of these points.


8 thoughts on “Comments on Improving the Mount Vernon Trail and the George Washington Memorial Parkway

  1. Excellent! Clear, straightforward, specific, and provides solutions. (One question: why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway? Or, as my daughter asks, drive on the highway and get high on the driveway?)

    1. Hard to say. During the webinar one GWMP response I heard often was “we don’t have money for that”. This struck me as defeatist. My unspoken response is “then why are you in charge of this?”

  2. just excellent rootchopper!! thanks for writing this.

    the NPS wont take seriously any of what you detail; they are simply incapable of listening and responding appropriately. their lack of enforcement of the road laws for cars is laughable!!! the people they have in charge of bicycle infrastructure dont bicycle! the NPS doesnt respond to comments; unless they get pressure from monied interests or political figures. they are an excellent example of a feudal-esque bureaucratic fiefdom…

    the Mt. vernon trail is not fit to ride at this point. the surface is abysmal, and has been for 20 years at least. It’s too little, too late. knowing their incompetence (witness the rock creek trail “improvements”!!!), the future for bicycling is in the streets, not on NPS property…which is an issue in DC given the scope of NPS property. the NPS is and has been in the way of progressive anything for its entire existence. just ask WABA. it was and currently serves and privileges the needs of suburban-based, car-drivers. the NPS is FAR from “americas best idea.”

  3. One telling thing about the NPS is that the GWMP headquarters is located off Turkey Run, accessible only by car. (And the road there is in far worse shape than the MVT, by the way).

    The GWMP is a hodgepodge of disparate stuff scattered around the DC area. Clara Barton House, Arlington House, the Arlington Memorial Bridge, Great Falls Park on both sides of the river, and the parkways and the trail. How does any of this belong in the same bureaucracy? How can you develop any institutional expertise when you do so many different things. It’s not surprising the MVT has been neglected under these circumstances. (BTW, the refurbished Memorial Bridge was damaged months ago. Still no repair.)

    I rode the W&OD about ten days ago. I saw six maintenance crews working on it in various places. I haven’t seen a single NPS maintenance crew on the MVT in over ten years. Lately, the GWMP has farmed out it’s maintenance to volunteers who work once a week. (It also farms out it’s communications about the trail to the same group.) It’s hardly surprising that the W&OD is in far better condition with vastly better design than the MVT.

    I personally think the trail and the parkways should be turned over to local jurisdictions (or the NVRPA that runs the W&OD in multiple jurisdictions) so that there will be some accountability, transparency, and responsiveness. The W&OD is orders of magnitude better than the MVT.

    We are still waiting for the storm damage from over a year ago to be fixed as promised in December. They have a contract for a new bridge through Dyke Marsh. It currently has a roller coaster aspect to the surface caused by damage in 2003 during hurricane Isabel. Yes, over 19 years ago. Glaciers move faster than the GWMP.

    I think the Rock Creek Trail work is pretty good but the 90 degree turns and narrow path near P Street should have been improved. Also, it’s going to get washed out within 10 years because it’s too low and too close to the creek.

    I think it’s a shame what’s happened to the MVT, especially in Fairfax County. I’ll be dead and gone before it’s in decent shape again.

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